Ian Callender (Belfast Telegraph)
WILLIAM Porterfield joined the chorus of praise from players and organisers alike following the inaugural Twenty20 Festival at the weekend. And Ireland’s Test captain agrees it is the way forward.
This is Porterfield’s first season out of county cricket since 2007 so the former Gloucestershire and Warwickshire batsman is well used to the demands of professional sport.
But, if Ireland are to be competitive on the world stage with their new status as a Test nation, the best players here must play more cricket, insists Porterfield.
“The festival (three days of cricket with each of the four teams playing one game a day) is a great concept, the weather helped, it was good pitch on a good ground and all the players enjoyed it,” said the North West Warriors batsman.
“But across all formats we need an extra round of fixtures – I don’t know if there is the budget – but I hope we can expand it to get more cricket in. We’re getting to the stage where everyone needs more cricket to learn in the middle and keep improving.”
That ‘stage’ will come to a head at the start of the 2020 season when all current Ireland players and anyone with ambitions of joining them at international level will be playing all their summer cricket in Ireland because, following Ireland’s elevation to ICC Full Membership, all Ireland’s county professionals will be classed as overseas players.
It’s a great boost for the spectators here as they will be able to watch Paul Stirling, Boyd Rankin and Gary Wilson on a regular basis but Porterfield stresses that Cricket Ireland must match the professionalism of the county circuit to ensure Ireland’s progress.
"County cricket has been a massive part of our (Ireland’s) success over the last 10 years, a lot of us have had that opportunity to train and play a volume of cricket of a great standard, and that set me up for my career,” said Ireland’s second most capped international.
“But after next year, we're not going to have that access to that standard. T20 cricket is a format where we have not been at the top of our game and other countries have gone ahead of us because they are focusing on it and one way to get better is to play more of it.”
So Porterfield suggestion to repeat the festival of cricket throughout the season and if it comes at the price of the best players not being involved in club cricket, then so be it.
“By playing in blocks like this, you can pick up momentum and hone your skills and we have had a lot of T20 cricket in the last 6-7 weeks. It's great to have and if we use them in the build up to T20 tournaments (like last month’s Tri-Series in Holland) it would be a great help,” added the 33-year-old.
“Three blocks across the season would be ideal, if viable, but it would mean three Saturdays when there would be no club cricket.
“I’m not sure if the unions can afford that, but the other solution is that the clubs continue without the 13-14 lads in that squad, because they will get enough provincial cricket or Wolves cricket.
“It will mean the clubs will not see much of them and that might be hard for the clubs to hear, but it is the way forward. I feel in 3-5 years’ time that’s how it’s going to pan out and clubs will be encouraged to help them.
“Pembroke gave up the club last weekend, they have also hosted two one-day games and a three-day game this season. So they and the other grounds that are used for inter-provincials deserve help and could be rewarded for even keeping a couple of pitches just for the unions to train on.”
More cricket could also mean more teams at inter-pro level but Porterfield admits it is a tricky balance keeping players with their own unions – where Leinster are so strong – and adopting a franchise system.
“It would be nice to keep some kind of identity,” he added. “I'm from the North West and I love playing for the Warriors but in time there will be more players travelling around because, from a Cricket Ireland point of view, you want the best 30-40 cricketers playing the best standard week in week out, while from a union point of view Aaron Gillespie and Graeme Kennedy, for example, have come on in that short period of time and it’s great to see.
“You don’t want to deny those players that opportunity. But then you have someone like Harry Tector, from Dublin YMCA, who is playing for the Northern Knights this season because he can’t get into the Lightning team.
“I’ve now played against him four times but it would be absolutely no use him sitting on the sidelines. He’s a great cricketer, I’m really impressed the way he works it out and he has a great future, I don't know him that well but what I've seen of him I really like.”
Cricket in Ireland has come a long way since Porterfield was playing for Donemana, “training two nights a week, 10 minutes in the nets and then expected to perform on the Saturday.
“There’s lots of good young talent but it has to be impressed on them how much work is involved in making it to the top level There is still a big jump.”