Not too far back Ireland's players did not know where and against whom their next match would be. Since they became a Full Member last June, things have changed rapidly. They played their first Test this May, against Pakistan. They are also part of the ICC's Future Tours Programme (FTP), which guarantees them several matches across all three international formats: in the five-year cycle between 2019 and 2023, Ireland will play 13 Tests, 64 ODIs and 65 T20Is. They will play 11 of the 12 Full Member countries except Australia.
It is a big step for a country where cricket is not part of the daily fabric of life, unlike Gaelic football, rugby and football. How do Ireland now develop their Test cricket as they begin to play more of it? ESPNcricinfo posed that and other questions to three key men: William Porterfield (Ireland Test and ODI captain), Andrew Balbirnie (allrounder, senior player), who offer the players' perspective; and Richard Holdsworth (Cricket Ireland's performance director), who was integral in shaping the FTP for Ireland.
How does having the certainty of the FTP help you?
Porterfield: It helps us all around. As a nation we haven't had a laid-out fixtures programme before, unless it was a qualification tournament, which happens every few years. To actually know that we are guaranteed games of cricket, I'm sure, takes a lot of the burden to some degree off the board in terms of planning and freeing up finances to play back into the game and let us prepare for competitions. It means we will actually have a three- or four-year plan, as opposed to wondering how much money we are going to get year to year.
Balbirnie: It is very important. To be able to put dates in your diary as such and know exactly where you are going to be for the next few years is great. It is great for the young guys to kind of see what's ahead, the guys who are trying to break into the team can see there's something to aim towards in their own game. And for the older guys it is kind of a reward for the hard work they have put in over the years to get the Irish cricket team to where it is now.
What do you think is the biggest benefit?
Porterfield: The biggest thing is the guaranteed fixtures. That brings guaranteed revenue, guaranteed incomes, and it means we are going to make cricket in Ireland more mainstream and also sustainable.
It's a difficult one. How viable is it to play a lot of Test cricket, at home or away, is yet to be seen, as such, because of pure financial costs. It is going to be hard to run a Test match at a profit these days. It depends on the opposition and things like that.
You have played a Test match now. What were the main takeaways?
Balbirnie: For me, personally, it was to get a run (laughs). It was a great experience. You want to play more. You get a taste of Test cricket and you get the buzz on the five days and you want to play more. That is the pinnacle of our sport.
Ireland will play 13 Test matches in five years. What are the areas on the field that you will need to focus on to develop as a Test-playing country?
Balbirnie: Quite a bit of our cricket is going to be in the subcontinent, particularly against Afghanistan. An area where we are going to have to improve is playing spin. It showed yesterday [against India on June 27] in the T20 game - our skills maybe aren't quite as good as they should be at that level against spin. That is going to get better the more we play over there [in the subcontinent].
It is very important for the Ireland Wolves [A team] to get as much exposure as possible. The Wolves went to Bangladesh last winter and played seven-eight games, including a four-day game. So the more that we can do, the better, because the young guys will get exposed to spin earlier. Now you go out there and play these top spinners in the heat of the battle, whereas if you can do at an early stage, the players will come into the international sides in much better shape and more confidence against spin.
Porterfield: Purely, we need to play more cricket. The FTP allows us to do that.
"Quite a bit of our cricket is going to be in the subcontinent, particularly against Afghanistan. An area where we are going to have to improve is playing spin" Andrew Balbirnie
Then in terms of domestic structures, I think it is quite unique in Ireland. A lot of teams would have started off from the bottom up, in that they would have had the domestic structure and they would have everything else around that and had their state cricket, had their county cricket and international cricket is a product of that. We have made a name for ourselves to some degree playing in World Cups and things like that as a nation with purely the club bases below us. A lot of us have played a lot of county cricket, which has helped put Ireland where it is today, but we [will be] losing out on that now in terms of becoming a Full Member. So the domestic structure, as it has happened over the last four or five years, has been put in place in Ireland, and it is getting to a stage where it is going to be full-time.
Ultimately if we can get four to five teams playing out a full domestic calendar of cricket and then international cricket around that, cricket would be in a very good place.
How good is the pool of talent coming from the grass roots now?
Porterfield: The exciting thing for me is, we have got a good crop of young bowlers coming through from the age groups. A lot of the lads coming around and bowling in the nets during the [Pakistan] Test match were all Under-19 lads. They are big lads. It is just about getting a volume of cricket into those lads, and the Wolves programme is a big investment [in that direction]. From Cricket Ireland's point of view it is a big step towards bridging that gap between domestic and international cricket. We don't have the same player pool as a lot of other countries but what we have is exciting.
How do you go about providing this exposure?
Balbirnie: We don't have that much cricket leading up to Christmas this year. A few of the guys are going to go away and work on their skills, whether that is in the subcontinent, in Australia or South Africa. It is a great kind of block for us to go and just hone our skills in a particular field - whether you want to go and face short bowling or you want to go and play spin and practise your sweeps, whatever it is.
The next four to five months after this T20 series and after the Afghanistan series [August] is a great little block for us to work with Graham Ford, to work with [batting and fielding consultant] Ben Smith, to work with Ed Joyce - these guys who are available to coach us - and try to do as much skills work as we can.
Holdsworth: We are very fortunate that we have got some close relationships with all of the countries. We want to be able to help develop our players overseas, some individually, some in terms of the team.
One thing we have struggled to do financially over the last few years is have lots of A team fixtures. We have a very good national academy, an excellent programme there that is developing our younger players. But we need to expose those players before international cricket in tough, highly competitive cricket against some of the best players in the world who are also aspiring to becoming international cricketers if they haven't done so already.
We were in situations a couple of years ago where we'd play an ODI against a Full Member and the next one would be in 12 months' time. It is very difficult to learn from that style of cricket: high-pressure environment, televised game, big crowd. You need to be doing that on a regular basis to keep learning, to keep progressing, improve what you are doing. And now we will have more of an opportunity to do that. We have to be in the World Cups, World T20s. That is what we will be working on during the period of the FTP.
How do you overcome the challenge of the perennially rainy weather in Ireland?
Porterfield: Probably the bigger challenge is for the ground staff on getting wickets and pitches up to international standard on a consistent basis, given the resources and the weather.
Malahide is essentially a club ground that has been developed to international standard, whereas you go to any other major Test nation, they have got six, seven eight, ten-plus Test grounds that have got a full share of first-class cricket throughout the season. That is where we are going.
"To actually know that we are guaranteed games of cricket means we will actually have a three- or four-year plan, as opposed to wondering how much money we are going to get year to year" William Porterfield
Cricket infrastructure is also a challenge. Are there plans to have a central base?
Holdsworth: If you look back over the history at some of the newer Full Members when they started out they didn't have lots of stadiums, they didn't have an infrastructure, but they had a very good team, they had very good talent. We are in a similar position. We have got some nice grounds, but a lot of the infrastructure is temporary.
We have got an agreement with the government and Sport Ireland to develop a ground in Blanchardstown in west Dublin. It is a huge site, it is full of high-performance sport. A number of governing bodies are based there: the national football body is based there, rugby is having pitches built there, the Gaelic Association has its national development centre, the Institute of Sport is based there. And that is our training base for physical [development], strength and conditioning, and medical now for the Irish players.
We are going to be building a stadium there over the next few years, which will be permanent - permanent seating, media seating, all the facilities that you expect to find at a Test match ground anywhere in the world. And it will be ours: we will be able to control it, play as many games as we want.
We have lots of other grounds in Ireland, ODI grounds, and we want to make sure the game is shown to all parts of Ireland. We have a fantastic venue here in Malahide, which we want to continue international cricket at, but it is very, very costly to put up a pop-up stadium, to bring in this temporary infrastructure. That is something we can't sustain. We had a fantastic Test match here against Pakistan. It went to the fifth day, but that game cost over a million euros to put on. The revenues that come back certainly don't match the costs. We need to be more sustainable moving forward.
It is very exciting for us to have our own Test match ground. Our headquarters will be built there as well. And we will have a high-performance centre [to be inaugurated mid-August]. So will have all of our facilities in one place. And I think that is something that not too many Full Members can boast. A lot of their facilities are in different places. We will actually be housed in one campus, which has huge advantages for us moving forward.
What are the key elements that need to fall in place for Ireland to be recognised as a strong Test-playing nation by 2023?
Porterfield: You have got to do the basics really right and do it over a consistent basis over five days. You need to take 20 wickets and you need score big runs. You do that by either spending a lot of time in the middle, putting together big innings, but also by getting the next Boyd Rankin through, getting the next [star] spinner through, especially when we go away from home. So it is getting that volume of cricket into young players so that when they step in and get that opportunity, they are ready to take it by the throat and kick on.
Balbirnie: We have got to be competitive in all the Tests we play. We have got to be producing match-winners. Hopefully in 2023 there will be a new crop of Irish cricketers who are setting the world alight.
It is going to be tough. Stats don't lie: not many teams coming in to Test cricket have won soon. It takes a while. But if we can be competitive and get closer to that win, that will be great. For the generations like me, 2023 will be at the back end of our career, so if we can leave [the team] in a better place, that will be great. It is my favourite form to watch, my favourite form to play so far. I love first-class cricket. Hopefully there is lots to come.