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July 4, 2013
Stuck between a rock and a hard place could be an apt way to describe Ireland cricket at the moment. They are desperate to move up the ICC ladder, but joining the elite of world cricket can often feel a harder job that breaking into Fort Knox.
There remains intense frustration within Ireland at the pace that they are able to further their ambitions due to the limited exposure they receive against Full Member nations, who are content to play among themselves in some largely context-less ODI series that fill up the global calendar.
Some players, such as the vocal Trent Johnston, are not afraid to suggest it is because teams are "scared" of losing to Ireland, while others take a more measured approach, remaining grateful for what Ireland have and being cautious not to alienate those who do provide the valuable experiences that the team requires.
Along with Johnston, Ed Joyce is an elder statesman of Irish cricket - so much so that he left once before returning after dropping off the England radar - and he admitted that living off "crumbs" from other international tours left Ireland "begging" for more opportunities. Joyce believes they have more than proved their worth at the top level.
"We are still in the situation where we are almost begging for fixtures, which is obviously not ideal because we feel as a competitive side we have gone past that," Joyce told ESPNcricinfo at the launch of the RSA Challenge match against England, which will be held on September 3 at Malahide.
"It is frustrating that we aren't getting more fixtures but I wouldn't want to point fingers. We are simultaneously grateful for teams coming to play against us, but slightly frustrated that more teams don't. We still live off the crumbs of the teams touring England and that's the way it always has been.
"I realise why the big teams play each other a lot, there are huge financial incentives which they perhaps don't see with us, so it's about us getting in a position where we can be involved in the 'club', so to speak, and then hopefully other teams like Scotland, Netherlands, Afghanistan can do the same thing because there are a lot of good cricketer outside of the Test playing nations."
What adds to the angst and annoyance is that Ireland are in fine fettle. They could have beaten Pakistan in the two-ODI series that preceded the Champions Trophy, competed strongly against Australia A in Belfast, are well clear at the top of the Intercontinental Cup and also lead the World Cricket League one-day table.
The ODIs against Pakistan were particularly noteworthy, concluding in a tie and a last-ditch win for Pakistan after Ireland controlled both matches for significant periods. It is the type of form they will need to carry into the England game later in the summer to ensure that Ireland's on-field performances continue to make strong statements.
Ireland had hoped to arrange a series against Bangladesh but that has fallen through, meaning the England game is now their one remaining match against a Full Member in their season.
"The two games against Pakistan showed that we have made great strides. Who would have said four or five years ago that we'd be disappointed not to have beaten Pakistan?" Joyce said. "We were hopeful of getting Bangladesh over for some matches but they have pulled out of that for various reasons. It is frustrating but we realise where we are.
"We need to be playing as many of the big sides as we can, but we understand that it is very difficult for them to fit us into an already packed schedule, which we are trying to get around by getting into the FTP in years to come.
"The game against England has a dual purpose - to keep showing how we have improved and also if we play well it will create interest in the game. When Ireland beat England at the last World Cup and Pakistan the one before, there was a huge uptake in membership at clubs. I think there is now a club in every county in Ireland - all 32 - which certainl hasn't been the case for many years."
Evolving domestic cricket in Ireland is crucial to the country's ambitions. An inter-provincial tournament has been re-launched to try and improve the standards for those who do not play county cricket and ultimately there is a plan to launch a first-class competition so that players can remain in Ireland with a view of building a Test side.
The recent debut of Boyd Rankin in England's Twenty20 against New Zealand has rubber-stamped another player slipping from Ireland's grasp - even if Rankin had long-since made his intentions clear - although a recent tweak to the ICC regulations means that he would now need only two years to re-qualify for Ireland rather than the four that Joyce had to go through.
"I think it's a fairer rule, because there's no real option for the likes of Boyd," Joyce said. "I would like to think Boyd and Eoin Morgan's generation will be the last who feel they have to make that decision so they can play at the highest level. Boyd is desperate to play Test cricket, and fair play to him, we wish him well.
"Now the likes of George Dockrell, Paul Stirling, Stuart Thompson and James Shannon, they have more of a chance to play at a higher level with Ireland. But until we get to a stage where we are regularly playing against top nations - and that will only happen when we attain some higher membership status, either Test status or increased ODI status - I think you might have the odd player who feels they have to make that move to further their own ambitions.
"Hopefully the ICC will see that Ireland are improving and are fulfilling all the criteria they want of us to play more teams. The only thing we can do is put in performances against top sides to show what we can do and hope the powers that be listen to our raving and ranting."
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Andrew McGlashan
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