Last Sunday week I went to the wrong match. Instead of watching Ireland being demolished by the West Indies in Clontarf I wish I had carried on northwards to the lovely The Hills ground in Milverton.

There the Ireland Wolves comprehensively beat Bangladesh, who used this as a warm up match for the Tri-Series and the upcoming World Cup. This was one of the best results in Ireland cricket history as this was an immensely experienced Bangladesh side with only one player who hadnít played Test Cricket and no player with less than fifteen ODI caps. The eleven had between them played in 305 Tests and 1042 ODIís. In contrast the Wolves had two players who each have a single Test appearance and five players with a total of 55 ODI caps. The Wolves played without fear and forcefully demonstrated that there are players in Ireland, who given the opportunity, can shine at highest level. I have heard it said that the bitterly cold weather contributed to the Bangladesh defeat but that was not a view shared by Bangladesh skipper Mashrafe Mortaza and I can assure you it was equally as cold in Clontarf and that didnít prevent the West Indies breaking world records while wrapped in multiple layers of clothing.

This performance built on those on the tour of Sri Lanka in January when there were quite a few excellent individual displays in both red and white ball cricket and this in an alien environment for most of the squad. The team in Sri Lanka was led, as it was last Sunday, by nineteen-year-old Harry Tector who has rightly earned praise for his captaincy skills.

Whether these potential stars of the future get a proper chance to realise their talents is entirely down to the selectors, coaching team and the captains. It is true that there have been five new ODI caps this year, but we will have to wait and see if their opportunities are going to be limited by a retreat to the old guard at the first poor performance by the newcomers.

Ireland is a team in transition, but this has started at least two years later than it should have done. I can understand at one level why last year the new coach Graeme Ford and Chairman of Selectors Andrew White were hesitant to make major changes. Ford knew many of the players from his spells coaching in England while White had shared an Ireland dressing room with most of the current players. Indeed, of the same eleven who played in all three ODIís against Afghanistan in Stormont last August, Simi Singh was the only player he had not played alongside in an Ireland shirt. White had seen the players produce many fine performances and hoped that they could still deliver again.

However, the alarm bells should have rang after the ignominious exit from the World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe in March of 2018 when bad decisions in selection and on the field were instrumental in the demise of Irelandís World Cup ambitions. Yet five months later the same eleven who played in Irelandís final game against Afghanistan, except for Barry McCarthy, were playing in Stormont against the same opposition and it was no surprise that Ireland lost the series.

The failure to qualify for the World Cup will really hit home when it starts in just three weeks. After the elation and drama of Jamaica, Bangalore and Nelson, the lost opportunity to showcase Ireland cricket in the grounds so familiar to most of the current players will be hard to take. However, Ireland cricket must move on and next year the new 13 team ODI League will commence with the top seven sides, in addition to hosts India, gaining automatic qualification for the 2023 World Cup. The league consists of the 12 Test playing nations plus World Cricket League winners Netherlands and each team will play 36 ODIís in eight series over a two-year cycle on a home and away basis. However, the question is Ė will Ireland go all out to gain automatic qualification or again hope to rely on the final qualification tournament?

If it is the former it is so crucial that the next generation of players get their opportunity for the rest of the year, as losing is irrelevant until the new league starts. Ireland did well in drawing the recent ODI series in Dehradun against Afghanistan, but Afghanistan were prepared to lose games to find out who were their best players for their World Cup squad. As a result, five players who played in the series didnít make their World Cup squad. Ireland on the other hand with nothing to lose played the same team in four of the five ODIís, with James McCollum and Barry McCarthy getting left out after just one game each. Afghanistan also took the controversial decision after the series to replace their captain, Asghar Afghan, despite his leadership being a major factor in his country qualifying for the World Cup finals.

The Tri-Series thus far merely confirms what we already knew. If Andrew Balbirnie, Paul Stirling and Kevin OíBrien fire with the bat then Ireland can produce a competitive score. If at least one other player can get some runs Ireland may even do better than that. It is also apparent that if there is little help in the wicket the bowling attack looks very anaemic. It was a surprise that, having looked threatening in the first half of the England innings the attack was so one dimensional in both West Indies matches.

The last three games again highlighted my concerns about meaningful changes to the Ireland set up. Lorcan Tucker played in two games and was jettisoned for James McCollum who himself was dropped following his first ball debut duck against Afghanistan. Perennial scapegoat Barry McCarthy played in the first West Indies match but lost his place in the second. Yet in that West Indies game he reached 50 wickets in ODIís and in doing so has the fourth best strike rate of all bowlers to have gotten to that milestone. His strike rate of exactly 26 in twenty- five innings is bettered only by Rashid Khan Ė 123 wickets at 23.0, Cory Anderson - 60 wickets at 24.7 and Mitchell Starc Ė 145 wickets at 25.9. Yes, his economy rate of 5.82 is a bit higher than ideal but he gets batsmen out because he attacks, and no other Ireland bowler comes close to matching him in that regard.
Josh Little and Mark Adair have also demonstrated potential at this level, albeit they need a lot more experience, but that can only be achieved by them continuing to be part of the squad. Little can take wickets while Adair is more of a third or fourth seamer who has the ability to get quick and effective runs in the lower middle order and it may be that his forte will be in the T20 squad.

The loss of both Ed Joyce and Niall OíBrien to retirement certainly reduced the experience quotient of the side. Also lost to retirement was John Anderson who suspended his accountancy career for four years to give himself the opportunity to be a regular in the Ireland squad. He last played for Ireland in 2017 and got half centuries in two of his last six innings. His failure to make the squad since then belies the claim by Graeme Ford that domestic runs matter as Anderson has been by far the best batsman in Inter-pros for the past few years and his runs in Leinster cricket has confirmed his talent. However, a meagre return of just 26 caps over a six-year period is scant reward for a classy batsman who is more talented that several who have a multiple of those number of caps.

Tomorrows match against Bangladesh is effectively a dead rubber and Tucker and McCarthy should come back into the side but not at the expense of McCollum, Adair or Little. The squad that is subsequently named for the Afghanistan and Zimbabwe series must reflect a new dynamic approach to the future of Ireland cricket. Balbirnie, Stirling and George Dockrell should be the leaders of the next phase in the development of Ireland cricket supported by Kevin OíBrien, Tim Murtagh and Boyd Rankin for as long as their bodies and form holds up. It is up to the others to demonstrate that they can consistently produce performances that merit retention, in shaping the future of the Ireland side.

It is imperative that the next generation such as the Tector brothers, Tyrone Kane, Neil Rock, Shane Getkate, Aaron Gillespie and David Delany get ample opportunity to stake a claim for a place in the new ODI League. The young players must be persisted with as they need time to develop. There is no better example of that than Andrew Balbirnie who didnít pass fifty until his 16th match. Now he has deservedly inherited from Ed Joyce the mantle of Irelandís most classy and productive player as his batting has moved to another level with a range of shots bettered by few in the International arena.

All of this is predicated on a vision by the selectors and coaches that eschews the conservatism that has permeated the development of the team in recent years. The future of Ireland cricket can only be sustained in the longer term by success on the field.

The recent events in relation to financial issues demonstrates the fragility of the future of Ireland cricket. If CEO Warren Deutrom had been unable to lend Cricket Ireland Ä100,000 last October, the organisation would have in the words of Cricket Irelandís Chief Financial Officer Andrew May been ďrunning the risk of serious reputational damageĒ. The ICC were of little help to Cricket Ireland at the time as they couldnít even provide a letter stating that Cricket Ireland were owed money and couldnít get a short- term bank loan without that letter. This from an organisation that has thrown money hand over fist to Zimbabwe cricket over many years despite their Cricket Boardís governance being light years removed from the acknowledged excellence of that of the Cricket Ireland Board.

When Ireland attained Full Member status back in 2017 there were those who believed that it also came with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Unfortunately, the reality is very different as while there is increased funding from ICC the outgoings have increased at an even greater rate. More home matches mean more costs often without compensatory returns. Also, as Cricket Ireland Chairman Ross McCollum confirmed to me a couple of weeks ago, ICC are now contemplating a further reduction in funding to all countries as, while their projected income remains static, the outgoings have increased substantially. As Ireland are at the bottom of the FM pile, they cannot afford to take a hit of this nature without having an impact on the development of the game here.
Some shortfall has been made up by an excellent 137% increase of sponsorship money to Ä1.5m in 2018 and a further Ä1.5m from broadcast rights, largely as a result of the two T20Iís against India last July. However, these are income streams that cannot be guaranteed on an ongoing basis.

Sponsors are usually willing to support new and interesting projects such as Ireland attaining Full Member status. Irelandís main sponsor, Turkish Airlines, have renewed for another two years while there are more than a dozen secondary sponsors or partnerships in Cricket Irelandís portfolio. Having been on both sides of the sponsorship equation I know that there comes a point when the attractiveness of supporting a new venture is superseded by the corporate necessity of not wanting their brand to be associated with a team that consistently loses. Invariably the sponsorship ceases or is renewed at a much less attractive fee.

Irish based sponsors will also get nervous if Cricket Irelandís commendable attempt to make cricket mainstream does not begin to provide credible evidence that real progress is being made in this ambition. Mainstream in a sporting context is, among other things, about getting spectators through the gates and quite frankly that has just not happened in the past two years except for the India T20ís. And the reality of those games is that at least 75% of the spectators where there to see their Indian heroes.

This season the crowds at the England ODI and the Tri-series have been considerably less than Cricket Ireland must have hoped for. Indeed, with the games still to come in Dublin, Stormont and Bready the aggregate gates for the home season will be pushed to break 10,000 and many of those will be supporting the opposition. To put that figure in context Munster were concerned that their recent Pro 14 home quarter final attracted just 10,500 spectators. Tomorrow is Irelandís last home game in Dublin this season while Belfast has two games next week and shares six games with Bready in July with not a single game in June or August on the island. Apart from the England game, which was televised by Sky, all the other home games will only be streamed with the only real TV coverage provided by late night highlights on RTE. Neither of these fulfils an advertisers or sponsors desire to get best value for their money and should this method of coverage become the norm then it must jeopardise future deals.

People are not turning up because of several reasons such as weather, matches on while schools are still on, admission prices, travel and food costs but primarily because Ireland are failing to compete all too regularly.
It all comes back to winning matches and qualifying for World Cups and unless Ireland are prepared to invest in the best of the next generation of cricketers the poor returns of the last four years will not be reversed and the consequences of that should be of monumental concern to all who want to see success for those in green.
This journey must begin now.