STORMONT could host a Test match as early as next year with the Belfast venue set to become “second choice” to Malahide for the big matches over the next four years.
The Future Tours Programme (FTP) – the fixture schedule for the 12 Test nations – is due to be unveiled in two weeks’ time and will list every agreed series up to 2023 and Ireland will have up to 15 Test matches as they aim to follow up the success of last week’s inaugural 5-day match against Pakistan.
Initially, the bulk of Ireland’s Tests will be against fellow Test newcomers Afghanistan plus Zimbabwe, the other teams not included in the nine-Team Test Championship which gets under way in 2019 but Ireland will play at least one match against every other Test nation, bar Australia, either home away.
While Cricket Ireland wait for the game’s governing body, ICC, to announce the FTP early indications are that Ireland will play England away in 2021 and their next Test match will be against Afghanistan in February.
But venues for Ireland’s home matches – and there is certain to be at least one fixture (with multi-games against Afghanistan and Zimbabwe) are unlikely to be approved by the Cricket Ireland Board until later in the summer, with a number of criteria, depending on the opposition, having to be met by the four international venues, Malahide, Clontarf, Stormont and Bready.
The procedure is that the Match Allocation Group (MAG) will put a recommendation to the Board for each home match,” says Cricket Ireland Performance Director Richard Holdsworth.
“That will depend on which grounds are capable of doing what. For example, there is an issue on availability but Stormont will be more available than most in terms of usage. Then it comes down to what the pitch is like – I would have grave reservations at this stage about some grounds ability to host a five-day Test, we need more proof in the pudding. Then there’s the question of how many can the ground hold, how many people we are likely to get, so this is what MAG will consider before their recommendations to the board.
“There’s no doubt that our two best pitches in terms of squares are Malahide and Stormont so we will be mindful of that in the early days of Test cricket here and play on the best possible pitches.
“Malahide and Stormont are also the grounds with the biggest capacity, Clontarf has only held 3,500-4000 and we have sold 8,500 for the second T20 international in June against India at Malahide. So those two grounds will have the advantage for the bigger games.”
Another advantage for Stormont – and indeed Bready for international games – is that the cost to host matches is much lower than Malahide where everything used is temporary.
“We have not used changing rooms at Malahide, ever, whereas we do at Clontarf, Stormont and Bready. Players eat in the dining room at those grounds, while it is in a marquee at Malahide. So that is another advantage,” added Holdsworth.
“But Stormont is assured of major games in the next four years across all three formats.”
Cricket Ireland have already committed to a dedicated national stadium in Abbotstown, west of Dublin, off the M50, but that will not be ready until 2022 and even then will not be guaranteed every Test or international.
"Abbotstown will hold up to 15,000 but that will not be all permanent seating,” said Holdsworth. “We will need if we get that many people into the game, for example against England, Australia and India. The idea is to put in a smaller number of seats and add to it when required.
"There’s no point having 15,000 seats when games, like the Wolves or Women’s internationals, could be played in front of less than 1,000 but if you have grass banks it will not look bad at all.”
"But, until then, with the amount of Wolves, senior men’s and women’s games coming up we will need to use all four grounds for high-level representative cricket. Mind you, if one ground says they can only give us five days cricket in a year, they are unlikely to get a Test match!”