Sunday 15 December 2019

Some wobbles along the way but the right plans are there

The men's senior team suffered the bleakest of years but there is huge ambition for cricket here

Ger Siggins

After 10 years of growth, progress and frequent success, the year of 2016 will not be one venerated a century from now when Irish cricket looks back at its decade of glorious centenaries.

The men's senior team had its worst year in memory, winning just eight of 21 games and losing to Oman and the Netherlands at the World Twenty20. That record will ensure plenty of debate before head coach John Bracewell's contract comes up for renewal at the end of next summer.

The senior women are in a different place, showing great promise at the World Twenty20 in India, and beating South Africa twice and Bangladesh in a year that saw them play top nations in 12 games. With Isobel Joyce playing for Tasmania in the Australian state competition and Kim Garth and Gaby Lewis joining her in the squads for this month's Big Bash, the team will be better prepared than any before when they travel to Sri Lanka for the World Cup qualifiers in February.

While the playing side overall took a dip, the infrastructural side of the balance sheet is looking very healthy. Cricket Ireland has already begun working on two major projects - a facility in La Manga, Spain, which will provide warm-weather training and matches, and an outdoor 90-acre training ground in west Dublin. The State bodies and businessman Denis O'Brien are backing these projects with funding and they will fill important gaps in the sport's facilities.

Another bricks-and-mortar project is opening in January, and is an enterprise of two Adamstown players, Arun Kumar and Jimmy Bansal, and Railway Union head coach Kevin O'Herlihy. Urban Cricket is based in an industrial estate on the Long Mile Road and is a 12,000-square foot hangar capable of staging two indoor games simultaneously. The indoor version of the sport is making huge strides and is popular with many of the new Irish who have made their home here.

Urban Cricket is not just a venue, but a training centre that hopes to entice players and clubs to avail of its six practice lanes and top-class coaches - Ed Joyce, Niall and Kevin O'Brien are all signed up - as well as fitness advisors.

Although still playing, that trio have a lot of experience to impart which will come into focus even more when they retire. Cricket Ireland have been slow to capitalise on those who quit recently, with Trent Johnston, Jeremy Bray, Andre Botha and Alex Cusack now all working abroad and John Mooney snapped up by one of Dublin's biggest clubs when a hoped-for role in Cricket Ireland fell through. Happily, Andrew White, Joyce and Niall O'Brien are already moving into the set-up as specialist coaches.

White will also join the team at the Shapoorji Pallonji National Academy, which is still awaiting a decision on who will lead it after a pair of appointments failed to fill the gap caused by Craig Hogan's departure.

Cricket Ireland must be regretting its inflexibility in not accommodating Hogan's request to move to Belfast where his wife had a job offer.

The attempt to replace him saw the arrival of a pair of Englishmen - Chris Adams, who lasted 48 hours; and Toby Radford, who quit after 10 weeks. Both men cited 'family reasons' for their resignations, leaving a dangerous vacuum in arguably the most important job in the organisation, overseeing youth progress from under 13s through to the senior side.

Several of those youngsters will hope to show their skills in the Hanley Energy Interprovincials next year, which has been given a boost by becoming the first-ever non-Test nation domestic competition to be given first-class status.

The Interpros still suffer from being hopelessly unbalanced by the overwhelming strength of Leinster Lightning, who could field 15 current internationals. Their new coach Albert van der Merwe could have even more riches on tap now Ed Joyce, Andrew Balbirnie, Niall O'Brien and George Dockrell have chosen to spend their post-county careers in Dublin. That's not the ideal way to find room for the talents of Josh Little, Harry Tector, Stephen Doheny, Rory Anders and Lorcan Tucker, who may have to find a Tipperary granny and a switch to Munster.

The abundance of young talent will need to be nurtured carefully, and some have already dipped their toes internationally. They arrive at a crossroads as, just three years after confirming their dominance of Associate cricket with a triple crown of trophies for each format, Ireland's white ball game is faltering.

In the foothills of the Himalayas they struggled badly against lesser lights and failed to qualify for the final stages of the World Twenty20 in March. While the national soccer team have no problem overcoming Oman, their cricketers handed Ireland its most embarrassing defeat on the world stage in the picturesque Himachal Pradesh CA stadium in Dharamshala.

A 38-year-old bespectacled Omani whose body shape is rarely seen in modern sport was the tormentor. Amir Ali's name probably still crops up in William Porterfield's nightmares as the man who personified one of his darkest days. The captain struggled to come up with solutions to contain his run-scoring, but faced open revolt from some senior players when he chose the misfiring Max Sorensen to bowl the vital last over.

"Are you mad?" asked one player as Porterfield threw the ball to The Hills man, who has had some excellent moments in a green shirt but had been known to struggle when put under pressure.

The 14 runs in hand should have been enough, but Sorensen tried to bowl yorkers, a risky business with a sopping ball. His radar went askew and the full tosses flew high - for wides, byes and boundaries.

"We weren't at the races, for whatever reasons," said a shocked Porterfield after the game. "It's hard to put your finger on it, because I thought we were well prepared coming in, and were doing a lot of good things."

Another defeat, in a six-over slog to the Netherlands, meant Ireland went home early, but with other T20 losses in 2016 to UAE, Papua New Guinea and Hong Kong, their new world ranking of 17th is a big fall in a short time.

While the Desert T20 in January will give them a chance to climb that table, the focus is switching to the 50-over game and working towards the 2019 World Cup in England. Qualification is guaranteed for the top eight in the rankings this September, but with Ireland languishing in 12th after a series of very heavy defeats to Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Australia, there is little chance of grabbing one of those places.

The one bright spot is that they will have plenty of chances to give it a shot, with a 2017 schedule that includes a two-match series against England - at Bristol and Lord's - in May, and ten more ODIs against Afghanistan, New Zealand, West Indies and Bangladesh.

That will give Bracewell a chance to blood some more youngsters, with Craig Young and Barry McCarthy confirming their early promise and others such as Mark Adair and Jason Mulder crying out for a look-in.

But undoubtedly the most important battles of all will be fought not with bat and ball, but with spreadsheet and flipchart. The ICC has given a broad hint that it will expand its Test-playing membership from ten to 12 in February, benefiting Afghanistan and Ireland.

Those sides meet in March in a game that had looked certain to decide the 2015-'17 Inter-Continental Cup - giving the winner a chance to play Tests under a scheme that could, by the time they play, be redundant. But with the top two now set to be elevated, victory then or against Holland in Dublin next summer will guarantee one of the two spots. Ireland, happily, are still the masters of the four-day game and have a maximum 80 points from four matches to date.

Victory would set the scene for Ireland playing five-day Test matches against the best teams in the world, starting with England in Lord's in 2019. It would also prompt many new questions - such as whether there would be a market for such a prolonged contest in this country, the climate to accommodate it, and the playing base - and finance in the absence of a major sponsor - to sustain up to 50 full-time players. It would ask questions of broadcasters - the recently-liquidated Irish TV had shown some ODIs - although Cricket Ireland's first steps into streaming its own fixtures on YouTube was a success.

To address much of the above, the national body published a strategic plan in 2016. A most ambitious document, it told how the sport was no longer happy to make waves every few years when it appeared at a global tournament, but wanted to 'Make Cricket Mainstream', with chief executive Warren Deutrom saying: "We need to envision not just Ireland being a major force in cricket, but cricket being a major force in Ireland."

Deutrom's dream has a long way to go, but with the infrastructure coming together the next strides must be made on the field of play.

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