Ireland would like to play more Test cricket but funding will be key

It was a rare but welcome sight last month as Ireland donned the Whites to end a four-year hiatus from Test cricket.

Despite being badly defeated in the difficult environments of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Ireland doubled their total number of Tests on their return after playing three games in 2018-19.

For those worried about the future of Test, which continues to grow by the day as T20 franchise leagues devour star players worldwide and turn the calendar upside down, it has been reassuring to see a smaller full member nation playing Red Ball cricket again .

There is a growing belief that Test cricket – the traditional five-day format which is proving expensive to organize amid languishing interest – is only played by a handful of financially stable nations such as billion-dollar powerhouses India, England and Australia -Deals are fitted for domestic shipments.

But Ireland is eager to defy the odds. They were accepted as full members in 2017 – the so-called elite 12 nations granted more money and power – although it was quickly realized that playing Test cricket was going to be an uphill battle financially.

“We were underfunded, having originally been promised $60m over an eight-year cycle (2015-23) only to end up receiving about $37m,” said Richard Holdsworth, High Performance Director of Cricket Ireland, noting that it only receives about 2 per cent of it, the distribution share of the International Cricket Council’s revenue.

“It’s impossible that we can finance three formats.”

Despite having a top-notch structure, Ireland had to focus on the shorter formats with the World Cups coming up.

“We made the decision strategically and said, ‘Look, we don’t have the resources to deliver on this,'” Holdsworth said. “There were World Cups that we had to go to. And that had to be the priority and it was the right decision.”

Ireland officials are sweating over the forthcoming distribution of revenue for the International Cricket Council’s $3 billion media rights deal for 2024-27. Discussions began with reports that slumped India wanted a bigger increase in the financial pie.

With a mammoth $6 billion broadcast deal for its top-grossing Indian Premier League, India’s governing body is already cash-strapped, receiving $371 million — 22 percent — from the current eight-year ICC broadcast deal, figures published in a ICC document I’ve seen.

A distribution model is expected to be presented at the ICC Annual General Meeting in July in South Africa.

“Our hope is that we will be rewarded appropriately … not what has happened in the last six years,” Holdsworth said. “So if that happens, which of course we really hope, it will be easier to invest in all three formats.”

It is revealing that all of Ireland’s scheduled friendlies are away from home this year. They have only hosted one friendly – their debut in this format against Pakistan in 2018 cost around €1m.

Ireland is not scheduled to host a test until mid-2024. Temporary infrastructure was needed for their international ground but a dedicated cricket stadium will hopefully be government funded with Ireland to co-host the 2030 T20 World Cup.

“Once we have a fit for purpose national stadium, which means we don’t have to invest huge sums in someone else’s pocket in temporary infrastructure, it becomes realistic to host test matches,” Holdsworth said.

Meanwhile, Ireland will play their fourth friendly in a few months when they meet England in a four-day game at Lord’s from 1 June.

It’s an event Ireland had hoped could kick-start the English Summer of Tests annually – it’s being played ahead of the blockbuster Ashes series this year – but gaps in a crowded schedule for in-demand England are becoming increasingly rare.

“Given that we’re literally over the ditch and less than an hour’s flight away, it makes sense (for England) to push in that direction to prepare them for larger series,” Holdsworth said.

“But I think it’s unlikely to be an annual game just looking at their schedule and how packed it is. We’d also like to have a bit more Red Ball cricket against their senior team.

“So we will continue to look for opportunities where there are gaps in the calendar.”

Desperate after a first Test win, a difficult task against a rejuvenated England, Ireland know they will get vital replays in this uncompromising long format which, despite its uncertain future, still beckons.

“It’s been a really good couple of weeks in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The players absolutely loved it,” said Holdsworth. “And they learn. You learn every game.

“The more we play, the more we believe we can be competitive in this format.”

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