Ireland’s growth has been superb but next step awaits

Tim Wigmore looks at how Ireland are trying to change the face of the game in order for growth in the Emerald Isle

On Tuesday, Cricket Ireland launched its five-year strategic plan, defined by a simple aim: ‘Making Cricket Mainstream’.

“When we think of ‘major’ in Ireland, we think of GAA, rugby and football. Well, why not cricket too?” So asked Cricket Ireland chief executive Warren Deutrom. “We need to shift perceptions of cricket as an elitist, exclusive sport to one that is open and accessible to all. We need to de-mystify the sport for the Irish public by making it visible, accessible, affordable and inspiring.”

Ireland’s journey in the last decade has been remarkable. On Deutrom’s first day in charge, in 2006, Cricket Ireland’s only other staff were the coach and a part-time PA, and Ireland had yet to make their World Cup debut. Now they have defeated five Test nations in the World Cup, have 11 players on professional contracts in county cricket and a contract system in Ireland to boot, and all three formats of the game are played in domestic cricket. The women’s game has soared too, after qualification for consecutive Women’s World T20s. And along the way Irish cricket has gained some of the funding it needs to make good on its dreams: turnover has risen by more than 20 times since 2006.

Yet, for all this startling progress, there is a long way to go just yet.

Ireland are not content with merely being, together with Afghanistan, the world’s pre-eminent associate. Their vision is nothing less than to be Europe’s version of New Zealand, a cricket nation that overcomes competition from other sports, a small population and noisy neighbours to thrive among the world elite across all forms of the game. They reckon they can do so through world-leading administration (Cricket Ireland have consciously modeled their governance structure on New Zealand Cricket, who are reckoned to be the best-run cricket board in the globe), enlightened youth development, savvy cricket and a united team who bring the best of themselves to the world stage. This ambition goes some way to explaining why John Bracewell, the former New Zealand Test cricketer and coach, was appointed Ireland’s head coach last year. Bracewell has spoken of the parallels between Ireland now and New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s, during the onset of the professional age.

The aims are so ambitious that they require action on many fronts. Efforts to grow the sport in clubs and schools have been laudable since 2007 – participation figures have risen from 11,000 to 52,000 since – and must be redoubled if Cricket Ireland are to establish the cricket culture to sustain and build on recent success. There have occasionally been gripes that Cricket Ireland, in their understandable focus upon the national side, have become detached from the grassroots game, so the announcement of a new club fund to support clubs is welcome. Particular attention needs to be paid to Northern Ireland: while cricket’s popularity continues to soar in and around Leinster, it has not grown to anything like the same extent in the North.

A more enlightened approach from the ICC and full members is also needed: embracing and aiding the growth of Irish cricket, and recognising that more competitive teams makes for a more vibrant sport. Over recent years this attitude has seldom been apparent, as Ireland’s derisory nine ODIs against Test opposition between the 2011 and 2015 World Cups was testament to.

Now there is genuine cause for optimism. This summer Ireland welcome both Sri Lanka and Pakistan for two-match ODI series, and then tour South Africa in September, where they will play one-off ODIs against Australia and their hosts. Talks are also advanced for further home ODIs in 2017 and a tour of Zimbabwe this autumn. The good news extends to the women, too, who play seven matches against South Africa and six against Bangladesh this summer. Where once full members would not return Ireland’s calls when they tried to arrange games, now many are showing a newfound willingness to engage. What a shame England do not seem to be among them: they still only play Ireland in an ODI every two years and, ludicrously, have told Ireland that their next visit to the Emerald Isle will be next April, as they have no other time in their schedule.

The funding discrepancy between Ireland and the lowest-ranked Test nations has long been absurd: Ireland received about one-eighth as much ICC cash as Zimbabwe from 2007 to 2015, even though they were ranked above Zimbabwe for long periods.

The gulf remains huge, but that an extra $500,000 was awarded to Ireland this week, to help fund ODIs, was a welcome move in the right direction.

But much more is needed. Deutrom has expressed his move that the extra cash was “Just the start of the ICC’s period of self-reflection” and the start of an era when cricket finally becomes based on meritocracy on the field, not the iniquitous Victorian notion of status. At the ICC Annual Conference in June, there will be further discussions, and very likely a vote too, about introducing a two-divisional structure in Test cricket, with seven teams in Division One and five in Division Two accompanied by leagues in ODI cricket. Just as significantly, the ICC is currently reviewing its entire revenue distribution structure, with Shashank Manohar, the ICC Chairman, said to be baffled at why Zimbabwe – who are ranked lower than Ireland in ODIs – receive $5 million more every year, simply because they are a Test nation. And the issue of the ten-team World Cup is not yet dead: it is still a realistic prospect that the 2019 World Cup might be 14 teams once more.

It raises the hope of 2019 being a seminal year in Irish cricket history: the year in which they marry a strong performance at the World Cup in England, cheered on by legions of supporters in green, with their first outing in Test match cricket.

That would be quite a tale. But it will not only be achieved through improvements in the Irish structure and at the ICC. More than anything, it needs a winning Irish team. After a harrowing World Twenty20, Ireland need to end the suspicion that they are receiving more opportunities at the very moment their golden generation are ageing when they welcome Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and

Pakistan for ODI series this summer. Nothing attracts the next generation quite like a winning team.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday April 29 2016

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