Early promise gives way to uncertainty

Irish cricket went through a rollercoaster of emotions during 2007; from the mind-boggling highs of World Cup victories against Pakistan and Bangladesh to the battle to retain their key players before finally ending the year struggling to financially break even.
The World Cup success, for all the joy and excitement it brought to an awful tournament and the subsequent spark in interest it engendered back in Ireland, caused many of the problems for the Irish board (ICU). Despite the additional prize money, and the boost it provided to the game, there were increased outgoings in terms of costs of the team's stay in the Caribbean and wages for the players. There was hopeful talk of central contracts being introduced to give players some security and encourage them to stay with Ireland, but reality quickly began to sink in.

For two-thirds of the year the amateur Ireland players had the demands of professionals. They began with the World Cricket League in Kenya, a quick trip to Abu Dhabi for an Intercontinental Cup match then onto West Indies for what turned into a seven-week stay. After a raft of home-coming celebrations the squad was straight into the Friends Provident Trophy, further Intercontinental matches and a host of one-day internationals as the board tried to cash-in on Ireland's new-found status.

It was a reasonable idea; invite India, who were on their way to England, to play a few ODIs in Stormont, throw in another high-profile side - South Africa - and sell the rights for millions to an Indian broadcasting company. Sadly, these things rarely run smoothly and it took last-ditch negotiations for the games to be on TV at all. The final value was less than had been hoped, then the weather intervened with temperatures barely in double figures and attendances poor.

Key players also became unhappy, making it a tough transition from Adrian Birrell to Phil Simmons, who took over as coach following the World Cup. Jeremy Bray refused to play following a double century in the Intercontinental Cup final where Ireland crushed Canada. He hit out at how the ICU was being run, while the players refused to undertake media commitments following an ODI against Netherlands in protest at a lack of payments. Meanwhile, Boyd Rankin and Niall O'Brien were securing their futures with county contracts. As Ireland found during 2007, success can only bring so much. At the end of the day, money talks.
New man on the block
Australian-born Alex Cusack enjoyed a memorable ODI debut against South Africa in June, collecting 3 for 15 and an unbeaten 36 to walk away with the Man-of-the-Match award. A carpenter by trade, Cusack followed this performance with a maiden first-class century against Scotland in the Intercontinental Cup and he has the chance to establish himself during 2008 in a new-look Ireland team.

Fading star
Jeremy Bray was a significant loss to the Ireland top order went he made himself unavailable for selection midway through the season. His century against Zimbabwe in the World Cup paved the way for a thrilling tie, but international bowlers soon worked him out with full straight deliveries. Back among his peers he still churned out runs, but his subsequent walk-out highlighted the problems Ireland faced.

High point
St Patrick's Day in Jamaica will go down as one of Ireland's greatest sporting occasions. A motley crew of seamers skittled Pakistan on a green-top, before Niall O'Brien played the innings of his live to steer the chase close. After a late wobble, Trent Johnston, their heroic captain, completed the win with a mighty six. The celebrations were long and loud, just like the leprecon-led conga line which followed the team around the Caribbean.

Low point
Reality hit home when everyone finally had a chance to sit back from the afterglow of the World Cup. Cricket in Ireland remains a minority sport and with results reverting the momentum couldn't be maintained. The ICU needed financial help from the Irish Sports Council and ICC and the early-year talk of professional contracts quickly disappeared. Probably forever.

What does 2008 hold?
A year of trying to balance the books while keeping the players happy. The demands being placed on associate cricketers is far too great and an increasing number will find it unsustainable to complete their full-time jobs and play for Ireland. The next generation will get their chance at the Under-19 World Cup in Malaysia, before the senior side embarks on another packed season. They begin with a tour of Bangladesh, then take part in the FP Trophy and have ODIs against their fellow Associates and New Zealand. Throw in the Intercontinental Cup matches and something will have to give.