Ireland December 27, 2017

It looks steep at the pinnacle

Ireland gained Test status in 2017, but are they ready for it?

Ireland finished the year with an ODI series win over Afghanistan in the UAE © AFP/Getty Images

This was the year Ireland got what they had long craved - and were then overtaken by existential angst that they were unworthy of it. Yes, it was a year to adapt the Dickens line: off the field, it was the best of times; on the field, it often felt like the worst of times.

The best of times came at The Oval on June 23, when Ireland ascended to Full Member status: an extraordinary testament to the talent, willpower and sheer bloodymindedness of players and administrators of this and previous generations. The upshot was a doubling of cash from the ICC, equal voting rights with existing Full Members, far more playing opportunities in bilateral cricket and the chance to play Test matches, beginning against Pakistan in May.

And yet there was the unmistakable sense that these opportunities were coming at a time when the team was ill placed to make full use of them. In May, playing their most intensive period of international cricket ever against Full Members outside a World Cup, Ireland lost all five of their ODIs to England, New Zealand and Bangladesh, with only two - an 85-run loss to England at Lord's, and a 51-run defeat to New Zealand in Malahide - even qualifying as respectable. After being humiliated in Bristol, Ireland protested that it was wrong to judge them on one game. That was both true - no country is immune to ignominious collapses, as India proved in their ODI with Sri Lanka in Dharamsala in December - and a little disingenuous, for the problems extended way beyond one game.

While Ireland reached the final of the Desert T20 in January, they lost five straight T20Is to Afghanistan in the first quarter of the year.

Even in the Intercontinental Cup, the competition that Ireland have lorded over for a decade, there were problems. A chastening innings-and-172-run defeat to Afghanistan in March - a match that, at the time, loomed as a playoff for Test status - seemed to embody the different trajectories of the two nations, who have spent the entire decade vying for supremacy in the non-Test world. Failing to defeat an under-strength Netherlands side in another Intercontinental Cup game was also distinctly underwhelming. So it was no surprise that head coach John Bracewell's contract was not extended beyond 2017. His final record was 24 victories in 62 completed games - though the suspicion was that the identity of their coach was not Ireland's issue.

Paul Stirling made 656 runs at 43.73 from 16 ODIs this year © Peter Della Penna

Instead, Ireland's problem was less that the team had changed from their World Cup glories, but that it had not changed enough, and so stasis had taken hold. The first-choice top seven remains identical to that in the 2015 World Cup, and six of the members played in the 2011 tournament too.

But in 2017, like in 2016, too few of this generation were at anything resembling their best. Of the players who scored 100 ODI runs in 2017, only Paul Stirling - the undisputed player of the year - and William Porterfield averaged over 40; altogether more damningly, they were also the only two to average over 27. Older and a little patched up, the same old band - hopefully including Ed Joyce, who missed five ODIs in the year - will need to score the runs to take Ireland to their fourth consecutive World Cup. In a post-summer A tour to Bangladesh, several fringe players played promising innings, but none strung together enough to demand selection for the senior side.

At least there was better news in the bowling. Seamer Peter Chase received constant backing from Bracewell and Porterfield, and while there remain erratic moments, he ended the year a far better bowler. George Dockrell, still only 25, took a four-wicket haul and scored 62 not out against Afghanistan in the UAE in December, crucial given that he now bats at No. 8, and so many Irish victories have relied upon lower-order runs and chutzpah from John Mooney and Trent Johnston.

But most heartening of all was the late-year form of Barry McCarthy. Bewilderingly, he spent most of his international year carrying drinks for players who were unwanted by English counties but selected ahead of him, and played in only seven of Ireland's first 25 internationals in 2017. Yet he ended the year with combined figures of 8 for 78 in the last two, the ODI victories over Afghanistan in December, taking his one-day tally to 15 wickets at 23.20 apiece in 2017.

When all are fit, a pace attack of Boyd Rankin, Tim Murtagh and McCarthy might just be the best that Ireland have ever had.

And so, after being pummelled in the opening game of the series, two stirring victories over Afghanistan - their finest performance since the 2015 World Cup - meant that Ireland left what had been a miserable year on the field seeming newly galvanised. Perhaps the contrast with Afghanistan has been exaggerated: over 2016 and 2017, the record between the two is 6-6 in ODIs.

Performances in the World Cup have underpinned Ireland's ascent. For all the struggles that 2017 brought, and the desperate need to regenerate their batting, Ireland ended the year newly imbued with hope that despite the contraction to ten teams, they could yet qualify for their fourth straight World Cup.

Twenty-two-year-old legspinner Jacob Mulder took 16 wickets in 11 matches for Ireland in 2017 © Getty Images

High point
June 23 was not merely the best day of Ireland's year; it was the best day in Ireland's cricketing history, the sort on which to give thanks to all, including those from previous generations, who dared to dream while others derided them as fantasists.

On the field, Ireland's come-from-behind victory over Afghanistan in December was a triumph of guts and skill.

Low point
The 126 all out humiliation in Bristol led to Ireland's very worth as a cricket nation, and the wisdom of their elevation to Full Member status, being questioned. Never has Irish cricket been so castigated: a reflection not just of an anaemic batting performance but also the new expectations and pressure facing the side.

New kid on the block
Legspinner Jacob Mulder, who grew up in Perth, was outstanding in Ireland's run to the Desert T20 final in January. Thereafter, though raw, he provided tantalising glimpses - sharp turn and a fine googly - of becoming a major asset in all formats.

What 2018 holds
A year of historic firsts will greet new head coach Graham Ford, whose appointment reflected Ireland's growing cricketing and financial cachet. Most obviously, there is the thrill of welcoming Pakistan to Malahide on May 11. Just as significantly, there is the extra cash from the ICC, which starts to flow from January, and the World Cup qualifiers in March: playing in the 2019 World Cup in England could be a catalyst for Cricket Ireland's intention to make the sport "mainstream". There are also extra marquee fixtures to look forward to, which will be married with a greater emphasis on the A team, to prepare players for the chasm between Irish domestic cricket and playing Full Members.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts