Cricket's spirit being crushed under ICC jackboot
T20 qualifiers could be Ireland's last realistic chance to reach a World Cup
At the World Cup earlier this year, Ireland's John Mooney drew plenty of comment with his lime-green headband. It signified his passion and willingness to flay himself for the cause while flying the flag for his country.
Next week, at the World T20 qualifying tournament to be held in Ireland and Scotland, Mooney wants to wear another strip of fabric - a black armband to signify the death of Associate cricket. Last week he railed against the "disgrace" of an ICC decision to cut its World Cup to just 10 teams.
At the ICC's annual meeting in Dubai, the hopes and dreams of millions of youngsters born outside the sport's traditional powers were not even considered, with a promise to reconsider the earlier decision broken.
The eight big boys get their free pass while the two weakest full members, plus 85 associates and affiliates, scrap over two more. The sport's rulers have, naturally, rigged the qualifying system, and the play-offs will be staged in Bangladesh, where playing conditions are alien to almost every other competing nation. That leaves just one 2019 spot for Ireland to battle for with Zimbabwe, Scotland, Afghanistan and all the other nations desperate to get a chance to do what the Irish did at three successive World Cups.
On the surface it seems a strange decision for a sport which has recently trumpeted its desire to become the second biggest in the world, and whose chief executive Dave Richardson insisted: "The ICC World Cup 2015 was the most popular ever played. The venues were world class, the host cities were world class and the two countries delivered a world-class tournament which was watched by more people around the world than ever before."
In response, the event has been cut next time from 14 teams to 10. Put that beside football, which has had 32 finalists since 1998 (Michel Platini says he will expand it to 40 if he gets the chance), and rugby, which increased its World Cup to 20 teams in 1999.
"All the other sports are expanding their World Cups and we don't see why we should be shrinking ours," says Ireland batsman Niall O'Brien. "It's a bit sad that potentially Ireland have played in their last World Cup."
But in the strange world of global sports administration, ICC is the strangest beast of all. With one hand it encourages the game outside the top rank through competition and development programmes, while with the other it lops off the heads of any country that performs too well and threatens its precious full members.
That has been Cricket Ireland's dilemma for several years, and it is clear it will never be elevated to full membership. That will be forever stuck at 10 until the international game inevitably withers and dies without new blood. ICC is now no longer an administrator, but a global body with a corporate model designed to fill the pockets of its controlling shareholder, India, with the connivance of England and Australia.
"The only information that I've had from the Big Three was that it was extremely difficult to unpick the TV rights and to change things," says Ross McCollum, Cricket Ireland chairman. India are guaranteed nine games at the next World Cup thanks to their $2.5b deal with Star Sports India and Middle East. The eight-year contract also includes the 2023 World Cup, which will be presumably just as difficult to unpick.
It's all terribly disheartening for the players and supporters who will be helping Ireland over the next two weeks as they strive to qualify for the 16-team T20 World Cup. The tournament is the first major event to be held here since the smaller-scale 2008 qualifier which was staged over four days at Stormont.
This event has two groups of seven, split between Scotland and Ireland, where games will be held at Stormont, Bready, Clontarf and Malahide. The knock-out stage will be held at the Dublin venues.
On the face of it, qualifying should not present any great difficulties for Ireland. Home conditions count for a lot in cricket, and green Irish pitches are just as alien to many of the teams as those in Bangladesh. Six teams qualify for India 2016, and Ireland have never finished outside the top two in four previous qualifiers.
Ireland have also been favoured with Pool A, while the three other Associates who played Down Under are in Pool B, along with the Netherlands, who hammered Ireland in Bangladesh last year.
The danger sides are Nepal, who have real stars in batsman Paras Khadka and all-rounder Sagar Pun, and Hong Kong, who beat Bangladesh at the last T20 finals. The other sides, Namibia, Papua New Guinea, USA and Jersey, will likely be battling for the final quarter-final place.
The T20 interprovincials were run off early this year to facilitate Ireland coach John Bracewell's planning, and the big winner was Merrion's all-rounder Tyrone Kane. The 20-year-old was player of the tournament and when he was given his first cap against Scotland last month he seized the chance, taking three wickets with his first five deliveries as an international.
"Tyrone jumped the queue", said Bracewell. "He genuinely put down a marker in all parts of the game: his fielding was outstanding, he bowled brilliantly, because he bowled to a plan, which was straight, and batted really intelligently going into the death overs."
Kane has come into a team that must do without Ed Joyce and Tim Murtagh, who have backed off the short format to prolong their careers at the longer games. Ireland lost two warm-ups against Scotland recently but couldn't call on leading batsmen Paul Stirling, William Porterfield, Niall O'Brien and Gary Wilson, who will all start against Namibia on Friday.
Ireland's bowlers, like most sides, suffered at the hands of ultra-aggressive batting at the 50-over World Cup and you can expect that approach to be continued in this tournament. With bowlers limited to just four overs, chances are few in games when preventing the opposition scoring are crucial.
"In T20 you bowl in short bursts and if you can build pressure with dots you can take wickets," explains Kane.
"The batters are getting better and the bowlers have to catch up", says Bracewell. "But we have to get a bit craftier and see how we can work out the conditions in our favour and who is going to be our best options going into the tournament."
But while Cricket Ireland cannot countenance anything less than qualification for India 2016, that could be the last time Ireland check in for a major ICC tournament. And as Mooney and whoever else he can persuade wears that black armband in this week's qualifiers, the global sport of cricket and its young stars face a future straight out of George Orwell - a vision of an ICC boot stamping on Tyrone Kane's face, forever.
Sunday Indo Sport