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Proud history, bright future, uncertain present

Coin tossing was once a skill seldom required of Ireland's captain. The occasional match between Ireland and Test teams stopping off for a quick game during their tour of England followed a familiar ritual: the tourists would always bat - for that is what the spectators had come to see - and would make plenty before Ireland were bundled out in the afternoon, often at the hands of cricketers rarely otherwise spotted bowling. When Australia thrashed Ireland in 1997, novelty acts Mark Taylor, Michael Slater and Justin Langer all took wickets. That was part of the fun.

Last Thursday, Malahide was briefly transported back to this age. Ireland subsided to a 255-run defeat, the ninth highest in ODI history. "I would expect the players to be embarrassed," former captain Trent Johnston says. "If teams get 340 against us and we're bowled out for 80, they're not going to come around and play those games anymore. They're going to go somewhere else or stay at home."

A few months ago Cricket Ireland unveiled its new strategic plan, emblazoned with the aim: Making Cricket Mainstream. This summer loomed as Ireland's busiest ever in one-day international cricket, and a perfect opportunity to show how far the sport has come in the country. But as the rain lashed down in Malahide, forcing the second ODI against Pakistan to be abandoned without a ball being bowled, it encapsulated a dispiriting summer. Seven completed ODIs have brought three thumping defeats in the games against Test opposition, an underwhelming 2-2 draw with Afghanistan, and with it, something worse: the sense that Ireland's burgeoning fixture list has arrived with the team in decline.

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"We were a stronger unit a few years ago for sure, I think everyone would agree with that," admits Ed Joyce, the only current player with memories of Australia's visit 19 years ago.

This is an obvious irony here: Ireland's greater opportunities, which the team has fought so long for, have only arrived when they are less equipped to take them. That is unfortunate, but hardly unusual in the history of international sport, where conservative administration has often reigned: Italy's rugby union side was stronger in the years before their elevation to the Six Nations, in 2000, than after; the same was true of Argentina's inclusion in the Rugby Championship, from 2012, although the side has since risen again.

No country in cricket history has tried to do as much with so little as Ireland. They aspire to match established Test opposition in all three formats of the game, even with funding from the ICC that is about one third of Zimbabwe's. (Afghanistan are attempting to do the same, but also receive significant financial support from foreign governments). The fear is that Ireland's romantic dream is imperilling their form in the very format for which the country is renowned. "Test cricket is a massive thing on Cricket Ireland's radar," Johnston says. "I don't begrudge them that, but they've still got to be conscious of the 50-over and 20-over games because it's given them so much in the past through World Cups."

Ireland consider first-class cricket their strongest format - Joyce reckons they would be more competitive in multi-day matches than they were against Sri Lanka and Pakistan this summer - but they know it is on ODI cricket that they will be judged. And while their recent T20 form has been dire, Ireland's recent ODI record is scarcely any better.

That Ireland have so little time together before playing Full Members - players have arrived the day before ODIs this summer - provides some mitigation. Yet their struggles, and a disappointing 2-1 defeat in Zimbabwe last October, also hint at more systematic issues. "We've been calling for more ODIs and we need to play better," Joyce says. "We haven't played very well since the World Cup. That's a combination of some poor form and needing new blood in the team.

"What we lack is pretty obvious. We lack a wicket-taking threat with spin bowling - Andy McBrine and Paul Stirling do a good job, but it's more a holding role than real wicket threat.

"We could do with another seam-bowling allrounder in there. It'd be nice to have some more youth - our fielding possibly hasn't been as good recently. We certainly can beat teams in 50-over cricket; whether we can do it regularly at the moment might be asking too much, but with experience and time hopefully it will happen."

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In the 2011 World Cup, Ireland had a top six of William Porterfield, Stirling, Joyce, Niall O'Brien, Gary Wilson and Kevin O'Brien. Against Pakistan, Ireland had the same top six - with all but Stirling now in their 30s - just in a slightly different order.

"The golden generation was always going to come to an end," Johnston says. "We probably didn't do the development work we needed to in the late 2000s".

That is a view shared by Joyce. "We've introduced John Anderson, who is in his 30s as well, and Stuart Poynter, who hasn't really got going yet, so we definitely need some guys to come in," he says. "There's not a huge amount of other guys getting hundreds in Interpro cricket, and there's no particularly new batting blood in county cricket either. It's certainly the best six batters in the country at the moment."

"I think it is time for Porterfield to step aside in T20 and blood a new leader. McBrine would be someone you would have a look at"

Former Ireland captain Trent Johnston

The sense of stasis is embodied by how young players who shone five years ago have failed to advance as hoped. Stirling scored two ODI centuries against Pakistan before turning 23, but his recent innings have been a succession of belligerent 20s and 30s that he has failed to convert into something more substantial: since a magnificent 92 in the World Cup win against West Indies in Nelson, he averages just 22.00 in ODIs. His use as a finisher at No. 6 against Afghanistan was both an attempt to reinvigorate him with a new challenge, and to address Ireland's reliance upon Kevin O'Brien for lusty hitting at the death. Andy Balbirnie and George Dockrell - the former injured, the latter now the second spinner behind McBrine - are others who appear to have stagnated.

Most worrying is the overdependence upon Joyce. He turns 38 next month, yet Ireland are more reliant on his runs than ever. Two unbeaten centuries against Afghanistan last month, two double-centuries in Ireland's three games in the current Intercontinental Cup, and 955 County Championship runs at 73.46 in 2016 attest to how Joyce is batting as well as ever. But in the five ODIs in which he failed to score a century this summer, Ireland lost by 76 and 136 runs (against Sri Lanka), 39 and 79 runs (against Afghanistan), and then 255 runs against Pakistan. It is not merely that young talent has been slow to emerge but that formerly reliable performers, like Porterfield and Wilson, are struggling; both have lost their places in Championship cricket, and Niall O'Brien has just been released by Leicestershire too.

Less tangible than the absence of runs and wickets is a sense that Ireland are no longer as antagonistic on the field, and so a more comfortable side to play against. The side of Johnston and John Mooney, who both retired in the last three years, was swearing, snarling and confrontational; the 2016 vintage is a little meek by comparison. "Trent and John were huge players for us: they were very good cricketers as well as being abrasive individuals," Joyce says. The field is a quieter place in their absence. "We stood off them and that was reflected in the result," Joyce says of the defeat to Pakistan.

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In a sense these struggles simply reflect the underlying realities of the game in Ireland. While the number of cricketers has quadrupled since 2007, to 50,000, it remains less than half that of New Zealand, who have the smallest playing pool of any Test nation bar Zimbabwe. "I don't think there's enough quality players in Ireland to make sure we hover around eighth, purely on the playing numbers. We don't have the numbers to justify that," Johnston says.

One way of overcoming this paucity of players is through having an inclusive attitude to foreigners with Irish passports, or those who want to qualify to play for Ireland through residency. Yet under Phil Simmons, Ireland routinely featured far fewer players born overseas than many Test nations, and seemed uninterested in potential recruits: Nick Larkin played two seasons of club cricket in Ireland and played two games against Sri Lanka A in 2014, but heard little from the selectors. He has since scored a Sheffield Shield hundred for New South Wales and was named as the Futures League Player of the Year last season.

Then there is PJ Moor, an Irish passport holder who played in domestic cricket for three years and was said to be keen on playing for Ireland; a few weeks ago he scored 71 on Test debut for Zimbabwe. The recent selection of Sean Terry, the son of former England batsman Paul, who has an Irish mother, against Afghanistan hinted at a change of approach.

Even in a dispiriting summer there has been hope. Barry McCarthy - selected two years late, in Johnston's view - has provided much of it. He is a combative fast-bowling allrounder who has taken 18 wickets in seven ODIs in between establishing himself for Durham.

After years of Ireland's bowling being their weaker suit, there are other causes for optimism, too, with the emergence of Mark Adair, a pace bowler who has impressed in occasional appearances for Warwickshire, and Josh Little, a 17-year-old left-armer, who can already bowl at 85mph and, fresh from a fine U-19 World Cup, has been likened to Sam Curran by one local coach not normally renowned for hyperbole.

Since taking over from Simmons last year, John Bracewell - whose future is beginning to be questioned by some - has tried to change the age profile of the squad, but Johnston would like the pace of that change to be quicker. "Maybe there need to be some bold decisions in selection to blood some younger guys and prepare for the next World Cup," he says. "Why are these performances happening? We need answers. It's not so long ago that we were ranked in the top ten in T20s and ODIs - so why are we 16th in T20s and 12th in ODIs? It's a question that needs to be answered by Cricket Ireland."

To start with, Johnston advocates a new leader in the shortest format. "I think it is time for William to step aside in T20 and blood a new leader. Andy McBrine would be someone you'd potentially have a look at - he's captained Northwest Warriors, he's a good, tough cricketer."

Players like McBrine have to prepare themselves for international cricket without adequate resources to train. "Practice facilities are my big worry, really, over here," says Joyce, who is weighing up returning to Ireland for good after the current county season. "How often can you get outside with the weather, and if you can't, where do you do go indoors?"

Changing this is a priority for Cricket Ireland - but so is improving the A team's desolate schedule, making Malahide more than a pop-up international cricket stadium, and helping the women's side build upon their two victories over South Africa this summer. Most conversations about Irish cricket still begin and end with the b-word: budget.

"One or two average years doesn't mean we're a bad side"

Ed Joyce

Perhaps all this grumbling is just a reflection of human nature: forgetting what we have, and moaning about what we do not. Ireland already have seven ODIs - against Bangladesh, New Zealand and West Indies at home, and two much-awaited games in England - to look forward to next summer. "I never think we'll go back to playing three or four games a year because the infrastructure that has been put in place will make sure that never happens," Johnston says. "It's not going to be downhill when you've got guys like Warren Deutrom in charge. I'll always be confident that they'll always be a competitive and very good Irish team."

Joyce makes another point: "We have a lot more wins than other teams starting out in the same time frame." Ireland have won five matches against Full Members over three 50-over World Cups, while Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, the last three teams to gain Test status, had only won one each before their promotion was ratified. "One or two average years doesn't mean we're a bad side."

Irish cricket's hard-won gains will not easily be relinquished, but nor will their lofty ambitions for the game - to make Ireland the "European New Zealand" - be achieved while the team performs as it has since the World Cup. Ireland and the rest of the Associate world know that the ICC's new-found appetite for giving the leading emerging teams more opportunities must yield results, lest cricket's governing elite again be put off the very notion of expansionism. Performances in the coming months, then, are not merely critical to Ireland's future, they could also be pivotal in determining the sport's attitude to growing beyond the cartel of Test nations.