Cricket: Revived series to create valuable stepping stone
Provincial match-ups should add to Irish cricket's player pool.
IN the north Dublin village of Skerries tomorrow, Irish cricket takes another step forward on its long journey to the summit of the sport. The game's world authority hasn't been quite so courteous as to provide Cricket Ireland with a road map showing the way, but everyone agrees that a strong domestic structure is certainly on the route.
The first game in the RSA Inter-Provincials takes place at The Hills club, where the newly-jazzed-up Leinster Lightning play the Northern Knights. It is a revival of the inter-regionals which ran from 1965 but, like the Railway Cups in GAA, drifted in importance and were quietly abandoned in 2004 with the last fixture unplayed.
Since then, players have had to make the step up from facing teenage part-timers one weekend to Australia's finest the next. And it is this absence of a stepping stone that has forced CI's hand.
In the past some players even preferred to play for their club, but there is little fear of that now with a direct route onto the Ireland team and the attendant glamour and reward of the international game.
"It's crucial to have a pathway from club to international cricket", says Nigel Jones of the Northern Knights. "There was talk of making this competition a developmental one, but it's crucial to have it as best versus best. If young players want to play for Ireland, they'll first be tested against the best around."
With more than a dozen of the best Irishmen playing in England, it is the likes of Tyrone Kane, holder of the Aengus Fanning Young Player of the Year award, Peter Chase, Mark Adair and Lee Nelson who will come under most scrutiny.
Richard Holdsworth, performance director at Cricket Ireland, said: "I'm certain it will help increase the player pool available to the national team, while at the same time increasing the standard of club cricket throughout Ireland."
Leinster, with nine full caps in their squad tomorrow, are led by Kevin O'Brien and coached by Trent Johnston, for whom, at 39, this is a giant step towards his post-playing employment.
"I've been fortunate in my long career to have played under some fantastic coaches," says Johnston. "This inter-provincial series gives me a chance to put some of my theories into practice. It's a lot of hard work but it's a challenge that I'm looking forward to.
"I want my teams to play exciting, aggressive, attacking cricket, and I know Kevin has that same mentality as well. We'll work hard and prepare well and do our homework on the opposition – we'll certainly not underestimate anyone.
"I know people are making Leinster favourites already but the Northern teams will be tough opposition and I'm expecting tough battles in the months ahead."
The final leg in the three-cornered contest is provided by the North-West, the most successful team in the old interpros, with the modern Warriors coached by former India test star Bobby Rao who has lived there for 30 years.
There will be three separate tournaments, played over the three formats of the professional game – twenty20, 50 overs, and three days, which will provide 27 days of action.
"While the 20- and 50-over games are our bread and butter internationally, multi-day cricket is going to grow in importance because that's our ultimate goal," says Jones.
The Lightning, Knights and Warriors represent the three biggest unions, and while neither Munster nor Connacht could compete at the moment, there is a plan to bring an amalgamated side into one of the limited-overs competitions at an early opportunity.
The Northerners, with the wily Andrew White pulling the strings, will be testing first opponents for the Lightning over 50 overs.
"I'm looking to win all three formats," says Kevin O'Brien. "I'll be going into every game looking to win, and I'm expecting a high intensity to the matches with a great atmosphere."
Play starts at 10.45am tomorrow, and with free admission the atmosphere is guaranteed.
Leinster Lightning: Kevin O'Brien (captain, Railway Union), Ben Ackland, John Anderson, Tyrone Kane (all Merrion), Andrew Balbirnie (Pembroke), Alex Cusack, Andrew Poynter (both Clontarf), Fintan McAllister (Malahide), Eddie Richardson (North County), Max Sorensen (The Hills), Albert van der Merwe, Trent Johnston (both YMCA). Coach: Trent Johnston. Manager: Mark Jones
Northern Knights: Andrew White (captain), Eugene Moleon, James Shannon (all Instonians), Nigel Jones, Mark Adair (CSN), Chris Dougherty (CIYMS), Lee Nelson, Phil Eaglestone, James Hall, Gary Kidd (Waringstown), Peter Eakin (North Down), Michael Taiaroa (Carrickfergus), David Simpson (Lisburn). Coach: Eugene Moleon. Manager: Gavin Rodgers.