Thoughts and observations of a Hibernophile regarding Irish cricket’s immediate future. This article saw its genesis from a litany of much cherished trips across to Ireland and a love of cricket. Whether the two naturally segue together may be up for debate! Some observations maybe accurate, some maybe wide of the mark. Hopefully all will prove thought provoking and interesting.
Type www.cricketireland.ie/images/uploads/site_images/Cricket_Ireland_Strategic_Plan.pdf into your search engine and you are presented with a bright, shiny brochure type affair. This is, as it says on the tin, Irish Cricket’s strategic plan for the four years beginning in 2016; a document with the expressed aim of witnessing Ireland becoming test cricket’s eleventh participant. The document is an interesting read; a confident, positive, self-assured production that harks to the Celtic Tiger era, although the Tiger has since been slain. Nevertheless, Irish cricket is not shy in its aims.
Thus, David Richardson’s recent comments about the ICC harbouring desires of increasing the numbers of countries playing test cricket to 15 or 16 would likely have buoyed those behind the aforementioned plan. (Richardson’s further comments about teams in Asia whilst not mentioning the likes of Ireland may not have been so pleasing but maybe that’s just the minutiae of it all)
Locating the key to international cricket’s inner sanctum and its top table is potentially Irish cricket’s most difficult prospect though. The golden generation that provided the country with such famous victories over Pakistan and England in cricket’s World Cup are largely in the twilight of their careers, potentially leaving a playing vacuum, in terms of standard. Maintaining performance to a competitive standard could prove challenging as the star named players head into retirement.
Such a challenge hasn’t been helped in the past by a lack of quality fixtures. The early retirement of Scotland skipper Preston Mommsen highlighted how the associate nations face an almost Sisyphean task in organising regular fixtures in order to help their respective teams maintain a decent standard. Progress, though at times glacial, appears to be being made though. England have upped their crumbs from the table quota of one match every two summers to two matches in three days during the 2017 season although neither will be on Irish soil, something of a shame for Irish cricket fans. Attendances at the country’s main de facto international venue, the Village in Malahide, once described as possessing the ambience of a classic outground, have proved impressive of late with two matches achieving ten thousand sell-outs. Weather permitting, always an issue on the Emerald Isle, two matches against England would likely provide a great focal point for the sport on the island, although avoiding expensive set up costs will certainly aid Cricket Ireland whilst the match at Lord’s will provide London’s Irish community an opportunity to support their fellow countrymen . Fortunately for home supporters there is a much anticipated tri-series involving Bangladesh and New Zealand a few days later based at Malahide and Clontarf Cricket Club a dozen kilometres to the south in the northern suburbs of Dublin. As an extension of the improved number of fixtures on offer perhaps the ECB could send the underused Lions team across the Irish Sea for a fixture or two?
Extra matches are only half of the battle though. Irish cricket’s current major problem is one of a personnel nature and presents something of an oxymoron: the requirement to produce players of a certain quality to compete and improve at international level but produce players that aren’t so good that they are poached by them lot across the water. Good Irish players are still, at the moment, heading across the Irish Sea to the County Championship whilst the very best are still likely to be tapped up as potential players for England. It is a well trodden path. The likes of Ed Joyce, Eoin Morgan and Boyd Rankin are the obvious examples whilst, curiously, only one player, Tim Murtagh, has come the over way. Maybe Irish Cricket could adopt a similar policy to the Irish football team under Jack Charlton in terms of using players with Irish ancestry, although the counties are not likely to be keen to release their charges for international contests during a busy domestic season. Cricket Ireland has also been very fastidious in not welcoming every player who discovers Irish ancestry, analysing whether any potential recruits would add (or detract) to the team dynamics.
Such a scenario, regarding the player drain the English county championship, is unlikely to change until the Irish first class system can offer a viable alternative. From a financial point of view, that alternative may not be too far down the line, and Cricket Ireland’s chief executive Warren Deutrom is fiercely determined that the Irish inter-provincial set up will offer Irish players that opportunity. But Irish cricket as a whole could potentially witness a drop in standards as the inter-provincial structure establishes itself and the best Irish players, previously tested in the crucible of the English county championship, are potentially playing against their own brethren instead.
The lure of test cricket in two years time may be enough to tempt any potential movers to stay in the Ireland first class set up but even the carrot of full member status is not guaranteed. Ireland need to win the Intercontinental Cup, a distinct possibility as they currently top the table with a healthy advantage, and then have to beat the tenth ranked test team over a four match series during 2018. Their opponent is almost certain to be Zimbabwe. In a one match shoot-out the Irish would likely have a decent chance of causing an upset. Playing the southern African nation over four matches most certainly shifts the advantage into the Zimbabweans’ favour; in most sports the more experienced, better established players / teams usually prevail over longer or extended formats. Thus, after chasing a dream for so long, Irish cricket could still be left with a scenario where the key to the door to the top table remains an elusive mirage. If such a scenario occurs there could be questions of what now? Managing the fall out would be crucial. The recent Kolpak issue with South African players and the English county game has highlighted how players face a fine balance between making a living and playing international cricket. Conversely, the impact of Britain’s exit from the European Union may buck any such trends although one needs more than a passing knowledge of the labour law to fully understand any potential effects.
Also of interest will be the supposed desire to play a first test, should it come to fruition, against England. Many harbour hopes of a cricketing entente cordiale between the two nations but one can see something of a one-way street regarding this scenario. If Ireland’s first ever test match is against England one wonders whether there is any chance of it taking place on Irish soil. The English international summer is now financially predicated on a number of limited overs contests and seven test matches. To play one of those seven matches, and some of the limited overs fixtures, elsewhere would mean a compromise on income, an occurrence that one imagines is unlikely to prove palatable to the ECB and its accountants. Thus, as an extrapolation to such a thought, one wonders quite when Ireland would be able to host a test match against their neighbours? April? Surely not; conditions could prove too cold and inhospitable. September? Tis a distinct possibility but Irish cricket would have to factor in a couple of popular sporting events that take place in Drumcondra over two weekends of the month, particularly if they intend playing said test at either Malahide or in Dublin itself. In truth, England has enjoyed a hegemony across the northern hemisphere summer months to the point where another country muscling in on such a dominance could prove a case of two’s a crowd.
To achieve and sustain a decent playing standard at international level also requires a greater foundation to the domestic structure. Afforded first class status in October 2016 after returning three summers previous, the inter-provincial competition only provides four matches per season for each team. Ireland’s traditional provinces are to some extent represented (Leinster as Leinster, Ulster as Northern and the North West) but Connacht and Munster need to improve to join the structure. Ireland’s small population and its large concentration in and around Dublin and Northern Ireland dictates that more than four or five teams at first class level would prove a case of spreading its assets too thinly but progress toward a ten or twelve match schedule would certainly be a requirement. It’s not just the international team that needs plenty of matches.
Growing the game below international level remains a very real challenge though. To understand the unique challenges faced by Irish cricket, one needs to take an inside out view rather than the traditional opposite. In particular, the rivals to the affections and attentions of the Irish populous during the summer months. The indigenous sports of Gaelic Football and Hurling play their inter-county championships (the highest level of the respective sports) across the summer providing a direct competitor to Cricket. Both are understandably sporting strongholds, particularly in rural areas. At present many interested in Cricket are still more likely to choose Tipperary versus Cork in Thurles or Dublin versus Meath in Croke Park rather than any cricket equivalent. In truth, a club game between Cuala and Skerries Harps is likely to list as a higher priority. Because unlike England, where Cricket is the national summer sport, the Irish summer already plays host to the largest and most successful amateur sports in the world. For a first class structure still in its infancy this presents a significant issue although perhaps less so in Northern Ireland where some would not choose to follow either Gaelic Football or Hurling due to what could euphemistically be called ‘cultural differences.’ Nevertheless, Cricket Ireland has employed the odd subtle nuance to try and win the hearts and minds of attract new supporters: the Irish national kit is manufactures by O’Neills, an Irish company that has long been a bastion of Gaelic Football and Hurling kit production.
Achieving significant television coverage of the sport, especially the domestic variety, would also be another coup. Here is where the island of Ireland’s distinct make-up provides another challenge but, perhaps, an opportunity. Half a dozen years previous an agreement was signed between the two governments on the island so that viewers in Northern Ireland could watch RTE One and Two along with TG4 on a free-to-air basis with viewers in the Republic able to view BBC One and Two Northern Ireland on the same basis. With Irish cricket’s heartlands based around Dublin and the north such agreements arguably provide double an opportunity to promote the sport as viewers have double the terrestrial channels available to them than others in the United Kingdom.
The inclusion of TG4 into the cross border agreement perhaps provides something of a leftfield opportunity. Launched in the autumn of 1996, Teilifís na Gaeilge Ceathair is a channel for Irish language speakers. Possessing a significant share in the Irish television market, (almost a million viewers a year in recent times) the channel has a history of televising sporting events that would not necessarily find their way onto the more regular Irish broadcasters, gaining TG4 a reputation for televising minority, niche market sporting events. Cricket would certainly fall into such a category but, paradoxically, TG4’s target audience could potentially be the most unlikely on the island to watch cricket due to the sport struggling to gain a foothold in the provinces of Connacht and Munster. The two areas include the major Gaeltacht regions on the west coast, likely heartlands for the channel whilst TG4 already possesses a sinuous relationship with the indigenous sports of Gaelic Football and Hurling. Potentially deep rooted cultural issues remaining in some hearts and minds regarding cricket’s standing as a “foreign sport” could also not be discounted. Maybe this is a case of Benjamin Franklin’s “every problem is an opportunity in disguise” although TG4’s recent struggles to break even could render the notion of televising cricket more of a folly than a gamble. Beyond the cross-border channels further potential terrestrial options could be TV3 in the Republic and UTV, a channel that televised highlights of Ireland’s 2015 World Cup matches.
Television is always a thorny issue for any aspiring sport aiming to muscle in on the blue chip equivalents. Finding their place in the media market is not beyond the realms of possibility for Irish cricket though as has been illustrated by equivalents such as Cycling (the Tour de France has been a summer staple on British screens for many a decade despite being a minority sport until recent times) and Darts (largely the preserve of satellite television until ITV4 began showing PDC events) whilst Channel Four in the United Kingdom previously built a reputation by broadcasting sports such as Sumo Wrestling, Kabaddi, American Football and even Gaelic Games for a short period.
All of which presents potentially interesting challenges in the immediate future for cricket in Ireland. For any country wishing to join the test ranks there are anomalous circumstances and factors that make their particular challenge somewhat unique. The truth of the matter is that many cricket followers would love to see Ireland make continued progress. International cricket is in need of some fresh impetus and the Irish could provide an injection of fresh air. Achieving a place at the sport’s top table requires more than just zealous support and kind words though. The less glamorous topics of infrastructure and foundations certainly need to be addressed. Nevertheless, the pathway to test cricket has never seemed clearer, although it remains fraught with obstacles and potential cul-de-sacs.