In recent years the prospect of playing Test cricket has inched from the grasp of Ireland like the grapes hanging over Tantalus but this year the dream looks set to become a reality. The two-match one‑day series in England that begins on Friday is both a historic first visit and perhaps the last time the men in green will be seen here in their current guise.
Associate members of the International Cricket Council since 1993 and given one‑day status in 2006, Ireland are buoyed by the news that came out of the board meeting of the governing body in Dubai last week. Subject to approval in June, the path will be cleared for them, and most likely Afghanistan, to apply for Test status and begin a new era at the top table.
“It’s slightly overdue,” says Niall O’Brien, their ever-chirping wicketkeeper. “But it would be a dream come true for a lad like me from a small village, Sandymount, outside Dublin, who played cricket in the garden with my brothers and sister and friends, pretending to be Alec Stewart, Graham Thorpe, Jack Russell or my favourite, Steve Waugh. We are keeping fingers and toes crossed to get it over the line.”
Where once a country simply had to demonstrate the requisite cricket culture – a phrase that masked an acutely political and unwritten process – Ireland can now work through a list of set criteria that will demonstrate their readiness to make the step up and with it potentially unlock finances that will at least double the €6m-a-year turnover that now puts them roughly on a par with Gloucestershire, the county hosting their first bilateral fixture in England before the second match at Lord’s on Sunday.
For Warren Deutrom, chief executive of Cricket Ireland, the mood is one of cautious optimism. It is an outlook that has served him well during his time in the role, having overseen a radical transformation in the past 10 years, beginning from a standing start in late 2006 in a single office in Dublin flanked by the governing bodies for Irish community games and mountaineering and with only one member of staff – a PA who worked four mornings a week.
“It’s a totally different dynamic now,” says O’Brien, who was one of two full‑time professional players in the side who put Irish cricket on the map by defeating Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup. “The whole infrastructure has changed from people helping out to a fully functioning cricket federation – things are light years from back then. There was more of a fun element to our cricket, these days there are more expectations on us as a team and with that comes responsibility.”
Certainly while further tournament upsets have been achieved over the past decade since the wild celebrations in Jamaica on St Patrick’s Day in 2007, such as Kevin O’Brien’s almighty felling of England in Bangalore in 2011 and the humbling of West Indies four years later, behind the scenes there have been building blocks put in place to make Irish cricket both a viable business and a more attractive career path for players.
Along with 30 staff, 19 central contracts that range from €20,000 to €70,000, an academy supported by a 10-year deal with the Irish-Indian conglomerate Shapoorji Pallonji, and participation figures that have quadrupled in four years to 52,000, is a semi‑professional domestic structure that from this year has first‑class and List A status. Played by three provincial sides, it is intended to help bridge the gap between club and international cricket and perhaps one day both expand and retain the best Irish cricketers.
Achieving all this has been no mean feat, given an unpredictable fixture list not bound by the future tours programme – something that would be altered by Test status and the proposed 13-team ODI league – and the past inequality of world cricket. The latter is summed up by the most honking statistic in the 2015 book Second XI by Peter Miller and Tim Wigmore that showed Ireland earned $56,000 for reaching the Super Eights of the 2007 World Cup, compared to $11m given to full members, and first-round duffers, Zimbabwe.
“Test status isn’t about drawing down money from the ICC,” Deutrom says. “It is about helping us achieve the bigger goal which, rather than seeking to make Ireland a major nation in cricket, is to make cricket a major sport in Ireland. It will give us so much more profile and encourage boys and girls to take up the sport and maybe look to aim higher by pursuing a career that can see them travel the world.”
The timing of Ireland’s impending Test arrival brings with it a slight tinge of frustration, given the captain, William Porterfield, the O’Brien brothers, Boyd Rankin (absent this week through injury) and Ed Joyce – their greatest run‑scorer – are into their 30s. There is talent behind them – not least Paul Stirling, who will doubtless come out all guns blazing this week – but the sense is that with results in the limited-overs formats petering off since the last World Cup, the longest form of the game will be met by a side very much in transition.
O’Brien, who made his debut in 2006 and is now 35, accepts this point but highlights a strong record in first-class cricket that has seen Ireland win four of the six editions of the ICC Intercontinental Cup, albeit having recently been replaced by Afghanistan at the top of the table after a crushing innings defeat in March.
Ireland have of course had to deal with their best players seeking to further their careers overseas, with Joyce, Rankin and Eoin Morgan all pursuing international careers with England and only the first two returning since. Test status, believes Deutrom, may not immediately stop such defection but it might give them pause for thought down the line.
He says: “You would be fool to say no one will ever leave again but we have always taken the view that, rather than blame others, we should look in the mirror and say: ‘Why don’t we remove all of those reasons and make ourselves as aspirational for those players as possible?’
“Test cricket is the primary thing cited in the past by players but it could be some will think it will be 20 years before we can match the pay. And that is another mountain we must climb, so until then all we can do is look at what we can control and keep making playing for Ireland as attractive as possible.”
Morgan, who will captain England against Ireland for the third and fourth time this week, certainly offered Test cricket as his main reason for leaving the country of his birth in 2009, giving rise to the (perhaps fanciful) question of whether he may one day return to Irish colours, say once the 2019 World Cup is completed, for the end of his playing career.
“I actually could see that,” O’Brien says. “It’s not something I’ve spoken to him about but after the Champions Trophy and the World Cup it may well be of interest to finish his career playing T20 leagues around the world and batting for Ireland in Test cricket. We’d certainly love to have him at No4 make no mistake and I’m sure the Irish public would love to see him wear the shamrock again.”
He then adds in true O’Brien fashion: “I might ask him on Friday afternoon when he comes out to bat.”
Bairstow warms up for Ireland matches with career best score
Jonny Bairstow warmed up for England’s one day international against Ireland with a career best 174 in 113 balls against Durham as Yorkshire completed their highest successful one-day run-chase, scoring 339 for four to win by six wickets in the Royal London Cup at Headingley. Alongside Joe Root, who added 55 for Yorkshire, Bairstow led a stand 189 for the second wicket inside 26 overs after Durham’s Stephen Cook and Michael Richardson both hit hundreds and Keaton Jennings scored 72 in their side’s 335 for five. Bairstow, who was dropped on 71, hit seven sixes and 16 fours before being caught off the bowling of James Weighell.
Meanwhile Eoin Morgan believes Ben Stokes will return to an England team with “all the attributes” to win the Champions Trophy emboldened by his first taste of playing in the Indian Premier League. Stokes misses this week’s one-day internationals against Ireland to remain with Rising Pune Supergiant, where the £1.7m signing has picked up three man-of-the-match awards to date and scored an incendiary 103 not out against Gujarat Lions on Monday. Morgan, who returned from India that day to captain England, expects Stokes to be glowing when he rejoins the squad for a training camp in Spain before the South Africa series that starts on 24 May. “Rubbing shoulders with the best names in the world, outperforming them or growing in confidence from playing with them are two things he’ll have in abundance when he comes back,” said Morgan. “It makes us grow as a group, knowing we have a player who potentially is the best in the world. That’s huge.”