There are countries that harbor aspirations to become full members of the International Cricket Council and, with it, the opportunity to play Test cricket.
The case of Ireland should provide a salutary example of a rocky path. Awarded full-member status in 2017, Ireland is finding adaptation to Test cricket a tough and gradual process, full of unexpected challenges.
A detailed set of criteria has been put in place by the ICC to determine both full- and associate-member status. In summary, they cover aspects of governance, administration and finance, performance, participation and domestic structures, infrastructure and development policies.
The performance aspect includes a requirement that the men’s team had registered a specified number of victories over full-member teams in specified tournaments over an eight-year horizon. During the same horizon, participation in at least three ICC World Cups and/or T20 events is required, whilst the women’s team is required to have participated in at least one ICC World Cup or T20 in the previous four years.
Satisfying the criteria takes time, resources and effort. Cricket Ireland was justifiably proud of its success and its 2021 three-year strategic plan was launched under the title of “Creating a Cricket Island.”
This recognized the urgent requirement “to develop facilities across the Island to support Grassroots, Pathway and Senior International players.” Having recently visited one of the four grounds which are ICC approved, it is clear a number of years of sustained investment will be required to bring facilities and venues up to appropriate levels.
Cricket in Ireland is probably the fifth-most popular team sport after soccer, Gaelic football, hurling and rugby. This provides it with a difficulty in attracting sufficient support. Although full-member status meant that Cricket Ireland was slated to receive some $40 million from the ICC in the funding cycle ending in 2023, the cost of hosting its first-ever Test match against Pakistan in 2018 was estimated to be $1.14 million. Almost half of these costs were incurred by a lack of permanent infrastructure which necessitated the installation of temporary seating and other portable structures. The crowd witnessed a memorable match in which Ireland came close to securing a famous victory.
Ireland’s next two Tests were played in 2019, against Afghanistan in India and England at Lords, where they came very close to causing a shock. Plans to host a Test against Bangladesh in summer 2020 were cancelled, even before the advent of COVID-19 restrictions. Financial difficulties were being encountered by Cricket Ireland, as a result of a shortfall in expected ICC funding allocation. The risk involved in hosting a second Test, in which revenue streams were unlikely to cover costs, was considered too high. Ireland is not included in the nine-team World Test Championship, so any Test match it plays is a “friendly” and lacks context.
Instead, Cricket Ireland chose to prioritize white-ball cricket in preparation for upcoming T20 World Cups and the start of the qualification process for the 2023 World Cup. The team did not qualify for the 2021 T20 tournament, but did so in 2022, where a rain-affected victory was achieved against the eventual winners, England.
Starting next week, Ireland will contest in the final qualifying phase for the 2023 World Cup. At the time that the decision to focus on white-ball cricket was made, the pandemic had not struck.
Its ubiquitous effects did not spare Cricket Ireland, which, despite showing a surplus of $1.65 million in 2020, generated a loss of $1.32 million in 2022. The 2020 surplus reflected the timing of grants received from Sport Ireland for COVID-19 resilience and reduced expenditure resulting from the postponement of events and activities. When events returned in 2021, they took place in bio-secure environments, which led to increased costs and low income because of limits on spectator numbers.
All of this has meant that Ireland played only three Tests in the four years since becoming a full member. This year the team has played three Tests in South Asia, one in Bangladesh and two in Sri Lanka, losing all three, quite heavily. Last week another Test was played against England at Lords, meaning that, of the seven Test matches played by Ireland, only one has been at home. There has been some criticism of this on the grounds that Cricket Ireland receives more funding, as a full member, from the ICC than associate members, primarily for the purpose of hosting Test cricket.
Apart from the impact of COVID-19 and financial difficulties, other mitigating circumstances have been advanced for Ireland’s lack of Test cricket and victories.
One is that a previous generation of players came to the end of their careers soon after gaining full-member status and that the new generation needed time to adjust to the longer game.
Another is that several Irish players, who played county cricket in England, were classed as overseas players once Ireland became a full member. Tim Murtagh is one example. In Ireland’s match against England in 2019, he took five for 13 in England’s first innings of 85 all out. Murtagh played most of his county cricket for Middlesex and has had to choose between continuing to do so or making himself available for Ireland. He chose the former but would have been a welcome addition to the Irish team last week when its bowling attack was savaged by England’s top order.
Ireland’s batting in its first innings was also a disappointment, being dismissed for 172. More application was in evidence in the second innings, with two players coming close to centuries. Only by playing Test cricket can they hope to improve in that format. Questions were raised about the wisdom of accepting the invitation to play the match so close to the World Cup qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe. Ireland and its players have to learn to cope with the demands of switching between all three formats if the standards required to maintain full-member status are to be fulfilled.