This is the year of Ireland cricket. After years of backroom negotiating and even public pleading, Ireland finally have a string of matches against the top teams over the next one year. Apart from the five One-Day Internationals against Afghanistan that start on Sunday (July 10), Ireland will face Pakistan, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh and West Indies in the coming year. The packed schedule also includes a historic series against England in England. And they’ve just played Sri Lanka.
The sudden burst of matches is a big boost for Cricket Ireland’s plans to make cricket mainstream by 2020. It could also help Ireland in their ambition of becoming a Test side.
Warren Deutrom, Cricket Ireland’s chief executive, described it aptly, saying they’ve “gone from famine to feast”. In a chat with Wisden India, Deutrom discussed Ireland’s long-term plans, the possible impact of Brexit and a lot more. Excerpts:
What is ‘Making Cricket Mainstream by 2020’ all about?
I suppose the trick sometimes is to create a vision for the entire sport to follow. Sometimes, it’s easy to look at your previous strategy and say let’s just add 15-20% to your earlier initiatives, objectives or achievements. We tend to think differently in Cricket Ireland. We like to say, ‘OK, what is the amount we want to look like, where are we actually trying to go?’ So, at the start of our last strategy, it was let’s try and be a Test country. At that stage, the pathway to Test cricket didn’t even exist. What it did was it gave us something incredibly engaging and passionate, or something which I know has a real residence for Irish cricket fans to aim for.
Even if we don’t achieve it by end of this plan period, we’d certainly want to do it by 2020. The whole plan has been put in by ICC – whether it’s going to be via the Test challenge or some of the new processes, we hope it will be announced in the coming weeks or months. We don’t know, but either way, there is a pathway to Test cricket. So clearly, we have a plan to reach. The idea is, rather than achieving a goal and then saying what do we do now, our plan is: This is the goal we want to achieve, let’s put all the building blocks in place bearing in mind the resources we have and see if we can make it work.
This time, we’ve set our sights even higher. Let’s try and be a mainstream sport in Ireland. We’re already doing that in a number of areas – in terms of visibility, media coverage, the number of matches we get on television and the crowds at the stadium, sponsorship or general culture of visibility and social media fans. If you’re looking at measurements, they’re pretty robust. That’s where we are now. But where might we be by 2020? If we continue to grow at the current rate – and we’re doing that with a small number of fixtures – with opportunities opening up in terms of a 12-team ODI structure or other ICC discussions, why shouldn’t we aim for the stars?
How does Ireland view the possibility of a new ICC ODI league and Test division structure?
Forget about Ireland. The other hat I wear is, I represent all associates at the ICC chief executive committee. All the differences of opinion with the ICC over the years has never been about just Ireland. It’s always been about putting in pathways that are going to make cricket more robust and making the members be more accountable on and off the pitch.
“This is about the game embracing the concept of merit. Ensuring there is context for the performances, which all the members care about. In other words, there is accountability. There has to be some penalty for underperforming, otherwise where is the incentive to continue to perform if there is no penalty for failure? We see how teams can fight with that risk. That gives hope to all of those who are currently excluded. If there isn’t a hope, then why would you bother?”
Ireland have been performing over the last number of years – maybe not over the last few months – we have been at the top for the last ten years [and] we are the ones that perhaps prove the argument that the door remains closed, we are the ones that are most discriminated against. This is about the game embracing the concept of merit. Ensuring there is context for the performances, which all the members care about. In other words, there is accountability. There has to be some penalty for underperforming, otherwise where is the incentive to continue to perform if there is no penalty for failure? Every sport embraces that concept. You do well, you go up. If you don’t you’re held accountable. As a group of associates, 95 non-Test countries are held accountable on and off the field through what’s called a scorecard: How many players you have, how many men, women, umpires, coaches, scorers, turf pitches you have, how much income you generate for ICC. That’s only few of the 14-15 ways in which we’re measured.
That is perfect and an exceptionally good measure. I hope those measures will be applied to full members as well – not just in terms of numbers but also performance. As good a way as any to do it is by promotion and relegation. We see how teams can fight with that risk. That gives hope to all of those who are currently excluded. If there isn’t a hope, then why would you bother?
Ireland’s captain and other players have been vocal about the ten-team World Cup etc. Is the board too equally vocal in ICC meetings?
Yes, I have to be careful about the way I say this. When I sit at the table in the ICC chief executive committee, or when Kevin O’Brien sits at the cricket committee, we’re not there representing Cricket Ireland. We’re representing all of the associates. But of course, an opportunity such as an annual conference is clearly an opportunity for the entire world game to engage, and for me to put on the Cricket Ireland hat and also argue regarding our frustrations. It just so happens that the majority of things we would argue for Cricket Ireland we’d pretty much argue for all the associates.
In a way, we’ve been feeling it in Cricket Ireland the most over the last number of years because we’re the ones that are batting our heads against the supposed glass ceiling. I don’t want to focus too much on that because the ICC management and the chairman, Shashank Manohar, need to be congratulated at this juncture for the way they’ve been prepared to embrace change in terms of governance and the desire to review those elements particularly from a competition perspective. The finances are yet to be worked out, that’s complicated. Our sincere hope is that these proposals will be put in the public domain because there is support for them.
But to answer the question, I can guarantee that Cricket Ireland, when we have the opportunity to engage with the ICC, we’re not backward about putting our argument forward.
In that context, how important is the season ahead?
The series against England is historic. There’s an awful lot coming up. We have gone from famine to feast. This is what we’ve been asking for all these years.
The opportunity for us to test ourselves against the best. We’re not saying we will win every game but we want to be continually competitive. John Bracewell, our coach says – and it’s a very good insight, the one that perhaps we couldn’t articulate ourselves before he did – we need to cease to become the team that builds every four years towards a culmination that is the World Cup. And instead, actually become a team that becomes an FTP team with tours on a more frequent basis. That’s a very different mentality. You can’t be off the radar, build and build and build and then suddenly have an explosion of excitement and national fervour that culminates at the opening match of a World Cup and produces these wonderful performances that Ireland have produced in the opening match of World Cups – moving backwards, against West Indies, England and Pakistan and Bangladesh. We have to become more professional and perform on a more day-to-day basic. It’s a shift of mentality, focus and ability to prepare a team.
We are going to get to a stage where we have all our players more frequently at Bracewell’s disposal. That’s going to be an entire change in philosophy. We have to see if it’s even feasible to have our players dispersed between England and Ireland.
How do you think Brexit will impact those plans?
Who knows what’s going to happen as a result of Brexit – movements of players and all those things will be played out in the coming months or even years. In the short term, we’re going to try and do what the other politicians are doing, which is face the economic earthquake, look after that the finances are looked after. In that regard, in terms of identifying risks, we’re not really exposed to the money markets because we don’t have significant investments.
“We need to cease to become the team that builds every four years towards a culmination that is the World Cup. And instead, actually become a team that becomes an FTP team with tours on a more frequent basis. That’s a very different mentality. We are going to get to a stage where we have all our players more frequently at Bracewell’s disposal. We have to see if it’s even feasible to have our players dispersed between England and Ireland.”
Who knows what impact it will have on the immigration of players between the UK and the republic of Ireland. We have no idea, whether the counties are going to call these players, who knows?
Early times, but if it means a fewer opportunities in county cricket, won’t it rob Ireland players of valuable experience?
At this stage, we simply don’t know. We have to look for a long term perspective about even whether our players operating in county cricket is the best for our future. We have our own domestic structure with all three formats of the game. We have to work out whether having half of our players in England is the best for our future.
The fact of the matter is, we’re getting more fixtures on an annual basis. If we play Test cricket, that’s going to be even more days taken out and therefore it could well mean that our players are going to be less attractive in county cricket. Therefore, what might happen is that they might be contracted to us and we might lend our players to counties for 50-over or T20 cricket just as it happens with other Test countries. For that to happen, we have to ensure our domestic structure has quality and quantity of cricket, that we have appropriate facilities. Our strategies need to be geared for that to happen. I don’t think we can be a proper country calling its sport mainstream and sending our players abroad while not having a robust domestic structure.
Lots of associates are catching up in T20s. In a way, are T20s hampering Ireland’s Test dreams? Or should Ireland just have to balance all three formats with limited resources?
The latter is the answer. We can’t afford not to perform in World T20s. This isn’t an excuse, we didn’t perform well. You won’t find a single player saying we could have got over the line against Oman, or that it was just a six-over game against the Netherlands. That would be unprofessional.
The point is, even though we had fewer opportunities, influential people and commentators still said Ireland’s going off the boil and that the team is getting older. Because they don’t see enough of us, they perhaps came to hasty conclusions on our performances. The two defeats against Sri Lanka haven’t helped.
But if we’re comparing ourselves to say Zimbabwe, I would suggest that the fact we scored 200-plus against Sri Lanka – we weren’t at our best and had a number of people injured and unavailable – I suggest that we performed better against Sri Lanka than Zimbabwe might have performed against an Indian team not at full strength. If we’re comparing ourselves to the lower ranked full members, we haven’t shamed ourselves.
“We can’t afford not to perform in World T20s. This isn’t an excuse, we didn’t perform well … There is certainly change, our frontline team isn’t getting younger but it’s our duty to get the younger guys through. We’ve introduced a domestic strstructure, we’ve got guys coming into the national team through that structure. We’ve got a national academy. It’s going to take time.”
It’s not just the men, the women as well. The women are trying to be competitive as well, so we’re trying to fight across five rungs. There is certainly change, our frontline team isn’t getting younger but it’s our duty to get the younger guys through. We’ve introduced a domestic structure, we’ve got guys coming into the national team through that structure. We’ve got a national academy. It’s going to take time. We also have to make sure we’re putting a lot of our players into A team cricket. That is important because what happens is, players come into international cricket who are blinking at the headlights because they’ve only had opportunities at the Under-19s. The U-19 World Cup is also a difficult competition to be a part of because all full members get guaranteed access, so you’re not even guaranteed that opportunity as a player. They’re not complaints, they’re not excuses, they’re merely explanations.
You mentioned Ireland’s mainstream players becoming older. Are you confident Ireland will have enough quality cricketers to take on the historic occasion of Test debut whenever it happens?
It’s interesting. You can look at Zimbabwe and Bangladesh who were elevated into full members and took years and years to win in any of the formats. One could argue that Bangladesh were elevated after the 1999 World Cup, but it took them a decade or even longer to get in on a regular basis. Our view is that, in terms of Tests, we’ve been fortunate to be playing international multi-day cricket through the Intercontinental Cup. We’ve got players playing in four-day competitions in county cricket and also have our three-day domestic competition for three seasons. Does that mean we’re going to win Tests the moment we’re elevated, or whether we’re elevated at all? The answer is: No guarantees.
My job, however, is to ensure to give ourselves the best opportunity to perform when we get to that level. We can’t get our eye off the white ball as well. The key is, we’re getting more matches between World Cups. We’ll play the same number of ODIs this year as we played between 2007 and 2011. And that has to help performance. Even if it’s too late for a certain group of players who have been fantastic for us over the last ten years, we’re blooding a group of youngsters who will be competitive in the years to come.