Dreams and Setting Suns: Ireland, Zimbabwe and mistimed opportunity

Viewed through an optimistic lens, it could be said that last week’s mini-series between England and Ireland was symbolic of Ireland’s progress and the gradually strengthening ties between the ECB and Cricket Ireland. However, at a delicate time for Irish cricket, a pair of lopsided results only served to highlight the gulf in class between this current Irish side and the game’s elite.

As the ICC prepares to make a decision over Ireland’s Test status, William Porterfield’s team did themselves few favours by losing both games comprehensively, albeit with an improved display at Lord’s on Sunday. Ireland are a team on the cusp of an historic graduation into the Test arena and yet this crucial moment in their history has coincided with a worrying period of stagnation.

For all their merits, Ireland are a team struggling to build for the future. Six years on from their famous victory over England in Bangalore, Ireland are still clinging to the generation that steered them through their most successful period at the beginning of the decade. Indeed, of the eleven that played at Bristol and Lord’s last week, seven started that 2011 World Cup game and six are now aged 30 or over.

Despite possessing a number of serviceable players in their mid-twenties (Paul Stirling, George Dockrell and Peter Chase being foremost among them), Ireland are yet to find suitable replacements for Ed Joyce (38), Tim Murtagh (35) and the O’Brien brothers, Niall (35) and Kevin (33). Reliant on their elder statesmen and labouring to develop the next cohort of talent, Ireland – superseded as the ICC’s strongest associate member by Afghanistan – are preparing for their elevation to Test cricket with a squad that is now the wrong side of its prime.

In a recent Cricinfo interview, former Zimbabwe bowler Eddo Brandes expressed the opinion that his country was awarded Test status too late. “One of our better sides was around 1988, with Peter Rawson and Kevin Curran in the bowling line-up,” said Brandes. “If we’d got Test status then, the team that came in 1992 would have been that much better prepared.” Last week, as Ireland toiled with little reward against England, it was hard not to draw parallels between Zimbabwe’s plight and that which may await Ireland should they be awarded Test status next month.

After making their presence felt with a victory over Australia at the 1983 World Cup, Zimbabwe continued to develop and strengthen throughout the 1980s. Despite drawing a blank at the 1987 World Cup, Zimbabwe’s team contained a number of quality players in the prime of their careers. Dave Houghton, Peter Rawson and Kevin Curran formed the spine of a side that was surely capable of playing at the very highest level, but only Houghton continued long enough to experience Test cricket.

Handed Test status in 1992 during a time of generational transition within the squad, Zimbabwe struggled to keep their head above the water during their early years as a Test nation. Recording just two victories in their first 31 matches, it wasn’t until the late 1990s – the period during which the Flower brothers, Heath Streak and Henry Olonga reached their primes – that Zimbabwe started to play genuinely competitive Test cricket on a regular basis.

Of course, there is no shame in struggling to adapt to Test cricket (see New Zealand and Bangladesh for examples of how teams can gradually transform their fortunes after poor starts), but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Ireland’s transition could have been far more comfortable had the ICC chosen to award them Test status as recently as four or five years ago. Rather than entering Test cricket at their zenith, Ireland – should they be admitted – will be starting out with a team at the tail-end of its lifecycle.

Should Ireland be granted Test status in June, it would surely pay to view their graduation to the top table as the beginning of a process rather than the fulfilment of an ambition. The current squad will inevitably break up over the coming seasons, but within the short-term challenge lies an invaluable opportunity for long-term development.

Cricket Ireland’s annual turnover is projected to double to around €12m with the award of Test status, an injection of welcome funds that will likely be used to upgrade domestic competitions and club facilities across the country. Initial struggles in Test cricket will be inevitable as the squad undergoes a major transition, but shrewd investment has the potential to accelerate the game’s growth and develop the next generation of Irish talent. Both Cricket Ireland and the ICC will need to exercise patience with a team that has so much to offer the international game.

Ireland may have had their pride dented by England last week, but these are exciting times for a group of players that have been on an extraordinary, decade-long journey together. The awarding of Test status would be momentous for Irish cricket, but the team’s joy – abundant as it will be – may be tinged with frustration and thoughts of what could have been for Ireland’s ‘golden generation’.

Image: Wikimedia

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