As consolation prizes go, Tuesday's Dublin demolition job on Middlesex in the first round of Benson and Hedges matches was generous indeed. If anything it surpassed the 1969 victory over a West Indian side who had reputedly enjoyed generous Irish hospitality on the previous evening. Cricket was on the Irish front pages last week, and an honorary Irishman, Hansie Cronje, commented on how valuable it would prove in promoting the home-grown game.
On Friday, however, Ireland came down to earth. Flat, hard Taunton earth, second home to the dazzling Mushtaq Ahmed, who arrived from Colombo the previous day and teased out seven Irish wickets for 24 runs.
"The last game in Kuala Lumpur was a severe blow to morale," admitted the team manager Mike Hendrick at the very moment that the Irish innings at Taunton was beginning to unravel. "We came so far and then simply played badly at the end. And so the Middlesex match was a perfect pick-me-up. I think it helped that there was no club cricket between the two competitions - it may have been more difficult to climb back to the top level. Last night at dinner we concentrated on the good things we achieved against Middlesex, and came here ready to assess the wicket and bowl the right length. It didn't work out."
Hendrick, who invariably bowled the right length for England, is now a Belfast resident committed to the development of Irish cricket. He wasn't head-hunted - he posted off his cv when the job was advertised. "When I met the squad for the first time I was struck by how keen they were. After a lifetime in professional cricket it was a bit of a culture shock moving into an amateur environment but I soon learned that they have positive ambitions for the game."
There are four Irish unions running their own leagues - Leinster, Munster, the North West and the Northern Cricket Union in Belfast. Each sends representatives to the Irish Cricket Union. Beyond the domestic competitions, this summer includes the Triple Crown against Scotland, Wales and the National Cricket Association from England; the first round of the NatWest against Yorkshire; a two-day MCC match and a three-day match against Scotland. There is also the chance of a big one - if Australia have kept the Ashes by the end of the Fifth Test they will fit in an Irish visit. In July, Hendrick takes the Under-19s to Bermuda, with the 1998 Youth Cup in South Africa in his sights.
The signing of the South African Cronje for the B & H is proof of Irish ambitions. Ali Bacher, on behalf of the International Cricket Conference, visited several "emerging nations" last autumn to assess the state of play. Placing top-class cricketers into this environment is the next step to broadening the base of Test cricket. A further stage will probably see Kenya and Bangladesh playing one-day internationals in Test company as a prelude to full membership.
At Taunton, Ireland were not at full strength. They do not yet have the system operating in South Africa and Pakistan for instance, where benevolent employers - breweries, banks, airlines - in effect sponsor the top players. Desmond "Decker" Curry, winner of the Gold Award against Middlesex, was back across the water slaughtering sheep rather than bowlers. But there was at least one Irishman of huge promise on display. As wicketkeeper the 21-year-old student Andy Patterson - whose brother Mark now plays for Surrey - dismissed Somerset's top scorer Simon Ecclestone by daring to stand up to the brisk Paul McCrum. And when he batted, Patterson's assured 50 stood between Ireland and humiliation. Andy Caddick, for one, didn't appreciate the impertinent front-foot drives to the boundary.
Patterson, who also has county cricket ambitions, appreciates the input Cronje has offered. "He is totally positive. He tells us that the opposition are no better than us - they are just getting paid for it."
Patterson represents the modern Irish cricketer. He respects the difference between a routine weekend club match and a contest with Mushtaq or Caddick - and totally refuses to be fazed by it. And he has a burning reason to see Ireland win at least one more of their B & H matches, either against Glamorgan tomorrow or Essex a week later. "If we win another game Hansie has promised to shave his head and dye it blonde," he said. The promise is now on record.Reuse content