Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Testing the Waters

As John Mooney saw Michael Rippon smash a hook shot off his short pitched delivery for six, securing a most unlikely draw for the Netherlands against his native Ireland, he’d have been feeling a bittersweet emotion which is all too familiar in Irish cricket. That feeling of disappointment despite success has lingered in the Irish camp for the past number of years, who, despite being leaps and bounds ahead of their fellow associate nations (That draw saw Ireland crowned as World Cricket League champions with two of the fourteen games left of the tournament), having beaten a number of test nations (and tied with Pakistan earlier this year), and having developed a brand new cricket facility in Malahide, have still been denied test status notwithstanding several applications.

Eoin Morgan playing test cricket with England
Without a test status, Irish players must move to England and play for the Three Lions if they are to complete every cricketer’s ultimate ambition. In one bizarre incident a few years ago, batsman Ed Joyce played against his own brother for England against Ireland in an attempt to get into their test side. Current England players Eoin Morgan and Boyd Rankin are the latest Irish recruits to an English team which is benefitting from the ICC’s stubbornness.

Since that famous St. Patrick’s Day of 2007 in which Ireland beat Pakistan to qualify for the Super 8 stage of the Cricket World Cup, Ireland have beaten Bangladesh twice, Zimbabwe, and England, in a famous run chase which saw Kevin O’ Brien smash the record of the fastest One Day International century, as well as the Pakistan result. The side have won three Intercontinental Cups (The precursor to their latest title), the ICC Six Nations Challenge, two ICC World Twenty20 qualifiers, two European Championships and have qualified for four World Cups in a row (Three 50 over and their second Twenty20), and currently lie 8th in the Twenty20 rankings (Ahead of test nations Bangladesh and Zimbabwe).With eight Irish players currently playing in the English County system, one in the ICC Top 10 ODI batsmen, two in the Top 10 ODI All-Rounder ranking and their u19 side heading to the World Cup in Australia there’s no doubting Ireland’s cricketing talent.

The country already has two ICC approved International grounds, and now with the Malahide complex being updated, they have a third, bringing them only one behind test country Zimbabwe. The Irish have been pro-active about securing their test status in other ways, introducing central contracts and a four-day inter-provincial tournament which mirrors the current cricketing system in England, one of the ICC’s strongest test nations.

An Inter-Provincial Tournament is
another step in the right direction
Despite all of these changes, as part of Ireland’s plan to become a test nation by the year 2020, there is still much uncertainty. Having, in most people’s eyes, prematurely promoted Bangladesh to the highest level in 2000, the ICC are now wary of doing the same with another country, and in one of the great failings of the sport, there is no clear pathway to reach the highest status. Instead Ireland are trying to develop what they can and hope that, when the time comes, they can be considered by one of the most politically charged governing bodies in sport.

This leaves the current Irish team a problem with a shortfall in fixtures. While test teams play each other in series, and the other main associate nations play in County competitions, much the same as the Irish did years ago, Ireland are left without teams to play. Now, like it was over 40 years ago when Ireland used benefit from touring sides against England (Once famously bowling the West Indies out for 25 in 1969), the Irish are left with the International teams who have a gap in their schedule. This lack of time in the middle is hurting Irish players, who need international experience in order to develop.

Bearing these problems in mind, and the haemorrhaging of their best players to England, it’s easy to understand why Ireland’s recent World Cricket League victory felt like a hollow one; their affirmed dominance of fellow associate nations teasing the fact that test cricket remains elusive. Ireland’s push for that status in 2020 is seen as ambitious by some, but with the right steps already being employed and the Irish appetite for giant killings, there’s no reason why the biggest underdog in world cricket cannot reach their goal.