Jon Coates, The Scotsman
The race between Ireland and Scotland to reach the promised land of international cricket has been too close to call in recent years, but Ireland's latest surge could leave their old rivals choking on the fumes.
Closely aping what their footballers achieved in 1990, Ireland's debutants took to the Cricket World Cup like ducks to water, repeatedly upsetting the apple cart. They may have signed off with a whimper as Sri Lanka administered an eight-wicket drubbing on Wednesday, but a lasting impression has been made by players who will arrive home four weeks later than our own national team, who beat the postcards.
Ireland's victories over Pakistan and Bangladesh and tie with Zimbabwe - these three were the only upsets by non-Test-playing nations at the tournament - will increase their exposure to elite cricket as much as it will fertilise interest in the game at home. Already India and South Africa, who meet in a three-match series on the Emerald Isle this summer, have each agreed to throw in a one-day international against their hosts. With the West Indies already committed, the Irish will thus enjoy three showcase games this summer, while Scotland's date with India in Glasgow is the only thing to dream about.
Trent Johnston's team will shortly take pride of place in the main ODI rankings table, which is to become a party of 12. Five weeks ago Scotland were the best of the rest in world cricket but unless they can defeat India on 16 August, they will continue to languish among the B-list nations on the associate ladder until at least next spring, when South Africa, New Zealand and Kenya offer a route to advancement in a pair of Triangular Series.
Ireland's ODI status, like Scotland's, is valid until the 2009 ICC Trophy. Those associate nations that qualify from that event for the 2011 World Cup will be awarded ODI status and funded under the ICC's high performance programme over the following four-year period. Ireland is still an associate member of the ICC, even though its one-day team now has a place on the main rankings table, having gained promotion by defeating two full ICC members.
Don't expect Ireland to make steady progress to full Test match status. The ICC judges a country's credentials for an elevation to five-day status entirely on merit. Bangladesh were the last to make the step up, in late 2000, and Kenya, a one-day international side since 1996, have yet to gain consideration. The other current Test nations are Australia, England, India, Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and the West Indies. Zimbabwe's Test status is currently suspended due to political unrest in the country, which has forced most of its best players to emigrate.
The World Cup itself won't make the Irish Cricket Union a fortune - $US72,000 in prize money poorly reflects the team's achievement - but new stakeholders are already coming on board, chief executive Warren Deutrom said yesterday. "We are close to sealing a deal with an equipment sponsor and also a sponsor for our home matches in the Friends Provident Trophy," he said. "These are things we didn'thave before, and the World Cup has certainly helped our cause."
Deutrom also confirmed that a semi-professional environment, under which a full Ireland team could tour as one every winter, will top the agenda when the World Cup party returns.
The ICC has not said what privileges await the newcomers to its main rankings, but Ireland media manager Barry Chambers said from Barbados: "The ICC are saying they will put a bit of pressure on the big countries to give us more games.
"I know that didn't really work for Kenya after the last World Cup [when the full-ranked Kenyans reached the semi-finals], but perhaps because we offer a travelling support and have a better infrastructure, we might carry more favour." Scotland won the 2005 ICC Trophy and reached the final of January's World Cricket League, dual achievements that attracted Irish envy, as they can now look forward to the Twenty20 World Championships and eight to ten matches next spring. The draw in the Caribbean could not have been kinder to Ireland or tougher on the Scots, but the fact Ireland grasped their opportunity on the highest stage came as no surprise.
Adrian Birrell, who passes on the coaching reins to Phil Simmons, has overseen the development of a golden generation. Ireland's under-19s performed superbly at the 2004 and 2006 World Cups, while Scotland came home with their tails between their legs. Their juniors won a European clean sweep across five age groups last summer, and in the past five years they have produced far more candidates for professional employment than Scotland.
Among the Irish World Cup party, 20-year-old Eoin Morgan is considered a better prospect than Dublin's most famous cricket son, England convert Ed Joyce. Boyd Rankin (22) a giant farmer from Bready, is a once-in-a-generation find and on the verge of a career with Derbyshire. Wicketkeeper-batsman Niall O'Brien (25) is contracted to Northamptonshire, while brother Kevin (23) and opening batsman William Porterfield (22) could hardly have stated a stronger case to receive the same opportunity.
By contrast, Scotland are not represented by a single player in this week's first round of county championship matches, even if Kyle Coetzer is close to breaking through at Durham. The immediate future is uncertain, but it can't be said that Ireland are doing everything more effectively than us. Recent figures confirmed that participation rates in this country are considerably higher. In Scotland, 21,250 people participated in cricket in 2006, while the equivalent figure in Ireland was 12,202, according to the European Cricket Council.
A long-running rivalry resumes in Belfast in July, when Scotland and Ireland lock horns in an ODI and a Twenty20 tournament. Nowhere this summer will there be a better chance for our wounded and leapfrogged national side to make territorial gains.