Coach Phil Simmons has signed a new two-year deal, and a record 23 players have been awarded central contracts, in a move CI chief executive Warren Deutrom hopes will end the talent drain across the Irish Sea.
Irish-born Ed Joyce and Eoin Morgan have both declared for England in the last decade, while fast bowler Boyd Rankin is currently training with the England Lions in the hope of achieving his ultimate ambition to play Test cricket.
However, Deutrom believes the “Vision to 2020 — Ireland a Test Nation” blueprint will persuade the country’s new generation of cricketers, such as 21-year-old batsman Paul Stirling and 19-year-old off-spinner George Dockrell, that they can achieve their international ambitions with Ireland.
CI aim to introduce a first-class cricket structure, and increase the playing base from 28,000 to 50,000 cricketers, as they target Test status and a top-eight world ranking over the next eight years.
“As long as Test cricket continues to be the pinnacle of the sport, it must be something to which we aspire,” Deutrom said.
“We shall continue to lose those players who seek that fulfilment, as long as it is denied to Ireland. If Test cricket is first-rate, any other ambition is second-rate, and all we shall be is a feeder system for England.”
Rankin has spent the winter training with the England Lions at Loughborough and in the warm weather camp in South Africa, and coach Simmons admits he is already planning for life without the Bready man leading the Irish attack.
Simmons told the Irish Examiner that Middlesex seamer Tim Murtagh has obtained Irish citizenship through the grandparent rule, and is in his plans for the coming season.
One player who may be out of Simmons’ plans is wicketkeeper Niall O’Brien, who has signed a contract with the Khulna Royal Bengals in the Twenty20 tournament in Bangladesh (BPL) from February 9-20, against the wishes of his country.
Ireland travel to Kenya in February for an Intercontinental Cup game on February 12-15 and two subsequent World Cup qualifiers, but O’Brien has told CI that he will only be available for the qualifiers on February 18 and 20.
The Irish Examiner understands that O’Brien will not be selected for the Twenty20 World Cup qualifiers in the United Arab Emirates in March should he not make himself available for the whole Kenya trip.
“We have five or six players that could have gone to the BPL,” said Simmons.
“But five of them saw that Ireland had a tour and decided not to put their name forward. One of them decided to go.”