Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo
Ireland have announced an ambitious plan to ascend to Full Member status within the ICC. The Irish will seek to become the ICC's eleventh Full Member nation, and the first to rise from the Associate ranks since Bangladesh in 2000.
Warren Deutrom, Cricket Ireland's chief executive, has sent a letter to the ICC stating his board's intention to apply for Full Membership - a potential pathway to Test cricket - and to seek clarification on the process. The ICC have since informed Ireland of the council's criteria and expectations, and the matter will now be discussed at the next chief executives' meeting, scheduled for later this month.
"There's a long way to go," Deutrom told Cricinfo's Switch Hit podcast. "Traditionally, applications have taken two, three or more years. There are clearly a large number of hoops we have to jump through. In terms of challenges that are facing us, yes, there is clearly an awful lot of work we need to do just to fulfill the compliance and existing criteria.
"It perhaps sets in motion a process that allows others to see the levels they need to reach in order to fulfill the same ambitions. It shouldn't be easy. Test cricket is regarded as the pinnacle of the game and it's quite right that those trying to ascend to Test cricket, or just Full Membership without necessarily involving Test cricket, have to ensure that they are coming up to some pretty rigorous criteria."
Ireland's cricketers have mounted a strong case for consideration as a Full Member nation with a string of solid performances in the four-day, 50 and 20-over formats, but still face a difficult task convincing existing members of the political and commercial benefits that their elevation would bring to the game. Unlike Bangladesh, the most recently-elected Full Member, Ireland does not boast a large population and player base to draw from. Bangladesh also provided India and its allies with another regional partner - and vote - at the ICC table. Ireland's introduction could potentially upset that balance.
The difficulties encountered by Ireland's cricketing administrators were highlighted earlier this year when a television rights package could not be negotiated for the home ODI against an England side less than a week removed from winning the Ashes. Attendances for other international matches have been modest, as cricket struggles to gain a foothold in a nation already absorbed by Gaelic football, hurling, football and rugby. Despite such obstacles, Cricket Ireland has evolved commercially to the point that ICC funding only accounts for 30% of the board's total revenue.
If the ICC is serious about its long-espoused aim of expanding the game beyond its traditional strongholds, Ireland might be in with a chance. Full Member funding would better equip Ireland to retain its top players - the defections of Ed Joyce and Eoin Morgan to England were evidence of Associate cricket's glass ceiling - and offer a progression path for other aspiring nations to follow.
"In terms of television, there is no doubt whatsoever that that was an issue last year," Deutrom said. "We had television for our game in 2006 when Ireland played England and in 2007 when India and South Africa were here. We didn't get a broadcaster for 2009. I think there were some financial problems involved in that. I think the problem by and large, from what broadcasters say to me, is that they don't like to do deals on a one-by-one basis. They prefer to package things up. If we were in a situation whereby we were embedded in the Future Tours Programme, then we would have sufficient home cricket to be able to go out and talk to another broadcaster.
"From a political perspective, I would regard many people on the chief executives' committee and the board as extremely fair-minded. I hope this doesn't come across sounding naive, but I think the decision should hopefully be made on its merits and not on the basis of any political alliances."
Ireland's recent performances have raised hopes that they could prove competitive at the game's elite level. In 41 one-day internationals since 2006, the Irish have won 17 matches, highlighted by their three-wicket triumph over Pakistan at the 2007 World Cup. Ireland won eight consecutive completed matches against Scotland, Kenya and Canada before suffering a narrow three-run defeat to England in their most recent ODI. That sequence included victory in the World Cup qualification tournament in South Africa earlier this year, which they capped with an emphatic nine-wicket demolition of Canada in the final.
Ireland have proven similarly competitive in the 20-over ranks, winning four of their eight completed matches including a six-wicket victory over Bangladesh at the World Twenty20 in June that propelled them into the Super Eights stage of the tournament. They are currently vying for their fourth consecutive Intercontinental Cup crown, and remain unbeaten in four-day competition since 2004.
"The key area where we see the strength of our proposal would be the performance on field of the senior men's squad over the last couple of years," Deutrom said. "In all three forms of the game we've proven ourselves above our associate rivals.
"If you think about the reasons why (players) are going (to England), it's because they want to be as good as they can be. They want to be able to find the vehicles and the forums to be able to express their abilities. In that way, we need to make sure that our players are aware of our ambitions. If we just happen to bump along as an associate and say, 'We're the No.1 associate now, that's all we're going to be forever,' I think we're going to lose more and more players. Our ambitions are surely to make sure that cricket is as successful as possible in Ireland ... and to that extent we need to make sure that our players are aware that that is exactly where we're going.
"Even if it's obviously too late for the likes of Eoin Morgan and Ed Joyce, what we're saying to the next rung of Irish players coming through is: we are ambitious, we are interested in going for Full Membership but it may take some time, and we are doing our very best to put in a contract system that allows you to consider playing cricket as a career in Ireland in the same way as you might want to play cricket for England and to complement your county career."