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Whatever happened to the Intercontinental Cup?

A tournament that served as the most valuable learning experience for Associate players is all but defunct

Ireland celebrate a wicket in one of the few Tests they have played so far  •  Getty Images

Ireland celebrate a wicket in one of the few Tests they have played so far  •  Getty Images

On the journey to Test status for Ireland, a couple of iconic dates stand out to even the most casual fans: March 17, 2007 and March 2, 2011. St Patrick's Day makes it easy to link the first date to the win over Pakistan at the World Cup, while the second is the famous night in Bengaluru when Kevin O'Brien's World Cup record-setting 50-ball century sparked an upset of England.
But how many people know the significance of October 29, 2005; May 23, 2007; November 2, 2008; or December 13, 2013? These are the dates on which Ireland clinched each of their four final wins of the Intercontinental Cup (I-Cup), the first-class competition for Associate cricket that was a key metric to achieving Full Member status. Yet the tournament - launched in 2004 as the brainchild of Bob Woolmer - has been comatose, if not completely dead, since 2017.
"It was aimed at giving the players in the Associate world the opportunity to play the longer form of the game," Richard Done, the ICC High Performance Manager from 2005 through 2020 and who oversaw the I-Cup after Woolmer, told ESPNcricinfo. "The reason for it was that the maturity level of Associate players wasn't the same as those playing in Full Members."
Ireland played 39 first-class matches in the competition from 2004 to 2017, an average of three per year. But, since achieving Test status in the summer of 2017, they have played three Tests in four years, including just one at home - their inaugural men's Test against Pakistan. The paucity of Tests has triggered a re-examination of the World Test Championship model - and Ireland's absence from it along with Afghanistan and Zimbabwe - at this week's ICC board meetings, especially when the I-Cup played such a pivotal role in Ireland's growth into a Full Member.
While everyone happily remembers the historic wins against Pakistan and Bangladesh - plus the tie against Zimbabwe - at their first World Cup in 2007, less memorable are the shellackings Ireland received: bowled out for 91 in 30 overs and 77 in 27.4 overs against Australia and Sri Lanka respectively. One could have made the case that beating Pakistan truly was the luck of the Irish.
However, the same cannot be said about 2011. Sure, O'Brien may have rolled the dice during the chase of England's 327. But the total body of work for all of the matches in group play showed extensive progress, or "maturity" in the words of Done.
As far as Done is concerned, much of the credit for their continued ODI improvement can be traced back to their exposure and success via the I-Cup. Ireland had won the competition three times by the time of the 2011 World Cup.
"I've got no doubt that Ireland managed to achieve what they achieved because of multi-day cricket, partly as a result of their team in the Intercontinental Cup but partly because they had players in county cricket," Done said. "If you look at performances, we started to see more hundreds scored and you started to see that flow into one-day cricket. In one-day games, you can look at the size of the losses across the Associate world over time against Full Members and things like how many times they batted the full 50 overs started to increase. They lost less wickets, the run-rate started to improve because batsmen batted for longer."
But it wasn't just about performances. For some, it was about getting opportunities outside of the unforgiving nature of the ICC's limited-overs events such as the World Cricket League and World Cup qualifiers, where promotion, relegation, World Cup Qualification, ODI status and increases or decreases in funding were always at stake often based on a single tournament.
"Half the battle when you don't play a lot of cricket is that the cricket that we do play is pretty cut-throat," former Netherlands captain Peter Borren told ESPNcricinfo. "You don't really have that with the I-Cup because you have a game where guys have time to see whether they're actually good enough at that level. Normally guys go in [during a white-ball match] and they're saying, 'Holy smokes! I have to do this from ball one.' It makes it hard for players to learn."
While still providing a high competitive standard, the I-Cup allowed teams to take greater selection risks to find out whether a player could cut it at international level without the threat of a bad performance costing a team in the most consequential matches. Borren feels his I-Cup debut in November 2006 against Bermuda was actually the catalyst to forge a regular place in the Netherlands squad across other formats.
"If you sit at a selection table and you have an I-Cup game, absolutely you're not playing the older guy who you already know what you're going to get," Borren said. "He might be in the squad and he's on the tour. But you don't play him. You play the younger guy, who you're not sure about. What we used to have was the I-Cup game followed by two WCL [ODI] games. That's exactly how I got picked. I was not going to be in the first XI. But I went to the nets and bowled my ass off during two days of training and then they just picked me for the I-Cup game.
"I did all right and then I was playing in the one-day team after that. So the I-Cup game was quite crucial for me then because if it was straight into the one-dayers, then I wouldn't have played. I remember going on that tour thinking I was just going to be part of the squad. From then I was in the XI and I never really looked back. It's a real shame these guys don't have that to look forward to."
At one point, the ICC tied so much significance to the I-Cup that the winner of the 2015-17 edition was set to take on the lowest-ranked Test nation in a four-match Test Challenge. If the Associate won the series, they would have provisional Test status for four years. It meant that Afghanistan's win over Ireland in March 2017 put them in the driver's seat to win the I-Cup and face Zimbabwe.
But the significance of that win was devalued a few months later, when the ICC bestowed Test status on both nations. Instead of transferring the spot in the Test Challenge to the next-highest-ranked Associate in the I-Cup - the Netherlands - the ICC scrapped the Test Challenge, arguing it had been specifically designed with Afghanistan or Ireland in mind. As for the I-Cup, which once had a budget in excess of US$ 50 million, the ICC said the only way for it to continue was on a "cost-sharing basis" with Associate members.
That sparked a stirring debate at an ICC Associates' conference held in Johannesburg in April 2019. A plan was being drawn up for a pathway to replace the former WCL Championship as a way into the World Cup. Namibia head coach Pierre de Bruyn, whose team had secured ODI status for the first time by winning WCL Division Two earlier that month, was one of the most outspoken voices questioning why the I-Cup could not be continued.
"I was quite shocked to be honest that there wasn't enough seriousness around keeping red-ball cricket," de Bruyn said. "I kept on challenging management in terms of what are we going to do to keep red-ball cricket alive? We can't just wash our hands and say, 'Oh, well, there's no money,' or 'The focus is now white-ball cricket'. We can't do that.
"We had another conference in July 2019 in Loughborough where I opened up the discussion again and said, 'As coaches here, we want to know what are we going to do about this?' For me, personally, why am I so strong about it? It's possibly because I was fortunate enough to play 16 years of professional cricket in South Africa. Building a strong foundation as a young man, I had the opportunity to do it over four days, not in bloody three hours. I'm all for the razzmatazz in T20 cricket. I'm all for ODI cricket. I love it. But not at the expense of the real format that teaches you so much as a cricket player."
De Bruyn argues the lack of subsequent Tests for Ireland and Afghanistan is all the more reason why a two-tiered promotion and relegation model, a proposal which fell apart at ICC board meetings in 2016, should be revisited. That not only brings more multi-day cricket for the likes of Ireland but could reopen the Test pathway to Associates.
"Why is Scotland, Netherlands, Namibia, USA, whoever, why don't we have the opportunity to also play Test cricket?" asks de Bruyn. "Why not? Why is there not possibly a Test Division Two where those Test are four-day Tests? Ireland got Test status four years ago. Remember where Ireland was. They were nowhere. And then they built it up and got ODI status and then they got Test status. How magnificent is that? Now that door is shut for everyone else.
"My question is that it is shut because there's not even four-day cricket for Associates in the next level. We don't have dreams? Those players' dreams are now shattered because they cannot become a Test player like Kevin O'Brien or Niall O'Brien or Paul Stirling who dreamt about it one day. They got that opportunity as an Associate country… that gives hope to countries like USA, Namibia, Scotland, UAE and everyone else because Ireland did it from nowhere. I know that they don't play a lot of Tests. I appreciate that. But they did play a Test match at Lord's two years ago. That's a cricket dream."
"My question is that it is shut because there's not even four-day cricket for Associates in the next level. We don't have dreams? Those players' dreams are now shattered because they cannot become a Test player like Kevin O'Brien or Niall O'Brien or Paul Stirling."
Pierre de Bruyn
USA Cricket has laid out a foundational plan of targeting Full Membership by 2030, but that plan is working under the premise of Test status being decoupled from Full Member obligations. Done, now at USA Cricket, still feels there is scope for USA to enter a revived I-Cup. Like de Bruyn, Done argues that a two-tiered Test structure including Associates from the I-Cup would be the perfect place to encourage the scheduling of four-day Tests.
"One of the things we definitely talked about in the early days of the 9-3 model when the three were going to be playing among themselves was to take the top three out of the I-Cup, those that were not just interested but were deserving of that opportunity and actually having a competition between the bottom three of the Full Members and the top three of the [Associates]," Done said. "One of the ideas there was that when Full Members played each other, they'd play as five-day Tests and when they played Associates, it would be a four-day first-class match within the same competition."
That would not have been the first time that Full Members and Associates would be mingling in the I-Cup. Having voluntarily withdrawn from Tests in early 2006, Zimbabwe entered a team in the 2009-10 I-Cup to assist in their return to Tests in 2011. Zimbabwe finished third in the 2009-10 Intercontinental Cup behind Ireland and Afghanistan. Done holds out hope that such a structure could reemerge.
"I would love to see the I-Cup come back but I don't think there's an appetite for it to be honest," Done said. "If I was to push USA [officials], I'd say I think it's the best thing we can do to grow the strength of our players to be better on the short-form stage. But these days you're going to find that argument really hard to win because the commercial side of it, it's easier to [broadcast] a one-day game or a T20 than a four-day game. But if you talked about pure cricket value, it was an absolute massive plus to the growth of a lot of those Associate countries over that time."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna