by Matt Wood
In their recent appearances at the World Cup, Ireland’s results have belied their status as one of cricket’s “minnows”. In 2007 in the Caribbean they infamously defeated Pakistan, tied with Zimbabwe and triumphed over Bangladesh; this tournament they’ve already upset heavyweights England behind a whirlwind middle-order display and their group stage efforts are only just half completed. There’s plenty good argument that they should maintain full ODI status once this Cup concludes. Credit where credit is due – they’ve earned their stripes and deserve to reap the benefits.
When they defeated arch rivals England last week, Ireland proved themselves once and for all the strongest of the ICC’s affiliate nations. Time and again they’ve defended their status as the strongest paupers around and the ICC should recognise now that their setup, fraught and import-dependent as it is, is strong enough to challenge superior programmes. They may not necessarily win, but that’s merely an inconsequential detail: in any fixture between a top-five cricket nation and a bottom-five side the result is a near certainty anyway. Ireland have the same odds of upsetting Australia in Australia as Bangladesh; in neutral fixtures they may have a better chance of a masterminding a boilover.
They are themselves capable of playing some very good cricket and outmatch their affiliate counterparts by some considerable distance. Some would suggest that an Irish side would further water down international competition, but in truth if these nations are allowed to compete at the World Cup then the competition is weakened enough already. By admitting unready nations to these tournaments, the ICC has made a rod for its own back: only Ireland of the affiliates (and Kenya four years before) have announced their presence with any kind of definitive display.
Bangladesh, the last country admitted permanently to the ICC brethren, provides the best precedent for the proescution. Before their happy 2007 World Cup campaign, their cricketing highlight came on a damp day in the south of England when Mushrafe Mortaza (can someone tell me why he wasn’t selected for this event?) led them to a win over the 2005 Australian Ashes tourists in a triangular ODI series. With their Kevin O’Brien-inspired big win last week, Ireland have surpassed this achievement already. The Tigers are the archetypal case of “failure to thrive” and mimic the Zimbabwe teams of the mid-90s, inconsistent sides with a few good players.
The largest obstacle Ireland’s path is the lack of a top-flight domestic competition. In football, FIFA requires any World Cup hosts to have a top level home league; the ICC similarly looks not just at results but at grass-roots development. Unfortunately for Ireland, their best players – Eoin Morgan and Ed Joyce, most prominently – are attracted to the county circuit and thus the country risks that these stars will be lost to the lure of Test cricket. This talent drain, combined with a former reliance on expats like Trent Johnstone and Jeremy Bray, suggests Ireland are temporarily punching above their weight and so are likely to be drawn back into the Affiliate pack. A grand total of only thirteen fully professional Irish cricketers also doesn’t bode well for promotion.
Should Ireland be serious about entering the ODI circuit as a full member, junior development must be their first priority. Ireland has positives in achieving this: a European home base and administration small enough to be unhampered by bureaucracy. Perhaps the country’s greatest cricket advantage derives from its great weakness: proximity to England. Where Bangladesh has enough cricketers to stock a first-class system, Ireland does not, meaning elite Irish players need to find competition on distant shores. The best way of ensuring an evolving junior programme comes through the excitement bred by major competitions. Placing an Ireland side in the County Championship could nurture a breeding ground for young Irish cricketers and provide a pathway for their best talents. It could also serve as a developmental yardstick, allowing them (and the ICC) to see how much the sport had grown.
In the most brutally honest terms, Ireland aren’t going to win the World Cup any time soon, but so what? When the ICC allows a country full status, it isn’t an admission that the country is ready to actually compete. Bangladesh haven’t thrilled anyone with their performances on the world stage; neither has Zimbabwe, despite short periods of improved play; Sri Lanka were effectively patsies until their improbable 1996 World Cup triumph – the major nations’ whipping boy for nearly twenty years. This is a neat, but flawed comparison as in those countries cricket isn’t the underground sport it is in Ireland. However, the fact remains that the ineffective administration shown by Bangladesh over the past ten years means there’s severe doubt as to Bangladesh ability to ever field a threatening side. As painful as it is, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe just make up numbers.
Admittedly this is a harsh assessment of both Zimbabwe and Bangladesh and doesn’t take into account the sociological, political and geographical unrest suffered by both nations over the past decades. Those factors – and Ireland’s insolvency – contribute to a changing cricket world, one where a two-tier system is almost irrevocably in place. Cricket, whether we like it or not, is now a divided across “have” and “have not” lines”: and if Ireland wants to join the lower tier, then why stop them?
Matt Wood writes more opinions on more sports at Balanced Sports
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