Ireland knew it was coming, but the announcement yesterday that Eoin Morgan, their prized and gifted batsman who was chosen in England's ICC World Twenty20 squad, has nevertheless left Ireland feeling helpless and a victim of their own success. England's 19th county is proving to be a goldmine of talent.
That it should have happened in the middle of the World Cup Qualifiers was an irony not lost on the team's manager, Roy Torrens. Just when the ICC's showcase event for Associate cricket is in full swing, one of their most talented jewels is stolen away by a Full Member and its fat wallet. The ICC is desperate to expose their undoubtedly impressive commitment to Associate cricket, yet the timing of Morgan's pick-pocketing by England could hardly have been worse, on the day he stroked a chanceless 84 in Ireland's thumping win over Canada.
"He's made no secret of that fact [wanting to play Test cricket]. So you know, it's not totally unexpected to us," Torrens told Cricinfo in Johannesburg. "We realise this is always going to be a problem with our better players playing in England. We just have to suck it and see."
Morgan has always held high ambitions to play Test cricket, a format of the game which Ireland simply cannot afford him. "With the help of ICC funding we're in a position this year that we might be able to contract some of our players at home. But it's going to be a long way down the line before we can ever compete with what these guys would earn across the water," Torrens said.
"It irks us. Of course it does. We've put a lot of money into under-age cricket and development, and we bring young lads up from 13 years of age and send them away to [the Port Elizabeth academy]. And then to suddenly see a county come along and pop them from us, you know…for the foreseeable future we're going to be in a position where we'll lose our best players.
"How ironic was it when we went to the 2007 World Cup and we had Ed Joyce playing against us. At the time, England weren't doing awfully well. Relatively speaking, we were doing quite well. And the reporters were asking us how we could justify playing three Aussies and a South African in our team. Yet Ed Joyce opens the batting against us!"
Ireland and Scotland's position is unique among Associates. Both teams, but particularly Ireland, have players contracted by English counties. Boyd Rankin turns out for Warwickshire; Gary Wilson for Surrey; Niall O'Brien keeps wicket for Northamptonshire and William Porterfield, who smashed 101 last week against Scotland, plays for Gloucestershire. Their involvement in a higher level of cricket has led to an upsurge in standard for Ireland, undoubtedly the favourites in this competition, whose allround cricket has improved year-on-year. Yet at the moment it is England, not Ireland, who are reaping the benefits.
Torrens may be unflappably resigned to Ireland's predicament, yet it is a cruel position his team finds itself in. Ireland, who have qualified for the ICC World Twenty20, will yet again be missing one of their key performers. Like Morgan, Rankin's involvement in county cricket has seen him develop from a giant twig into a frightening fast bowler. The influence of Allan Donald at Warwickshire, however brief, is the sort of tutelage Ireland simply cannot afford him.
"I suppose in the near future, it's of a benefit to us because they're going across to the counties, and won't have reached the stage where they'll play for England, so their improvement will benefit Ireland in the initial term," Torrens said. Yet the stories of Morgan and Ed Joyce are never too far from his mind. "Wait 'til you hear this one. In June 2006, Middlesex released Ed Joyce to play for England against Ireland in Belfast. Because Joyce was picked and playing for England, Middlesex then called in Eoin Morgan to play for Middlesex. So not only did we have Joyce playing against us, but we lost Morgan to play for Middlesex. It was a double whammy.
"As they say, it could only happen in Ireland. You can see where we're coming from; we feel as though we're getting the raw end of the stick the whole time."
There is no end in sight, however, for these talented players migrating to England before forsaking their birth country with the realistic hope of playing Test cricket. For the time being, Ireland are effectively the ECB's 19th county - "a breeding ground," Torrens put it, "because we have quite a good development system in place."
"What we would have liked is perhaps a bit more understanding from the counties regarding release of players for tournaments. We've had to play [without] Morgan, Joyce, Rankin and others at times. So we'd have thought, or hoped, that when we needed them to represent their country they might have been automatically released. When Niall O'Brien was with Kent, he wasn't available for some of the tournaments we'd have liked him to play in. So that's when we get annoyed and frustrated, when the counties don't play ball with us.
"But certainly as a cricketing country, we don't hold anything against the players. If you have the ability and the chance is given to you, then go for it. We don't like it, but we have to put up with it."