With the 4th test between India and Australia still in progress, and the Middlesex versus the MCC game just a day old, we’ve got a little more time to discuss off-field issues. Today we’d like to put Irish cricket under the microscope again. New guest writer Michael Cooper has some thoughts on the rapid rise of the Emerald Isle and asks whether giving Ireland test status would breathe new life into test cricket.
In May, Ireland will travel to England for a two match series that holds importance for both sides. For their hosts, it is crucial preparation for the ICC Champions Trophy being held in England but for Ireland it’s a sign of the strides made since their first official ODI in 2006. It’s also the first time that they are facing England in England as well as the first time they are playing a bilateral series against their neighbours.
An associate member since 1993, Ireland had to wait a further 13 years before they were awarded ODI status before making their bow against England in Belfast. Ireland were defeated by 38 runs and spent the next decade attempting to fend off English attempts to cherry pick their best players with the offer of test cricket.
Ed Joyce found himself making his England debut in the game against Ireland and “in the ridiculous position of playing against my little brother in the opposing national side.” He was not alone in feeling the need to play for England in order to further their cricketing careers. That only three players made the move to play for England, and the fact Ed Joyce and Boyd Rankin have since returned, speaks volumes of the culture and camaraderie that has been created within the Cricket Ireland set up.
The Ireland side first announced itself on the world stage during the 50 over World Cup in 2007 defeating Pakistan by three wickets in the first of many giant killings they’d inflict in World Cups. Niall O’Brien, Man of the Match in that game thanks to his match winning knock of 72 off 107 balls, wasn’t as surprised as the rest of the cricket world. “No one really knew too much about the Ireland cricket team” said O’Brien. “We had been working incredibly hard for a couple of years to put ourselves in a position to win matches in that World Cup.”
Although they found the Super 8 stage of the competition a step too far, O’Brien believes they had a lot to be proud of. “I thought we played some really good cricket in that tournament, we were obviously a bit short in the Super 8s, which was tough going but I think we acquitted ourselves very well.”
The 2011 World Cup in India saw England turn from lions to lambs for the slaughter as Ireland claimed their second major scalp. Batting second and chasing 328, Ireland slumped to 111-5 before Kevin O’Brien hit a sensational 113 off 63 balls to seal the victory. Joyce, now back in the Ireland fold, remembers the last few hours of the match as “some of the craziest cricket you’ll ever see. Kevin’s knock is definitely one of the top innings I’ve ever seen.”
It speaks volumes of their ambitions as a nation that O’Brien’s abiding memory isn’t the victory against England but rather the defeat to Bangladesh in their opening game. “We let ourselves down in the first game against Bangladesh” remembers O’Brien. “Kevin & I were playing well and if one of us had been there at the end, we hopefully would’ve won another game for the country.”
Now established as a competitive one day team, the most recent World Cup in 2015 saw Ireland put on their best performance. While their wins against the UAE and Zimbabwe were expected, the victory against the West Indies in their first match highlighted their case as a dark horse for the tournament.
Sadly a defeat to Pakistan in the last group game saw them fall short of securing a quarter final spot. “We probably would’ve been better off batting first in that game to be fair.” said O’Brien of the match against Pakistan. “But it was a privilege for me and the boys who have played in all three World Cups and something we’re very proud of.”
In the upcoming bilateral series against England in May, it is another chance to show their abilities in the one day format. And for the first time the games are being held in England, including a game at Lord’s. Richard Holdsworth, Cricket Ireland’s Performance Director since 2011, sees it as “a huge opportunity for us and the sport in Ireland.”
It’s also symbolic of the growth of Irish cricket and their increased standing in the echelons of world cricket. “I think it’s a great sentiment from the ECB to invite us over” said O’Brien. “And fair play to Cricket Ireland for having the get up and go to get us these fixtures.”
“England are one of the powerhouses in the world game and to get a two match series is a big achievement” said Joyce. “Our hope is that we won’t have to rely on invitations in the future and that playing against the top cricketing nations is simply part of our annual schedule.”
And what are their chances of gaining test status in the near future? Recent developments have seen the ICC propose a nine team test league, with Ireland seen as one of the teams most likely to make the leap into test cricket. Joyce is positive about the prospect. “I believe we’re close to test status. We’re top of the Intercontinental Cup, which is the first step towards test cricket.” It’s an attitude echoed by O’Brien. “We’re not as far off as some people may think. If we’re playing the likes of Sri Lanka or the West Indies, Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, they’d be pretty close contests.”
The recent upgrading of Ireland’s domestic competition to first-class status, hailed by Holdsworth as “perhaps the most significant step forward since I have been in the role” is another big advancement in the process. “The increased exposure and the funding that this will bring should help us improve our facilities and performances so we will be ready for test cricket when it comes along.” said Joyce.
Holdsworth, who has overseen the development of performance centres in both Spain and Dublin, believes these changes are “helping bridge that gap for Ireland-based players, giving them the skills and experience to reach the top of their game and compete against world class players.”
Ireland have come a long way since that first ODI game in 2006. They’ve conquered test playing nations in World Cups, seen the domestic game continue to grow both on and off the field and forged a path towards test cricket.
And don’t put this down to anything as simple as the luck of the Irish, this is a serious and hard-working cricket nation. At a time when test cricket is coming under fire for its lack of relevance, adding a team like Ireland into the mix could prove just the boost the game needs.