Cricket: Ireland's growth remains stunted by glass ceiling
Test status is far from an impossible dream, but England's lure for our best players makes it a frustrating ambition, writes Gerard Siggins
Walking around Malahide last Tuesday morning, you would think Clark Kent had just changed into his red underpants. Most eyes were raised to the skies, marvelling at those who organised the sunshine. And those wide eyes were usually accompanied by a jaw hanging in wonder at the pop-up stadium which staged the RSA Challenge.
It was a wondrous sight, and hammered home to the visiting dignitaries that Cricket Ireland was deadly serious about its demand to be given enhanced status in the game and its desire to play Tests by 2020.
The International Cricket Council had sent a couple of executives to check whether these whippersnappers on the Atlantic fringe were talking nonsense when they said they could bring 10,000 to spectate in September.
Global development manager Tim Anderson was impressed. "Ireland are probably the most important [of ICC's 96 under-class members] because they're the best on the field and probably the only one who could produce an event like this. The market in Ireland wasn't a cricket market probably as recently as four or five years ago, but 10,000 people in Dublin on a Tuesday afternoon suggests to me this is becoming a very serious cricket market."
The surge from 13,000 players in 2006 to 40,000 now was largely spurred by the derring-do of the Ireland team on the international stage. And while Ireland stood toe-to-toe with England for three-quarters last week, it was clear long before Eoin Morgan started hitting sixes for fun that Ireland's bowling was no threat.
"It's not the quickest attack around, is it?" asked BBC commentator Vic Marks of Trent Johnston and Tim Murtagh. Quick as a flash, RTÉ man John Kenny came back with, "Well Vic, we did have a very promising young fast bowler called Rankin . . . I wonder what happened to him?"
The year of 2013 could yet prove a high-water mark for the sport. It was the year we said farewell to Boyd Rankin and Johnston, and the men stepping into their size 13 bowling boots have yet to convince they can do so. Tim Murtagh was excellent against England but by the next World Cup he will be 33, and his all-rounder team-mates Alex Cusack (34), John Mooney (33) and Kevin O'Brien (31) will have left their best days far behind. Max Sorensen is the fastest around, although he didn't get much chance to show what he could do against England. After that you have Eddie Richardson, a fine club and provincial player but only capped for the first time on Friday, and a clutch of promising, injury-prone youngsters such as Graeme McCarter, Craig Young and Peter Chase.
Even the usually dependable spin twins, George Dockrell and Paul Stirling, had an off-day (15-0-109-0 between them), looking like men who had spent most of a frustrating season battling to break into their county first XIs.
To find the two new bowlers that will be needed in 2015 there is another route, and one Cricket Ireland has been reluctant to take: the passport. Murtagh – whose presence was eagerly seized on by the Little Englanders offended by Irish objections to their selection of Morgan and Rankin – is the first in modern times to qualify. But it wasn't made easy for him and he had to show the commitment and passion for Ireland that he professed.
The last couple of summers have seen southern-hemisphere players fetch up in Belfast and Dublin waving their credentials and hoping to attract attention. Some of the better ones have played interpros, such as Pat Collins (Leinster Lightning), Nick Larkin and James Cameron-Dow (Northern Knights).
Lisburn's Craig Ervine, who played for Zimbabwe this year, has also spoken of qualifying for the land of his forefathers, but with marked less enthusiasm. "There's not a lot going on at home, but with the contract issues it's given me an opportunity to come over here and play some cricket," he said in May. "Let's just see how it goes and work from there. I'm really just taking it day by day."
Queensland fast-bowler Ronan McDonald had a spell at Merrion early in the summer, but was frustrated at the pace at which his skills were being evaluated and went home in July.
Alan Lewis, a former Ireland captain and current selector, is open to recruiting abroad. "Looking further afield is an option, however we have a structure here we are developing which has exceeded expectations. If a guy comes over here and wants to play for Ireland, we want to see a commitment to Ireland, which means a commitment to staying here and working with our system."
And while Ireland's renaissance came with more than a sprinkling of help from those born abroad, the core of the side was always native-born. "Ireland has always had a tradition of producing good cricketers," says Lewis. "Nick Larkin, who has an Irish passport, scored 247 in the interpro, which can't be ignored. But the guys who came here have hopefully got an insight that we are an ambitious country which wants to go to the very top."
Perhaps even more depressing than defeat on Tuesday was the press conference on Monday, when Morgan admitted that he had discussed qualifying for England with Paul Stirling: "Paul doesn't qualify for another year and a half, and it's disappointing from his perspective because he's so talented," he said.
So with other Test nations actively recruiting our best, is there not a case for doing the same? This has been considered by Cricket Ireland, and English-born county players Liam Plunkett and Simon Kerrigan were reportedly "on the radar". Kerrigan's hapless Ashes appearance has ruled that out, while Plunkett will be ineligible until March 2015.
That option could also disturb the harmony with the neighbours. Last week, in the wake of Sunday Independent criticism of the ECB, a UK newspaper reported that there has been "an assurance behind the scenes from senior officials at the ECB that it will not pick any players named in Ireland's 30-man extended squad" for the World Cup.
In response to a query yesterday, an ECB spokesman said: "With Ireland having qualified for the 2015 World Cup and with the award of TAPP funding from ICC, Cricket Ireland has been able to name the 25-man squad in preparation for that tournament. Having named the squad no other country would seek to select those players before the World Cup as this would counteract the ICC's investment through the TAPP programme."
Warren Deutrom said Cricket Ireland intended to announce a new round of two-year contracts for its core players in October. He also revealed that an Emerging Players squad would be contracted, giving a total group of up to 25 players.
Back in Malahide, the ICC's man was suitably impressed, and ticked the boxes that his organisation demands. The multi-day first-class system will grow from the successful interpros, and Anderson pointed out that "an event like this shows ICC that there is a growing culture of cricket in this country". The team will need to continue to play well, and the administrators maintain governance and support systems.
"Cricket Ireland are fantastic", said Anderson. "I would argue it is one of the best in world cricket, not just associate cricket."