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
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