The ICC Cricket World Cup kicked off last weekend with barely a flicker of interest among some followers of the game in Dublin.
The big screen in the bar at Merrion was showing Australia v Afghanistan while, outside, the 1st XI took on Phoenix in a gripping cup semi-final. Passers-by checked out the score from Bristol but the supporters were largely unmoved.
ďItís just not the same, is it?Ē sighed one man.
What he meant, of course, is that itís just not the same without Ireland.
The World Cup was the vehicle for all the great advances of the game in Ireland in recent years. Ireland werenít even members of ICC for the first five tournaments and failed to qualify for the next three, the first for which they were eligible.
But the 2007 event in the Caribbean was a watershed and the stirring wins over Pakistan and Bangladesh attracted a whole new audience and drove an expansion that culminated in full membership of ICC barely a decade later.
Beating England in 2011 was a sporting and cultural earthquake, and the win over West Indies in 2015 was another step forward. With the 2019 World Cup being hosted by Ďthe neighboursí, there seemed another great opportunity to win more followers.
So, the failure to qualify is more than just a cricketing setback, it is a blow to the development of the game, and part of the reason for the apparent slump in attendance at Irelandís home fixtures this year.
I asked four World Cup veterans for their memories and views on the tournament.
Jeremy Bray scored 116 v Zimbabwe in Irelandís first game in 2007, and retired 2008 with 83 caps. He is now coach of Denmark
George Dockrell played in 2011 and 2015, where his victims included Tendulkar, Strauss, Dhoni and Gayle. Still playing, he recently won 207th cap
Peter Gillespie played against New Zealand at the 2007 CWC. Retired that summer with then-record 124 caps
Andrew White bowled the crucial last over v Zimbabwe, also played in 2011. Retired 2014 with 232 caps, he is now chairman of selectors
What is your favourite World Cup memory?
JB: Getting the hundred was pretty special, but the thing I remember most is the group of guys and how we came together over a couple of years, beating the West Indies and winning the I-Cup. That group grew together, we were very tight.
PG: Undoubtedly beating Pakistan! The match had everything nerves, excitement, ecstasy and relief. Being able to share that with my wife and family made it even more special. The lap around the ground and singing the team song are moments that will also live long in the memory.
GD: I was 15 watching in 2007, and the World Cups have all had a big impact back home. We always rose to the challenge at the tournament, it always brought out the best of us, which is why itís so frustrating not to be at this one.
AW: As players the desire to perform to our optimum at the World Cups was something we prided ourselves on so therefore the victories over Pakistan, Bangladesh and England were incredibly rewarding. That said, it was seeing what it meant to all the supporters, many of whom had followed us for years or even a lifetime and it was special to share it with them.
GD: 2011 and 2015 were very different Ė the passion and interest was like nothing Iíd ever experienced. We got to play India in India and Bangladesh in Bangladesh which were amazing games. Iíll never forget the bus being escorted back to the hotel at walking pace through crowds six deep.
How many teams would be in your ideal World Cup?
GD: Itís important to have a competition that works well, and is a good standard, but reducing it to ten was a huge mistake, and the qualifier in Zimbabwe (where two teams progressed) showed that. Everyone beat everyone else and the standard was very even. Teams like Zimbabwe, Scotland and Ireland were very unlucky Ė Iíve never been in a more closely-fought qualifier.
Itís unfair that a countryís whole development could be at risk because of missing out to a single decision.
JB: I can see why the want the very best there Ė maybe itís the Aussie in me Ė but the likes of Zimbabwe, Netherlands, Scotland and Ireland do deserve to be there. Scotland are playing a brilliant brand of cricket at the moment. Twelve or 14 teams is about right Ė and theyíd all deserve to be there. At times some of the associates were whipping boys but none of the teams I mentioned would be outclassed.
AW: I would like to have seen 12 or 14 teams at the World Cup with two groups of six or seven, taking the top four in each group into the quarter-finals.
PG: Simple Ė 16. Automatic qualification for the 12 test teams and four qualifying spots for the associates.
GD: I think 14 works well, two groups of seven, or even two of eight.
How do you think the current format will pan out?
AW: I have no doubt that it will be a brilliant tournament however the decision to have only the top ten nations competing in my opinion is short sighted and detrimental to the growth of the game in many countries.
JB: Iím a big fan Ė everyone plays everyone and thereís no hiding place. They could do that still with more teams by playing three or four games a day.
GD: If teams run away with it there could be a lot more dead rubbers this time. Thatís not what you want from a World Cup, you need games to be more competitive and meaningful.
PG: It will be as long as every other World Cup but with more games for India! A 16-team tournament with two groups of eight would still give them the games the crave.
Is Irelandís failure to qualify a blow to the game here?
GD: Yes, though I see it more as a lost opportunity to grow the game. I remember in school we used to play rugby every lunchtime in the yard, but for a few weeks in 2007 there were five or six cricket matches going on.
JB: I donít think itís a huge blow on its own, but Ireland need to start qualifying again soon and winning games Ė no-one likes a loser. People will lose interest. All the excitement before was about winning, beating the big sides.
This situation didnít happen overnight, its four, five, six years in the making. There was no succession planning whatsoever, no drip-feeding young players into the squad. Theyíve held on to players who arenít good enough and have underperformed consistently for years, so itís been no surprise for me.
AW: It is a blow, to miss any opportunity to play in a global tournament and in front of millions is disappointing. It is our best chance to showcase the talented players we have and to inspire the next generation. If you ask any of the current players they remember where they were watching during the famous victories over the last ten years. I have no doubt that the hunger to be in future tournaments will have only become greater.
PG: A little bit yes, but not as much of a blow as missing out on the last tournament in England in 1999. Back then that wouldíve been a real springboard in front of a home audience. Nowadays we are a more established team and although not being there is hard to take we still have plenty of games on the FTP to whet our appetite.
GD: Weíve lots of great fixtures these days but a World Cup is something special. Not being there is down to us, of course, which was gutting for the lads.
What would you do to ensure Ireland are there in India 2023?
JB: We needed to take a punt on young players, like Duncan Fletcher did with Trescothick. We need to find a couple of pace bowlers urgently, as 80mph seamers canít compete at the top level, especially in India. And we need some wrist or mystery spinners. We canít rely on the low, seaming pitches weíre used to.
AW: The Ireland team is currently going through a period of transition and the importance of getting the timing of this process right is crucial to our chances of being at the next World Cup. Some of the older players are coming to the end of their distinguished careers, however, their knowledge and experience is still vital as we introduce some of the young players to international cricket. It is a tough learning curve and putting too many young players into the team at once would be hugely detrimental to the long-term prospects. The young players have to drive the standards and the team to new levels but watching them over recent times gives me hope that we can be successful in our bid to be at the 2023 World Cup.
PG: Iíd probably be a little bit bolder in terms of selection now. The World Cup cycle is a long time but it gives young players the chance to get exposed against good sides and hopefully develop into the players we hope they can become. We need to sacrifice results now with a view to the bigger picture.
GD: Weíre getting loads of great fixtures now, and the facilities are coming together too. The player systems are better and players are coming through. Itís a long time till 2023 but we need to look at the ODI team and put together the right guys for it.
JB: Change isnít going to happen overnight Ė it took a few years but Andy Balbirnie has grown into a top-class international batsman. Graham Ford has a tough job Ė I hope he gets a good bit of time as it would be hard to judge him on results with an ageing team.