The loser takes it all

Ireland vs. Netherlands (Cricinfo via ICC)

Yesterday brought good news and better news for followers of Irish cricket. The good news was that Ireland trounced the Netherlands by 65 runs in Dubai to qualify for this spring’s World Twenty20 championships in the West Indies. The better news was that Ireland subsequently succumbed by eight wickets to Afghanistan in the final.

Why is this good news? Simply because the runners-up of the Associate qualifying competition have already been allocated to Group D of the final tournament, where the company (the limited-overs-challenged England and ever-brittle West Indies) is rather more congenial than that offered to the leading qualifiers in Group C (where Afghanistan will face South Africa and India.)

A fourth defeat in five recent encounters with the fast-rising Afghans may stick in the craw, but the publicity bonanza of a fixture against England and a genuine chance of progression will delight the Pangloss of the Pavillions, Cricket Ireland’s ever-optimistic CEO Warren Deutrom.

So firm is the Englishman’s faith in the future of the Irish game that Cricket Ireland recently submitted an “expression of intent” to apply for Full Member status to the International Cricket Council, although this was an act borne more of frustrated desperation than of optimism. Trapped between the glass window of hegemony at Associate level (now challenged by Afghanistan) and the brick wall of insularity at domestic level, Deutrom took the only option open to him; he forced a response from the ICC, in the hope of forestalling the stagnation and decline which befell the similarly-disposed Kenyans in the late nineties.

That response finally came to my attention last Thursday, via the indispensable Munster Cricket Blog.

“Following Cricket Ireland’s expression of intent to apply for Full or Enhanced Membership of the ICC, the Board has approved a three-step process recommended by the Governance Review Committee which begins with a review of categories of Membership.

When that work has been completed and consideration has been given to the process for dealing with applications, Cricket Ireland’s application for Full or Enhanced Membership of the ICC will be formally considered.”

It’s difficult to imagine how that statement could have been worded any less meaningfully, and it’s not exactly a pulse-pumper. It is, after all, a cursory declaration of an indefinite assessment period, preliminary to a formal process of consideration and pursuant to an expression of intent. But the bureaucratic wheels have been set in motion, and Deutrom’s chutzpah has kept the question of Ireland’s membership status bleeping healthily on the ICC’s radar.

All they have to do to keep it there in the interim is to keep winning and fell the occasional giant. That, however, has ceased to be the uncomplicated affair it was only last year. Not all is well in the cricketing department, as evinced by Ireland’s performances in the Twenty20 qualifiers. Yes, Ireland won three of their six games emphatically, but two of those were against Scotland and the Netherlands, teams in terminal decline, and the third against a side – the USA – which shouldn’t have been there at all, promoted miles above its capability by an ICC always eager to nurture lucrative new markets (though they still beat Scotland.)

The retirement of off-spinner Kyle McCallan, a stifler of batsmen of all standards, has deprived the attack of critical control, and the jury remains out upon the young captain William Porterfield. Although unquestionably a fine opening batsman, Porterfield is a youthful non-bowler in a team of veteran all-rounders; it’s little wonder his field settings are of questionable quality.

One consistently worrying feature of the recent campaign was the vulnerability of a middle order suffused with alleged all-rounders. Among their number are Andy White (a batsman who can bowl a little), Alex Cusack (who can bat well and bowl superbly, but never in the same game), André Botha (a batting bowler who has forgotten how to bat), Kevin O’Brien (a bowling batsman who has forgotten how to do either) and John Mooney (who doesn’t bowl anymore but can probably claim to be the only specialist no. 9 batsman in international cricket.)

The feebleness of the middle order was consistently offset by the meaty opening partnerships of Porterfield and Niall O’Brien, and the quiet but quick-scoring efficiency of Gary Wilson. I have no explanation for the absence of the apparently uninjured prodigy Paul Stirling after the first game, but nothing stays secret for long in Irish cricket.

Trent Johnston, bowling off a shoulder now held together entirely by prayer and force of habit, took eight wickets at ten apiece. Not even he can continue indefinitely, however, and with Boyd Rankin seldom fit when available and seldom available when fit, Ireland’s ability to threaten with the new ball is seriously compromised. Peter Connell is a serviceable replacement at Associate level, but lacks the pace and guile to discommode Test batsmen.

One shining shaft of sunlight amidst the gathering gloom, however, is the emergence of Leinster left-arm spinner George Dockrell. The 17-year-old turned heads in the warm-up fixtures but took some serious tap in the tournament proper, twice going for more than ten an over. Phil Simmons is to be commended for persevering with the youngster, and was rewarded with a return of 4-20 in the decisive game against the Netherlands.

Such patient handling will hopefully prevent Dockrell from going the way of Greg Thompson, the young legspinner (and Lisburn clubmate of Alastair Ross MLA) who melted from the scene, switched to bowling off-breaks, and whose international career is long behind him at 22. Regan West will do well to recover from a serious shoulder injury before Dockrell nails down the slow left armers’ spot. A pity, because watching the hulking West daintily tweak his spinners like a wrestler serving tea from the good china is one of the more incongruous sights in cricket (and, moreover, he’s an excellent bowler.)

So why the impending generation gap when Ireland’s under-age teams are so relentlessly dominant at European level? The answer to that question is one that requires a more definite response than the despatch of speculative applications to ICC HQ, and one which Deutrom has not yet had the courage to address. Namely, the structure of domestic cricket.

From top to bottom, it’s a shambles. The closest thing Ireland has to an all-island championship is the Bob Kerr Irish Senior Cup, a limited-overs knockout competition. A small island of some five million people supports (after a fashion) not one, nor two, but three senior cricket unions, each with its own leagues and cups, and two of which are based in Northern Ireland. Parochialism consistently trumps progress in an environment which sees internationals (those who haven’t been meekly surrendered to county cricket without any serious effort made to keep them at home) compete against and alongside recreational dabblers more concerned with knocking back pints than knocking down stumps.

Progress in Irish cricket comes in two flavours; glacial and half-baked. Adi Birrell’s blueprint for Leinster cricket, adopted for the 2010 season by the LCU, partook generously of the latter. Under the new dispensation, the convoluted Senior/Junior/Intermediate grading system has been abolished and replaced by a classic Irish fudge. Teams – even reserve teams – can now move freely between the thirteen divisions (with The Hills 2nds beginning in Division 2.) Cork County have been admitted to the league (good) but permitted to play only away fixtures (bad.) Both they and the anachronism that is Trinity’s semi-seasonal senior team will have their final points tallies calculated by mathematical formula. An Irish solution to an Irish problem if ever there was.

Indeed, one of the more quixotic aspects of Deutrom’s Full Membership gambit was the overlooked fact that a viable, First Class-ready domestic structure is a pre-requisite for Test status. In applying for Full Membership, Deutrom was cheerfully dragging the cart in his wake, while the horse remained stubbornly stationary. Until a determined effort is made to introduce a credible interprovincial axis to Irish cricket, Deutrom’s entreaties will be rightly dismissed at the top table. If doing so means trampling on local sensibilities in Northern Ireland and hauling the game out of its torpid middle-class pints ‘n’ pavillions milieu in Leinster, then so be it.

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2 Responses to “The loser takes it all”

  1. blogtok Says:

    Its just Not Cricket ……

    (:

  2. Ajithkumar Chandramouli Says:

    I appreciate the work that you have put in, in this page. Really good, also I wish to quote a few lines from this article in my Cricket site, I will give a link back to this article. Again.. it is really a good work.ThanksAjithkumar

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