Ireland hope for Jamaica re-run
A little over two years ago Warren Deutrom, the Cricket Ireland chief executive, and coach Phil Simmons sat at the top of a conference room in a Dublin hotel. Trent Johnston and Kevin O'Brien, two of Ireland's most venerable players, were also on hand and they had swapped their usual logo-ridden training apparel for formal attire.
An ambitious vision for the future of the sport was revealed and the gravity of the occasion was palpable: 2020 was the year set for it all to come to head, and the date earmarked as the denouement of their grand and unfaltering development. It was a bold but venturesome masterplan that accentuated Ireland's purposeful bid to advance to the next level.
What has transpired since, however, has failed to take heed of that manifesto. Cricket Ireland have trumped their own ambitious objectives to the extent that the strategic plan has all but become obsolete. They find themselves almost a year in advance of the script and exceeding expectations at every juncture: the sport is reaching unprecedented popularity and participation levels with grassroot figures doubling in the past two years, while the domestic structure is getting close to first-class level in an aim to ensure a production line of talent.
Everything appears to be clicking into place and now the final piece of the jigsaw - the Test match holy grail - is configuring itself into the puzzle, albeit a two thousand piece one. For Ireland, it is almost too good to be true. The foundations have been rigidly laid in such a short space of time. They have truly outgrown their Associate status - both on and off the field - and are patiently waiting to break through the glass ceiling.
The substructure is also in situ. Twenty-four players have been handed two-year contracts while the addition of a troupe of backroom staff, which has become a staple part of a successful side in the modern era, have all been made possible by supplementary revenue streams. The results and second-tier domination reflects the swelling levels of professionalism but with increased stature comes expectation and the pressure to vindicate their credentials for ascension.
Ultimately, the three game limited-overs series against West Indies is preparation for next month's World Twenty20 in Bangladesh, but in essence the following ten days is the dawn of the next chapter. As Ed Joyce put it so succinctly last week, qualifying for tournaments is no longer enough for Ireland. Although an overseas tour, such as the one they are currently on, is indicative of their burgeoning repute, William Porterfield and his team-mates have to do more than just provide the opposition.
Their sojourn in Trinidad, for the Nagico Super50, may suggest they are not quite equipped to bridge the gap on a consistent basis just yet but that would be jumping to conclusions. Yes, they were like rabbits caught in headlights, unprepared after a seven-week hiatus and unable to adapt to Caribbean conditions, but for Ireland participation in the tournament was part of a long-term programme.
Having gone down without a fight to Guyana and then Jamaica, victory in their final fixture against Windward Islands - instigated by sharp fielding and nagging bowling - meant that winning feeling was restored was restored before proceeding to Sabina Park for the business end of the tour.
They have fond memories of Kingston. It was there, seven years ago, that victory over Pakistan endeared Ireland to the international cricketing community, providing the catalyst for this vast evolution. It will be a full circle of sorts when they step out onto the Sabina Park turf come Wednesday afternoon. They were a bunch of amateurs and minnows that day but times have changed since then. Irish cricket has changed.
Facing the World Twenty20 holders, on their own patch, in the first game of their home international season, is a thorough appraisal of the tourists' credentials but it is where they want to be, the standard they aspire to reaching.
"The West Indies are obviously the Twenty20 side, their record speaks for itself," Porterfield said with respect rather than trepidation.
"They are a very good Twenty20 side. But we know we can do it and I think we've got to focus on that. We played some very good Twenty20 Cricket in the qualifiers for the World Cup in November, so we've got to take from those positives and keep improving, and taking the things that we did well in those games, into games against the top eight sides, or top ten sides, the Test Teams as such."
There is no scepticism surrounding Ireland's ability to give superiorly ranked opposition a run for their money - they have shown that on countless occasions before - but they have not beaten a full member since September 2012. That came against Bangladesh at the World Twenty20 in Colombo.
"We're obviously going into these games wanting to get wins out of them. There's no point in playing cricket if you don't want to go out there and win," Porterfield said. "If we put everything in on the pitch, and at the end of the day they come out on top, then that's fair enough. But if we are at the top of our game, and playing the way we want to play, then that's all we can ask for from the lads."
It has become clear that Ireland have widened the gap between themselves and their adversaries but this is a different ball game. The gulf in class between the game's top sides and Ireland's regular Associate opponents is vast and it is now up to them to ensure that gap is bridged before they can class their strategic plan as successful.
For now, however, the focus remains firmly on the next few months and the task in hand. All Simmons and his side can do is continue to advance themselves on the pitch and the rest has to be left to those who regularly wear the suits and sit in the boardrooms. The hard work starts this week at the scene of their most acclaimed heist.