March 2, 2011 should have been the turning point for Irish cricket.
Seen previously by one and all as a minnow punching above their weight with an occasional upset and regular participation at world tournaments, Ireland’s stunning three-wicket win over England in Bangalore in a World Cup group match was a seminal moment.
For despite years of neglect from cricket’s governing body, the ICC, Ireland didn’t just win, but they won professionally.
Even when under the cosh, Ireland’s fielding was athletic, and of a high standard. And whilst larger-than-life all-rounder Kevin O’Brien played the innings of his life, he was supported by sensible, cool-headed knocks by Alex Cusack and John Mooney, who manoeuvred the world’s best spinner at the time—Graeme Swann—into gaps and turned ones into twos. The Irish were no longer a team of plucky amateurs, but a professional outfit.
Indeed, since their St. Patrick’s Day win against Pakistan just over a decade ago, Ireland have grown their cricketing infrastructure from that of a minor county to an impressive, full-time set-up. They have 30 full-time staff, 19 central playing contracts, and an academy run with the support of a ten-year deal with an Indian business conglomerate. Participation figures have quadrupled since 2013, with the number of active players moving from 13,000 to around 52,000, and the domestic provincial tournaments played between Leinster, Munster and Ulster have achieved first-class and List A status this year.
Irish cricket is growing with the long-term future of the game in mind: chief executive Warren Deutrom’s goal is “to make cricket a major sport in Ireland.”
But on the pitch, things have not gone quite so well since that famous night in Bangalore. Since the 2015 World Cup, where victories over West Indies and Zimbabwe showed their credentials as a major cricketing nation, Ireland’s results have fallen off dramatically. Indeed, even at the Associate level—the competitions between the nations that the ICC considers ‘second-rate’—Ireland’s dominance has stopped, as Afghanistan assert their standing as the best side without Test status.
This has been the main obstacle that Ireland’s growth has faced.
Despite their results at world tournaments often seeming to suggest they are superior to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, Ireland do not have the Test Match status afforded to full members of the ICC. As such, they are unable to play red-ball cricket—seen by most as the pinnacle of the game—against the biggest sides, or even any other full members.
Furthermore, the lack of regularity to fixtures outside of the major tournaments means that Ireland rely on other sides to gain exposure to top-level cricket. They have often been granted one-off fixtures against teams that tour England as part of a warm-up for one-day series, but it is rare for a major nation to afford them a stand alone series.
Therefore, last week’s two-match ODI contest against England should have been something of a ground-breaker. Fixtures at Bristol and Lord’s in early-season conditions gave Ireland the opportunity to perform in front of big crowds and a large global audience hoping to see England slip up in their Champions Trophy preparation.
However, without disgracing themselves, Ireland showed the extent to which they had stalled over the past six years. The ‘golden generation’ of Will Porterfield, the O’Brien brothers, John Mooney and Ed Joyce is on the way out, and the replacements, most of whom are slightly too old to have benefited from the current player pathway system, are lacking in skill and nous. Their defeats—one crushing, the other comfortable—served as a reminder about the ICC’s neglect of smaller nations over the past decade.
It is impossible to imagine in football, for example, FIFA actively trying to avoid growing the game, and giving only the best-developed nations in the world the opportunity to play each other. It is harder still to imagine a country receive 196 times as much prize money for a first-round exit than a last-eight finish by virtue of being a bigger nation, but that is exactly what happened in 2007: Ireland’s Super Eights finish earned them some $56,000 in comparison to the eleven million afforded to Zimbabwe.
Indeed, by taking as long as they have to recognise Ireland’s achievements and progress—it is expected that Test status will eventually be granted to them next month— the ICC have stalled development, and made mismatches in Ireland’s first few Tests much more likely.
Worse still is that this means that the incentive to give more Associates a chance at the top level will be diminished, as a poor early string of results will seem to justify their reluctance to give Ireland an opportunity.
The mismanagement of the ICC has been well-documented, but the administrators’ heads should be hung in shame regarding their management of Irish cricket: for the good of the game, Ireland’s chance should have come by now.