Testing times ahead for Ireland's cricket team

In all those years of success following that incredible 2007 World Cup win over Pakistan, there was a sense that the Irish sporting public couldn’t quite get their head around the fact they had a cricket team that was taking on and beating the best teams in the world.

Pakistan at Sabina Park in Jamaica on that St Patrick’s Day party to end all parties. England at the 2011 World Cup, the West Indies four years later.

In three successive World Cups, Ireland recorded stunning victories against the biggest names in cricket, that most garrison of garrison games.

But, as John Bracewell’s team prepare to take on England this week at Bristol tomorrow and Lord’s on Sunday, the buzz around the team has stilled.

After 11 trophies in eight years under Phil Simmons, Ireland have slipped to 12th in the one-day international rankings, and below Oman to 18th in the Twenty20 rankings in the two years under Bracewell.

Former New Zealand coach Bracewell’s main remit when he took the job in April 2015 was to win the Inter-Continental Cup, and prepare and lead Ireland to Test status through the Test Challenge.

Changes to the International Cricket Council [ICC] constitution, agreed in April and set to be ratified in June, now mean that Ireland and Afghanistan are set to be promoted from associate to Test status regardless of their I-Cup results.

And that is just as well for Ireland, whose I-Cup fate is no longer in their own hands following the humiliating innings and 172-run defeat to Afghanistan in India in March.

Afghanistan and Ireland have vied for the unofficial title of top associate cricket nation over the past eight years, with the Afghans now in pole position after beating Ireland in all three forms of the game, ODI, T20 and multi-day, in March.

Cricket Ireland have been quick to put Afghanistan’s rise into context, with chief executive Warren Deutrom pointing out that the Asian nation “get a lot more bang for their US buck”.

Like Ireland, Afghanistan receive ICC development money, but they also receive financial assistance from the US, Italian, and German governments, who are keen to use cricket to help build a functioning civil society in the war-torn and politically turbulent state.

Afghanistan can afford to fund 190 centrally contracted cricketers 10-12 academies and six full-time regional teams, while Ireland have around 20 players on central contracts, and four regional teams made up of both professional and amateur cricketers.

“We have a couple of indoor schools that we don’t own, and outdoor practice facilities on grass wickets are non-existent,” Ireland’s star batsman Ed Joyce told the Analyst podcast.

“When I was at Sussex I could ring up and get a coach and a grass wicket any day I wanted. Here, we are reliant on clubs to sort you out, and there is nothing ‘high performance’ about that.”

Thousands of Irish fans will travel to Lord’s on Sunday, with many likely to flaunt the ground’s strict rules on fancy dress, but their enthusiasm will be tempered by realism.

Those heady, scarcely believable days of World Cup shocks and ICC trophies under Simmons are well and truly over.

Ireland are unlikely to qualify for the 2019 tournament in England, and even Joyce accepts that a victory in either of the two matches against England is a long shot.

“Over the past two years, we have struggled to match the performances and hit the heights we did before and during the 2015 World Cup,” the 38-year-old continued.

“We have had a tough 18 months, and some new, young players coming into the team in the bowling department following the retirements of Trent Johnston, John Mooney and Alex Cusack.

“We had a poor series against Pakistan last year and struggled against Sri Lanka, although I think we played quite well in the 3-2 ODI series defeat to Afghanistan in India.

“We are hoping to get back to the way we used to play, by putting in good performances more than anything else.

“We talked about trying to win a lot of games [against the top teams] in the past couple of years, perhaps unrealistically so given the resources we have.”


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