Cricket in a strong position to keep asking Test question
Irish game is ticking all the right boxes in its push to become a full ICC member, writes Ger Siggins
JUST before two o'clock on Friday, Ireland's cricketers duly overcame Afghanistan to claim their third trophy of 2013, asserting their long-held position as top dog outside the Test arena.
It was a fascinating game, with epic individual battles punctuating long periods of attrition as the sides' struggled to assert supremacy. Eventually Ireland pulled away, the bludgeon of the second new ball breaking the Afghans' will and the redeemed hero, John Mooney, whipping away the last traces of resistance.
Such a contest of skill, courage and nerve played between two sides over five days has a very special name given to it by the Victorians who prized such virtues. It is a Test match, and Ireland's victory in Dubai was a true Test in all but name.
For those same Victorians also imbued the sport with the notions of a class system, which stank out the game until the 1960s when there were Gentlemen and Players, and the latter -- paid professionals -- had to enter the field by a different gate. That was all swept away but the hierarchical nature of the game persists at administrative level, where the divide between Full Members and Associates stinks out the ICC with its fusty air of a St Stephen's Green gentlemen's club.
Just ten countries have full member rank in the ICC and they are very reluctant to increase their numbers. Ireland has been doing enough on the pitch since 2007 to merit consideration, and Cricket Ireland has been growing the game rapidly too. The senior men's team's dominance at associate level inspires awe in all except the ICC committee.
Just look at their record since that Caribbean breakthrough: played 107 games against fellow associates, and lost just 11.
In the Inter-Continental Cup they have lost just once in 20 games and their record in limited-overs cricket is overwhelming. In 50 overs they have won 43 out of 50, plus one tie, and their T20 record is 32-4, with just one defeat in 24 games since 2010. They have jumped from 14th to 10th, a world ranking higher than any Irish international team except rugby -- although not good enough for RTÉ's shortlist for team of the year.
Off the field, the governing body has grown rapidly: from two to 21 full-time employees, from €260,000 to €4.3m in turnover, from 13,000 to 40,400 participants.
"I don't understand how Test cricket can survive as a sport when it discourages countries from playing," says Cricket Ireland CEO Warren Deutrom.
"Just because Georgia plays Russia in 80-minute rugby matches doesn't defile the memory of the All Blacks, and just because the Faroe Islands plays Malta at soccer doesn't devalue Spain or Barcelona."
Cricket Ireland have long complained that there is no roadmap to Test status, so they identified a list of boxes they reckoned needed to be ticked and off they set. They have a financial set-up that outstrips probably half the full members, and last summer set up a three-day interprovincial series that is an essential building block.
"The game -- and rightly so -- has to be sure that public, commercial and government support is in place. Before we ask the question we need to be able to tick all those boxes. But the final requirement they ask is, 'Does a cricket culture exist?' 'Culture' and 'market' are very important phrases in the lexicon of the ICC.
"So it was heartening when the ICC global development manager, Tim Anderson, was quoted at Malahide as saying '10,000 people in Dublin on a Tuesday afternoon suggests this is becoming a very serious cricket market'."
Deutrom is increasingly confident that the ICC will move towards a two-tier Test system, with the likes of New Zealand, Bangladesh, West Indies and Zimbabwe pitched together for more regular series, allowing a less traumatic entry for a new member.
"There could be some kind of step to full membership, where we will get more opportunities to play ODIs and T20s against full members while continuing to play in the I-Cup. We will need to maintain our development and keep qualifying for global tournaments."
Early last year Deutrom announced Vision 2020, Ireland's plan to be playing Test cricket by that year. The continued success of Phil Simmons' team means he already has a new roadmap in his head.
"In 2014, we will play in the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh, and in 2015 the World Cup down under.
"Just say we had a couple of good wins, and were there in the second round playing Australia in front of a packed SCG, with half the crowd wearing green. Later that year we have England back in Malahide, with 10-15,000 people watching, and maybe we win one of those games. Our interpro series will be in its third season. There will be no better time to ask the question of ICC."
Asking the question will likely lead to a few more questions coming back, but Deutrom is confident that two to three years from the start of that process Ireland will be playing five-dayers.
It will be too late for Trent Johnston, and likely for Ed Joyce, Andrew White and others who played in Dubai last week.
But there had to be a Moses on the way to a Promised Land.