Ireland captain Andy Balbirnie admitted that he would watch Tuesday’s win against England “four or five times” during his 14-day quarantine period upon returning to Dublin. But there’s no doubt that, along with the rest of the Irish hierarchy, he will be thinking of ways to build on that result, too. Here are five ways to do just that…
Keep faith in youth
Ireland’s XI for the final match had an average age of just 26, making it their youngest ODI side since 2010; only two years earlier, against Zimbabwe in March 2018, they had fielded their oldest-ever team. In this series, Balbirnie took the bold call to leave out his predecessor, with 20-year-old Harry Tector preferred to William Porterfield at No. 4. He also backed Gareth Delany (23), Lorcan Tucker (23) and Curtis Campher (21) throughout, while Josh Little (20) impressed in the second ODI.
There are hopes that either JJ Garth, a reserve throughout this series, or Jacob Mulder can fill the long-term wristspinning void, while there are now signs of genuine seam-bowling depth, with the quicks performing creditably in this series despite injury limiting Barry McCarthy to five legitimate deliveries.
“It’s been a process since May 2019, really, since that ODI in Malahide,” said Niall O’Brien, the former Ireland wicketkeeper. “[Head coach] Graham Ford and the selectors have had an eye on the future. My feeling is that they’ve made the decision to go with the youngsters and they’re going to pursue it.
“They’re not going to learn anything about these players if they’re sitting on the bench. We may need to endure some tough days at the office, but who’s to say if they had played the more experienced heads the results would have been any different? The big thing is that they just need more cricket.”
More regular fixtures against top opposition through the World Cup Super League will mean that those players are thrown in at the deep end. “There’s no hiding place anymore,” Balbirnie said. “Guys coming into the squad for the first time are going to be coming up against some of the best players in the world from the off. It’s sink or swim.”
And while their returns in the series were mixed, the young players have to be backed all the way. Ireland have struggled to replace their golden generation over the last decade, but there are finally signs of a talented group coming through together. They must nurture them.
Embrace the ‘granny rule’
Irish sport has benefitted hugely from the ‘granny rule’ over the years, so called due to FIFA’s eligibility regulations which allow a player to represent a country so long as one grandparent was born there. Ireland’s broadly-spread diaspora – and relatively low barriers for getting a passport – have therefore enabled various players to represent their national teams, despite limited ties to the country.
Curtis Campher is the latest example of how cricket has benefitted, following the path of other adopted Irishmen like Trent Johnston, Alex Cusack and Tim Murtagh. Campher happened to mention to Niall O’Brien that he had an Irish passport while batting in a tour game in early 2018. His initial hope was to play some club cricket, but within two years he had signed a development contract. He is still yet to play a match on Irish soil, but is already their most promising talent thanks to a stunning breakout series.
“I don’t have any real problem with it,” O’Brien said. “You don’t just want anybody coming over – you don’t want to be emailing every county player in case they have Irish heritage. But if you can find someone like Campher, who is going to live in Dublin and play club cricket for YMCA, and really buy into it, then why not?”
Nick Larkin, Daniel Worrall, Matt Dunn and South Africans Graham Hume and Ruhan Pretorius are among the players that could be convinced to qualify. And if there any feelings of unease, Ireland need only look to Hove as a reminder that the talent drain to England is still firmly in process. Sussex’s 19-year-old offspinner Jack Carson took 5 for 52 against Hampshire this week: he was brought up in County Armagh and played age-group cricket for Ireland, but has set out his stall to follow the Morgan, Joyce and Rankin route.
One of the drawbacks of Ireland being awarded Test status is that their players can no longer play as locals in county cricket – unless, like Murtagh and Stuart Poynter, they decide to give up their international careers. Paul Stirling has an overseas contract with Northants for the upcoming T20 Blast but is currently the only current Ireland player who will play for a county this season.
Previously, even being part of a county’s staff was a significant boost for Irish players. “It was pivotal,” O’Brien said. “I wouldn’t have reached anywhere near the level of consistency and professionalism I did without county cricket – no way.
“Even if I wasn’t in the first team in Kent, I was still working with Geraint Jones, Matt Walker, Rob Key. Back in those days, you’d have been left to your own devices. The structure, coaching and facilities in Ireland now are a lot better, but the loss of county cricket to the Irish game is significant. It’ll take a long time to replicate and get players to that standard.”
While the chances of being signed for a full season as an overseas are slim, some Ireland players should be able to put their names in the hat for 50-over cricket next season, with two overseas players permitted per side in the Royal London Cup and the best internationals likely to be signed up for the Hundred. If agents pitch them as young, talented and – most importantly – cheap options for teams’ second slots, then players like Balbirnie, Campher and Mark Adair should find suitors.
A more radical move would be an attempt to enter that competition, possibly under the guise of Ireland Wolves, the national ‘A’ team. Ireland’s players got regular cricket through the Friends Provident/C&G Trophy from 2006-09 after it moved to a round-robin group stage, but rejected an invitation for the CB40 in 2010 citing a busy international schedule. The number of mid-summer fixtures has hardly increased since then, but sending a second-string side could be a worthwhile compromise.
Perhaps the Wolves entering the Royal London Cup is unlikely, but it would not even be worth speculating about if Irish domestic cricket was restructured. Ford said before the England series: “We’ve got to be honest and accept that the step-up from club cricket and inter-pro cricket to international cricket is pretty huge.”
The inter-provincial system has three teams – Leinster Lightning, Northern Knights, North-West Warriors – and a fourth (Munster Reds) in T20 cricket. Leinster have been dominant across formats, with most of the country’s top players at Dublin clubs, and Balbirnie has suggested that some kind of player draft should be used to ensure good young players are not being left out.
“We need the best 33 players playing, no matter what the situation, no matter who they’re playing for,” he told the Telegraph. “Sometimes Leinster, my team, can be quite strong and three or four lads will miss out who are definitely good enough to play in the competition but because of the region they’re in they don’t.”
Meanwhile, Ireland cannot afford the Euro T20 Slam to fail again in 2021, after two aborted launches. “The purpose wasn’t for it to be a business proposition, it was primarily a performance one,” Warren Deutrom, Cricket Ireland’s CEO, told ESPNcricinfo earlier this year. “It came from a place of the three nations [Ireland, Netherlands, Scotland] not having too many players participating in global T20 competitions, and therefore Ireland’s ranking suffered.”
If that is the case, it may be sensible to cut ties with the league’s organisers, who ran into financial difficulties during the Global T20 Canada in 2019, and run a lower-key competition among the three boards, with lower salary bands for overseas players and fewer of them per team.
While any of these steps may provide some benefits, the real silver bullet for Ireland is increased funding. The costs of staging cricket with no permanent home ground are eye-watering – hosting the Pakistan Test at Malahide in 2018 was estimated to cost around €1 million – while Deutrom has regularly pointed out that Ireland receive a paltry annual sum from the ICC compared to other full members.
“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,” Deutrom said in December 2019.
“This has been a great disappointment to us as we had hoped to have had an injection of new money into the sport from full membership that would have not only helped fulfil fixtures, but invest in infrastructure and the grassroots game across Ireland. We have been told that this expected shortfall is set to continue until 2023 when a new ICC Funding Model will be developed that will hopefully provide a greater share of the overall allocation, although of course that is still subject to discussion among all the members.”
With financial reserves low even before the Covid-19 crunch, the reality for Ireland is that funds will be stretched over the next few years. Until that changes, any steps forward will be incremental.