Adam Collins column: Emerald Isle now learning to swim at the deep end

It’s not easy, as Kermit the Frog taught us as kids, being green.

And so it is for Ireland cricket in this their second year as a full member of the International Cricket Council.

Of course, it has rarely been straightforward in a country where the sport was blacklisted for decades through no fault of its own. These days, the challenges are relatively good ones to have; closer to growing pains. But these sophomore season headwinds require navigating at the time that Ireland’s men and women have never been so in the public eye.

Last winter, Tim Murtagh was preparing himself to play in Ireland’s inaugural Test Match, hosted against Pakistan in Malahide in May. Nerves don’t normally affect a bowler at 37, but upon realising that William Porterfield had won the toss he knew he was about to participate in a serious piece of history delivering the first ball in Tests for his adopted country.

“I suddenly realised the magnitude of the situation,” he recalled to The Cricket Paper.

It was a moment that brought devotees of Irish cricket to tears. Having kept the game alive when times were tough before nurturing it to soar in the previous decade, here they were at the very top table of the sport. Then, the performance itself gave them every reason to be proud, fighting back after following on to have Pakistan 14-3 in pursuit of 160. Alas, there would be no Malahide Miracle – the visitors holding their nerve at the conclusion of Murtagh’s inspired spell.

But the magnitude of the situation has evolved again since the eyes of the cricket world were focused on Dublin for that inaugural Test, with some 140 fixtures for Ireland now inked into the ICC’s Future Tours Programme through to 2023.

This comes just as the golden generation, who made this all possible to begin with, are coming to the end, namely perennial standard-bearer Ed Joyce, who called it a day after the Pakistan Test, with Niall O’Brien following suit after 16 years.

En route next week to India, Murtagh is buoyed by the fact their schedule against Afghanistan will be a proper one – nine matches all up, including their first away Test.

“It makes the whole thing a bit more real,” he said. “It makes us feel like one of the big teams.”

But when their fellow newcomer to full member status visited Ireland last year, it wasn’t pretty, the hosts winning just one of the six white-ball internationals. It will be a tough trip.

Echoing coach Graham Ford’s view that 2019 is principally about laying a foundation for the next generation, Murtagh is mindful of how important this transition period is: “We are under no illusions. But these are the challenges that we have wanted for years. We are no longer playing against the Duke of Norfolk XI – we have moved on. Every game we play now is against a top-quality team so we have got to learn quick or it will be a hard few years. This is the pressure we wanted, so there is no point going back into our comfort zone.”

Upon returning home, the pain of having been effectively booted out of the World Cup by the ICC when reducing the tournament to ten teams will be felt acutely when West Indies, Bangladesh and Afghanistan visit to fine-tune before the month that matters most in 50-over cricket. But that will be soothed in the short-term knowing that England are hosting them at Lord’s for a Test match in July to prepare for their own Ashes campaign, an opportunity Australia vetoed in favour of playing a practice match against themselves.

“It will be a very special occasion,” says Murtagh, who knows the contours of HQ better than most having taken over 650 first-class wickets for Middlesex.

“There will be a lot of nerves in that game for England. There will be guys desperate to get picked for their next Test, which will be the Ashes. We have got to play on that. There are a few guys without much experience who will be scratching around to cement their place and there’ll be so much scrutiny.”

Off the field, Warren Deutrom, Cricket Ireland’s mainstay chief executive, continues to grow the organisation as he has since 2006, last year opening their high-performance centre in Dublin. When women’s captain Laura Delany was brought to tears during the World T20 in November, lamenting what might have been possible had they been professional like their opponents, the response was to announce meaningful central contracts for the first time. Much as it is for the men, the side lost 500-plus caps of experience in retirements after that event, but, as the men showed
last decade, exposure and wages brings opportunity.

Another logical area of further growth is the prospect of a combined European T20 competition hosted with Scotland and Holland. As the senior member of that trio, Ireland are leading the way to create something that could compete on the global stage to secure a vital revenue stream. While nothing is guaranteed as yet, there is plenty of blood pumping for the prospect.

Emblematic of the push and pull of Ireland’s progress is a decision awaiting Murtagh at the end of 2019 when he can no longer appear for his England county unless formally signed up as an overseas player. Boyd Rankin and Gary Wilson have both made the formal move back to Irish domestic cricket but for Murtagh, Paul Stirling and Stuart Poynter, it is less clear.

“I’m really enjoying my cricket for both teams and the thought of giving up one of them at the end of the summer is going to be tough to take,” he said. “It is going to affect Stirlo more than me with a lot longer left in his career. It is going to be a decision I won’t take lightly, but there’s nothing that can be done about it.”

For now, Murtagh is determined to make every moment count, saying: “Irish cricket has been massive for me. I thought those days were gone when I didn’t get picked for England so to have this at the end of my career has been massive. If I ended up playing two, three or four Tests, that would be fantastic.”

ADAM COLLINS | GETTY IMAGES

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