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Why Ireland Should be a Test Nation

5 November 2009.

Cricket needs to move beyond its cosy cartel of countries, bring in more teams, and have two or more divisions.

Ireland’s current application for Test status ought to be taken seriously. Indeed, it ought to be accepted, and that means convincing at least seven of the 10 established nations to give it the green light.

Not that the Irish can start playing Test cricket next month. Instead a time-table is required to give that fine land time to complete its preparations. Test cricketers cannot be microwaved. Nor can Test teams or grounds. If Ireland is to survive the awaiting examinations then it needs to get to work right away with a view to playing its first five-day match three years hence. It cannot be any longer delayed. Already Ireland’s top players are trying their luck with England. Not content with pinching their potatoes, the Poms are now taking Ireland’s players. All the more reason to get behind Boyd Rankin, Eoin Morgan, Ed Joyce and their comrades. There is a tide in the affairs of men and all that.

Ireland cricket team

Ireland playing against Pakistan at the Kennington Oval during the 2009 T20 World Cup. Niall O’Brien is keeping wicket whilst and Trent Johnston is the fielder.
Photo ©: Ireland_vs_Pakistan2.jpg: p_a_h from United Kingdomderivative work: Nev1, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Cricket needs to move beyond its tight little cartel of colonial and post-colonial countries. Otherwise it’ll spend the rest of its history contemplating its navel and worrying about border disputes, despots, civil wars, religious and racial disharmony, suppression, patronage, rugby, soccer and all the other complications of contemporary and future life. The only way to avoid these internal battles periodically crippling the game is to widen its appeal, to turn it from an imperial relic into a world game. To that end the ICC has with increasing vigour and growing success been seeking to take the gift of the game to every possible nook and cranny of a shrinking world torn between tradition and Twitter. That is the way to breathe life into the game.

All sorts of n’er-do-wells grumble about India’s stranglehold, but that is power, money and democracy. Previously almost as many fatheads grizzled about England’s 100-year domination. Both arguments miss the point. Plain and simple, there is not nearly enough to run. The game has not stretched itself. It has been sustained by an empire, and latterly because the world’s largest democracy is infatuated with it. These strokes of luck ought to be a beginning not an end. Or do the craven conservatives imagine that cricket contain some secret beyond the ken of South Americans, Serbians and so forth?

Cricket ought to have more confidence in itself. It is not the dreary recreation endured in junior school. It is a vibrant game occasionally spoilt by the slow-witted. Consider it well. All those sixes smacked out of the ground, all that scurrying between wickets, all those subtle slow bowlers and explosive speedsters, and the quietness and sense of anticipation in between. Tall and small batsmen, lefties and righties, and the sudden shafts of passion as a wicket falls. But the game knows all that. It just does not believe it. The clichés about nothing happening are wide of the mark. In any case, a pal went to her first baseball game last September and had to wait till 2.30 in the morning and the 14th inning for a run to be scored. Yet baseball survives. Now cricket has its 50-over contests and Twenty20 and so forth. Baseball has fallen behind. It’s high time it introduced three-inning matches. But do not tell them.

Certainly cricket has its own culture, and is handed down through the generations. The list of fathers and sons playing the game is long and grows apace. An England team could be listed consisting of sons (you know what I mean). Let’s try it. Stuart Broad, Chris Tremlett, Ryan Sidebottom, Riki Wessels, Joshua Cobb, Tom Maynard, David Willey, Jonathan Bairstow, and add a few of your own. The process has to start somewhere. Decades ago I told Ali Bacher that his township coaches were instructing the fathers of the forthcoming black South African team, not the players themselves. It is a handed-down game. But it is also glorious. And everywhere it started from scratch.

Of course the backwoodsmen resist all newcomers and regard money spent in Sierra Leone, China, Papua New Guinea and Argentina, for example, as wasted. Presumably they think it ought to be given to the folks in Marylebone, Melbourne or Mumbai, fellows anxious to obtain yet another roller or an eighth pair of batting gloves. These defeatists think the game is doomed to remain within its current parameters and point out that American games are likewise constrained. Far from giving in so easily, cricket needs to work even harder to turn molehills into mountains. Happily the much-maligned ICC – what fun it is to bag governing bodies and selectors and other grey-faced bodies – takes a longer view. Aware that cricket has many attractions and quite a lot of money, it is sending coaches all over the place and starting leagues and introducing promotion and relegation so that ambitious nations can see the pathway to the top. In some places, admittedly, cricket depends on its migrant population (England and Canada spring to mind). Elsewhere the locals are taking to it.

And Ireland sits at the top of this particular tree. All the more reason to award them Test status. In any case cricket is altogether too precious about Test cricket. In every other sport it is possible for strong and weak to meet without the game getting into a palaver about it. Brazil can play the Isle of Man in football and it’s still called a fair-dinkum international. If Kaka scores 10 goals, all and sundry shrug and smile and forget about it. When the same things happen in cricket, steam comes out of the ears of statisticians and historians worried about Arthur Shrewsbury’s legacy, or other ancient irrelevances. Entire books of statistics are produced. Entire books. Indeed the game’s most weighty and revered tome consists mostly of figures. The past has its place but its tyranny ought to be challenged. Context does matter but the game cannot remain hidebound. Does anyone care that much about Ken Barrington’s average? Or Bob Cowper’s? And has not cricket often pitted powerful against weak? Admittedly it has not happened quite as much in the last few decades, but India, South Africa and others fielded threadbare sides in their early outings.

Moreover Test cricket is not weakened by the number of sides taking part at the elite level but by the fact that the strongest and weakest regularly play against each other. That distorts the picture. And the solution is obvious. Split the top nations into two divisions, and in 10 years’ time make it three. Allow promotion and relegation. Arrange Test championships. What the heck – aspiring nations ought to be encouraged, not kept in their place. But the product needs to improve. Slow over-rates, drinks breaks, stoppages for rain and bad light, intrusions by servants dressed as 12th men, changing the ball, and all the other delaying tactics ought to be abolished. At all times the game must go on. Shelter, transport, entertainment and refreshments ought to be provided for hard-pressed and often insulted spectators. Cricket is competing in a marketplace and needs to take its public into account.

Ireland has worked hard for years and has maintained a high standard. At present it lacks a first-class structure but one is mooted, and anyhow money has been tight, besides which other countries have been accepted without one. In any case it’s the results and the quality of the players that matter, and on both counts Ireland passes muster. It’s high time Irish victories over supposedly superior opponents were not regarded as flukes. The World Cup win over Pakistan was merely an upset. Grizzling England were nearly held after the Ashes, and never mind that Ireland had been denied the services of its best players. Incredibly, English reporters dared to point out that the Irish were captained by an Australian. Pots and kettles! Anyhow Trent Johnston long ago committed himself to the Irish cause.

Nor is it right to focus only on the three most recognisable Irish cricketers, the trio called up by England in recent times. Ben Stinga, a student of the wider game across the world, has produced a list of Irish cricketers capable of holding their own in any company. Here is the current squad with their List A career records.

Obviously Ireland will struggle to compete with India in Bangalore or Australia in Perth, but they are hardly alone in that. They are competitive in soccer and rugby, and given a chance, will rise in cricket. In any case the time has come for the game to spread its wings. Before long Ireland, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica, Holland, Afghanistan, Tanzania and Uganda ought to be competing for places in a second division playing four- or five-day Test cricket. Scotland and Kenya have fallen back, Canada has lost its main sponsor and the USA has been bedevilled by infighting, but the best-laid plans and so on… And the top teams in the second rung could then hope to fulfill their dreams by playing Test cricket at Lord’s or Eden Gardens or the MCG. What exactly is there to lose?

This article was writtn for ESPN cricinfo.
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