Tuesday 20 February 2018

Shifting perceptions to move cricket into the mainstream

Callum O’Byrne from Castleknock College pictured in Smithfield, Dublin last week with Irish internationals Peter Chase, Max Sorensen, Andrew Balbirnie and George Dockrell. Photo: David Maher
Callum O’Byrne from Castleknock College pictured in Smithfield, Dublin last week with Irish internationals Peter Chase, Max Sorensen, Andrew Balbirnie and George Dockrell. Photo: David Maher

john greene

As impressive as it was, and as bold as the statement was, there was nothing brash about Cricket Ireland's publication last week of its plan to take the sport 'mainstream', to try to rival the popularity of Gaelic games, football and rugby in this country.

It might seem an outrageous leap to think that in five years' time, cricket could be Ireland's most popular sport after the above mentioned, but it would be foolish to dismiss it completely.

For some time now it has been obvious that Cricket Ireland is our sporting organisation par excellence. Since 2007 it has been setting itself ambitious targets, on and off the pitch, and while it has not always attained them, it has never failed to make huge strides forward. Even on the back of the recent World Cup disappointment - a disappointment born as much out of our higher expectations of our national team, not to mention the team itself's higher expectations - there is no scaling back on aspirations for the game in Ireland. Nor is there any glossing over low points.

And so the association's latest strategic plan, covering the next five years, is as honest in its tone as it is ambitious. It looks at the previous plan and identifies where it came up short, and takes the next five years and identifies where the greatest challenges will be faced.

But if any confirmation were needed of the association's ability to deliver, then it came last Tuesday at an event in Dublin at which this plan was unveiled, when chief executive Warren Deutrom additionally announced a new, lucrative three-year sponsorship deal with the KPC Group, a major global conglomerate. Dr Kali Pradip Chaudhuri, chairman and founder of the KPC Group, flew to Dublin specially for the announcement. He is a busy man, controlling as he does an enormous business empire, and yet he looked every bit as pleased to be there as his hosts were to have him. Cricket Ireland's ability to attract commercial partners of this standing must be the envy of other sporting organisations.

In the modern world, with so many sports competing for the hearts and minds of young and old, it is those sports which are skilled in setting themselves apart and adapting to the changing environment which will thrive. Yes, the 'big three' will always enjoy the traditional and numerical advantage, but after that, who's to say?

Previously, the aim of becoming a Test nation by 2020 was largely dismissed at home and abroad as a soundbite. That's no longer the case. Deutrom and Cricket Ireland have broken down a lot of the barriers of entry into that realm. There is still a long road to travel, but nobody is laughing any more. The continued growth of the game at grassroots level has seen plenty of doubters of Ireland's long-term commitment to international cricket sit up and take notice.

The next step on that journey, it seems, is for the game to occupy a permanent place in the Irish sporting consciousness and not just when its men's team takes another big scalp.

"Our goal of playing Test matches by the end of 2020 needs to be broader and more ambitious - it needs to envision Ireland not just being a major force in cricket, but cricket being a major force in Ireland," said Deutrom last week.

"When we think of 'major' in Ireland, we think of the GAA, rugby and football. Well, why not cricket too? We need to shift perceptions of cricket as an elitist, exclusive sport to one that is open and accessible to all. We need to demystify the sport for the Irish public by making it visible, accessible, affordable and inspiring."

He added: "Many will believe our reach far exceeds our grasp, but we believe the failure is not in falling short, but rather in not trying."

When Deutrom arrived in Ireland at the end of 2006, cricket in this country was scarcely mapped. He took up his post in a small office with one other paid official, who worked part-time. Nine years later, Cricket Ireland employs 30 people, has 18 contracted players and Ireland have recorded famous wins over Pakistan, England and the West Indies at the World Cup and is now on the way to having a first class domestic competition structure.

The game is gaining a foothold in so many new areas of the country now - places likes Killarney and Longford - that its continued growth seems inevitable. Whether it will be the fourth most popular sport by 2020 is hard to know, but it scarcely matters. Because, what you can be certain of is that cricket will continue steadily on its upward curve.

"We are no longer benchmarking the term of our plan to ICC milestones such as the possible achievement of Test cricket or to the World Cup," Deutrom says in his introduction to the plan. "Nor are we merely satisfying the cliché of a '2020 vision'. Rather, we are giving ourselves the time to become a major sport in Ireland and a major nation in cricket."

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