What if achieving your team’s objectives meant turning off access to your best talent development tools? That choice faced Cricket Ireland in the years before the governing body became a Full Member of the International Cricket Council [ICC].
By John Portch
Ireland, a country where cricket has historically been a niche sport with an amateur league, rose from being an ICC Associate Member to join the elite band of nations with Full Membership, in June 2017. All Full Members must be able to provide a viable first-class, professional competition that allows teams to compete against one another in four-day matches.
A by-product of Ireland’s four-team Inter-Provincial Championship assuming that first-class status in 2017 was the knowledge that, from 2019, Irish players within the English County Championship, who have long enjoyed domestic status, will henceforth be considered overseas players in the same manner as their peers from Australasia, South Asia and the Caribbean. They will all enter the global market for the one overseas playing slot available to each of the 18 County Championship teams. After decades of untrammelled access to what was effectively a professional overseas feeder league and finishing school, Irish players will be at an instant disadvantage.
The significance of this administrative flourish cannot be underestimated. Take the 11 players who took to the field for Ireland’s inaugural Test match against Pakistan in May: nine had plied their trade in the County Championship at some stage during their careers. Inevitably, it will take time for the Inter-Provincial Championship to consistently produce elite talent, but Richard Holdsworth, the Performance Director of Cricket Ireland, is not fazed.
“We always knew that was coming and how much it would affect us,” he told the Leaders Performance Institute ahead of the Test match with Pakistan. “We cannot keep relying on English cricket to develop our players.” The challenge is particularly acute in a nation where there has traditionally been minimal interest in a sport far more readily associated with their English neighbours across the Irish Sea.
Think of the children
Cricket Ireland’s historical reliance on the English County Championship derives from the historical weakness of Irish talent pathways. If a kid showed potential with the bat or ball, assuming they ventured anywhere near one of Ireland’s few cricket fields in the first place, they might venture to England or slip through the net entirely.
Irish players have also represented England across all three formats of the game. Medium pace bowler Boyd Rankin is a case in point, while England’s current one-day international and Twenty20 captain is the Dublin-born Eoin Morgan. What can Cricket Ireland do to prevent the Morgans of the future disappearing the moment they display promise?
“We needed a much better structure and system to develop our players,” says Holdsworth. By the time he came on board as Performance Director in 2011, Cricket Ireland was already paying salaries to its top players, although the infrastructure around these professionals was lacking. Any reconstruction had to start with the children: “We set up a national academy and got a long-term sponsor involved, which gave us some sustainability. We started to put structures in place for both the men’s and women’s games to ensure that we were creating good under-19s sides. There’s an under-19 World Cup every two years and we want to be qualifying for it and be competitive.”
The appointment of the South African Graham Ford as Head Coach towards the end of 2017 was another piece of the jigsaw, as Cricket Ireland gained the services of an individual who has coached in the international arena with Sri Lanka and had once served as Director of Performance for County Championship side Kent. Ford has been pivotal in shaping the direction of Cricket Ireland’s talent pathway.
Holdsworth says: “I have regular conversations with Graham. We live in the same village and will grab a coffee when we’re at home. In the main we’ll talk about programmes and structures. We’ll consider if we have the right people in place, if everything is set up for the next preparation period, what we should be working on, how does the pathway below filter in and support what we’re doing with the national team. He is very keen at looking in on the pathway and is influential in under-17 and under-18s programmes, provincial cricket. His time is limited but it’s good to gauge his thoughts and opinions around that and then for me to make it happen and pull all the pieces together.”
Head for foreign climes
The elevation of the Inter-Provincial Championship to first-class status was acknowledgement of an improving league. “We had our first First Class game of the season last week when the Northwest Warriors faced Leinster Lightning here in Dublin,” says Holdsworth. “The teams included the likes of Ireland captain William Porterfield, Niall O’Brien, a huge stalwart of county cricket, and Boyd Rankin, who is back from Warwickshire; and it was really good to see all of our Irish squad based in Ireland. It was also good to see the standards were very high; it was a highly-contested game, a very good standard throughout, and very professionally run. That’s what we need to keep doing.
“In terms of facilities, we’ve expanded our grounds so that we’ve now got four national grounds, two in Northern Ireland and two in Dublin.”
For all this undoubted progress, Irish cricket has long been held back by the brevity of its domestic season, which continually hampered by the wet conditions in this corner of the north Atlantic. “In Ireland, the season is really just five months,” explains Holdsworth. “It’s arguably too short and if you compare the situation to that of Southern Hemisphere players, a lot of them are playing cricket for 8-10 months of the year. We’re going to look at our domestic structures and it may be that we end up playing some of our domestic cricket in October and November at our warm weather facility at La Manga in southern Spain.”
There is a dual benefit, as playing conditions differ from continent to continent and, inevitably, half of all international matches are played abroad. “We’ll do a lot of work in La Manga, particularly in winter, and help develop skills on wickets that we would be able to develop here in Ireland.”
The Irish diaspora
The Irish diaspora is one of the most widespread in the world, including significant representation in cricket-playing nations such as England, Australia and New Zealand. Cricket Ireland has regularly selected foreign-born players with an Irish parent or grandparent. Tim Murtagh, a London-born fast-medium bowler with Irish heritage, has played more than 40 matches for Ireland and worn the colours with pride and distinction.
The Football Association of Ireland is another Ireland-based sporting body that has long been proactive in identifying players of Irish heritage in an effort to broaden the talent pool, while the Irish Rugby Football Union calls upon naturalised players for its representative teams as a matter of course.
For their part, Cricket Ireland has developed a network with a global reach that can identify players with Irish ancestry. “We’re making a huge investment here and we want Irish-born and bred players as much as we can but we’d be crazy not to look elsewhere,” says Holdsworth. “We’ve recently started up a global talent scouting network with a lot of friends of Irish cricket around the world; some former players, some former coaches, other people close to the game living abroad.
“Anyone with an Irish parent or grandparent is entitled to Irish citizenship and the scouting network is set up to help potential players consider their options. We know there’s a number of people who feel they may not get an opportunity in their own country and may have a better chance of playing international cricket elsewhere. We’re happy to consider their eligibility and, ideally, we would like to see any player who fits that category come to live in Ireland, to understand our culture and begin to work with the rest of the players. We also want our players to be playing in premier leagues around the world too because that would give them more experience and opportunities to play with and against world-class players. We don’t hunt the world for Irish diaspora but it’s something we’re open to.”
Holdsworth believes that the development of the player pathway would be Cricket Ireland’s biggest success if he and his colleagues can get it right. “The key for us is making sure that we give them the best opportunity to develop their skills, be it in camps or playing all over the world against top opposition. Then it’s making sure we’ve got a very fit squad of players and making sure we’ve got an extremely good fielding side, as I think those are two areas where we can be equal or even better than some of the world’s best.”
The journey will be long but Cricket Ireland at least has a roadmap.