There can be no doubting the symbolism. The inaugural match of the 2017 Inter-Provincial Championship on Tuesday will be the first domestic cricket match in Ireland to have first-class status.
When the North West Warriors and the Northern Knights meet at Eglinton they will be making history and on the surface at least, giving the Irish interprovincials the equivalent status to the English County Championship or the Sheffield Shield in Australia and they should be a pivotal building block for the future.
Anyone who has watched the competition over the last four years would not deny the quality of most of the cricket, even if star-studded Leinster Lightning have found things a little too easy for most people’s liking.
The cricket has been tough, with no quarter given, and with the likes of Irish greats Ed Joyce and Niall O’Brien gracing the competition this summer, perhaps the interpros will even start to belatedly catch the imagination of the cricketing public north of the border.
But as the interprovincial programme and other representative teams like the Ireland Wolves increasingly take precedence in the minds of administrators, where will this leave Ulster club cricket in the years to come?
To illustrate the point, one only has to look at the logistics this weekend. The NCU-based Northern Knights opened their T20 campaign against new boys Munster Reds at The Mardyke in Cork last night. The gruelling 262-mile journey from Belfast to Cork is calculated to take four hours and 23 minutes.
The squad are all due to be in action today in NCU Premier League, having travelled halfway up from Cork last night before staying in a hotel near Portlaoise. They will make the remainder of the journey this morning, but what kind of condition will the players be in when they take the field for their clubs?
It’s hardly an ideal scenario for the clubs or indeed for the Northern Knights, whose coach Simon Johnston is also preparing for a List A 50-over game against the Warriors on Monday, before the start of the three-day action on Tuesday. We are barely a month into the season but there will already been aching limbs, and perhaps scrambled minds, at Eglinton on Tuesday morning.
At the minute the Knights or the Warriors cannot withdraw players from clubs games, but when the new pot of money comes from the ICC with Ireland likely to achieve full-member status later this summer, that will probably change from 2018.
There is sure to be a loser in all this and it’s not likely to be the Knights, the Warriors, Leinster Lightning or Munster Reds.
Are the clubs, the lifeblood of cricket on this island for well over a century, right to be fearful?
Johnson, who until this summer was coach of Waringstown and before that a senior cricketer with Woodvale for two decades, understands the concerns of clubs who are worried we are heading in the direction of their best players being pulled out of important matches.
At the minute Johnston has no power to tell clubs what to do or who to rest, but that will probably be different in a year’s time. With Knights players faced with a gruelling scheduled of 14 days’ cricket in the next 16 days, it makes sense to give him that power,
“I have been pretty open and honest with the players,” he said. “I have asked the players to talk to their clubs about their workloads, and I have also emailed and chatted to most of the coaches or captains of the Premier League sides, and with Derriaghy with Craig Lewis involved, and explained the situation.
“I am not going to pull anyone out of a club game at the minute. It’s not my right, it’s not in the contracts, but we have to be careful about managing workloads. I have done the same from a Knights perspective. There are three or four seamers that we will be rotating over the course of these games. Seam bowlers physically can’t play 14 games in 16 days. A professional county cricketer can’t do that and these guys are still amateurs, We are rotating to try and keep the guys fit and hopefully the club captains are going to help where they can.”
Johnston, to his credit, makes no attempt to duck the question when asked whether he foresees the Knights one day having the power to rest players from club games.
“In time I think, if this funding comes in, it will have to go down that route in order for this to work, but we are not there yet,” he added. “I appreciate that it’s up to me to work with the clubs for the players’ sake. Club cricket is still massively important to us, it’s our breeding ground for players.”
For the Knights to be successful and for the interpros to produce international-quality cricketers, players cannot afford to be burnt out. The combination of juggling representative and club matches, not to mention work commitments, is currently an impediment to success.
However, for many people club cricket, and not the Knights, or the Warriors, or even Ireland, remains priority number one. It might be further down the road, but conflict may be coming.