Pakistan in Ireland, 2011 May 31, 2011

What lies ahead for Ireland?

Ger Siggins
While Ireland may be the most promising of all the Associate nations, they still have many problems to confront in their bid to develop as a strong cricketing force

The 2-0 defeat against Pakistan in the just concluded ODI series, while disappointing, was a very useful experience for Ireland, as bilateral series against Full Members is high on the priority list for Cricket Ireland. But the games in Stormont also highlighted the challenges that confront the most ambitious of the Associate nations.

The most pressing problem, of course, is the one that comes to a head in Hong Kong in late June when the ICC executive must decide whether they will turn the ICC Cricket World Cup into a glorified 'Full Members Trophy'.

It is a decision that has transfixed this land, and exercised government ministers on both sides of the border. For what is at stake is arguably the whole future of the sport in Ireland.

The fears can be summarised thus: the plan to develop a national stadium will lose impetus without top-class competition, the commercial funds flocking to the sport will dwindle without World Cup exposure, and a drop in such funding will mean an inevitable slippage in playing standards.

The high-quality cricket and thrilling memories Ireland brought to successive World Cups could soon be mere footnotes in a history book.

Some of the challenges encountered in Stormont are insurmountable - Ireland's location on the fringes of the north Atlantic ensures a damp climate where temperatures rarely test the manufacturers of sun-block. The first game against Pakistan started more than three hours late, which was better than what happened the previous two weekends, when almost no cricket was played in the northern part of the island. A five-month summer season can hardly afford to lose so much playing time.

The attendance, too, was disappointing. The weather can be blamed for a lack of walk-up spectators, but the 2,000 who attended on Saturday were mainly there to support the visitors. Cricket Ireland, and its players, has done fantastic work spreading the game in recent years but outside Dublin there is a worrying shortage of support for the national team.

The final challenge is to increase the number of potential international players - and retain them. The performances at the weekend were not helped by the absence through injury of George Dockrell, Niall O'Brien and Hamish Marshall - and the loss of Eoin Morgan to England still rankles with local followers. A small squad cannot afford to lose key players to injury - and certainly can't afford to lose any more permanently to its neighbours.

The excellent youth development programme can also be encouraged, and has been successful in bringing many of the current side to that level. Several youngsters have already linked up with English counties, and names such as Graeme McCarter (Gloucestershire), Jordan Coghlan (Hampshire) and Craig Young (Sussex) are likely to be in Ireland sides of the near future.

Others can be brought on by strengthening and streamlining the domestic game. The inter-union competition was dropped in 2003, and has been partly reintroduced this year with two North v South games (the first of which was cancelled due to rain). For those eight years the only, tiny, bridge between Saturday afternoon club cricket and the team that plays in World Cups were infrequent A-internationals. Of course all the improvements made on the playing and administrative side - and those in the pipeline - will be a complete waste of time if ICC opts to bar the associates from qualifying for 2015.

Had a voting member of the ICC Executive Board walked through the gates at Stormont yesterday, he would surely have seen enough in the breathtaking innings of Paul Stirling to convince him that he and his team-mates must be at the 2015 World Cup. Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq confessed to enjoying watching Stirling bat, even as his best bowlers were put to the sword.

The idea that Stirling, plus World Cup heroes Dockrell and Kevin O'Brien, might never be seen again on such a stage terrifies those who care about cricket in the Celtic outpost.

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