Ireland may be one of the two newest Test playing nations the cricketing world right now, but the sport has a deep-rooted association with the island across the Irish Sea. The first ever formal cricket match was played in this country back in 1792 when the Military of Ireland and the Gentlemen of Ireland took each other at the Phoenix Park in Dublin –– a match, considered to be one of the oldest by the cricket historians. By the middle of the 19th century, cricket emerged as the most popular sport on the island.
Then came the dark era of Irish cricket.
With the emergence of nationalist movements and Gaelic games, cricket suffered the most. It was projected as a ‘British sport’ and subsequently, in 1901, the Irish people were barred from not only playing but even following cricket. The ban lasted for as many as 70 years and during this phase, the Irish cricket community was more like a secret society.
The ‘gentlemen’s game’ however, not only survived the dark phase, but it has risen from the ashes and earned its way through to the big boys’ club i.e. the elite group of Test playing nations.
However, for Cricket Ireland, the struggle has not ended, it has just started and the challenges will be a lot different from the ones the association has faced during its days as an Associate.
Of late, the on-field performance of the Ireland senior team has declined significantly due to a lack of proper bench strength. Since the 2011 World Cup, only one player, Andy Balbirnie, has made it to Ireland’s top seven. Retirements of senior pros like Trent Johnston and John Mooney and injury to Boyed Ranking, who has returned following a short stint with England, have not helped their cause either.
Currently, Ireland need a bigger pool of cricketers and to achieve that more money has to be invested at domestic cricket and ‘A’ as well as age-group tours. Luckily, it looks like a sound financial model is well on its way for Cricket Ireland.
Following the status upgrade, Ireland will now get $40 million annually from the International Cricket Council (ICC). Though the amount is not even half of what Zimbabwe, the lowest ranked Test team is getting (annually $93 million) but it is significantly greater than the fund which they received as an Associate.
Additionally, Ireland will be included in the new 13-team One-Day International (ODI) league, providing guaranteed fixtures against top nations. This means Cricket Ireland will now have a package of matches which they can sell to broadcasters and commercial sponsors in order to be financially stronger.
According to Warren Deutrom, the chief executive of Cricket Ireland, these new developments could double Ireland’s annual turnover.
The extra cash has to be invested in grassroots development and in improving the domestic structure (which is already better than a few existing full members like Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) of men’s and women’s cricket. The authorities also have to address the issue of player migration, which many consider as the primary problem of Irish cricket.
Following the recent financial upgrades, Cricket Ireland will soon be in a position to pay country’s leading professional cricketers significantly so that the tendency of heading towards English County cricket can be controlled. Even the cricketers with an Irish origin, who are playing at the domestic circuit of Australia, can now seriously think about coming back to Ireland if the board offers well paid off deals.
In Ireland, cricket may not be the most popular sport, but international matches tend to attract a lot of spectators at the venues. To spread the game amongst the locals, especially amongst the younger audience, the ground facilities are needed to be improved. The 2019 World Cup will be held in the United Kingdom and Cricket Ireland is expected to bid for hosting a few matches. From that point of view, the board has to have a couple of venues with world-class facilities. Thus, a significant amount of fund has to be allocated on this aspect as well. Hosting world cup matches in the country can provide the necessary boost to the popularity of cricket in Ireland.
Meanwhile, now being a Test playing nation, attracting the stakeholders (especially fans and broadcasters) towards the purest form of the game, is going to be another important challenge for the authorities. In this era of ‘get out or get out’ cricket, we have seen a significant decline in interest amongst the fans towards Test cricket. Even in countries like England and Australia, in recent, we have noticed a considerable decrease in crowd attendance at the venues during non-Ashes Test matches.
Deutrom here wants to follow the model of New Zealand Cricket, which is probably the ideal way forward for them.
“A model because they’re a similar sized population, they’re a country in which cricket wouldn’t be the largest sport, they’re also a smaller market across the sea from a much larger market,” he told the Independent. Interestingly, Ireland’s new participation director worked in New Zealand for eight years.
Well, the first battle towards being the ‘New Zealand of Europe’ has been won in the ICC Boardroom. Now it is more about the proper implementation of plans and luring the youngsters towards taking up the sport, professionally.