Are Irish pastures calling?

Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland
Students and teachers outdoors. Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland - April 23, 2016: Students and teachers outdoors on Campus ground at cricket field. College students and teachers, Campus ground.

Sometimes, as Fred Klokker said when he floated the idea on Emerging Cricket’s recent podcast, inspiration comes from nowhere in the middle of a conversation.

And then it’s so obvious that you can scarcely believe that nobody’s thought of it before.

That’s certainly the case with his off-the-cuff suggestion that a combined European team might take part in Ireland’s nascent three-day first-class competition.

Over the past decade, the opportunities for Europe’s young cricketers to play anything except T20 at representative level have steadily decreased: the Intercontinental Cup has been shelved, the entire structure of European one-day tournaments has disappeared, and the academies which ICC Europe once arranged are barely a distant memory.

Yet there is a consensus among coaches that it is the longer forms of the game in which young players learn the skills which they can later hone into the more compressed, more intense disciplines of T20 cricket.

The limitations of the ICC’s all-the-Associate-eggs-in-one-basket approach are obvious, and the consequence is inevitably to impede the development of Associate countries’ most talented young players, and thus the progress of the game in those countries as a whole.

It’s not so long go that Ireland, too, was an Associate country battling for recognition, and in their course of their campaign their leaders gave many assurances that they were fighting not only for themselves but for the Associate cause more generally.

They deserve full credit for what they have achieved, but it’s surely not too much to ask Cricket Ireland to consider what they can now do to give practical assistance to those who seek to follow in their footsteps?

The Irish three-day competition currently comprises three sides – Leinster Lightning, centred on Dublin, the Belfast-based Northern Knights, and the North West Warriors, who come from the Derry area – with plans for the inclusion of a fourth team, Munster, with Cork as its epicentre.

Would a five-team competition expand it unmanageably? A jump from six matches a season to twenty would certainly be a big ask, and all the indications are that Cricket Ireland are being extremely cautious in their development planning.

But there are several possible ways of moving in that direction, if the will is there.

One would be to do what Australia did back in the 1940s when the four-team Sheffield Shield competition was expanded to include Western Australia: for several seasons WA played only four matches instead of eight, and the table was decided on average points.

In the present case, given that the motivation for the initiative would be player development, it would be possible to imagine the European XI playing all their matches in Ireland during, say, a three-week tour.

That would reduce the costs to Cricket Ireland while still enhancing the quality of their competition, and, most importantly perhaps, it would give the European squad an intensive period working with dedicated coaches and developing longer-format skills to which they would otherwise have no access.

It would, of course, be cheaper overall for the European participants as well, and one of the biggest questions about the idea is where the money would come from.

Cricket Ireland High Performance Manager Richard Holdsworth, who as Regional Development Manager of ICC Europe presided over that now-lost system of tournaments and academies and is now responsible for Ireland’s interprovincial competitions, knows more about these things than most, and estimates that full participation would at a minimum involve a six-figure sum.

Freddie Klokker Denmark
Freddie Klokker hit a boundary through cover for Denmark against Uganda in WCL4 in 2018 (Photo: ICC)

Even a half programme would be a considerable burden for Associate countries who have seen their funding significantly diminished over recent years, substantial enough, perhaps, to make the whole idea impracticable.

But that, surely, is the sort of thing the ICC Global Development Program is, or at least was, established to deal for.

And co-ordinating a European representative team would provide something to do for the sadly-reduced ICC Europe office, now almost invisible, even on social media.

The larger context for Fred Klokker’s brainwave was the likely knock-on effects of Brexit on the English counties’ willingness to offer contracts to young players from EU countries, and it’s therefore not unreasonable to assume that a European side would consist largely of Dutch and Danish players.

That the squad should comprise home-produced cricketers rather than passport-carrying fly-ins, however talented, would fit with the initiative’s development agenda, but it is not equally self-evident that young players from, say, Jersey, Guernsey or the Isle of Man should be excluded if they are good enough and have been unable to secure a contract with a county.

It is, at the very least, an idea worth exploring as we consider what the cricket world might look like on the other side of the current pandemic.

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