Watching Ireland play in this World Cup has not felt much like watching amateurs. There has been a tangible chasm between their performances and those of Canada, Kenya, the Netherlands and even Zimbabwe. And what India would give to have fielding as athletic, and prone to conjuring up direct hits, as Ireland’s. Having built on their progress since 2007, you would think the ICC would be doing all they could to help Ireland continue their upward trajectory.
But if the ICC do not ensure there’s a fair qualification process for the 2015 World Cup, they will undermine much of cricket’s growth in Ireland. It is World Cups that inspire players, like the 14-year-old George Dockrell in 2007. Ireland’s genuine ambitions for growth should be rewarded. Think of plans to build a large new ground in Dublin, and tireless work to increase the takeup of the sport, rewarded with some highly encouraging performances in U-19 World Cups.
The relationship of Irish and English cricket is a curious one: England are both their biggest friends and foes. England are essential if the Irish side is to improve, and Dockrell’s development can only be aided by him signing a contract with Somerset, becoming the seventh Irishman to have a county contract. But there is axiomatically a limit to how much Ireland can improve whilst their best players are continually stolen, and few would disagree that at least one of the games against Bangladesh and West Indies could have been won with Eoin Morgan in the side. But how can this be stopped? Given how much better Dockrell looked than Mike Yardy in this tournament, what’s to stop him going the way of Morgan and Ed Joyce?
Ultimately the answer is simple. Ireland must be given more one-day internationals against the major sides. As Brian O’Rourke, the Lenister Development Manager, says, “We now deserve regular games certainly against teams close to us in the rankings.” He is absolutely right to say, “We have proven ourselves to be the best associate nation in world cricket” – Ireland’s performances in this tournament have been much closer to those of Bangladesh, England and West Indies than those of the minnows Ireland are still viewed as part of. Accordingly, they should be included in the future tours programme for ODIs – after all, Zimbabwe already are, and they are ranked below Ireland.
O’Rourke also says that “the ICC are looking at our country to potentially be the next Test playing nation”. It is all well and good the ICC making positive noises about Irish cricket, but they need to put their words into action and help the sport move to the next level there. The alternative is to risk the progress of cricket in Ireland being undermined, as the collapse of the sport in Kenya after 2003 is a warning of. Only in cricket do sporting governing bodies actively prevent countries who want to play the game from doing so; as Peter Roebuck says, “cricket is altogether too precious about Test cricket. In every other sport it is possible for strong and weak to meet without the game getting into a palaver about it.” When we think of sides being awarded Test status, we need not think of Bangladesh, who suffered from playing the very best constantly, and, accordingly, constantly being thrashed. There should be a different model for Ireland and, indeed, other sides that display similar levels of progress to them in the future.
There should be an official timetable for Ireland to be awarded Test status, which should be possible with five years. This need not be the same as putting them on the future tours programme and insisting they regularly play Test series in Australia – an exercise in futility. Rather, Ireland should have a schedule that involves regularly playing Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, and often New Zealand and West Indies too. Whenever sides tour England, they should play a Test in Ireland before (and four-day games in the meantime). This would appeal both to the tourists, who would get genuinely useful practise ahead of the Tests rather than facing under strength and demotivated county sides, and obviously Ireland themselves. A Test against Australia every four years would be a good indicator of their progress, as well as helping increase interest in the game – and, if they did well, it could even lead to more in the future. Fundamentally though Ireland would play against sides of similar ability. At a stroke, too, the threat of players switching to England would be lost.
The issue of Ireland’s domestic structure has often been held up as a reason why they are not ready for Test cricket, and obviously steps must be taken – as they already are – to improve it. Yet, looking at football, the top division in both the Republic and Northern Ireland are roughly analogous to the English conference; but this doesn’t stop success being enjoyed, like the Republic reaching the World Cup quarter-finals in 1990. There is no reason why Ireland’s players can’t continue to play in the county championship.
Ireland’s ambitions are such that, in spite of defeating England, they will leave the tournament with a strong sense of disappointment that they didn’t claim at least one more Test scalp. They deserve better than for their progress to be undermined by what their chief executive Warren Deutrom labels the ICC’s “closed shop” mentality.