Yay, we got Test status! Now what?
Ireland are now a Full Member side, but the challenges they face are still daunting
At the end of the film The Candidate, after he has been elected to the US Senate, Robert Redford's character, Bill McKay, turns to his campaign strategist and asks: "What do we do now?" McKay never gets an answer.
On the morning of June 23, Cricket Ireland's officials might have felt like asking the same question. They awoke bleary-eyed, after knocking back champagne in London until the early hours.
The day before, Ireland received Full Member status at The Oval: an extraordinary achievement, completing a 20-year journey from glorified minor county to Test nation. So consumed was Cricket Ireland by the goal of Test status - widely derided as an implausible, fantastical aim - that it was not able to pay much heed to what happened next.
For Irish cricket now, everything is different. Well, sort of. Curiously, the aftermath of Test status has been Ireland's most barren spell of internationals since before the 2015 World Cup, when Full Members still treated Ireland like a pariah. And, for all the excitement about their elevation, there remains an undeniable sense that Ireland have also been excluded from the real club: the introduction of a nine-team Test Championship leaves Ireland as part of the "Small Three" with Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, playing largely among themselves. While Ireland's money from the ICC will double from January, when their new funding kicks in, they will still only receive $40 million over eight years - less than half Zimbabwe's $93 million. Some Full Members are a lot more equal than others.
On May 11 next year, all these concerns will come to seem trivial. For then Ireland will play Pakistan in a men's Test match, probably at Malahide - a day that most Irish cricket lovers thought would never come.
It will be an occasion to savour, yet Ireland must ensure that it is a beginning, not an end. Ever since the aforementioned World Cup, the sense has grown that Ireland's increased opportunities are coming at a time of decline.
The bare facts of their record under John Bracewell reflect as much: just one ODI victory, a dead rubber against Zimbabwe, in 14 ODIs versus Test nations; and a total of 21 wins in 58 completed games, including T20 defeats to Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, Oman and UAE. Yet the problems run much deeper than one man. "I think he's done a great job and deserves possibly a bit more respect than he's been given by the media and some supporters," Gary Wilson says, likening his impact to that of Peter Moores with England.
The recruitment of Graham Ford, highly regarded for previous work with Surrey and Sri Lanka, as Bracewell's replacement reflects Ireland's new financial and cricketing clout. Ford has only a few months to prepare Ireland for the World Cup qualifiers in March. A combination of the team's stagnation since 2015 and the contraction of the World Cup to ten teams, plus Zimbabwe enjoying home conditions, makes it probable that Ireland will miss out on a World Cup berth for the first time since 2003.
If that is to be averted, it will require an encore from their greatest generation of cricketers, who have been distinctly underwhelming since the World Cup. Since then, only Ed Joyce and Stirling have averaged over 30 in ODIs - making it all the more curious that, beyond the top seven who performed admirably in Australia and New Zealand, no other specialist batsman has played more than five of Ireland's ODIs since. There has been a more sustained attempt to regenerate the bowling attack but there remains a lack of clarity over Ireland's best attack and a suspicion that conservatism still prevails in team selection: Durham quick Barry McCarthy, who has taken 25 ODI wickets at 27.48, has repeatedly been omitted.
Amid this generational angst, the recent Ireland Wolves (effectively the A side) tour to Bangladesh was modestly encouraging. Though Ireland lost all five completed games, they could have won several matches against Bangladesh A. James Shannon, who was on the periphery of the squad in 2013-14 but has excelled in the last two domestic seasons, and Jack Tector, an opener who Joyce says bears a resemblance to Mike Atherton, are pushing for inclusion in the senior side. Simi Singh, an offspinning allrounder of Indian origin who gained citizenship this year and played two ODIs, scored 121 in the first-class game against Bangladesh A.
"The standard's been pretty good. I've been pleasantly surprised with the talent"Ed Joyce on Ireland's domestic competitions
It is also possible to glimpse the contours of a potent pace attack. Steffan Jones, the fast bowling consultant, has been highly impressed with Ireland's quick bowlers in their late-teens, especially David Delany, who can approach 90mph: "Delany can be the X-factor because he has pace. He uses all his body like a javelin thrower."
The quick bowlers who qualified for the Under-19 World Cup this summer - including left-armer Josh Little, who made his senior debut in 2016 aged 17 - will all benefit from working with new bowling coach Rob Cassell, who joined recently from South Australia.
As they rebuild, Ireland are likely to scour for talent beyond their borders. The board are trying "to establish better links around the world where there may be players with Irish heritage", says Richard Holdsworth, the performance director. Two young bowlers on the fringes - Jacob Mulder, a legspinner who has already performed impressively in international T20s; and Nathan Smith, a seamer with a smooth action - moved from Australia in their late-teens.
Ireland's cricket, football and rugby teams have all benefited from an inclusive approach to players either with Irish ancestry or who qualify for the country after moving there; so have New Zealand, Ireland's model cricket country. How recruits can be integrated while maintaining Ireland's spirit and identity is the challenge.
"One of the major strengths of Irish teams in the past has been the identity, the togetherness, the unity we've had, especially at World Cups," Wilson reflects. "If we had a team of 12 Australians in the squad would that be there?"
Within Irish cricket, there is an underlying recognition that, if the chances presented by their new status are to be seized, piecemeal reform is not enough. Cricket Ireland has commissioned an independent consultancy to review all aspects of the organisation and how it should adjust to Full Membership. What to prioritise is the biggest challenge, because Ireland raise significantly less money than all other Full Members. While fellow new Test nation Afghanistan get the same ICC funding, they benefit from extensive support from other governments, as well as a weak currency ensuring the cash goes further: Afghanistan currently have 190 full-time centrally contracted players; Ireland have only ten, in addition to those with county deals.
Ensuring Ireland have a structure fit for a Test nation must begin with what is most basic of all to a cricket team: venues to play and practise on. "We've got a huge amount of work to do facilities wise," Joyce says. "We've got very, very limited access to grass facilities and are very dependent on the generosity of clubs." He adds that it is "not ideal for a professional set-up".
Ireland still don't own their own grounds, either. Malahide and Stormont, the two venues where they play most frequently, are effectively only borrowed from clubs. It will take considerable extra sponsorship and government support for this ever to change. But construction on a national high performance centre is beginning this month in Dublin; it will be completed in 2019. And after an exasperating washout against West Indies in September, chief executive Warren Deutrom admitted: "There is probably too much simple acceptance of bad weather affecting our games given our geography, and probably not enough being done to mitigate it."
That Irish players will cease to count as locals in county cricket from 2019 adds a new challenge. The nightmare scenario is of some players retiring from Ireland so they can count as locals in England, and potentially earn more: a microcosm of the new challenges brought about by Full Member status.
Even if these fears do not materialise, it does not obscure how county cricket has underpinned Ireland's rise, hardening their players and exposing them to tough opponents and conditions. Now, Ireland must manage this job all by themselves.
That burden now falls to the interprovincial system, which was restored in 2013 and gained first-class status last year. "The standard's been pretty good. I've been pleasantly surprised with the talent," Joyce says of his first year back in the domestic game.
But Ireland's domestic cricket suffers from two basic problems. First, there is not enough of it: only four three-day first-class games and four 50-over matches for the three sides a year, alongside six T20s, after Munster Reds were included from 2017. Second, the competition is utterly dominated by Leinster, who have won 13 of the 15 trophies, including another treble this year. This not only means the set-up lacks competitive balance, but also that many of Ireland's most promising young cricketers do not even get to play first-class cricket, as they can't get in Leinster's team - understandably, given that Leinster routinely leave out an international batsman.
With only 33 players in the first XIs in the first-class and 50-over competition, it is self-defeating if these aren't the best 33 players based at home. The board believes that a draft system for players would dilute teams' regional identities, but is trying to make it easier for players to move provinces. It is also considering launching a new, short but high-profile T20 competition, modelled on the Hong Kong Blitz, which showed what was possible in a country with far less cricket heritage or infrastructure, and would be especially welcome given Ireland's dire recent T20 record. Facilities at La Manga, in Spain, could be used for interprovincial matches as soon as next October, as a way of effectively extending the Irish summer and exposing players to more cricket.
Yet such extra investment must also be accompanied by higher salaries for players to make cricket a more attractive career option. Uncontracted players in domestic T20 games receive only a match fee of 50 euros.
Ireland's resources will be further stretched by the growing demands of the women's game. As more established nations invest in their female team, so Ireland must keep up, especially as the side remains locked out of the Women's ODI Championship. "The thing that is standing in the way of our moving up the rankings is the fact that as a fully amateur team, we cannot compete against professional athletes, even if we think we have players who could be successful professionals," Cecelia Joyce says.
The formation of the Irish Cricketers' Association this month, representing players of both genders, is one step to strengthen the women's game. Joyce, who has been elected vice-president, says: "The ICA will hopefully be a game-changer for us internally, which will then be a catalyst for changing our position within the ICC from the women's side." More broadly, the creation of a players' association signals that players will become more vocal in standing up for their own interests, recognising how Irish cricket has left amateurism behind.
The challenge for new Full Members has never been greater than it is today. Resources are bound to be diluted across three formats of the men's game and two in the women's game, and the need to develop infrastructure must be balanced against the threat that, if players are not paid adequately, they could play in county cricket, or even overseas T20 leagues, instead.
"It's a long road," Wilson says. "We've got to learn on the job as quickly as possible. By no means should we expect mediocrity, but if you look at history, you're only really starting to see Bangladesh's hard work paying off now, and that was 17 years ago. You'd like to think we'd be quicker than that but there's no guarantees."
The years ahead will surely bring many defeats and agonising moments. And yet they will also bring possibilities that recent Irish cricketers could never have dared imagine. Ireland can finally glimpse where they want to be in world cricket; the coming years will tell us whether they can do justice to their opportunities.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts