On the front foot: Warren Deutrom on Ireland’s Test cricket debut

As Ireland prepare to take their first steps into the Test cricket arena against Pakistan on Friday, Warren Deutrom, chief executive of Cricket Ireland, explains how the organisation has got to this point, and outlines how its full-member status has opened up a wealth of opportunities going forward.

On the front foot: Warren Deutrom on Ireland’s Test cricket debut

Last year, Ireland became eligible to play Test match cricket after their national board – alongside that of Afghanistan – was awarded full-member status by the International Cricket Council (ICC). The two countries became the 11th and 12th in the world eligible to play the sport’s celebrated five-day format at elite level.

According to Cricket Ireland chief executive Warren Deutrom, however, planning for Ireland’s entry into the Test arena started long before that announcement in June. Indeed, Deutrom harkens all the way back to 17th March 2007, when Ireland knocked Pakistan out of the ICC Cricket World Cup in a St Patrick’s Day classic in the Caribbean, as the moment that he realised the country had the potential to eventually compete on the sport’s biggest stage.

That result triggered what Deutrom describes as a “governance transformation journey” at Cricket Ireland, rounding out the coaching, executive, commercial, and operations outfits and bulking up the game at the grassroots with the intention of supporting the national team to the extent that standout performances like those in 2007 could become the norm. A stunning victory over England in 2011 and another over the West Indies four years later, which took Ireland to the brink of the Cricket World Cup quarter-finals in Australia and New Zealand, provided confirmation of that progress, but it was also a change in the political mood at the ICC that opened up the possibility of the ultimate dream being realised.

The culmination of that transformation will come on Friday, when Ireland take on Pakistan at the Malahide Cricket Club Ground in Dublin in their first ever Test match. On the eve of the historic fixture, Deutrom explains the opportunities that have come with full-member status, and outlines Cricket Ireland’s plans for the longer form of the game going forward.  

This is an incredible moment for cricket in Ireland but it comes shortly after being edged out by Afghanistan for a place at the Cricket World Cup in England next year. Does Test status give you a little more security, and a little bit less of a feeling that you’re scrapping for your lives every time you go through a tournament qualifier or a major tournament?

It does. In the past, it always felt like when we got to a World Cup qualifier, the ability of the sport or the business to develop – and therefore for the sport to grow – seemed wholly dependent on our ability to prevail through qualification tournaments.

What used to happen was after getting to a World Cup we would then slip back into relative obscurity, if only because we weren’t able to guarantee many fixtures which meant that we didn’t have any profile.

What we have now is the mirror image of that. We’re not going to be at the World Cup in 2019, but what we do have is a diet of fixtures in between in all formats on a multi-year basis from January through to December, which is going to give us a degree of visibility and sense of being a mainstream sport in Ireland that previously we didn’t have.

I don’t want to underplay the disappointment of not getting to the World Cup, but it’s not the blow to the growth of the sport that it may well have been in the past.    

Deutrom pinpoints Ireland's victory over Pakistan at the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup as the moment when the country's Test cricket plans were set in motion

What are the commercial opportunities that you’ve seen off the back of playing your first Test match and being established as a full-member nation?

I think the primary one would have been in the broadcast arena. Broadcasters tend not to get overly enthused about one-off games; what they like is multiple fixtures in multiple formats stretching throughout the year over multiple years, because that allows them to develop a relationship and get money back on their investment.

So that is something now which is clearly our major opportunity. Only in the last two years have we really begun to realise overseas broadcasting revenues but we’re still a way from getting the nirvana that the likes of India, Australia and England have, which is a domestic broadcast deal that pays all of their broadcast production costs, gives them a whopping domestic rights fee, and then they get the cream from the international rights market.

What we’re doing at the moment is we’re paying all of our broadcast production costs, we’re getting a small amount from our domestic rights fees, but we’re pretty much making everything just about wash its face from our overseas rights market.

What was the process by which you identified Pakistan as an opponent?

It was largely driven by the presence of Pakistan in England. We’ve always said that our major opportunity resides with trying to find gaps in the schedule of teams travelling to England, and rather than them warming up against an English county, we said, “Now that we have Test status, why don’t they warm up against a country?” So it was really as prosaic as that.

I don’t want to underplay the disappointment of not getting to the World Cup, but it’s not the blow to the growth of the sport that it may well have been in the past.   

We just looked at who was going to be touring in England in 2018, and Pakistan came first so we asked them the question. There’s a lot of symmetry because of that match in 2007 which saw us hit the world stage - and they were our opposition for our first women’s Test match in 2000 - and they’re helping us make another hit on the world stage in terms of our entry into this format.

You also have India coming over for a series of limited-overs games in a few weeks’ time. How have you as an organisation had to prepare for the added interest that having an Indian team touring brings?

In terms of whether it adds any particular challenges, the answer is probably no, because it’s probably more difficult to prepare for a Test match just because it’s a little more unknown to us, but we’ve hosted T20 cricket before.

So logistically it feels about the same, but what it does is provide us with a huge opportunity in terms of the broadcast rights market. I believe the value of Test cricket within the Indian marketplace is valued at around about the same, if not slightly less than T20. So what we get is the ability to spend less on staging two three-hour games of cricket than we would otherwise do if we were staging one five-day match.

In terms of interest as well, we’ve got a set-up of just over 8,000 people currently for the T20 games against India. That second game is now 85 per cent sold out, which is brilliant for us. It’s going to be on Sky and we’ve got highlights on RTE - the national terrestrial broadcaster - which is a first for us as well. And of course we’ve got the ICC annual conference taking place, so it’ll hopefully be a good message to send out to the world game of what Irish cricket has now become.

Malahide Cricket Club Ground in Dublin will stage Ireland's first ever Test match when they host Pakistan on Friday

For the fanbase you’ve been able to develop so far, who may be casual followers or have only seen you in short-form games, what kind of education piece have you put in around Test cricket?

We’ve actually produced a flyer which we distributed in the local area to introduce Test cricket, how the game works, umpire gestures and all those sort of things. Similarly, we had a four-page pull-out in the Sunday Independent providing some insight into the history of the game and how we got here. It’s that balance between not patronising the fan who says, “Hold on, you’re not really talking to me here,” and making sure that we’re trying to attract the interest of as much of a new audience as possible.

We would envisage only playing one or two Test matches maximum per season at home, with the idea being that less is more, and making sure that we’re giving our public the opportunity not to see Test cricket as the means to popularise the sport in Ireland - we think the white-ball formats are the key to doing that - but we would see it as a means of being able to develop our brand in connection with the heritage of the game.

You’re coming into Test cricket at a period when it’s facing considerable challenges in terms of its audiences. What approach do you bring to that arena in that context?

We are fortunate that the game has taken the right approach to Ireland and Afghanistan entering the Test arena. We aren’t being parachuted directly into the Future Tours Programme where we’d have to play eight to ten Test matches per year, which is very time consuming and costly. And as we know from history it takes teams entering into that arena years, if not decades, to learn how to understand to complete properly at that level.

There’s no point either us or Afghanistan playing a five-match Test series against England or Australia, so let’s play each other more frequently and get used to the rhythms of the Test format, and let’s make sure we have a significantly greater quantity of cricket than we’ve had in the past.

So the game has decided not to include us in the Test Championship at this juncture and allow us to play the game among ourselves [against Afghanistan and Zimbabwe] to see if it’s genuinely popular in our country and if it’s commercially sustainable. Then they might give us an opportunity to participate in the Test Championship.

I think that’s the sensible approach to it, and it’s the approach I suspect we’re going to take on board.

Afghanistan are playing their first Test match this summer as well. How important has their contribution been to your rise, and vice versa, and what responsibility do you now have as full members in ensuring that more and more countries can participate at the elite end of the game?

In many ways I think the fact that Ireland and Afghanistan came up at the same time probably made it more politically straightforward for the ICC, because an elevation of one above the other might have unbalanced things politically.

However, my first objective was to ask whether we as a sport should look at having a meritocratic achievement of activity. So in other words, you become a full member not because of who your friends are but because you have addressed the ICC’s criteria. I think we absolutely met those, and the game decided that it ought to make sure that it is ensuring that teams and boards have a recognised meritocratic pathway. And that was something which both ourselves and Afghanistan advocated.

In terms of how we support each other, the most obvious way of doing so is simply by playing each other an awful lot. There’s no point either us or Afghanistan playing a five-match Test series against England or Australia, so let’s play each other more frequently and get used to the rhythms of the Test format, and let’s make sure we have a significantly greater quantity of cricket than we’ve had in the past.