Ten years and two days ago, Ireland welcomed England to Stormont. It was Ireland’s first ever one-day international. This was a heady day, but also a faintly incongruous one. Ireland’s best player, Ed Joyce, was playing for England; their next best, Niall O’Brien and Eoin Morgan, were unable to play because they had been retained by their counties. In the circumstances Ireland’s margin of defeat – 38 runs – was far better than feared, but the match felt more like an exhibition game than a fully-fledged ODI.
As they prepared for the 2007 World Cup, not everyone wished Ireland well. “The idea that they can provide proper opposition for any genuine Test team is ludicrous. But the World Cup will be substantially ruined to perpetuate this myth,” warned the Editor’s Notes in Wisden 2006, while lamenting that ODIs like Ireland against England would “add another layer of distortion to cricket’s poor old statistics” and would “create yet more bad cricket, leaving less time for the great contests which the public want to watch.”
It was a mainstream view, and for good reason.
In 2001, Ireland played in the ICC Trophy in Canada, the qualification tournament for the 2003 World Cup. They finished above only Denmark and the USA, and twice had to enlist the journalist James Fitzgerald as a substitute fielder.”I went up to the team manager and asked him who his 12th man was going to be that day,” Fitzgerald later recalled. “He kind of looked around and said, ‘Are you available?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I could give you a bit of time as I don’t have to file my copy until later this evening’.”
The following year, Ireland were defeated by Berkshire in the first round of the Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy. Their top score was extras. In the years since, Ireland have enriched cricket. They have bested five Full Members in the World Cup, scoring over 300 in three of those games, and did so with a team that is overwhelmingly home-grown. They have transformed cricket’s image within the Emerald Isle. Most importantly, their performances have won respect the world over, and changed the way cricket fans view Associate nations.
These are formidable achievements, and Ireland have done it all while feeling shunned by the ICC. They only played nine ODIs against Test teams between the 2011 and 2015 World Cups: four wasted years for an international team. They have won four of the last five editions of the Intercontinental Cup, but Test status has remained elusive. Until 2015, Ireland got by on about one-eighth the ICC funding of Zimbabwe.
There is now cause for optimism on all these fronts. Ireland’s funding has ticked up under the new ICC regime, and could do so more in the coming months. The ICC is close to agreeing to theintroduction of two divisions, of seven and five, in Test cricket, with promotion and, in essence, everything that Ireland have long advocated with such venom. Quiet fury remains at the contraction of the World Cup to ten teams, but Ireland have been heartened by their progress in securing top-level fixtures.
Sri Lanka and Pakistan play two ODIs each at Malahide this summer – the first summer ever that Ireland will host two Test nations for multi-match series. Afghanistan also play five ODIs, and Ireland will play Australia and South Africa during a tour of Southern Africa this autumn, which could yet take in matches in Zimbabwe too. Bangladesh and New Zealand have already signed up to playing a tri-series in Ireland next May.
Yet such heartening news conceals a lingering fear: that these opportunities are arriving only as the generation that has compelled the world to take note of Irish cricket is nearing retirement. The side’s most reliable batsmen – Ed Joyce and Niall O’Brien – and the leaders of the attack, Tim Murtagh and Boyd Rankin, are all well into their 30s. Trent Johnston, Ireland’s skipper a decade ago, recently advocated an end to William Porterfield’s eight-year reign as captain, at least in T20 cricket, and implored the selectors to shake up the team.
There will be signs of that against Sri Lanka. O’Brien’s injury has created a vacancy in the top six, which is likely to be filled by Stuart Poynter, who has been in fine fettle for Durham’s second XI this season. Barry McCarthy, an athletic fast-bowling allrounder who has broken into Durham’s first team, is primed to make his international debut.
Though he lacks express pace, McCarthy is a very modern cricketer, zestful in all three disciplines across all three formats, and with the temperament to seize the moment. A probing spell to Ben Stokes in the Malahide nets in 2013 so impressed Stokes that he alerted Durham to McCarthy’s talents; this season, he has responded with a five-for in a Championship game against Lancashire and a brace of three-fors in T20s. His presence, and O’Brien’s absence, mean that, unusually, Ireland look stronger in their bowling than batting, and have a pace attack to exploit any Sri Lankan jitters.
There is an obvious way that McCarthy and his emerging generation can improve on the achievements of Ireland’s old guard: by toppling Full Members at home, something Ireland have not done since besting Bangladesh in 2010. They are yet to defeat a Test side at Malahide, their cricketing home.
Ireland have spent longer than they would have wished bemoaning the intransigence of cricket’s governing elite in depriving them of chances to prove their worth. Now, at last, the side is beginning to get the opportunities it considers its right. For the game’s future in Ireland, the team has to take them.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts……… © ESPN Sports Media Ltd.