On September 3, 2013, a Tuesday, 10,000 Irishmen packed into Malahide cricket ground and "sold out" signs greeted latecomers to the game against England. It was a magnificent testament to the ambition and energy of Irish cricket.
For an ODI against Scotland one year on, the scene is very different. The Village, as the ground is called, no longer resembles an Irish sporting colosseum but an idyllic outground, complete with abundant space, resplendent trees and a picturesque bank on which to watch the cricket. The 700 spectators choose between deck chairs and grass. Cars are parked only ten metres from the boundary edge. Fans can even lean on the fences surrounding the ground to watch for free.
Before England visit next May, just as was the case last year, Cricket Ireland effectively has to build a top-class international cricket ground from scratch, providing the stands and catering to satisfy 10,000 people and the ICC. "It's financially unsustainable," Cricket Ireland chief executive Warren Deutrom admits. "If people are serious about investing in Irish cricket and assisting us to develop the game, they realise, 'What is the point in Irish cricket investing half a million euros to make half a million euros?'"
For all of Malahide's charms, Cricket Ireland hopes that within a few years it will look very different. It will have permanent stands - and they will not have to sell 8500 tickets just to break even. To attract the funds necessary to make "Fortress Malahide" a permanent entity, rather than one that pops up for a day every two years, Ireland needs a fixture list to justify the outlay.
And this is where the ICC comes in. Or rather, doesn't. Ireland's quest for more fixtures against Full Members is becoming more desperate. Between the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, Ireland played 16 ODIs against Full Members. Since the 2011 World Cup, they have played nine completed ODIs against Full Members, and the gap between their last scheduled match and the start of their first World Cup match is nine months.
There is something a little sad about Cricket Ireland's excitement on social media about two one-off ODIs, against Australia and England next year, especially as the game against England, on May 8, will contain none of those involved in the Test tour of the Caribbean. Even Afghanistan have a fixture list the envy of Ireland: they were invited to the Asia Cup this year, played four ODIs in Zimbabwe, and play alongside Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the Asian Games.
The only way for Ireland to remedy the situation would be to become a Full Member. They have mounted a far more persuasive case than Bangladesh and Zimbabwe before their elevations: last year Ireland won the flagship trophies for Associates in all three formats of the game. But discussion over admitting new Full Members has completely ceased. There is also no indication of whether top Associates could join the Future Tours Programme, guaranteeing regular ODIs against Full Members.
As it is, Ireland's sliver of hope lies in the Test Challenge. The winners of the next Intercontinental Cup are expected to play four first-class games, two each at home and away, against the lowest-ranked Test side in 2018. Details are predictably vague, but while the Test side's status will not be under threat even if it lost, victory for the Intercontinental Cup winners will earn Test status too, probably for a four-year period. To Giles Clarke, this represents a "glittering prize".
But it comes nowhere near the more fundamental reform that Ireland need. Even if they had Test status, no sides would be mandated to play Ireland. Their schedule would amount to Zimbabwe-lite.
And the gross disparity in funding between Ireland and the lowest ranking Full Members would remain. When Ireland reached the Super Eights in the 2007 World Cup, they earned $56,000 in prize money; Zimbabwe, who did not progress beyond Ireland's group, received $11 million. The gulf is only a little less yawning now. Under the new world order, regardless of on-field performance, Ireland will receive around one-eighth of Zimbabwe's funding from the ICC and TV companies every four years.
That would only change with guaranteed fixtures, which Ireland could then sell to TV companies and sponsors. The move to a ten-team World Cup from 2019, designed to ensure India play nine matches, and the decision to hold the World T20 every four years rather than every two, will reduce Ireland's games against top sides and their ability to generate the revenue that a leading international side needs. Even if everything went right on the pitch for Ireland in the next five years - and with Afghanistan's rise, victory in the Intercontinental Cup is far from assured - England, say, could still offer a fixture list and pay packet unimaginable in Ireland.
Yet Ireland are not easily deterred by the inequities pervading cricket today. When Deutrom arrived as chief executive at the end of 2006, the only person who worked for him was a part-time PA. Today 20 full-time and ten part-time staff work for Cricket Ireland, excluding contracted players.
Every one of them is working towards making Test cricket in Ireland happen. Deutrom believes that the most important development in Irish cricket since that blarney night in Bangalore is the creation of the Interprovincial series last year. Three provinces play each other in all three formats of the game (though the long format is only played over three days).
"It's about so many things," Deutrom says. "It's about trying to professionalise the next step up from club cricket. The risk has been that the more professional our structures become at senior level then the greater the gap for players to step up from club to country. We had to be able to put something in place to bridge that gap."
There have been some encouraging signs: a decent standard of cricket; and crowds of near 1000 for T20 double-headers. The Interpros have also contributed to the resurgence of the pace bowler Craig Young, who left Sussex a year ago to take up Cricket Ireland's contract to play full-time in Ireland.
Of course, Cricket Ireland still lacks the financial resources to tempt established county stars home. While this remains the case, the quality of Interprovincial cricket will remain considerably below the top of county cricket. Earlier this year Kevin O'Brien said that the standard was akin to county 2nd XI matches. Deutrom goes further, reckoning it not "inferior to some levels of county cricket".
"We need to get these Asians to sit on our various committees in Leinster and fully engage them in all our activities. And we badly need one player of Asian background to represent Ireland"
Brian O'Rourke, Leinster Cricket Development Manager
It sounds like bluster, but the tale of Peter Chase is revealing. After averaging 69 with the ball for Leinster last season, and not being selected at all this season, Chase took five Championship wickets on his Durham debut.
There remain compelling arguments for Irishmen to play in county cricket. It provides access to a higher standard; the opportunity to learn from different players and conditions; the chance to play in front of considerable crowds; and greater wages than Ireland could offer. The reality is that Ireland could not afford for all its county stars to come home: with Cricket Ireland existing on a turnover of €4.3 million a year, it is preferable that Sussex foot the bill for Ed Joyce's salary.
But ultimately the hope is that players from Ireland will no longer be inclined to look to county cricket to pursue their professional careers. For as long as players go to England, the spectre of the England selectors eyeing up Irish talents will remain. "They get settled there, get married, and suddenly playing for Ireland becomes an encumbrance during the season," Deutrom says. "Counties start coming back and asking us for compensation to have players available during the year. Suddenly the conversation becomes more difficult. They get on the England radar, start playing for the Lions, we all see what happens. Is it a risk to Ireland's future? Of course it is. We have to do everything we can to keep hold of those resources."
It is hard to envisage how Ireland could ever match the salaries paid by top counties. Yet a Cricket Ireland contract provides players with the opportunity to play in domestic leagues across the world: Kevin O'Brien earns more from a combination of his Cricket Ireland contract and itinerant involvement in T20 leagues than he would as a full-time county pro.
O'Brien plays for Leinster Lightning, the best Interpro side in Ireland. Their dominance reflects the central role of Dublin in cricket's transformation in Ireland.
During its wilderness years, Irish cricket was strongest in the North West and Belfast. Now Dublin is its stronghold. The two best Irish cricketers playing today, Joyce and Eoin Morgan, were both reared here; Morgan returned to his home ground in Malahide when England played there last year. Dublin was also the biggest beneficiary of the Celtic Tiger, which helped to bring players like Trent Johnston, David Langford-Smith and Andre Botha to Ireland. The standards they brought with them helped lift up the standard of club cricket.
The Celtic Tiger is long gone, yet the real benefits of it to Irish cricket may be yet to come. Since 2006, Ireland's non-Chinese Asian population has been the fastest growing in Ireland, with an annual growth rate of 13.3%. This has been particularly great in and around Dublin, reflected in a surge of new clubs in Leinster: there are 120 in the province today, compared to 99 in 2006. Around half of all cricketers in Leinster today learned the game overseas.
But while significant numbers of the Asian community attended the ODIs against Pakistan last year and Sri Lanka this year, against Scotland the ground consisted overwhelmingly of white faces. "We don't have the means and the resources to be able to say, 'Let's target this particular community in terms of promotion,'" Deutrom admits. Brian O'Rourke, the Leinster Cricket Development Manager, says, "We need to get these Asians to sit on our various committees in Leinster and fully engage them in all our activities. And we badly need one player of Asian background to represent Ireland."
Simranjit Singh could be that man. Born in Punjab, he played for Punjab Under-17s and was close to earning a contract with Kings XI Punjab in 2008. He has played in Ireland since 2006. Three years ago he made the decision to attempt to play for Ireland. He qualifies in June next year, just before the World T20 Qualifiers, which Ireland are co-hosting with Scotland.
"I am targeting that," he says. "The dream is to get the green jersey on." Phil Simmons is regularly in touch, recognising the worth of an offspinning allrounder to the Ireland side. Batting has always been Simranjit's strength, and he has scored heavily in Irish club cricket, but he knows that his offspin could fast-track him into the international side. "There's an opportunity for a spinner in Ireland," he says. He is working on expanding his bowling repertoire - including bowling the doosra. "I bowled a few in the last season but I haven't got full control. I'm working on it."
And Simranjit believes that the presence of an Irish-Asian in the national side "would definitely attract more of the Asian community" to support the Ireland team. Today there is "not much connection" between some of the new, virtually all-Asian clubs like Adamstown and Cricket Ireland. An incident at Leinster Cricket Club two years ago hardly helped: a group of Asian players were questioned about their club membership while watching India play Pakistan in the World T20. In protest against the lack of "sense of urgency" about investigating the issue, 18 players left the club. Insiders agree about the need for a Cricket Ireland outreach officer, to ensure that Irish-Asians were fully incorporated into the mainstream Irish cricketing scene. It would also help to ensure that Ireland can nurture the most talented Irish-Asian cricketers.
On the banks of Malahide, I buy an ice-cream for Alan Lewis, who played for Ireland between 1984 and 1997, often as captain. He is jealous of the players today.
"Am I envious? Absolutely. Because you don't know how good you might have become." Lewis played against many fine teams - but in a profoundly different atmosphere to that today. "The crowds were coming to see them, not see us. We were literally regarded as the fodder." Ireland and the tourists did not even bother with the toss: spectators had come to see the opponents bat, after all.
Things are very different now. To hear John Mooney speak after the defeat to Scotland in the third ODI (Ireland still won the series 2-1) was testament to the ambition within Ireland's set-up. "We spoke a bit about complacency and meandering along at a certain level," he said. "We want to progress in cricket, not be a side who just occasionally shocks Full Members. We want to be a side that consistently beats them."
There has never been a better time to be an Irish cricketer. But for all the optimism and vibrancy surrounding the game today, these are profoundly uncertain times for Irish cricket.
The World Cup brings expectation - and a little fear too. Ireland's team has not progressed as hoped since 2011; while much can be blamed on a dearth of fixtures and England poaching their best players, Ireland have not beaten a Full Member in ODIs since Bangalore. If, as is perfectly conceivable, Ireland are defeated by Zimbabwe and all the other Full Members, it will be seized upon as evidence that Irish cricket has peaked. Pressure to help Ireland will diminish. And inside Ireland it will make the game easier to ignore.
What is certain, at least, is that Ireland will not go the same way as Kenya, who reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2003 but have subsided since. Cents are reckoned to go further in Cricket Ireland than for any other sporting body in the country. A generation ago, playing professional cricket was deemed beyond the reach of an Irishman. Joyce was the first in history to make a career out of cricket. He is one of five Irish players to have captained counties at some stage in 2014. Counties, especially Durham and Middlesex, now ensure that Irish talent is never forgotten.
There is a lot of it, but Irish cricket remains a very small place. The history of the game in Ireland is less one of a national sport than of a few families. And there are concerns that the rest of Ireland is failing to keep up with Dublin. "I'm not sure that cricket's as strong in the Londonderry or Belfast area as it used to be - I think cricket is on the wane a little bit there," the Ireland manager Roy Torrens tells me. Besides a lack of funding, the reason that the Interpro series currently only has three teams is that other provinces were not deemed strong enough. Still, better to build up a solid domestic structure than flood it with mediocre players.
And fundamental interest in cricket continues to surge. The total participation figure in 2013 (44,000) is double that in 2010 and four times the figure in 2006. Ireland have just agreed to a €2.5million deal over ten years to fund training for young Irish cricketers. Cricket in Ireland has always been accused of being an "English sport" - a claim often made by those in Liverpool or Manchester United shirts. As a boy, Mooney did not tell people he met that he played cricket: "The English thing was a big stigma."
The Ireland side is remarkable for their unity in spite of profound differences. The journalist Nick Royle told me that the squad is "genuinely the most mixed of any sporting team I have ever encountered". It comprises Protestants and Catholics, open Sinn Fein supporters and staunch Unionists, Dubliners of working-class and violin-playing stock, and immigrants from South Africa, Australia, and soon Asia. The diversity has not only contributed to a vibrant cricket side, it has been an all-Ireland beacon for inclusiveness. "It doesn't create problems, it helps to solve them," Mooney says. "Hopefully it will continue to break down the barriers between North and South, and continue to integrate young Catholics and young Protestants together."
And nothing dismantled the notion of cricket being a posh game quite like beating England at it. Mooney describes the victory in the last World Cup as "the biggest thing that broke down the idea of cricket being an English sport - that the Irish people have witnessed Ireland beat England at what they call their own sport".
But memories of that famous night are receding. As idyllic as the Village in Malahide is, Ireland are restless for something more. For all the drive and vision in Irish cricket, the unspoken fear is that, without a dramatic on-field impact at the World Cup and foresight from cricket's ruling elite off it, they could be strangled by a lack of opportunity.