Tough at the top

Ireland's crushing innings-and-146-run victory in the Intercontinental Cup against Bermuda last week brought the curtain down on an eventful season for Irish cricket. Under new coach Phil Simmons, who replaced Adrian Birrell after the World Cup, they have consolidated their position as the leading Associate nation. It hasn't, though, quite been the triumphal march that had been hoped for after their heroics in the Caribbean.

Many of the players will find it hard to remember the last time they had a significant break. Before the World Cup they spent time in South Africa, at a high-performance camp. They then found themselves in various far-flung destinations such as Mombasa, Nairobi and Abu Dhabi. Welcome to the world of international cricket.

A matter of days after returning from the Super Eights, they were back in action, in the Friends Provident Trophy. But after the giant-killing against Pakistan and Bangladesh, they couldn't manage a single win against the counties. However, there were mitigating circumstances.

Key players already had county contracts: Boyd Rankin, Eoin Morgan and Niall O'Brien quickly disappeared after the post-World Cup back-slapping and celebrations had been completed, although Morgan and O'Brien did turn up for Ireland later in the season. Trying to hold on to their top players would become the defining theme of Ireland's summer.

"It was always going to be tough to maintain the momentum from the World Cup," Simmons told Cricinfo. "Considering we lost three or four of the players who led the team to their glory, it's been a very good season. We lost the two matches against India and South Africa, but didn't lose a game against the other Associates.

"It's going to be difficult to keep hold of players with county contracts. But it's not something I can do anything about, and it has given me a chance to work with new players who have come in this year."

For a few weeks Irish cricket was the centre of the universe, but it wasn't going to last, especially after the team started losing matches and unfamiliar faces began showing up in the side. To add to the problems there was growing discontent in the ranks when players didn't see immediate rewards for their success in West Indies.

Considering we lost three or four of the players who led the team to their glory it's been a very good season Phil Simmons on 2007

While some players decided they had to return to a normal life, others voiced their disapproval about how the Irish Cricket Union was conducting affairs. Loudest among them was Jeremy Bray, the left-hand opener, who scored a century against Zimbabwe and another in the Intercontinental Cup final against Canada. He made himself unavailable for the ODIs against South Africa and India, plus subsequent fixtures against fellow Associates.

But he wasn't the only person unhappy. During the quadrangular tournament staged in Belfast and Dublin during July, the players refused to undertake post-match media commitments following the match against Netherlands, in protest over non-payment of World Cup fees.

In many ways Ireland's progress to the Super Eights created problems for the 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.

To try and generate some much-needed income, and make the most of the team's new-found marketability, the ICU dipped its toe into the offshore ODI market, only to experience its first taste of the volatile world of international TV rights when the matches involving South Africa and India nearly fell through. However, although Sachin Tendulkar and Co. did make it to Belfast, the weather was poor and the crowds even more so. In the end the ICU only broke even.

"Partly it was down to the crowds," said the chief executive, Warren Deutrom. "But that, in turn, came because of the fact that Zee TV pulled out three weeks before the event and there was very little time for advertising. Nimbus came on board, but we only had one hand and weren't able to negotiate. Advertisers wanted to know what channel they would be on and we weren't able to tell them until a couple of days before the match.

"The weather didn't help, either, with people not enticed to the matches in the cold and damp. We didn't get any walk-up sales, compared to 2000 when Ireland played England [in 2006]."

When faced with international opposition on the field, Ireland continued to perform admirably without managing a scalp to match Pakistan or Bangladesh. At least the absence of some key players allowed Simmons to explore the depth available to him. Greg Thompson, a legspinner, was handed more opportunities, as was left-arm spinner Gary Kidd. Gary Wilson, who plays for Surrey 2nd XI, covered for O'Brien and Alex Cusack's Man of the Match display against South Africa was a good-news story.

"In many ways it was a good thing that we were without some of the top players," said Simmons. "It gave other guys a chance and they have done well. There are some good cricketers coming through the Under-19 system and in two or three years I can see a very strong Ireland team."

The side's Intercontinental Cup form remained impressive when they retained the title against Canada at Grace Road in May. The bowling attack, led by David Langford-Smith and Trent Johnston, was well clear of the next best. William Porterfield remained brilliant in the field and helped form a strong top order. Andre Botha, whose medium pace was key at the World Cup, suddenly found a new lease of life with the bat with back-to-back centuries to end the season. At youth level, too, there was no match for the Irish as they enjoyed success at Under-19, -17 and -15 level. The next major challenge comes for the new generation at the U-19 World Cup in Malaysia next February and March.

"Porterfield was excellent throughout the season, right from before the World Cup to the final game [his career-best 166 against Bermuda]," said Simmons. "But many others have done well, and hopefully young players will look at what they've achieved and think that it could be them in a few years."

The ICU hopes to organise a pre-season tour in February or March next year, but for most of the players it will be a winter of day jobs and indoor nets. It is a far cry from the year they have experienced and there are many challenges for Irish cricket to face if the success of 2007 is not to be a false dawn.