England’s capitulation at the hands of Pakistan over the past month has had something of a comforting familiarity about it. Granted, middle-order collapses and three-day drubbings are distant hallmarks of the nineties – a decade far removed from the current standing of Andy Flower’s charges – but memories of mediocrity are so indelible that the depression brought on by Saeed Ajmal and friends has been slightly reassuring.
Barely 24 hours after a 3-0 whitewash was completed, though, the resultant outcry is already slightly tedious. Predictably, Kevin Pietersen has been vilified for his struggles against spin. Andrew Strauss has been reminded constantly that he has not scored a Test century since Brisbane 2010. No one seems to know whether Eoin Morgan can translate his considerable one-day skills into the longer format. Snore. If you haven’t nodded off yet, let’s talk about something else.
A fortnight ago, a story broke that grabbed my imagination more securely than anything across the United Arab Emirates over recent weeks (with the exception of a squawking Ajmal explaining his bowling action live on Sky Sports yesterday). Ireland’s announcement of their plans to apply for Test status, setting 2020 as their target entry date, was an extremely refreshing and exciting piece of news. It is a no brainer for romantics. There may just be enough to sway the realists, too.
The charming mystique that surrounds the Emerald Isle has always lent itself very nicely to sport. During the FIFA World Cups of 1990 and 2002, for instance, everyone found themselves an Irish relative as an excuse to support the men in green. I certainly talked a bit more about the fact that my grandmother was born in Cork. Equally, the efforts of Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke over the past 18 months have ensured that Ulster forever has a place in the echelons of world golf. Brian O’Driscoll, a sublime blend of manic aggression and impish dexterity on the rugby field, epitomises the allure perfectly. Already, the same glorious chaos has touched cricket.
Over the past two World Cups, Ireland have progressed markedly, taking some notable scalps on the way. Scrambling to a three-wicket win against Pakistan in 2007 laid the foundations for another run chase last year – the phenomenal pursuit of England’s 327-8 at Bangalore. Though the ICC’s frankly disgusting decision to restrict the 2015 tournament to ten teams briefly threatened to stall any momentum from the latter victory, a 14-side format will be retained following a widespread uproar.
Kevin O’Brien’s brutish, bludgeoning and brilliant innings of 113 from just 63 balls that night in March caught the imagination of the global game; something confirmed by O’Brien’s presence alongside his brother Niall in the player auction for the Indian Premier League at the weekend. Neither sibling received a bid but, then again, the same fate befell James Anderson, Graeme Swann, Ian Bell, Ravi Bopara and Matt Prior. They should not be at all ashamed.
The O’Briens are just two products to emerge from a fertile conveyor belt of talent across the Irish Sea. Over the past seasons, Ed Joyce and Morgan were cannily grabbed by England and given a chance to shine on a brighter stage. Looking towards the future, Middlesex opener Paul Stirling and left-arm spinner George Dockrell of Somerset each have a great deal to offer. What is more, William Porterfield captained the ICC Combined Associate and Affiliate XI that worried Strauss’ tourists in Dubai at the start of January.
This is not to say that success has been built on the odd extraordinary individual. Back in 1969, at the Sion Mills ground 12 miles south of Londonderry, a touring West Indies side with the great Clive Lloyd in tow were duly dispatched by nine wickets after being bowled out for just 25. If that event was a sign of things to come, they are, albeit belatedly, starting to arrive.
Ireland’s head coach, former West Indies all-rounder Phil Simmons, has guided them to the top of both the World ICC Continental Cup – a four-day competition contested between Afghanistan, Canada, Kenya, Namibia, Netherlands, Scotland and the United Arab Emirates, the ‘second tier’ nations. Should they end the tournament, which wraps up next October, at the summit of the table, their claim for promotion to the world’s elite will be convincing. But more is promised.
Cricket Ireland’s plan also includes a rise from their eleventh in the one-day international rankings to eighth, as well as an increase in player numbers across the country to 50,000. A third criterion, the establishment of an autonomous first-class structure will be the most difficult to achieve by far, given the proximity and traditions of England’s County Championship, but ambition is always healthy. Indeed, speaking at the end of January, chief executive Warren Deutrom articulated this beautifully:
"This is not a dreamy aspiration but a real objective founded on the playing talent being developed on this island, the growing passion and profile of the game here, a sustained and proven track record of achievement on and off the field, and a clear roadmap set out by us for how to get there."
Deutrom’s words inspire the listener to drift off, perhaps to entertain the prospect of Ireland hosting Australia in a three-match series before the Ashes. As Guinness flowed in Dublin and Belfast as the Baggy Green would be forced to face up to an emerald tide. Maybe one day, the challenge of touring Ireland may be as much of a Litmus test as the Asian sub-continent has become to budding world-beaters.
As time has shown, Test cricket is at its most enthralling when there are elements of the unknown, with two sides fighting to claim the upper hand in every session. Why deprive Ireland a chance to compete in such an arena? They might just thrive.