Cham­pagne and cash cri­sis on way to the Long Room

Ireland’s Test sta­tus was ini­tially cel­e­brated but it has had its down­sides, writes Tim Wig­more

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Specsavers Test -

In a swanky ho­tel in Lon­don two years ago, Cricket Ireland’s ex­ec­u­tives cel­e­brated un­til the early hours. And with good rea­son: Ireland had just been awarded full mem­ber and Test sta­tus by the In­ter­na­tional Cricket Coun­cil. This was vin­di­ca­tion both for Ireland’s suc­cesses on the field – they won five games against Test op­po­si­tion across the 2007-15 World Cups, more than Eng­land – and their re­lent­less pol­i­tick­ing off the field.

The two years since, lead­ing up to Ireland’s maiden Test at Lord’s, have not been with­out tu­mult. Sev­eral cru­cial play­ers, most no­tably Ed Joyce, have re­tired. For the first time since 2003, Ireland failed to qual­ify for the World Cup, los­ing a win­ner-takes-all qual­i­fy­ing game against Afghanista­n.

A cash-flow cri­sis last year led chief ex­ec­u­tive War­ren Deu­trom to give the or­gan­i­sa­tion an emer­gency loan. Cricket Ireland was even the vic­tim of cy­ber fraud, which it has said cost a six-fig­ure sum.

Ac­quir­ing full-mem­ber sta­tus has brought un­fore­seen prob­lems. One fig­ure who has coached a num­ber of Ireland’s most tal­ented play­ers frets that “Test sta­tus could be the worst thing ever to hap­pen to Ir­ish cricket”.

Os­ten­si­bly, it sounds like a bizarre con­cern. Full-mem­ber sta­tus has opened up new sources of fund­ing from the ICC. It has also brought a reg­u­lar sup­ply of fix­tures that Ireland lacked; they played just nine one-day in­ter­na­tion­als against Test teams in the four years af­ter beat­ing Eng­land in the 2011 World Cup. But full-mem­ber sta­tus has come at a cost: county cricket.

Af­ter Ed Joyce be­came the first crick­eter who had grown up in Ireland to es­tab­lish a long-term pro­fes­sional ca­reer for 50 years at the end of the 1990s, most of Ireland’s most suc­cess­ful play­ers were moulded in the county game. They ben­e­fited from a qual­ity of coach­ing, fa­cil­i­ties and ex­po­sure to high qual­ity play­ers ut­terly re­moved from what they would have re­ceived at home. Eight mem­bers of the side who beat Eng­land in 2011 had played first-team county cricket.

But when Ireland gained Test sta­tus, the Eng­land and Wales Cricket Board ruled that Ir­ish play­ers would no longer count as local play­ers, from the end of 2019.

This has spawned two great con­cerns. The first is that the best young Ir­ish play­ers will not be able to im­prove at such a rate. Cricket Ireland still lacks an in­door school – though one is be­ing built – and find­ing grass nets that are free can be a strug­gle. The first-class struc­ture com­prises just three teams play­ing four three-day games each a season.

“The big­gest thing is get­ting

vol­ume and stan­dard of cricket into all our do­mes­tic crick­eters, es­pe­cially hav­ing lost out on county cricket,” said Wil­liam Porter­field, Ireland’s cap­tain.

The sec­ond fear is that be­ing de­nied ac­cess to county cricket as local play­ers will de­prive Ireland of their best play­ers. There is a strong pos­si­bil­ity that Tim Murtagh will re­tire from in­ter­na­tional duty to ex­tend his county ca­reer with Mid­dle­sex.

Even more wor­ry­ingly, it is still un­clear whether Paul Stir­ling, who is 28 and one of Ireland’s two best bats­men, will choose a county con­tract with Mid­dle­sex as a local player or to con­tinue his in­ter­na­tional ca­reer while play­ing do­mes­tic cricket in Northern Ireland af­ter this season.

Full-mem­ber sta­tus has led to Ireland’s fund­ing from the ICC dou­bling to £4mil­lion a year, but this re­mains un­der one-third of what the bulk of Test na­tions re­ceive. The costs of host­ing ex­tra fix­tures, and pay­ing cen­tral con­tracts of play­ers who pre­vi­ously earned most their cash from coun­ties has ab­sorbed much of this cash. “We’ve had to be very care­ful, one with our money and two with our pri­or­i­ties,” says Richard Holdsworth, Ireland’s per­for­mance di­rec­tor.

Yet there is also ex­cite­ment about the pos­si­bil­i­ties that lie ahead. A 3-0 ODI se­ries vic­tory over Zim­babwe this sum­mer, fol­low­ing on from im­pres­sive vic­to­ries by the sec­ond-string Wolves team over the full sides from Bangladesh and Zim­babwe, au­gurs well. Ireland now have their own fran­chise T20 com­pe­ti­tion, with a cross-nation ven­ture with Scot­land and Hol­land launch­ing next month.

Most im­por­tantly, the im­age of cricket in Ireland as a game for “West Brits” is be­ing eroded. Joyce used to hide his bat on the train in Dublin. Now, cricket has a more in­clu­sive im­age.

Cricket Ireland has con­sciously tried to im­i­tate New Zealand’s model, in­form­ing its height­ened in­vest­ment in its A-team pro­gramme. Holdsworth vis­ited his equiv­a­lent in New Zealand last year. “We’ve gained a huge amount from them,” he says.

Devel­op­ing Ir­ish cricket re­mains an un­fin­ished project, but just play­ing a Test at Lord’s will be a cel­e­bra­tion of Ireland’s jour­ney.

Hal­lowed turf: James Shan­non (left) and Kevin O’brien walk to the nets to tune up for Ireland’s first Lord’s Test

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