'Every time we've set ourselves a goal or a mountain to climb, we've done it'
Irish cricket can take a big stride towards Test status in 2017 – and to becoming a major sport here, CEO Warren Deutrom tells Sam Wheeler
Test status has long been the Holy Grail for Irish cricket, but for Warren Deutrom, simply playing a five-day match against one of the international game's "gilded 10" is not an end in itself.
Cricket Ireland’s chief executive sees the possibility of a maiden Test as a launchpad for the greater goal of “making cricket mainstream” on this island, and 2017 is a big year for the senior men’s team and the governing body as they pursue their ambition of “Ireland not just being a major force in cricket, but cricket being a major force in Ireland”.
If John Bracewell’s men can stay top of the Intercontinental Cup table – they are the only side with a 100pc record, having won all four of their fixtures so far, but with arguably their three toughest games to come this year – they will earn a four-match home-and-away play-off with the bottom-ranked Test nation, almost certain to be Zimbabwe, in 2018; win that ICC Test Challenge and the reward is Test status.
“Until we are a Test nation, we are not a major sport in Ireland,” says Deutrom. “And we don’t just intend to be satisfied with arriving there, we want to be ready to compete when we get there.”
In 2017, there is also the small matter of a historic one-day international mini-series in England, including a fixture at Lord’s, as well as a home tri-nations series involving New Zealand and Bangladesh, before the West Indies visit for an ODI in September.
So Ireland have an unprecedented crop of fixtures against top-tier sides – a far cry from the days a decade or so ago when they might be granted one ODI every second year, but still nowhere near enough to satisfy Deutrom – as well as a mapped-out route to Test status.
And Deutrom is hoping that increased profile from these matches can help close the gap on what he calls “the big three” team sports in Ireland.
“We set out our new strategy earlier this year, and that went beyond Test cricket: that set out, ‘What does the mountain-top look like?’, and that looks like being up there with Gaelic games, rugby and football,” he says.
“There will be people out there who will think, it’s time we strapped him to the gurney and took the poor fella off, he needs a lie-down. But actually, every time we’ve set ourselves an extraordinary goal to achieve or a mountain to climb, we’ve done it.
“We qualified for World Cups, we won matches at World Cups. We set ourselves the goal of reviving our inter-pro competitions in 2013, and many people didn’t think that was going to work; now they have first class and List A status.
“We set ourselves the goal of getting 10,000 people to turn up to a game of cricket in Ireland, and we’ve done that twice, at Malahide against England in 2013 and in 2015.”
Deutrom stresses that progress in Irish cricket is not confined to the men’s side: he highlights the women’s recent victories over Bangladesh and South Africa, and the U-19 boys’ displays at their World Cup; beyond the boundary ropes, turnover is up to €6.3m, from just €250,000 in 2005, the year before Deutrom took the reins; when he arrived, the staff comprised himself, a head coach and a part-time PA – now there are 32 employees; participation numbers are up to an estimated 48,5000, quadruple the figure from 2005.
Deutrom still has many boardroom battles to fight with the International Cricket Council, but his tireless lobbying for a fair deal for the Associate nations – backed up by the men in green’s feats on the field – has forced the sport’s power-brokers to treat Ireland with respect.
He argues that the Test Challenge is intrinsically unfair – pointing out that Ireland have never played a five-day match, but he is confident that the team will reach their destination one way or the other.
“The world game is moving much closer to what we believe it should be, where progress in the sport is achieved meritocratically, through your achievement on and off the field. It shouldn’t be what it currently is, whereby your progress is determined probably by who your friends are within the ICC board,” he says.
The ICC, Deutrom says, is restructuring its fixture scheduling in a way that will give the leading Associate nations more games against the big boys; he wants “guaranteed fixtures” rather than having to “beg” touring teams to make a brief detour over from England – he is confident Ireland will soon get “a whole suite of matches, 12 months a year, home and away, in matches that have context, that are on TV”. That enviable fixture list, though, would only continue as long as Ireland “continued to prove ourselves”, Deutrom acknowledges.
Unfortunately, just as Ireland has started to be taken seriously as a cricket nation by the ICC, the team itself appears to have entered a period of decline since their magnificent efforts at the 2015 World Cup, where they won three matches and were desperately unlucky not to claim a quarter-final berth. In 2016, they suffered humbling losses to Oman and the Netherlands in their winless World T20 prelim campaign, could only draw a five-match home ODI series against Afghanistan and were thumped in their four ODIs against top-tier sides.
This month, they reached the final of the Desert T20 but were humbled by the Afghans in the decider.
In addition, nearly all of the Ireland regulars plying their trade in county cricket have fallen out of favour with their teams over the last couple of seasons. Deutrom won’t be able to keep twisting the ICC’s arm if Ireland stop being competitive.
The chief executive, though, says he is unconcerned, pointing to the team’s flawless record in the Intercontinental Cup and stressing his confidence in the “seriously talented” young players coming through and the pathways that will prepare them for international cricket. He also highlights the evolving central contracts system that will give Ireland more control over their players, rather than having a “tug of love” with employers across the water.
“We’ve now got the talent identification and development networks with our Shapoorji Pallonji Academy,” he says. “We’ve now got the inter-pro series, which pits the best against the best, and we’ve now got our central contracts.
“We are encouraging players to follow pathways that keep them at home. We can say to some of our players, ‘Why don’t you come back from county cricket?’, particularly some of the older players. And I think the recent Ed Joyce announcement demonstrates in no uncertain terms that we want our best players playing here, although that may not be the case for all of our players – say some of the young players, who might need games.
“The difference would be that we own their time, and we can release them to the counties, rather than the counties having those players on contract, and us having to get release clauses, paying compensation etc.”
Deutrom is confident that the various improvements will dissuade the pick of the young Irish crop from switching allegiances to England, as happened with Ed Joyce, Eoin Morgan and Boyd Rankin.
“You do wish that you weren’t losing so many players; you can understand from the players’ perspective,” says Deutrom. “When Ed started his career, we were a very small organisation; we were practically irrelevant.
“It’s been my job, over a period of years, to make players begin to see Ireland as a viable option: we don’t want to go to England, we’re being paid as professionals, we’re playing the best teams in the world, we’re qualifying for World Cups, there is the possibility of Test cricket, the training facilities are developing, both in Dublin and La Manga.
“All the reasons players have stated for going – financial, profile, testing yourself against best in the world – we are addressing.”
At boardroom level, Irish cricket appears to be on the right path; now it’s up to the flagship team to deliver.