The Cricket World Cup in the West Indies last year was roundly and rightly criticised on many fronts, but it did produce one of sport’s greatest underdog stories. It has been exactly fourteen months since Ireland’s World Cup odyssey came to an end. Now that the residual effects of that extraordinary time are well and truly a thing of the past, what is the state of cricket in the Emerald Isle?
The honeymoon period didn’t last long. These days a player/board dispute seems to be sine qua non for any self respecting cricket side, and Ireland’s world cup campaign brought about just that. Regrettably, players encountered serious headaches extracting fees owed for services rendered from their administrators. The team registered their displeasure at the situation by refusing to perform media commitments after beating the Netherlands last July. In fairness to the board, they were forced to budget for keeping the side in the Caribbean for six more games than was expected, but considering they couldn’t even pay the side for their greatest ever success, subsequent talk of central contracts seemed absurd. Indeed, the Irish Cricketing Union’s efforts to put cricket on the country’s sporting map by going professional were derided by senior figures in the side such as Jeremy Bray, who called it ‘a joke.’ Bray, whose century in the tie against Zimbabwe in the World Cup was one of the tournament’s highlights, hasn’t played since.
At grassroots level at least, the future of Irish cricket must be brighter than ever before. Ireland’s booming economic success in the late 1990s and early 2000s has precipitated a massive influx of immigrants into the country, many of whom hail from the cricketing power-houses of Pakistan, India and Australia. Last week I pointed out the relative failure of authorities in England to adequately encourage and support the development of the game in the country’s migrant communities, and it must be one of the main priorities of those involved in administering cricket in Ireland to ensure a similar state of affairs doesn’t arise here. Two weeks ago I watched a young Pakistani boy whose family has settled in Ireland amass an extraordinary century against bowlers twice his age. Though a mere fifteen years old, he opened the innings and batted the entire forty-five overs (running himself out off the last ball for 118). It was a remarkable effort from someone so young playing against senior opposition and served as a timely reminder of the vast untapped potential of the sport in this country.
Unfortunately, a well-stocked talent pool by itself is not enough to keep the game healthy. To gain any foot-hold in a sports saturated country, Ireland’s national side must exhibit a certain level of success on the international stage. In the wake of Ireland’s success in the World Cup and the incredible exposure that inevitably brought, interest in cricket for a short time literally exploded on the island. At my club the number of children coming up to practice sessions went from less than half a dozen to around thirty overnight. These youths arrived for no other reason than that they had seen the boys in green on television, and winning at that. Suddenly cricket wasn’t a foreign game fit only for the west Brits but rather a source of national pride and a topic being discussed up and down the country with an intensity typical reserved for GAA, hurling and rugby.
That was a year ago now. In the interim, high profile international games against India and South Africa in Stormont turned out to be damp squibs. Television broadcaster Zee withdrew their commitment to showing the games a few weeks beforehand, throwing the situation into further disarray. Irish cricket simply couldn’t afford such marketing setbacks at this critical time. Last week I went out fund-raising for the same aforementioned local club and the number of people expressing surprise that cricket even existed in the region was extraordinary. One woman went so far as to tell her children disdainfully as they were passing that ‘everyone knows there’s no cricket in Kerry!’ As I was standing right in front of her, clearly even the evidence of her own eyes wasn’t sufficient to impress our existence on her mind. As for those enthusiastic youngsters? Two remain.
In a sense the sport in Ireland is always behind the eight-ball. Understandably any players good enough move to England to play county cricket as soon as the opportunity arises, and thus the national side is in reality nothing more than a stepping-stone for the talented to bigger and better things. Ed Joyce has a key player at Middlesex for a number of years now. Eoin Morgan joined him at the county a few years ago, though he did play at the World Cup. After the tournament the side’s most successful bowler, Boyd Rankin, signed on for Derbyshire (he has since moved to Warwickshire). Niall O Brien’s heroics paved the way for a spot in the Northamptonshire line-up, one which he has cemented with a string of stellar performances with bat and gloves this season. He even got a chance to participate in the lucrative Asian 20/20 market, playing for Delhi Jets in the ICL earlier in the year. William Porterfield has also recently been granted a two year deal with Gloucestershire.
In fact, of the side that famously defeated Pakistan on a sultry Kingston evening in March of last year, the only links to the eleven that faced up to Nottinghamshire in the final Friends Provident game of this season were Kevin O’ Brien and Kyle McCallan. Though it is great news that so many Irish cricketers are now able to make a living out the game, their elevation in status is almost certainly detrimental to the game in the country as a whole. The performances of Irish-men in the English game tend only to be of interest to those already involved and interested in cricket. To become a force on the Irish sporting stage, the public need to see Irish players in Irish shirts doing well. However with such a rapid turnover of playing staff, one wonders how the ICU can ever hope to build another settled, successful unit. At their latest AGM, the old ICU was dissolved and replaced with a supposedly streamlined version going under the more business-like title of “Irish Cricket Union Limited.” According to the chairman David Williams, "It will be a sign of the increasing professionalism that is needed in modern sport." One can’t help but question just what it is the new organisation can actually do. Even if down the line an Irish team does manage to replicate the stirring times of summer 2007, the side will just as surely be dismantled one way or another as that line-up was. Such is the fate of an amateur game in a professional world. The sad thing is, there is nothing anyone can really do about it.
photo courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/cobalt/423837520/