This should be one of the 'big' week-ends of the cricket season, but it's hard to envisage that too many people are getting excited. On Saturday and Sunday the four Inter-pro sides congregate in Dublin for what ought to be one of the focal points of the cricketing calendar. The importance of the occasion should be further enhanced by the fact that the one remaining Irish fixture, the 'Test Match' against Scotland, takes place the following weekend.
Until 1966 Interprovincials in Ireland were played on a sporadic basis, which meant that selection for the 'Gentlemen of Ireland' seemed at times to be a rather mysterious process. All that changed under the enduring sponsorship of Guinness when an annual tournament comprising six teams was instituted, and, as they would always have told us was inevitable the North West were the first winners. Some cynics might suggest that it was the feat of the North West in completing a hat-trick of wins from 1992 to 1994 that hastened the demise of the event!
Various playing regulations were tried; for much of the time it was simply start at 11am and finish at 7pm and get on with it. Most of Ireland's top cricketers flourished under this regime, and even when participation in limited overs internationals became the norm it was generally those who had proved their technique over several seasons who came out best. With five matches each per year it was always possible for a player, by dint of his own deeds, and the contribution he made to his side, to make a case for his own selection. Normally those who did well in the Guinness Cup went on to perform well for Ireland.
Where has it all gone wrong? By 1996 a reduction in the number of sides had been instituted. Although this may have been partly a cost-cutting exercise, it was justified on the grounds that there weren't 66 plus cricketers in the country good enough to play for Ireland. Fair enough, but no thought appears to have been given to the 'club Cricketer' whose aspiration may merely have been to reach inter-pro status. What does he aim for now as he watches the opposition's overseas pro (or gaggle of imports if he is unlucky enough to play in Dublin!) bash the fourth, fifth and umpteenth bowlers of his club around the park? probably the golf course I fear!
Those lucky enough to be selected for their Provincial Union will have staved off the clutch of younger players, many of whom are being touted for stardom on the basis of efforts at the international youth tournaments, for which they have been selected on the basis of performances in winter nets! In many cases they have little or no senior experience. Since they don't even play against the other provinces in an organised and regular way are we not back to the old pre-Guinness Cup days of haphazard selection? And furthermore when our National Coach gets the chance to see many of the country's top players in opposition should we not operate on the longest format possible in order to gather as much information as possible? The thought of more 50 overs, 10 per bowler drudgery will hardly cause too many traffic jams around Pembroke (Munster v North West), Rathmines (Leinster v NCU) on Saturday, or Clontarf(Leinster v North West) and Phoenix (Munster v. NCU) on Sunday. Good luck to the participants and may the selectors be much the wiser come Monday morning.
I was very interested to listen to Sussex Coach Dave Gilbert explaining on Sky why Australia were not participants in the Costcutter Under 15 World Cup in England. Basically he seemed to be suggesting that it was not a sound investment because so many of the 'young stars' fall by the wayside even before reaching Under 19 level. Australians reckon that the investment in the more physically and mentally mature Under 19s is well worthwhile through their Cricket Academy. More food for thought here for the ICU's Cricket Committee; and what ever happened to Chris Moore?
A REAL TEST
What a pity that the Manchester weather eventually reverted to type on Monday afternoon, for wasn't it grand to watch a real test Match after all these three day jobs! So many of the pre-conceptions of this season are already out the window so where do the two sides stand now?
In England's case, the idea that Duncan Fletcher could make little short term difference is, in my opinion, flawed. One would have to be impressed by the advances that they have already made in the areas of fielding and running between the wickets, and they are reaping the benefits of clearly being sharper than their opponents in these respects.
The seam bowling appears more consistent, so that the two aspects that still need to be addressed are the spin department and the wicketkeeping. Alec Stewart's magnificent efforts with the bat cannot disguise his shortcomings behind the stumps, where all too often he allows his natural agility to try to conceal his lack of footwork. In the latter stages of long Tests, where the bounce on a worn pitch can become more uneven, he is all too often undone by the ball keeping low. That said, it may well be that the selectors will opt for inertia since he gives them an 'all-rounder' and, more probably, there seems to be no consensus as to who is the best glove-man around the counties. Had there been an Ossie Coihoun or Paul Jackson around at the moment who knows what might have come to pass!
On the spinner the situation is more alarming. Robert Croft gave a good account of himself in terms of batting resolutely and wheeling away for many steady overs. However on a pitch which offered real turn from quite an early stage, and against a team with so many left-handers, a greater return must have been anticipated. It is apparent from the performances of Muralitharan, Saqlain, and Kumble in county cricket (the statistics of the first two in last years' championship are quite frightening) that the gap between the top English and overseas spinners is a veritable ocean. Easily the most consistent English spinner in terms of year in - year out wickets has been Ian Salisbury, but he has been tried and clearly failed, even if one allows that the fields he was required to bowl to and the times at which he was bowled were often flawed.
Trescothick's successful debut was most encouraging and may just persuade the wise men that the odd gamble on class as opposed to form can work. Thorpe was not there long enough to bat badly and has proved his worth at this level. For the West Indies Lara's return to form will have eased their concerns, and the ability that they showed to bat with restraint and composure in the second innings should reinforce the belief that, in Jimmy Adams, they have arrived at a captain likely to provide the cement that their inter-island team selection always requires. I can't wait for the last two tests and will have to ensure that the return to school doesn't interfere with some compelling viewing (only joking, Headmaster!!)