June 3, 2013

Ireland yearn for Test recognition

Ger Siggins
The top Associate team have big ambitions of playing five-day cricket, but without a clear pathway to the next level, their players are growing frustrated

Ireland went into their first World Cup match in 2007 as an almost-unknown entity. They had played just one ODI against a Full Member and were seen as yet more Associate cannon fodder to bulk out the early rounds of a bloated competition. But that first fixture, against Zimbabwe, ended in a thrilling tie and 48 hours later a win over Pakistan propelled the Irish into the Super Eights and the game in the Emerald Isle to new heights of publicity and popularity.

Wind the clock forwards six years and Ireland have again tied with a Full Member in a game which went to the last ball. But while Sabina Park saw unconfined joy and a lap of honour, the faces of the Irish team at Clontarf last week were downcast. "It feels like a defeat, to be honest", said Kevin O'Brien, whose pyrotechnics with the bat almost brought victory against Pakistan. "We don't go out to tie games, we go out to win them."

If Irish player expectations have soared, then so too have those of supporters and administrators. Since the 2007 World Cup, Ireland have abandoned English domestic cricket and become kingpin in the Associate world, losing only four games out of 42 in the past three years. This time ten years ago the team was meeting up every weekend for training ahead of a summer fixture list that included games against Duke of Norfolk's XI, Hertfordshire, and Free Foresters. These days the home-based members of the squad are working full-time with Phil Simmons for a summer campaign in which they play against England, Pakistan, Australia A and possibly Bangladesh, while also playing crucial qualifiers for the 50- and 20-over World Cups, from which they expect to progress.

With no more lands to conquer, Cricket Ireland has announced that it will apply for full membership of ICC, with ambitions for Test status by 2020. But without a clear pathway to the next level, full membership - and reluctance on the part of ICC to define, let alone create one after the premature elevation of Bangladesh - Irish players have grown frustrated. Careers are finite and the lure of Test cricket has proved irresistible for some.

Ed Joyce's departure predates Ireland's glory years, but once he realised he was not going to be in England's Test plans he returned to his native land. Eoin Morgan last turned out for Ireland in a World Cup qualifier in April 2009, and a year later made his Test debut against Bangladesh. Sixteen Tests, and two centuries, later he has slipped down England's pecking order. While he is still a giant in the shorter formats, commentators say he is unlikely to figure in five-day games in the foreseeable future. A third Irish star, fast bowler Boyd Rankin, was persuaded to "declare" for England, and this week saw him called into the England one-day squad.

Confronted with this brain and muscle drain - and UK media speculation about upcoming talents George Dockrell and Paul Stirling - Cricket Ireland realised it had to articulate its ambitions to stem this outward flow. Early last year it unveiled a strategic plan, Twenty-Twenty Vision, when chief executive Warren Deutrom announced, "Test cricket is the pinnacle of the sport and something to which we must aspire. As long as it is denied to Ireland we will continue to lose those players that seek that fulfilment. So we must share those same aspirations as they do. If Test cricket is first rate, then any other ambition is merely second rate. With our growing passion of the game and proven track record that would be nothing other than a dereliction of duty.

"Our targets are ambitious. By 2015 we see nothing less than increasing our participation figures to 50,000 (from 15,000), to be the eighth best ODI men's team (currently 11th) and seventh best ODI women's team (currently 10th) in the world, to be recognised as the fourth major team sport in Ireland (ahead of rugby and hockey) and to establish a domestic first-class cricket structure."

Part of this boom is due to rapid growth in the South Asian community. It may not be too long before one of "the New Irish", as they are known, makes the breakthrough to the Ireland set-up

One year on, Deutrom pointed out that the plan was "more than just an iteration of objectives which added a few percentage points onto goals set in the previous four years. It was about a shift of focus and the setting of a vision - a light to guide and inform our actions all the way from 2012 to 2020. The vision is nothing less than striving towards being accepted into cricket's most exclusive club - that of the Test nations."

"We're not that far from England, and Test cricket is buoyant there now, so I think it's why we have been moving so quickly," said national coach Simmons, the former West Indies allrounder. "I look forward to that day, and I look forward to it mainly because that's the only way we are going to stop our players moving to England. You've given them something that a lot of players move to England for -- to play Test cricket. Once we get to that stage, we're going to keep our players and we are going to get stronger."

Wins over Pakistan, England and Bangladesh are all very well, but Irish cricket will need more than a successful national side to be allowed to make the final leap.

Until this summer there was no bridge between club competition and the Ireland side, but that has been addressed with a new RSA inter-provincial series, in Twenty20, 50-over and three-day formats, between the Northern Knights, North-West Warriors and Leinster Lightning. The three unions, centred on Belfast, Derry and Dublin, are where the game is strongest but there are hopes that a Munster franchise, based in Cork, will be able to join a T20 league in the near future. The structure is set to blossom into a first-class competition when the standard is sufficient, perhaps as early as 2015, and on the evidence of the exciting inaugural fixture in the historic Dublin University ground, that won't be long in being satisfied.

Former Ireland seamer Nigel Jones is now a development officer in the Northern Union and plays with Northern Knights. "It's crucial to have a pathway from club to international cricket", he says. "There was talk of making this competition a developmental one, but it's crucial to have it as best versus best. If young players want to play for Ireland they'll first be tested against the best around. While the 20- and 50-over games are our bread and butter internationally, multi-day cricket is going to grow in importance, because that's our ultimate goal."

Club cricket, too, is buoyant, helped by a clutch of government-funded development officers. From being essentially a middle-class game in the Republic two decades ago, it is now played in schools in all areas - the biggest growth area is in the sprawling western suburbs of the capital, where eight new clubs have sprung up since 2007. The sport has also made great strides into the countryside, where it all but died out after independence in 1922. Provincial towns such as Longford, Nenagh and Dundalk have new, thriving clubs and the big city sides have courted players from these outposts.

Part of this boom is due to rapid growth in the South Asian community. It may not be too long before one of "the New Irish", as they are known, makes the breakthrough to the Ireland set-up: recent under-age and development squads feature names such as Ali, Chopra, Uddin, and Singh.

And while there was some sniping at the Boys of 2007, because three of its leading players were Australian and another was from South Africa, such jibes have been largely silenced. Of the 12 who played against Pakistan, only Trent Johnston has no Irish blood - but it would be a brave and foolish man that would accuse him of not being a passionate Irishman.

The conveyor belt of home-grown talent keeps trundling - albeit some of it out of Irish cricket. Already this summer 12 Irishmen have played first-class or List A cricket in England, and half a dozen others at various stages of their development have links with counties. Just around the time the ECB were emailing the media to trumpet their annexing of Rankin, 20-year-old Graeme McCarter (from the same Irish county) was dismissing Simon Katich first ball for Gloucestershire. If Ireland are to reach Test level, it is the likes of McCarter, Craig Young (Sussex), Stuart Thompson (Somerset) and Peter Chase (Durham) who will form the attack.

Pakistan's captain Misbah-ul-Haq was certainly impressed with the current players. Acknowledging that his side had been lucky to escape with a series win, he said: "I think [Ireland] are really an improved side. The way they are improving I think they can compete with any team, any Test playing nation now." Asked if he thought Ireland were better than Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, he replied:"I think they are, especially their batting line-up is good enough. I think they might struggle a little bit in their bowling when they go out of Ireland, but still I think they are a really mature side."

Duetrom also believes his team are up to it, restating his ambitions this week. "We must show our players that we want to aspire to the pinnacle of the game," he said. "We have been at the top of the tree in the Associate countries for five or six years now. We can't afford to just be happy with that and continue on."

In September, England return to Dublin for the opening of the 11,500 capacity National Stadium in Malahide. The venue will tick another box on Irish cricket's slow march to the top table. The game was first played in Dublin in 1730 - but then only in cricket can it take 300 years to to become an overnight success.