Ireland's special relationship with WI
Dublin, Ireland - The Caribbean will forever hold sentimental memories for those associated with Irish cricket.
Seven years ago, at the World Cup held in the West Indies, victories against Bangladesh and, most famously, Pakistan endeared Ireland to the international cricketing community, providing the catalyst for a vast and ongoing development process.
In pursuit of further progress, Cricket Ireland's administrators are doing all they can to ensure their case to become a Full Member becomes an increasingly irrefutable one for the ICC.
Their bid has encountered several hurdles, not least the lack of co-operation from most Test-playing nations. That cannot be said of the WICB, however. The West Indies have played a more significant role in Ireland's development than just providing the location for those famous days in 2007.
A limited-overs series - two T20 internationals and an ODI - in March will follow Ireland's involvement in the Caribbean domestic 50-over competition. By the time the two countries meet in their opening Group B game of the 2015 World Cup next February, they will have played each other 10 times in seven years - more than any other Full Member has faced Ireland in the same period.
Although Ireland have yet to beat West Indies, they are reaping the rewards of a strengthening partnership. The continuous struggle to arrange fixtures against quality opposition, both at home and abroad, has forced Ireland to accept crumbs off sides touring England.
The sport's leading powers are reluctant to organise fixtures with Ireland and their Associate counterparts. It's a damning situation for Warren Deutrom, chief executive of Cricket Ireland, and his colleagues but things may be heading in the right direction, underlined by the Caribbean engagements.
At first glance, it is a peculiar relationship between one of the game's traditional powerhouses and an emerging Associate. The differences are vast but both governing bodies share one goal - to develop and promote the sport while raising the playing standard to achieve and maintain international success.
"Our primary focus now is to prepare for the 2015 World Cup and therefore our playing programme will be geared towards that over the next fifteen months," Deutrom told ESPNcricinfo.
"The opportunity to play in an overseas environment against high-quality teams in a short, intense tournament is a perfect start to those preparations and we're extremely grateful for the opportunity.
"We've built up a strong relationship with the WICB in the past few years and I was aware that England are touring the Caribbean in March, and wondered whether the West Indies might like to warm-up for that series by playing us following the completion of the Super50 competition. We made contact with the WICB and they were amenable to playing us."
The West Indies have become an escape route. Cynics will cite the dwindling fortunes of West Indies teams as part of the rationale behind their willingness to accommodate Ireland and other lower-ranked nations when others have been averse to scheduling extended series against the non-Test playing countries. Some might even argue that the WICB is exploiting Ireland's desperate situation to help fill a gap in its domestic competition and attract 'low-cost' opposition for warm-up games.
Perhaps it is an attempt to re-establish the confidence and aura that has been lost from West Indies cricket in recent years but, after all, such cooperation must benefit both parties. The WICB has disregarded limited financial appeal in favour of on-field progression and the global game benefits as a result.
Shortly after the heroics of the 2007 World Cup and the appointment of Trinidadian Phil Simmons as head coach, Cricket Ireland formed an allegiance with the Jamaica Cricket Association (JCA). The partnership came to fruition in early 2010 when Ireland spent several weeks in the Caribbean for a seven-game tour but the key objective is to provide opportunities for young cricketers to secure lucrative contracts and scholarships in Ireland and vice-versa.
Carlos Brathwaite, the 25-year-old Barbados bowler, benefited from a season in Leinster and has since made his international debut in the limited-overs formats. Most notably, Ravi Rampaul signed as Ireland's overseas player for their 2008 Friends Provident Trophy campaign on his return from injury. The bustling fast bowler's brief stint in green sparked his resurgence.
When Ireland returned to the Caribbean in 2010, their first extended series outside a global ICC event, Rampaul spearheaded West Indies' attack.
Four years on, Phil Simmons will take his squad back to Jamaica for a similar itinerary. As in 2010, the one-day series will give Ireland competitive fixtures against quality opposition and act as preparation for the World Twenty20; while the hosts will ready themselves for the visit of England for a one-day series in March.
Ireland are currently ranked tenth in the ODI rankings but with fixtures against those occupying the berths above them few and far between, opportunities to highlight their ability to compete with the best on a consistent basis are rare.
"Unfortunately while we remain outside of the ICC's Future Tours Programme (FTP), there is no obligation on any Full Member to play us," Deutrom said. "Series like the one in the Caribbean are extremely valuable to us, with the quantity and predictability of these having the biggest impact both upon the progress of the squad on the pitch, and our ability to commercialise these activities off it.
"We don't like to jump up and down about our lack of fixtures because it might make us look ungrateful and intemperate. Therefore, we take a more measured approach by speaking to Full Members on a regular basis and try to work around their own FTP obligations in order to avoid discommoding them.
"We'll continue to make arguments at ICC level regarding our elevation at the appropriate time. I am confident we shall get there."
In recent years, only near-neighbours England and Australia deigned to visit Ireland - even then, these were brief visits for one-off fixtures. The crowded international schedule offers an excuse for the lack of co-operation but the fear of losing to a 'minnow' - an excuse Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have been accused of using - has a part to play.
Pakistan bucked that trend this year. A week-long stay in the Irish capital included multiple school visits and coaching sessions, and culminated in a high-quality two-game series - the first of which resulted in a last-ball tie. It was a glimpse of what the future may hold but, for now, extended series for Ireland are scarce.
Last year was arguably the finest in Ireland's cricketing history, as they underlined their domination of the Associate and Affiliate ranks with a clean sweep of trophies, qualifying for both the World Twenty20 and the 2015 World Cup with minimal fuss.
But the next 12 months could prove to be equally significant in their development. In addition to the two-month Caribbean tour and World T20 in Bangladesh, it is understood that a home ODI series against Sri Lanka is close to being confirmed.
The importance and value of ICC global events to Ireland is unequivocal but bilateral series, such as the forthcoming one in the Caribbean, are also crucial to their progress. The WICB should be commended for their receptive approach.
They are assisting Ireland's cricketing evolution when others have turned their back.