It would be easy to recall the image of Tim Murtagh leading his team-mates off the field, holding the ball aloft following his five-for on the first morning of Ireland’s Test at Lord’s and assume that 2019 was a good year for Irish cricket.
In truth, it served as a stark reminder of the challenges facing them. Planned Tests for 2020 were cancelled, finances remained stretched, players were no longer able to play county cricket as locals and their proposed franchise T20 tournament was postponed. Throw in the World Cup, which served as a reminder of the disappointment of the previous year’s qualifier, and the loss of a six-figure sum due to cyber fraud, and things could hardly have been much worse, even before the post-Covid squeeze.
“The costs associated with delivering to full membership standards and fulfilling a much greater number of international fixtures each year has not been matched by expected revenues and a number of key unforeseen financial blows,” Cricket Ireland’s CEO Warren Deutrom said. “With an allocation amounting to less than half of that of Zimbabwe, our expected revenues from the ICC funding model for full members have not been realised.”
In that context, the start of the World Cup Super League this week is a major boost for Ireland, and not only because it offers a chance to qualify for India in 2023. With fixtures previously so random and sparse, the guarantee of eight three-match ODI series over the next two years will be crucial for players’ development.
For many years, Ireland have leaned on the generation of players that broke through at the 2007 and 2011 World Cups: Kevin O’Brien, William Porterfield, Gary Wilson, Paul Stirling and George Dockrell; and until 2018, Ed Joyce and Niall O’Brien. But with opportunities for competitive cricket so limited, finding their successors has not proved easy.
After a long while, that looks to be changing. Mark Adair was the side’s leading ODI wicket-taker last year, while Gareth Delany, Harry Tector and Lorcan Tucker are all in line to play England in the top six on Thursday. With Josh Little and Curtis Campher also in the mix as seamers, there is a genuine belief that given sufficient exposure, the new breed can drive Irish cricket forward.
“I had a feeling that there was a lot of good progress being made,” said Graham Ford, the head coach. “The tour to the Caribbean certainly showed that there was real progress and a number of players were starting to really kick on, and in the recent Afghanistan series in India there was a lot of good stuff going on as well.
“I really felt it was a group that was growing and developing, and we were so looking forward to the highly competitive, busy season ahead that we were meant to have before Covid set us back. It is a blow to our progress. It’s a bit of a restart now.”
Ford admitted too that uncertainty over home Super League series against Bangladesh and New Zealand was a concern. “We’ve got these three matches and then we don’t know when we’re going to play again and just how much of the whole World Cup league will actually operate, when it will operate, how many of the fixtures may get cancelled,” he said.
“All of that is a little concerning. I think for us, we definitely want to try and beat some of the big teams and win some of the games against them. We’re looking to try and grow as a unit that can go toe-to-toe with the big teams. We don’t just want to be part of the show.”
That is a point recognised by Geoff Allardice, the ICC’s general manager of cricket operation. “These Cricket World Cup Super League series are very important for the smaller countries,” he said. “Getting series that are part of the competition, that have got a degree of certainty around them. They’re important because they provide a certain level of competition to those countries which is often left to more last-minute negotiations.
“If they can start planning – apart from the disruption that the coronavirus has caused – it would be able to give them a lot more certainty with their planning and their high performance plans, looking through this cycle through to the 2023 World Cup.”
Of course, it would be foolish to suggest that the Super League is a silver bullet. Ireland are still desperate to develop their own permanent home ground to minimise the high staging costs involved with temporary infrastructure, and a greater share of central revenue is the first step towards that.
But ensuring young players get games and don’t have their heads turned is a good starting point. “The most important thing for Irish cricket is playing as many fixtures as they can,” said England’s incumbent limited-overs captain Eoin Morgan, who himself changed allegiance back in 2009. “If you have a group of young, talented players, you can’t just have them sitting on the sidelines.
“I said the same when they gained Test status. That’s great, but what fixtures are they going to play? It’s great that they are getting more and more – but you can always give more.”
And on top of the guarantee of cricket, the Super League offers a chance for Ireland to seal qualification for the main event. The concept of a ten-team World Cup has few supporters within Irish cricket, but the chance to reach it either through finishing in the top seven teams – excluding hosts India – or via the later qualifying tournament is not to be sniffed at.
“It’s World Cup qualification,” Andy Balbirnie, Ireland’s captain, said. “This Super League is our opportunity to get in. It’s going to be super tough – it would probably be this team’s greatest achievement if we qualify for the World Cup through the top seven. We’ve got a lot of tough cricket to be played.
“We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got a conveyor belt of kids and guys in their early 20s that can come in and do a job from the off. We don’t have county cricket to fall back on and gain experience; we’re going to have to find out about these guys in the heat of battle against top teams in the world like England.”