<
>

'We can't let things slip now as the door opens' - Joyce

play
'If I bowl to him, it's another wicket' (3:41)

Middlesex's Steven Finn and Tim Murtagh reveal how they plan to dismiss each other when England and Ireland clash in ODIs at Bristol and Lord's (3:41)

Ed Joyce used to hide his cricket bat when he took the train into Dublin for nets.

As a typically self-conscious teenager, he was painfully aware of what he calls "the stigma" surrounding a sport that was seen as "upper class" and, even worse, "English".

So it is, he says, "hugely significant" that England has, at last, welcomed the Ireland team to their home for a two-match ODI series and, equally, that much of Ireland will be gripped - and united - by their cricket team's progress in England.

These days, as you drive on the A5 from Dublin to Derry, you regularly see cricket clubs dotted along the side of the road. These days, cricket in Ireland claims 52,000 participants (as defined by ICC standards) - that's up from 11,000 in 2007 and 25,000 in 2011 - and boasts crowds of up to 10,000 at home internationals (it seems they may well attract something close to full houses at Lord's and Bristol). These days, Cricket Ireland's statistics provide evidence that they are running the fourth-biggest sport in the land (based on a combination of commercial revenue, media coverage, attendance and participation figures) and the second biggest on social media. The ODIs against England will be broadcast live (on subscription TV) and the largest broadsheet newspaper carried a page of cricket last Sunday. These days, Joyce doesn't hide his bat.

But these games aren't just a victory parade. While being welcomed to play a series in England is a watershed moment - arguably as much for the ECB who, under new management, have started to take their duties towards developing cricket nations seriously - Ireland have long stopped thinking of themselves as "plucky underdogs" who could surprise their big neighbours occasionally. They're not here for selfies in the Long Room.

Furthermore, the games come just as a judgement is made over their readiness for Test cricket. While it would be absurd to judge a team's suitability for Test cricket on the snapshot offered by two ODIs, it would, their CEO Warren Deutrom admits, be "disingenuous to pretend that the results carry no influence". Just as Bangladesh owed their elevation, in part at least, to that controversial victory over Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup, so Ireland could ease the wheels of their own promotion with a victory or two against a side rated by some bookies as favourites for the Champions Trophy. Equally, two drubbings might make the elevation - which is due to be ratified by the ICC in June - just a little more awkward.

"The stumbling block is money. It's going to cost us a lot of money if we're to play Test cricket and we're going to need the ICC's help"

Ed Joyce on the challenge ahead

"We want the ICC to see our potential," Deutrom, who is every bit as responsible for Ireland's progress as any of the players, says. "We don't have ten stadiums or a staff of 200.

"But I think what the ICC are trying to do is take a broad, holistic view of Irish cricket. It's not just the performance of the senior men or women's team over the last six months they're looking at: it's the facilities; it's the strength in depth; it's the governance and coaching structure, and evidence that we can manage our budgets. It's our potential.

"We believe we offer a new commercial opportunity for the game. We're not after a hand-out. But yes, of course these games could have an influence. This - the decision to grant us Test status - is a new process and nobody here is thinking it as a penalty kick. We are in no way complacent."

In some way, these ODIs come at a far from ideal time for Ireland. Their progress, as an international side at least, has slowed of late. While much is being achieved in the background - most notably, the introduction of a first-class competition, but also ever-improving facilities, a growing pool of players and, at last, some support from England and other ICC members - the fact is that teams are judged on their results on the pitch. And Ireland's, of late, have been eclipsed by Afghanistan's.

One of the problems is that, the golden crop of players they had to pick from a few years ago has long since been harvested. Several (such as Trent Johnston) have retired, several (such as George Dockrell) have not yet kicked-on as hoped and, most worrying of all, several are claiming the extra half-hour at the end of their careers.

Joyce is an obvious example in that last category. He is 39 in September and, as Leonard Cohen put it, aching in the places he used to play. He can, he says, still see the ball as well as ever - and this is a man who sees the ball well enough to have made an ODI century against a strong Australia attack in 2007 - but knee and hip problems are reducing his effectiveness and his sense of enjoyment in the field. Niall O'Brien and Tim Murtagh, who are both aged 35, can probably empathise. All of them are locked on to the target of Test cricket; all of them are hoping they have the range.

"It's getting to the point where I'm not sure I can put myself through a lot more rehab," Joyce says. "And, yes, personal pride comes into it. Having Test cricket on the horizon may leave me with a difficult decision to make."

He has, he admits, taken a "significant" pay-cut to leave county cricket. He would have had no problem winning a contract to play for another year or two, but he was keen "to put something back" into Irish cricket. He has, therefore, signed to play for Leinster in this season's domestic competitions - incorporating the new first-class competition - and will supplement his playing role with the start of a transition into coaching.

"I love county cricket," he says. "And playing it was brilliant for me. But ultimately we want to create a system where our best young players don't have to leave Ireland to progress their careers. We're not there yet and I'd still like to see more of our guys go to England for a while. But the long-term goal is that it's not necessary."

Joyce's fear is that those hard-won gains of the past - all the work that led to memorable victories against England and Pakistan and West Indies, victories that forced the world to take them seriously - could be lost. And with Ireland so close to their long-term target - Test cricket - he felt it was time to commit to the fight. Nobody wants a repeat of Kenya's rise and fall.

"We're not at the level we were," Joyce admits. "We've been hit by four or five big retirements and that's made life very difficult for us. And that's happened just as people have started to expect more of us. We can't be plucky underdogs any more. We have to prepare to win and we have to learn to live with a higher level of expectation. It's not easy.

"It's vital we keep the level of performance up. The world seems a lot more receptive to our situation than it has been but the gains we have fought so hard for could be lost. We have to keep playing well. We can't let things slip now just as it seems the door might be opening for us."

Ireland's problem is not new. They need to play more games in order to improve, but until they improve other nations have been reluctant to grant them those games. It's starting to change - Bangladesh and New Zealand visit shortly for a tri-series tournament - but they continue to be held back by those who claim their elevation to Test cricket will devalue the format. Hell, they might even lose five Tests out of seven in Asia or be whitewashed 5-0 in Australia. Ireland shouldn't really have anything left to prove at this stage.

"We just don't play enough," Joyce says. "We need to get into the limited-overs leagues the ICC are talking about to speed up the process. It's a chicken-and-egg problem.

"Whenever I doubt the progress we've made - and of course I have done at times - I look back on the team that qualified for the 2007 World Cup"

"The stumbling block is money. It's going to cost us a lot of money if we're to play Test cricket and we're going to need the ICC's help. It has, in the past, been tough to get past the other national boards, but they have definitely changed. Tom Harrison at the ECB has been very helpful. It feels like there is much more acceptance of us.

"But we deserve some of the credit for that. Ahead of the 2015 World Cup we decided that, if we won any games, we'd make a point of taking to social media or saying things in interviews that we might not have done in the past. We wanted to put the boards and the ICC under pressure. And we've done that by playing consistent cricket for the best part of ten years and taking every opportunity to point out the challenges we face."

He is adamant that the development of Afghanistan is positive for Ireland and world cricket. "It's been good for us, I think," he says. "They are helping make the same argument as us. They have players like Rashid Khan who demand to be seen on the biggest stage. It feels as if we're pushing together in the same direction."

If elevation does come too late for Joyce, it will prove the second time he has laid foundations on which others could build. Joyce was part of the Ireland squad in 2005 that won World Cup qualification only to miss out on some of the most memorable moments in the team's history as he made the understandable choice to switch to England in a bid to play Test cricket and earn a decent living; neither was achievable with Ireland at the time. But whether he misses out or not, he will take consolation from the progress made over a relatively short period of time.

"Whenever I doubt the progress we've made - and of course I have done at times - I look back on the team that qualified for the 2007 World Cup," he says. "The sport had almost no profile in Ireland and hardly anyone took it seriously. We had a good group of players back then - and yes, some good imports who brought an edge to the unit - and we shocked a few teams.

"Yes, we're in a transition right now. But Steffan Jones, the fast bowling coach, came over recently and said he reckoned we had as good a crop of young fast bowlers as he had ever seen. We just need to make sure these guys have the chance to fulfil their potential.

"There's always been talent in Ireland. But for a long time it wasn't feasible to get any better. There weren't any facilities; there wasn't much coaching. These things are much better now. There's far more awareness of the sport in Ireland than there was just a few years ago. We've made huge progress."

Ed Joyce was speaking at the launch of UK company Clear Treasury's sponsorship of Cricket Ireland. Visit http://cleartreasury.co.uk/ for more information