By Phil Rice
Cricket in Ireland has never been considered a national sport. It has suffered with the stigma of being a very traditional English game and we all know the historic implications that brings.
Ireland regularly played against the English county sides and against Test teams touring England as they took a light-hearted break to play matches in Ireland.
But during the past 10-15 years interest in the sport has risen along with the National team’s fortunes in international events.
The emergence and growth of one-day cricket has allowed the amateurs of Irish cricket to take part in one-off international matches with the more traditional Test playing nations, and during this period a number of quality players emerged for the Irish team.
This led to Ireland’s participation through qualification in the one-day World Cup competitions.
Initially the challenge presented by Ireland was taken less than seriously by the leading nations, but success in World Cup matches against Pakistan, followed by England and West Indies, suddenly made the cricket world sit up and take notice of the development of the game in Ireland.
Crucially Irish Cricket invested in top quality national coaches and their influence has been critical to the game’s advancement in Ireland.
One or two overseas players who moved to the Emerald Isle and pledged their allegiance to the national team also boosted the success of the country at international level.
TV coverage of the sport through Sky has also helped to create a greater appreciation of the sport in Ireland.
To cut a long story short this progression in Irish cricket ultimately led some six months ago, to the International Cricket Council (ICC) ratifying the status of Ireland, along with Afghanistan, as a registered Test playing nation. This brings the number of official Test playing nations to 12, elitist status indeed.
Malahide on May 11-15th will be in the venue for Ireland’s historic first-ever Test match, with Pakistan the opponents.
The consequences of this elevated status will be that regular three-day Test matches will be played between Ireland and other Test playing nations.
It will not mean in the short term at least, that Ireland will be involved in Test match series similar to The Ashes, but there will be one-off Test matches against the top nations.
It also gives Ireland representation at the top administration levels of the sport.
Paradoxically the country’s new playing status has coincided with a drop in the quality of the team’s performances this year, as a number of Ireland’s best players have reached the twilight of their playing days and some key players during the country’s recent successes have retired.
They are still more than competitive against the second-tier nations such as Scotland, Netherlands and UAE, but have struggled recently against the other Test playing nations.
The latest high-profile coach to take over responsibility for the country’s cricketing development is Graham Ford.
Recently relieved of his duties as head coach of Sri Lanka, Ford is a 57-year old South African who knows a thing or two about Irish cricket having played against the Irish for his adopted county Kent on a few occasions. He also coached Sri Lanka when they visited Ireland in 2016.
He recently said: “I’ve always had an interest in Irish cricket, I loved to see them as underdogs getting into a really good scrap.”
Ten weeks from now, Ireland will be scrapping for a place in the 2019 World Cup, to be played in England. Having qualified for the past three of these events, and taken prized scalps at each, there is an expectation of even greater achievement, given their new status in the game.
This may be unrealistic as the team goes through a transitional period, but a number of fresh faces have been added to the squad this year and there is a quiet optimism that results will pick up in the near future.
There are more Irish cricketers playing in the English county game than at any time and this is a great learning ground for them as they play with and against some of the best players in the game.
Paul Stirling, George Dockrell, William Porterfield, Niall O’Brien, Boyd Rankin, Ed Joyce, Tim Murtagh and Gary Wilson all currently ply their trade in the county championship and have benefitted greatly from the experience.
It is an exciting time for Irish cricket with considerable challenges ahead for the sport in Ireland. Graham Ford carries a big responsibility to nurture the emerging talent and bring it to fruition as soon as possible.
There will be considerable focus on the country’s performance during this new era and a level of success will be expected.
However, patience is required and it will be fascinating to see how the sport develops throughout the country, in the coming years.