THE England and Wales Cricket Board have threatened to throw Ireland out of next season's Friends Provident Trophy as a dispute over who runs cricket in Northern Ireland has escalated. A Lord's source has told the Sunday Tribune that the ECB are concerned that they have been excluded from administering the three-match South Africa v India series set for Stormont at the end of June and that it was in contravention of their deal with Sky Sports. It is understood that it took a high-level intervention by Malcolm Speed, chief executive of the International Cricket Council, to force the English to withdraw their claim to host the fixtures.

Speed has also reassured the Irish Cricket Union that, should Ireland be ejected from the nine-match county league, the ICC would ensure that Ireland would play other high-profile fixtures. The row began during the World Cup when the ECB heard of the ICU's coup in getting an Indian TV station to stage the matches in Ireland. Discussions took place at which the ECB insisted that they had jurisdiction over games staged in the United Kingdom -- and were entitled to a slice of the TV and gate receipts, which could be as much as E600,000. It is also understood that the English board are concerned that their previous monopoly on international cricket in the northern hemisphere summer could be affected. "There are only three games this year but I think they are worried that if they go well there could be six or nine next year", said ICU secretary John Wright, who also confirmed that Ireland 's ejection from the Friend's Provident League was "a talking point" which "remains on the table".

An ICC spokesman said "CC doesn't get involved in such matters between two members but is available for consultation."

The ICU considered switching the venue south of the border to Clontarf in Dublin , but Speed's intervention meant that plan was not needed. That would have meant a large loss in potential takings as the capacity of Clontarf is less than 4,000, about half of that at the Belfast venue. The series will now take place at Stormont on 26, 29 June and 1 July. Ireland play both sides the previous weekend.

The hostile intervention by the ECB could spell the start of a more fractious relationship with our nearest neighbour, and one Warren Deutrom will work hard to repair. Phil Simmons, too, will need to build better lines of communication with the counties than seem to have been at work before last weekend's Friends Provident game against Kent . Captain Trent Johnston was incandescent with rage after the defeat when he discovered that neither Eoin Morgan (Middlesex) nor Boyd Rankin (Derbyshire) had been used by their counties. "That's a disgrace," Johnston told The Times newspaper. "Players have to go off and make a living and the Irish Cricket Union cannot afford to pay them like counties, but to take them and not play them is a disgrace."

Neither player has appeared in the first XI this week (Rankin took two wickets for Derby's seconds on Thursday) but are still prevented from playing for Ireland . With Morgan coming off a disappointing run of scores, surely a chance to bat at three for Ireland is the best thing for county, country and player?

The ICU need to insist that players have a clause in their contracts that ensure they play for Ireland on any days they are not selected by the county.

It was deeply disappointing to see such a small crowd for the Kent game. That as few as 500 turned up for the first game of the season was insulting to those that did Ireland proud in the Caribbean. The weather was fine and there few rival attractions, although a northern watcher tells me that the cricket mania that was sparked the World Cup was far more muted up there. ICU officials will be nervously checking the queues - and the clouds - down Castle Avenue next Thursday and Sunday when the team make their first appearance in the capital.

Phil Simmons seems to have got off on the wrong foot with some elements of the ICU hierarchy. The coach selected the team that played Kent last weekend in consultation with Adi Birrell, bypassing the selection process that included provincial reps Matt Dwyer, Ian Johnston and William Wilson.

Since then Dwyer and Johnston have resigned, and Simmons picked this weekend's team without a selection meeting "formal or otherwise", according to Johnston, who said he was quitting as he was "surplus to requirements". Wilson met Simmons "for 30 seconds" at Stormont last Sunday but has not heard from him since.

A major benefit of the heroics in the Caribbean is the increased interest of the media. While there is understandably enormous interest in Trent Johnston's chicken dance, the local game has also been lifted by the rising tide. The Dublin community station NEARfm has long been committed to the sport, with regular commentaries and reports on internationals and Irish Senior Cup games. Now the station - on the new frequency of 90.3fm - plans to broadcast commentary on a number of senior league games in Leinster this summer. Up to six hours will be given to each broadcast on games in Near's catchment area of the northside and Fingal, with head of sport Fergus Carroll taking the mic . The former Clontarf stumper will be at Castle Avenue on Thursday for the first of the Friends Provident games in Dublin , against Gloucestershire with play - and commentary - starting at 10.45am .