Saturday 21 September 2019

Making the most of new status

Being a Test nation won't necessarily involve a lot of Test cricket

Malahide is ready for Friday’s historic opening day. Photo courtesy Fingal County Council
Malahide is ready for Friday’s historic opening day. Photo courtesy Fingal County Council

Sam Wheeler

Test status was seen as the Holy Grail for Irish cricket for so long that it was tempting to think of it as being a bit like knocking at the Pearly Gates - you're left in purgatory for assessment for a bit, then you're beckoned in and you're in paradise for eternity.

Turns out, being a Test nation involves quite a lot of hard work. For Cricket Ireland's chief executive Warren Deutrom and the other board-level architects of Ireland's elevation to the game's elite, it certainly hasn't been a case of securing the vote (in June last year), then putting their feet up and enjoying all the benefits of an exclusive members' club.

Warren Deutrom: ‘For the first time, we can go out there and properly commercialise our cricketing activities.’ Photo: Mark Condren
Warren Deutrom: ‘For the first time, we can go out there and properly commercialise our cricketing activities.’ Photo: Mark Condren

The cash streams don't start flowing automatically just because you've got Test status; the fixtures don't arrange themselves; crowds, sponsors and broadcasters don't just wander up to your door; international-quality players don't appear as if by magic; youngsters don't take up the game unprompted; a new stadium doesn't build itself.

"We're already being held to a higher standard: 'You're a Test nation now, you should be doing x, y, z'," explains Deutrom, who has said he wants Ireland "to be a major force in cricket, and cricket to be a major force in Ireland", setting his sights on becoming the fourth biggest sport on the island, after soccer, Gaelic games and rugby.

"Test status is not just about having 11 players take the pitch in white clothing. What does it take to be a Test nation? And that involves a myriad of things."

In the short term, the key tasks have been to make sure the maiden Test goes off without a hitch, and to set up a programme of fixtures over the following years.

Being a Test nation doesn't necessarily involve a whole lot of Test cricket; Ireland's schedule, due to be announced as part of the game's five-year global calendar by the International Cricket Council later this month, will generally involve just one or two Tests a year. There will be no Ashes-style five-match series. Ireland will play one-off five-day games, mostly against other sides at the bottom of the Test pile, such as Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, although Graham Ford's men are pencilled in to play England.

Deutrom feels that a modest diet of Test cricket is a good thing. Firstly, history shows that nations new to the five-day format tend to take years to get good at it, as four-innings matches magnify disparities in ability and experience. A glut of embarrassingly one-sided defeats to the likes of Australia and South Africa would do little good to anyone.

Secondly, Test cricket is a hard sell - 10,000 people turned up for the ODI against England at Malahide in 2013, but how many of those would go to five days of cricket in a row? Test gates have been dwindling across the globe, so for the Pakistan Test, Cricket Ireland have scaled back the temporary seating to a capacity of 6,000.

"It's a judgement call based on format, opposition, time of year. A Test is very different from a marquee ODI," Deutrom explains. "There's not such a huge urgency for a particular day. The maximum capacity across the five days is 30,000. Budget-wise, we wouldn't be looking at any more than about half of that, 16,000 or so."

A fortnight before the Test, sales were at "55 per cent" for the first four days (13,200) - there are no advance sales for day five. Adding in the two T20 internationals against India next month, advance sales for the season are approaching 16,000, already a record for Irish cricket.

A maiden Test brings a buzz and a level of publicity that Irish cricket has perhaps never received before, but for Deutrom, the real benefit of achieving Test status was not so much Test cricket itself, but an expanded fixture list of one-day and T20 internationals that comes with full membership. He expects Ireland to play "60 to 65" home international matches over the next five years, all but a handful against fellow Test nations.

"Other formats are more popular than red ball, for all the obvious reasons of their excitement, their brevity, their colour. I'm not going to say that there isn't a place for Test cricket, but our approach to it would be a much more measured one, of let's see where it fits in, how we can afford to do it, the extent to which our investing in Test cricket might detract from our investment in more important white-ball formats which are going to popularise the game in Ireland.

"That doesn't mean we don't want to be playing Test cricket, but let's make it almost into our link back to the heritage of the sport. It would be crazy for us to go for Test status and then not want to play Test cricket!"

With the expanded fixture list comes an opportunity to ramp up broadcasting rights revenue. At the end of last month, Cricket Ireland announced a record broadcasting deal with Sky Sports (with highlights on RTé) for the Test and the two T20s against India, understood to be worth €1.8m. Given the vast appetite for cricket among India's 1.3bn population, Cricket Ireland reckon those games will attract the largest global TV audience for any event ever staged in Ireland.

"For the first time, we can go out there and properly commercialise our cricketing activities," says Deutrom. "Thus far, we've never really been able to generate any broadcast opportunities, because broadcasters don't like one-off matches. Now we actually have something to sell."

That extra revenue is particularly welcome at a time when Ireland are looking to build a new stadium, at the national sports campus in Abbotstown, and when the fall in value of the US dollar, the currency in which Ireland receives ICC funding, has cost them €940,000 in the last year. The realisation dawned during planning for the Pakistan Test that Ireland were outgrowing their main home in the grounds of Malahide Castle.

"We've learned over the last few months that the cost of playing Test cricket on a green-field site is astronomical, especially when we don't have permanent venue infrastructure," says Deutrom. "We are effectively popping up a stadium and taking it down again, spending a huge amount of money. In the grounds of Malahide Castle, we felt that whatever pavilion we were going to build was likely to be compromised by environmental sensitivities; and they would limit future opportunities to expand.

"We were working with the government, and they said, would we like to consider developing our national stadium in Abbotstown, where we have already got our outdoor training performance centre; the timing was extremely propitious. There is a lot of benefit, but it could cost €30-40-50m."

It takes two or three years to turn a patch of grass into a cricket pitch of sufficient standard to host international matches, so even in the best-case scenario, in which Cricket Ireland get planning permission and funding sorted this year, Deutrom says the men's team won't be playing at Abbotstown until 2022. Until then, the marquee matches will continue to be played at Malahide, with other fixtures - including perhaps some lower-key Tests - at Stormont and Bready.

All the while, Cricket Ireland will be trying to broaden the game's appeal beyond its traditional audience. Deutrom concedes that the number of people playing regular competitive cricket has "increased only marginally" in recent years but he is enthused by "the number of people getting involved, tasting it for first time in schools or after-work leagues, and women, girls, and disabled cricketers".

"Our focus is to transfer that involvement into lifelong participation, particularly through clubs. I can definitely see progress being made - and we've been able to make progress without much visibility in terms of TV, radio, etc."

Deutrom concedes that Ireland's failure to qualify for next year's World Cup in England is a blow, but argues it is nowhere near as damaging as it would have been to miss out on previous editions of the tournament, when the Boys in Green's giant-killing was such a boon for the sport.

"It is a massive opportunity lost," he admits. "But it's nowhere near the mortal blow it would have been in the past, when we only really had World Cups to look forward to: the number of games we played between them was so negligible, we tended to drop out of public recognition between World Cups. Whereas now we're going to be playing home and away against the best teams on a much more frequent basis. We will have much more visibility in terms of games at a high profile the sport has never enjoyed before."

Of course, the players will have to perform in all these exotic fixtures if the sport is to expand. For so long the Ireland team blazed a trail while the administration lagged behind; now the men in suits have done their bit, and the onus is on the men in whites to deliver.

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