The exciting young talents of Josh Little and Mark Adair brought an air of optimism to Malahide when England came visiting a fortnight ago. An ageing side was invigorated by fresh blood willing to attack, but their deeds only distracted from the big question.

“Where have Ireland’s supporters gone?”

Six years ago, 10,000 people packed the pop-up stadium to see Eoin Morgan and Boyd Rankin record their personal bests albeit, sadly, for England. Many of those watching were new to the sport, but a good game of big-time cricket on a sunny day surely had them hooked.

Roll forward to May 2019 and far less than half that attendance rattled around Malahide for England’s return.

There were plenty of theories – ticket prices, a workday, school and college exam season and weather being the most plausible. But are there deeper reasons? Has the tide gone out for Irish cricket?

In 2013 Ireland were riding a wave, pushing hard for promotion in the game’s smoky rooms, and winning all around it on the field. The win over England in Bangalore was still fresh in the memory and the profile as high as ever.

In 2019 Ireland are struggling with the dismantling of the golden generation, failure to qualify for the World Cup and a largely indifferent media.

If the alarm bells were starting to ring at the attendance figures for the England game, they would have grown positively deafening by the time of the West Indies game last Saturday. The Caribbean side doesn’t have the draw it once had, especially without its IPL stars, but barely 400 spectators came through the gates – and on a dry, weekend date too.

While that 2013 England visit was blessed with sunshine, rain ruined the sell-out fixture in 2015. With showers also wreaking havoc on recent visits by West Indies, Sri Lanka and Australia, many of those fair-weather fans have been put off. The pattern now seems to be for the public to wait until the day of the game, leaving Cricket Ireland (CI) relying on “walk-ups” and praying for sun.

The inaugural Test match crowds were disappointing too, although the rained-off first day was unfortunate. CI sold 6,500 seats for day one, but thereafter numbers dropped off and there were barely 1,000 to watch Kevin O’Brien’s marvellous century. The weather was glorious for the sold-out T20 series against India.

Prices have also risen, but a hike from €45 to €50 since 2013 for the England fixture isn’t outrageous. For seven hours action, it compares well with All-Ireland final seats costing €80 and Six Nations tickets from €65-€150.

A charge of €20 for children is exorbitant, however. Kids are admitted free to ODIs in South Africa and New Zealand, and for as little as A$5 (€3) to Big Bash games in Australia. Even in England, where such games sell out regularly, a charge of just £15 (€16.50) was applied to the most recent series. Without a culture of mass attendance, and trying to build one, it makes little sense to overcharge kids. The lesson seems to have been learned and Under 16s go free to this weekend’s ODIs against Afghanistan at Stormont.

Cricket Leinster has pitched prices low for its T20 game against Middlesex, centrepiece of the union’s centenary celebrations. The 21 June game has been marketed as the Smartwater Summer Smash with adult tickets at €10 and kids just €5, and a ‘Smash’ ticket which costs €20 also includes a burger, drink and programme.

Other factors are emptying seats, including dissatisfaction in the northern unions. The North West revolted last year over a low-key marketing campaign for its T20 series against Afghanistan, and a leading cricket figure in the NCU is critical of the governing body’s attitude to games there.

“They haven’t cared about marketing matches in Northern Ireland because they either couldn’t be bothered doing the promotion and infrastructure creation or it suited some people's personal agenda that the crowds should be below par”, he says.

“Now, of course, they are faced with the horrible truth that the Dublin market is declining once the novelty of matches against England has worn off. Interesting to see that, at matches involving Asian teams, there are often more people present supporting the opposition – both in Dublin and Belfast.”

CI has increasingly switched focus to Dublin, the biggest city by far and home to large communities from traditional cricket hotbeds such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It has been imaginative in courting the New Irish, although that didn’t work last week when the arrival of Bangladesh coincided with Ramadan, when Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours. A poor uptake from Dublin’s sizeable Bangladeshi community has been put down to unwillingness to travel during this time.

There are other rivals for the spectator euro, however, and women’s sport in particular has started pulling big numbers, with 6,047 at a Six Nations game and over 50,000 at the ladies football All Ireland final. The silver medal-winning women’s hockey team brought 87 spectators to their last home game before the World Cup last year, but can expect bigger crowds when they finally make a return in Banbridge next month.

But the main reason for cricket’s empty seats is simple: everyone loves a winner, and Ireland no longer win. Of the 34 ODIs Ireland have played at home against full members, the only victory came in a 2-1 series defeat to Afghanistan last year.

All of Ireland’s greatest hours have come at World Cups, but William Porterfield’s men failed to qualify for this year’s event, missing out on vital funding for Cricket Ireland and a great chance to attract new fans and sponsors.

The selectors have been slow to react to this calamity – not one debut was handed out last year – but the spark lit this year by Little, Adair, James McCollum and Lorcan Tucker, and the exciting A team who beat Bangladesh last weekend, should force their hand to cast off those non-performing veterans clinging to the wreckage.