November 5, 2013

Chasing Test status

Tim Brooks
Can Ireland convince their up-and-coming stars that home is where the heart is?

Something strange and almost eerie happened on September 3 this year. The twitterati focused on non-Test cricket. For several hours the Irishmen leading England's charge over their countrymen was a trending topic. That the top run-scorer, Eoin Morgan, and the strike bowler, Boyd Rankin, had both previously played for Ireland was trivia gold, the currency of choice in social media reporting.

It provoked many to consider the selection policy of the ECB and, perhaps for the first time, to view this not just in the context of English success but also in light of the development of cricket on the continent. The prevailing view of the commentators and columnists was that Test cricket would always be the pinnacle of a player's career and therefore that as long as eligibility criteria were met the opportunities should follow. It was tough luck on Ireland, they conceded, but they could be proud of the calibre of the players they produced.

There were a few nods to Ireland's formal application for full member status but these amounted to little more than an acknowledgement that the availability of Morgan and Rankin would be jolly useful in such a lofty aim. Very few got to the nub, which is that Ireland are being assessed for a decision on which the whole future of their cricket hinges, without being able to showcase their best players. This issue is anything but trivial to Irish cricket.

It seems the old adage that the ultimate honour and accomplishment in sport is to represent your country is, sadly, just a romantic notion. Rankin had the opportunity to spearhead Ireland's emergence as a major cricketing force, to leave a true and lasting legacy. Instead he chose to explore the possibilities of Test cricket and that choice is up to him. The ECB have set out their stall. They will select the best players available for selection, and will not in any way jeopardise their own aspirations to be the leading team in the world.

This leaves us with Ireland and their challenge to steer a course to full membership when their best players are jumping ship. Warren Deutrom, CEO of Cricket Ireland, explains what they have done to retain their players. "We surveyed our players last year and asked them directly what sort of structures we needed to retain our best talent in Ireland. The primary responses revolved around developing our own professional domestic structure, striving to play Test cricket, and putting in place our own national academy. These are now live initiatives that form the spine of our strategic objectives for the national squad."

Ireland is one of six associate nations that form part of the ICC's High Performance Programme, seeking to bridge the gap between leading associate nations and full members. This provides additional funding that enables Cricket Ireland to offer contracts to their players and they hope to use this financial incentive to gain long-term commitment from senior players.

"We intend to offer our most important players two-year contracts that take us up to the World Cup," says Deutrom. "One of the roles of our new national academy manager will be to instil in our young players the desire to remain loyal to their country and to sell the benefits that will accrue cricket-wise and financially as the game continues to grow in Ireland."

The model for Irish success is Kevin O'Brien, who has enjoyed a professional career and gained a global profile through starring for Ireland. In Deutrom's words: "He doesn't need to play for an English county in order to further his cricket career".

Cricket Ireland has notified the ECB of their professional squad of players for the 2015 World Cup and hope that their English counterparts will not seek to undermine their preparation. "The ECB recognised that the ICC has invested significant funding into Ireland to help us to be more competitive on the world stage and that, as the World Cup is the most high-profile benchmark of competitive progress, it stands to reason that we should prepare for that event without fear of losing vital players in the lead-up."

With the Future Tours Programme already creaking with fixture fatigue and the full members' share of revenue set to shrink if there is an 11th slice of the pie, Ireland will need philanthropy to prevail over finances

While acknowledging that losing Morgan and Rankin has lessened their chances of full member scalps, Deutrom is focusing on the future and pointing to the young squad that secured recent victories over Scotland, as well as the exciting crop of teenagers who will be nurtured in their academy. "ICC will only be concerned if we don't identify and develop new talent to take the place of those we lose, and all we had was just one 'golden generation'. ICC also looks at the broader picture of whether the game is growing in popularity: whether there is media coverage, whether there is corporate buy-in, and government support. We are only getting stronger on and off the pitch and we believe that, eventually, our case for elevation will become unanswerable."

Of course that desire, however strong Ireland's case, will be decided by the full members, who dominate decision-making in the ICC's governance structure. Unsurprisingly, in such a system self-interest often prevails. In this way Ireland's objective is as much to win support amongst the full members, as Bangladesh did, as meet the ICC's criteria. But with the Future Tours Programme already creaking with fixture fatigue and the full members' share of revenue set to shrink if there is an 11th slice of the pie, they will need philanthropy to prevail over finances.

Ger Siggins, a seasoned Irish cricket correspondent and champion of their bid for full member status, believes the lure of Test cricket holds the key. "The players who have gone to England said they wanted to play Test cricket, so obviously that is what Ireland has to push for. The only difference then would be the money, and Cricket Ireland can't compete with the ECB there. To keep players interested Ireland will need to upgrade its fixture list, keep qualifying for ICC events and bring more money into the domestic game.

"It is incredibly damaging that Ireland cannot field a full-strength side. Bangladesh got into the elite on little more than one win at the 1999 World Cup. Ireland has beaten five full members in the last decade, some several times, and still can't get a sniff of full member status."

But this is not just a case of a full member exploiting the resources of an associate neighbour, wherever you stand on how ethical or significant that is. A fortnight before the game in Malahide, Kyle Jarvis, the promising Zimbabwean seamer, ditched country for county in signing for Lancashire. He could play Test cricket but has chosen not to. Perhaps then it isn't about Test cricket at all but personal ambition. Kevin O'Brien is an associate player earning a good living, courted by lucrative Twenty20 franchises and boasting a global fan-base. Jarvis is a Test player for an unfashionable team with little career security.

Ryan ten Doeschate used Netherlands as a springboard for wealth and fortune. If Ireland enable Paul Stirling to do the same perhaps he won't listen to English overtures and who knows, in doing so in time he may find himself playing Test cricket for his home nation.

This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of All Out Cricket magazine. Read what Jonathan Trott thinks about Australian claims to have got inside his head