Sunday 22 October 2017

All are equal but some are more equal than others

Irish ambitions are being stunted by lack of access to top table

Ireland's batsman Ed Joyce
Ireland's batsman Ed Joyce

Ger Siggins

Perhaps one day they'll erect a monument to the Irish cricketers who kept taking on and beating the best teams in the world.

Just outside the GPO would be nice, with Paul Stirling perched on top to commemorate his finest hour last Monday in a sleepy New Zealand city. They could call it the Nelson Pillar . . .

Stirling's efforts, and those of his team-mates, have left Ireland with a great chance of qualifying for the World Cup quarter-finals, as good as 11/8 according to the bookies. And while progressing as far as they can will give the team and its growing band of supporters great satisfaction, when they finally fly home there will be an unpleasant message from ICC in their carry-on baggage.

"Thanks for coming, but don't bother next time."

The upheaval in world cricket last year that saw India, Australia and England seize power came with a series of blows to ICC Associate members, of which Ireland is the highest ranked on and off the field. A pathway to Test cricket with a series of safety nets to ensure no current Full member loses out; cuts in funding; a reduction in places at world events; and a qualification system that favours the weaker Full members.

Ireland are now 11th on the 12-team ICC Rankings, from which the top eight on a date two-and-a-half years from now will get a golden ticket to the 2019 World Cup. The next four must play off with the next-best Associates for two places, but as the qualifying event will be held in Bangladesh it probably leaves just one place to fight over between Ireland, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and improving sides like Scotland, UAE and Hong Kong.

It makes the chances of Ireland knocking over a leading team at a World Cup - as it has now done at each of the last three - increasingly unlikely. But that won't stop Cricket Ireland's CEO Warren Deutrom from continuing to bang down the doors of the ICC offices in Dubai.

"We passionately believe there should be a bigger World Cup", he says. "It's wrong that the game should be narrowing. Rugby has a 20-team World Cup which it celebrates because it shows the growth of the game, its global appeal and the success of its development programme. If a smaller nation were to win there, I'm sure World Rugby would pat itself on the back. In cricket when an Associate wins it seems to be a case of 'how will this affect commercial rights?'

"Cricket tries to maximise its earnings from these events, while rugby optimises them. I'm not sure cricket gets it right," adds Deutrom.

The huge driver in international sport is money, and in cricket that means two words: 'India' and 'TV'. Last year Rupert Murdoch's Star group paid $2billion for the rights to show major ICC events over the next eight years. And Star never wants to see the situation that arose in 2007 when India and Pakistan were knocked out in the first phase. The structure of the 2019 event ensures they get at least nine games.

The Irish players are angered by the injustice of it all. At 36, Ed Joyce (right) may not have too many more World Cups in him, and history will likely regard him as the Moses figure who led Ireland to the Promised Land but never saw his name carved on tablets of stone as a Test cricketer. His batting on Monday seemed inspired not just by the need to win but to show just how ludicrous is the feudal nature of the game. He tweeted afterwards: "Personally think any country should be allowed play test matches if they feel it a worthwhile pursuit. Why should there be 'test status'?"

Since the days when England and Australia had a veto on every decision, cricket has always been poorly run - fans dream of a sport as well-governed as the FIFA kleptocracy. Cricket grew out of its colonial past and added new Full members as they saw fit: West Indies, New Zealand and India in 1926, Pakistan 1953.

The game grew stagnant without new blood but the arrival of one-day cricket and some good performances at World Cups in the 1980s and '90s led to a glut of promotions for Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, as well as the readmission of South Africa. The expansion coincided with the dawn of subscription TV and ever-bigger rights deals, culminating in the 2006 Star deal, worth $1.1billion. Suddenly a near basket case sport had a lucrative product on its hands.

The carve-up made Full membership something to prize - Ireland's share of the 2007 kitty was $56,000 compared to $11m for the teams they knocked out, Zimbabwe and Pakistan. While a discredited win against a Pakistan side with several corrupt players at the 1999 World Cup was enough to elevate Bangladesh, by the time Ireland started winning the tide had turned. Dividing that $1.1bn pot by 11 instead of 10 would cost the Full members serious money.

Irish cricket didn't need much to make the giant strides it has done - its annual turnover of €4.2m would hardly cover the ECB's laundry bill - but its ambitions are certainly stunted by being denied access to the cash at the top table.

Another Nelson hero, Niall O'Brien, told the Sunday Independent that fixtures and finances will determine his future with Ireland.

"Like a lot of UK-based players, my bread and butter is playing for my county," he said. "I know people will find this hard to digest but cricket is my job and I have to look after my future and family first and foremost. I want to play for Ireland for as long as possible and we are doing all we can both on and off the field to make things better. But the fixtures and finances will determine this moving forward."

Deutrom is in discussion with several boards to entice them to visit Ireland, and already has England and Australia on the 2015 fixture list. "Cricket Australia has been a terrific, vocal supporter," he explains. "Aussies are a very meritocratically-minded people. They've been bullish in their support."

Other nations are less interested in playing Ireland. Since 2011 Zimbabwe has only played one series against any Associate, drawing 2-2 with Afghanistan, while Bangladesh played just one game. And that's the trouble with the qualifying table for 2019 - the best way for Ireland to make strides is by beating those nearest to them but ICC can't compel teams to play each other.

Whatever chance Ireland have of attracting visitors, the Afghans have even less as security will prevent sides travelling there for some years to come. Their story, retold alongside those of Ireland, Scotland and other Associates in a new book 'Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts', is truly amazing. The game only took root when refugees returned from camps in Pakistan 15 years ago. Initially suppressed by the Taliban, it is now played widely and truly unites a blighted land.

An analysis by Cricket Europe commentator Russell Degnan suggests the ranking system is flawed. The points available in each ODI are based on the difference in ranking between sides and that hinders Ireland - a defeat to Australia is worth 32 points, while West Indies get 71 for the same result. The Aussies would get 131 for beating Ireland, but Phil Simmons's men would only get 132 for turning the tables.

One calculation showed that even if Ireland won all six group games Down Under, plus beat England and Australia at home this summer, they would still lag behind Bangladesh in ninth place. Which would surely ensure the vulnerable Full members would run for cover.

As Ed Joyce wrote in another tweet this week, "All cricket-playing countries are equal, but some are more equal than others."

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