ďIt was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.Ē
Charles Dickens words from A Tale of Two Cities to a large extent encapsulate what has happened in 2017 in relation to Ireland cricket on the international stage. The best of times was the astonishing news last June that Ireland had not only been awarded Test status but also was to become a Full Member.
The fact that Test status alone was a good two years earlier than anyone could have hoped for added to the elation at the announcement. However the new status has brought its own problems. Cricket Ireland was gearing itself to meet the challenge of the highest level of the game by 2019/20 both off and on the field.
Suddenly there is a requirement for greater levels of governance, administration, infrastructure and of course revitalizing an aging senior squad.
In fairness to Cricket Ireland they have recognised that many issues need to be addressed and they appointed Inside Track, specialist sports consultants, to carry out a root and branch review of the organisation to identify the limitations and how they might be resolved. The report is due before the end of the year and hopefully any relevant recommendations will be implemented as soon as practical.
However practical is dependent to a large extent on available finance and while there is more money available from the ICC it doesnít come on stream until next year and is still far short of what the ten other nations receive. Fellow newcomers Afghanistan are to some extent in the same boat as us but because of Geo-political factors they are getting a lot of aid from USA, Germany, India, UK and Sweden to build stadiums, create cricket academies and fund centrally contracted players.
However while good governance and infrastructure is vital for a Full Member nation, Ireland will not be judged on how well they complete and return documents to ICC but rather on the performances on the field of play. And it is those performances that will attract or deter sponsors, media coverage and interest in the game among the general public who have a plethora of other sporting choices to consider.
2017 falls into the worst of times category for results. Excluding the abandoned West Indies match Ireland has played 23 matches this year to date winning just seven, losing fourteen, drew the I Cup match against the Netherlands and had a no result against Bangladesh in the tri-series in May.
They had two ODI and one T20I wins against UAE, two ODI wins against Afghanistan and T20I victories over Namibia and Scotland. However it was the performances against England, New Zealand and Bangladesh that has caused the greatest concern among cricket followers. Several of those performances could truthfully be described as uncompetitive and embarrassing.
The probability is that over the next few years the battle between Ireland and Afghanistan will be the newcomersí equivalent of the Ashes battle. It is not that long ago that Ireland clearly ruled the roost but now the advantage has swung the other way. This year they have met eleven times across all three formats and the Afghans are 9-2 ahead. Ireland will hope that the three ODIís scheduled for UAE in December bring better results.
Apart from positive results, relevance at this level and the associated rewards such as sponsorship and media coverage will only come about if there are sufficient fixtures to keep people interested. It is quite astonishing that in the year that Ireland became a Full Member there was not a single senior fixture in either June or July.
Apart from the years 1940-45, when there was the not insignificant matter of World War Two, this has not happened since 1935, eighty two years ago. Ireland was crushed by New Zealand in Malahide on the 21st May and didnít play again until the I Cup match against the Netherlands which commenced on the 15th August. That is 85 successive days at the height of the season without a fixture.
Even accounting for the West Indies match there were only 5 scheduled days of international cricket after the 21st May. Even during the old amateur days matches were organised during the summer months. This resulted in the farcical situation of the senior home based players such as Ed Joyce, the OíBrien brothers, Andrew Balbirnie, Peter Chase and Craig Young playing matches against the likes of Gloucestershire seconds and MCC Young Cricketers.
To be taken seriously as a Full Member this cannot be allowed to happen again.
The appointment of Graham Ford as the Ireland head coach will bring to an end the John Bracewell era. It is unclear whether or not Bracewell will be the coach for the final I Cup match against Scotland and the subsequent three ODIís against Afghanistan but as of now he has been in charge for sixty three capped matches.
Those sixty three games resulted in 21 wins, 35 defeats, 2 draws and 5 no results. However only one of the wins was against a Full Member, Zimbabwe, in October 2015.
The really telling statistic was that Ireland lost 25 matches to other Associates which is a far cry from the record under Phil Simmons.
As I have written on these pages before not all of this is Bracewellís fault as proper player development was largely neglected for several years. However he did not appear to have made the best use of the resources that he did have access to and perhaps was overly influenced by some within the Ireland set up.
Ford has a good track record at international level although in recent years he has not tended to see out his contract. It is crucial that he judges the players available to him rather than relying too heavily on those currently in situ that may have a vested interest in steering him in a certain direction.
He has an able assistant in the assistant and pace bowling coach Rob Cassell who has I understand has already made a favourable impression. There are quite a number of young bowlers with potential and if Cassell can be instrumental in bringing at least three into the senior squad over the next couple of years he can be more than happy.
All of this is going to take time and it is unrealistic to expect that Irelandís record over the past three years is going to improve dramatically in the short time. The development of Ireland cricket is largely down to success at each of the last three 50 over World Cups. This time the chance of qualifying is very precarious as only two teams will progress and the favourites will be the West Indies and Zimbabwe, especially as they are at home.
Afghanistan are also heavily in the mix and the six Associates will no longer be fearful of Ireland given their record since 2015. Failure to qualify will be deeply felt as the finals will be in the UK, a short hop across the Irish Sea.
Sponsors would be greatly disappointed at Irelandís absence from the biggest stage and that may impact on future contracts. I have no doubt that every effort will be made to come out of the Qualifiers and that can only happen with intensive work over the next few months starting in Sharjah in December.
It is crucial that hard decisions are made in relation to form. A number of senior players have been out of form for the best part of the last eighteen months and unless they produce the goods in December it is difficult to see how their places could be justified in March.
The just completed A team tour of Bangladesh was a major step in the right direction as all six matches were against quality players. Between them the Bangladesh squad had eleven players with full international experience and had 24 Test caps, 45 ODIís and 35 T20Iís.
The Wolves actually had more International experience between them with the 13 capped players totalling 337 appearances made up of 207 ODIís and 130 T20Iís. It must be said that George Dockrell accounted for over a third of those with 114 caps.
However the alien conditions in Bangladesh more than neutralised the Ireland advantage in caps and Ireland were unable to win a match. The purpose of the tour was to identify which players might come through to put pressure on the senior players who, as noted earlier, have not been performing to the standard required. It was good to see that everyone got an opportunity to display their wares with no one playing less than three games. The development element was more important than the results.
There were a number of good one off innings and several decent bowling spells but the overall performances lacked consistency and putting together a consolidated team performance remains difficult to achieve mirroring the senior team over the past eighteen months. A number of this squad must be included in the upcoming Afghanistan matches as these results donít matter in the context of preparing for the World Cup Qualifiers.
It was unfortunate that Graham Ford was not there to see the next generation of players but at least his new sidekick Rob Cassell did make the trip. Other countries do not hesitate to cap young players if they are good enough. Rashid Khan had just turned seventeen when he made his debut and the willingness to give youth their chance may well explain Afghanistanís rapid rise through the ranks. In their short ODI existence they have capped five players under the age of eighteen. Indeed Phil Simmons was happy to throw seventeen year olds Paul Stirling and George Dockrell into the fray because he believed they were good enough.
The U19 squad who have qualified for the World Cup in January contain several good pace bowlers and hopefully Rob Cassell gets a chance to put them through their paces. The possibility of at least one of them making the senior squad for the World Cup should not be discarded just because of their age.
In the tri-series in May there were a number of pretty sharp bowlers with Kiwi Adam Milne standing out. Indeed I recollect Andrew Balbirnie telling me that in his breakthrough 70 ball hundred against New Zealand A in November 2014 he was the quickest bowler he had ever faced.
While I am not suggesting that young Leinster Lightning pace bowler David Delany is of the quality of Adam Milne he is now a genuine prospect. I had watched him earlier in the year and while he had pace he was very erratic. However in the final 3 day inter-pro in Clontarf in September he produced as hostile and accurate a spell that I had seen all season. Watching him side-on he compared favourably with Milne who I had watched from the same vantage point in Malahide in May.
It is to be hoped that Rob Cassell can work his magic on Delany and while it is unrealistic to expect massive improvement in the short term, provided he is fully committed Delany has the potential to be the spearhead of the Ireland attack before the decade is over.
The biggest problem with Ireland cricket in recent times is that it has ceased to be consistently competitive. Hopefully the new regime can infuse the current and prospective players with the never say die spirit that was the hallmark of the team from 2005-2015. That alone could be deemed as a success.
The home season, such as it was, finished on a contentious note with the abandonment of the West Indies ODI in Stormont without a ball bowled. As Cricket Ireland has recently stated lessons have been learned and they will ensure that protection of the playing area will be commensurate with the status of a Full Member.
The contention was partly as a result of an article written by ESPN Cricinfo headlined ďA costly farce unbecoming of a Test nationĒ. Having spoken to a couple of the groundstaff I was told that they felt that play could be possible but the forecast of heavy rain around lunch time was compromising the opportunity of play starting.
The final decision was in the hands of the umpires and they eventually called the game off not long before a torrential rainstorm hit the ground. Earlier to reinforce the view that the ground wasnít fit for play one of the umpires did a number of exaggerated slides on the outfield on the pavilion side of the ground.
Ironically six days later there was another ďA costly farce unbecoming of a Test nationĒ except that this time in was in the ODI between England and West Indies at Old Trafford when the game was delayed for over two hours despite the ground being bathed in bright sunshine. And this at a venue that has hosted 130 international fixtures and has vastly greater resources than Cricket Ireland.
The author of the original piece ignored the Manchester issue until Ed Joyce tweeted him and received a mealy mouthed response. What was totally ignored was the events of the Saturday evening after the Stormont abandonment when England faced West Indies in a T20I at the Riverside Ground in Durham.
On a damp evening West Indies were defending 176. However with the floodlights on and drizzle in the air the West Indies bowlers and fielders were struggling with the underfoot conditions.
On two occasions the game was delayed while fielders received attention for injuries sustained when their feet left them. England were also at an advantage as balls hit directly to fielders on the boundary cost two runs rather than the single it would have been under normal circumstances. Fielders had to be very circumspect and go down on one knee to ensure that they fielded the ball rather than risk attacking the ball and getting injured or conceding a boundary.
On a number of occasions the umpires were approached about the conditions but were waved away. The show apparently must go on regardless.
One of those umpires was Michael Gough who is Durham born and bred and spent his entire career of 110 matches with the county. It was a packed house on a Saturday evening with Sky cameras present and the home town crowd were going to see a game. I actually donít have a problem with that as too often matches are delayed for relatively trivial seasons.
What you may ask has this got to do with the Stormont match? The link is that the umpire doing the exaggerated slides at Stormont was the same Michael Gough who showed little enthusiasm for getting players on the park on a Wednesday afternoon in Belfast yet ignored similar, if not worse conditions, three days later. Only he knows whether he was influenced by his love of his county but all cricketers and administrators ask for is consistency.
Finally I must pay my regards to Barry Chambers who has resigned from his role as Cricket Ireland Media Manager after many years ensuring the message coming from the home and international media was as positive as possible.
The old adage of not really appreciating someone until they are gone could have been written for Barry. No matter what the request he did his utmost to answer it and that included suffering fools, if not gladly, at least politely, often with a joke and a smile on his face.
He was very modest about his undoubted talents until you mention the Ardmore Express when he would make you wonder why he didnít have more caps than Kevin OíBrien!
Joking aside it was a privilege to have worked and socialised with him and that I am certain that this would be endorsed by the many that came in contact with him. He will soon become a father as he opens up the Thailand branch of the Chambers dynasty and I wish him all the best in that.
He assures us that he will return regularly to these shores and he tells me he will definitely return for the inaugural Test Match come next May.
In the meantime he will continue to edit the cricket bible of CricketEurope except he will be collating the results on a sultry evening in Thailand with a cold beer in hand (changing nappies permitting).
Enjoy - you've earned it!