Ireland dream of shock to drive game's growth

Ireland have made huge strides since the last World Cup. Beating England today would fuel the momentum

Ireland's progress can be measured by two World Cup games against Bangladesh. Victory in Barbados in 2007 was not expected: a repeat in Mirpur last Friday would not have been a surprise. That Ireland were so disappointed with their failure in a tight run-chase demonstrates just how far they have come.

"Back then we were amateurs, representing our country and enjoying the moment. We loved the hype, the travelling, the media attention. But now we're used to all that – it's quite different," said the Ireland bowler and former captain Trent Johnson. "Ten of the team are full-time professionals. We consider ourselves one of the big boys now."

You can see why. Ireland may be ranked 10th (with Zimbabwe) in the ICC's ODI rankings, but they are no mugs. Friday's defeat could easily have been a victory had cooler heads prevailed in the chase: both Northamptonshire's Niall O'Brien and his brother Kevin fell to impetuous shots with the side looking well set.

Nonetheless, Ireland's battling performance showed they have what it takes to compete at this level consistently. That's crucial for the future of the game there, according to Irish Cricket's chief executive Warren Deutrom. "The key point is that we need to be seen to be competitive in as many fixtures as possible," says Deutrom. "What does it mean to perform well in this World Cup? Everything. In terms of the profile we get internationally, in terms of our own media, the perception of Irish cricket internationally, in terms of the funding we might receive. It means an incredible amount."

It is particularly crucial given the ICC's decision that the next World Cup in 2015 will include just 10 teams, down from 14 this time. It is inevitably the associate members – the non-Test playing sides – who will suffer. This is hard on Ireland, who have taken huge steps since their heroics at the 2007 World Cup: 13 of the Irish squad of 15 are now professional, Irish Cricket's commercial revenue has increased tenfold and, says Deutrom, hits on the organisation's website have gone from fewer than 900,000 in 2007 to more than 10m now. "We have catapulted forward in every measure you'd wish to mention," he says.

That includes the number of registered players: there are now more than 20,000 in Ireland (which, like rugby, takes in both the Republic and Northern Ireland). "We're looking to achieve 50,000 by 2015," says Deutrom.

The work that has gone on since 2007 to improve Irish cricket off the field has been dramatic. There were complaints then that Irish players had to wait too long after the tournament to be paid for their efforts. "Things are better now," Deutrom says.

The problem for Ireland is this: what next? They're clearly the best of the associate nations but Test status seems a way off, and there's nothing in between. More ODIs and involvement in ICC competitions (including a mooted ODI league) is the aim. "We hope that there might be a measured way of progressing, and we hope that fairness would shine through and that if a country is clearly competitive enough it should be given a chance," says Deutrom. "We believe we are good enough to compete with the full-member countries in limited-over cricket."

With regard to Test cricket, Deutrom is more circumspect. "Phil Simmons [the former West Indies all-rounder who is now Ireland's coach] said we are probably five to 10 years away from that," he says. "That said, in terms of our ability to be able to compete in multi-day cricket we would be miles ahead of where any other country that has previously been elevated to Test cricket was."

If Irish cricketers want to play Test cricket now, of course, their only route is to follow Eoin Morgan into the England side. Ireland want to ensure that young talents like Somerset's left-arm spinner George Dockrell, who shone against Bangladesh, do not feel that is their only option. "Our job is to make sure there's sufficient activity, interest and incentive to [convince cricketers to] continue to play for Ireland rather than opting for England," says Deutrom. "Now the Irish team is getting an annual salary, they've played on four continents, they can play in World Cups. Whereas in the past the obvious thing would be to say 'I'll go and play for England', now we're saying to them, 'We can provide a supplement to your county salary.' Players moving to play for England is something we want to ensure is no longer an inevitability."

To achieve that, Ireland must continue to progress. Winning today would help. "It would be enormous," says Deutrom. "I've had Dublin taxi drivers tell me that if we beat England at tiddlywinks it would be huge, so I'd like to think that if we beat them at the world's second biggest sport in a World Cup it would be absolutely enormous. One only has to see what has happened to Irish cricket in the four years since 2007 to know what it would mean."

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