Irish eyes were certainly smiling on Tuesday, 3rd September, when a crowd of 9,600 gathered to watch the home side take on England in a One Day International (ODI) at Dublin's Malahide Cricket Club.
Blue skies and glorious sunshine bathed the already picturesque ground; providing a fitting backdrop to the historic event - which not only set a new record for the largest audience ever to watch a game of cricket on the island - but marked an important milestone in a project pivotal to Ireland's future in the sport at international level.
While the visitors took a 6-wicket victory over the Irish side, the result did little to dampen the spirits of a home crowd buoyed by the coming of age of the 700,000 euros project to build Ireland's only 10,000+ capacity International standard cricket ground.
Set within North Dublin's beautiful Malahide Demesne Regional Park, in the grounds of the historic Malahide Castle, Malahide CC was established in 1861. With a location as convenient as it is romantic, and home teams playing cricket to the highest level in Ireland, it was a natural choice as the new 'home of Irish cricket'; and for the development of facilities that will not only enable Ireland to host international matches but advance the drive to field an Irish International Test Match side by 2020.
To bring the ground up to standard, a joint project between Malahide CC, Fingal County Council and Cricket Ireland - bankrolled by a combination of club fundraising and donations alongside funds from the Central Government's Department of Sport and Fingal County Council - was commenced in 2009. Due to funding restrictions, as Club Trustee Ian Talbot explains, work is being carried out in a series of prioritised phases:
"In order to host international matches, it was essential that we construct a One Day International standard ground that met ICC regulations. We prioritised the ground works as we knew that, unless we had the capacity to meet minimum ground size, and sufficient space to accommodate 10,000 people, we wouldn't be able to host ODI matches. As we had the playing surface in place, we were able to host the September fixture, but everything else - from seating and toilets, to changing rooms and refreshment areas - was temporary."
"Now we've got our first ODI under our belt, the aim is to generate more funding - to date we have spent in the region of 600,000 euros - to develop infrastructure, including a clubhouse, permanent seating, and a media centre to provide permanent facilities for future International matches."
A world-class facility
Since 1997, when it set up a dynamic development programme, now backed by soft drinks giant Pepsi, the ICC has been the driving force behind making cricket a truly global sport. Since the inception of the Pepsi ICC Development Programme, ICC membership has more than doubled - there are now 96 Associate & Affiliate countries spread across Africa, the Americas, Asia, East Asia-Pacific and Europe.
With competitive play among member nations now well established, the development of top level facilities in member countries is paramount to enable them to host matches at the highest level. The ICC supports and advises member countries in the development of international standard grounds and, in 2010, set up a Development Programme Facility Fund (DPFF) to which member countries can apply for funding to support development of infrastructure.
Ireland comes under ICC Europe's jurisdiction, which now has 32 members; including recent additions Hungary, Russia and Romania. The growth in individual participation in the region is even more impressive - in 2011, there were 154,569 participants of cricket in Europe, increasing to 206,337 in 2012. This rise is driven by a strategy based on encouraging the 'pillars' of Participation; Performance; Promotion; Competition Opportunities; Targeted Support; Governance and Administration; and the Females in World Cricket strategy.
Further initiatives to make the sport even more inclusive and accessible have been kick-started in 2013; including the new Street Cricket format which is being adopted in six member countries namely Finland, Greece, Spain, Germany, France and the Netherlands. At the competitive end of the scale, 2013 saw Italy and Denmark once again qualify from ICC European Division 1 for the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier, set to take place in the UAE in November. Scotland's U19s have qualified for the ICC U19 World Cup 2014, and Ireland's women qualified for the ICC World Twenty20 2014 during a qualifier which took place in Ireland in July and August this year.
With International competition thriving, Malahide's One Day International ground positions Ireland at the forefront of a raft of projects across the region to develop world-class facilities; as Nick Pink, ICC Regional Development Manager - Europe, says:
"The new venue at Malahide is a great boost to the region. It will allow Ireland to host International matches on a more regular basis, and increase the capacity for spectators significantly to at least 12,000. We have recognised the improvement in facilities here and in Scotland by awarding the countries joint hosting of the ICC World Twenty20 Global Qualifier in 2015, where sixteen countries will compete for places in the 2016 ICC World Twenty20. The hope is that the Malahide will be able to host many more 'marquee' matches and help promote the game further around Ireland and Europe."
Other developments underway in ICC Europe member countries include a new turf ground at Moara Vlasiei in Romania and a pavilion and nursery ground facility at Finland's Kerava National Cricket Ground, whilst, in Guernsey, there is development planned at the King George V ground.
To ensure that all new squares meet the exacting standards for ODI matches, not only in terms of dimension but also in terms of play, in countries with little experience of building and managing cricket tables, the Pepsi ICC European Development Programme has appointed British sports turf specialist, Total Turf Solutions (TTS), its sole technical partner for the design and specification of playing surfaces.
"TTS has been a key partner in expanding and developing the Malahide ground," Nick continues. "There is little expertise in this level of cricket in Ireland, and it was very important to have experts on board to manage the project and ensure all the key technical aspects were addressed. The surface was the key and ensuring we can produce international standard pitches is crucial. Malahide's first ODI produced 539 runs, so we are very pleased with the ground's first outing."
In the case of the Malahide project, whilst the scheme has not yet received funds from the DPFF, the ICC was still very much involved in an advisory role and recommended TTS be appointed to lead the ground's design and construction. The company's technical consultant, Dr Andrew McLeod, worked closely with local contractor, Sportsworks, to bring the scheme to fruition.
Work on the four-year project began with the construction of an 11-pitch international standard square in the outfield of Malahide CC's existing ground in October 2009; with TTS specifying and monitoring work throughout. Phase 2 commenced in July 2011 with extensive work on the outfield including grading, the installation of primary and secondary drainage systems and ducting for the cabling required for TV coverage of international matches. Seeding for all areas of the new ground took place in September 2011 and, following final grading and tidying works, Malahide CC started to use its new ground in the 2012 season.
Having now seen the new square perform in its first ODI, Andrew looks back over some of the challenges faced during the project:
"One of the main issues at Malahide has been its rather beautiful location. Due to the historic status of Malahide Demesne Regional Park, the project has been subject to a standing archaeological watch which resulted in numerous delays during the earth moving stages of the project. The fact that the club wanted to continue play in and around the areas being worked on also meant that timescales were longer than would usually apply and, during phase two of the project, there were some last-minute changes to outfield design due to changing requirements from Fingal County Council."
"Weather also played a significant part in proceedings. During a site visit in the very bad winter of 2011/12, we saw the new drainage system being tested - and coping admirably - as the Dublin area experienced 100mm of rain in just four hours! The continuing poor weather in 2012 also resulted in the establishment of the outfield being held back a little, which meant we needed to overseed to improve the sward. Conversely, the very dry weather we experienced this summer means that the club is now looking to topdress the drainage trenches to ensure an even roll on the outfield."
"Despite the challenges, it's been a fantastic project to be involved in. During the ODI, it was good to see that the overall bounce of the pitch was consistent and, considering the age of the square and the outfield, it looked to play very well. With good maintenance it will continually improve and, with a seasoned professional like Philip Frost in charge, I can only see it going from strength to strength."
Sowing the seeds
The man in charge of preparing the ground for its first International match was former Somerset CCC Head Groundsman, Phil Frost, who was appointed Malahide CC's Head Groundsman back in April of this year. Phil's vast experience, which includes a twenty-six year tenure at Somerset's Taunton home ground - during which time he won the coveted ECB pitches award no less than five times - make him ideally placed to nurture the newly constructed playing surface to world class standard.
He says: "Working at Malahide is a real honour - it's so exciting to be involved in a ground where so much time and investment has gone into creating what has the potential to be a fantastic venue for international cricket. The fact that it's such a grand setting is just the icing on the cake."
"Since I came on board, my main goal has been to prepare the wicket for the recent Ireland vs England match. We did test the wicket back in May which, in hindsight, I'd rather not have done as it may have meant play in the September match had a bit more pace, but the surface didn't let us down and provided true bounce, which is one of the key things I was looking for."
"It's a brand new square, so there are a few issues that need ironing out, and we've got some work to do on the outfield to bring it to its full potential, but nothing that you wouldn't expect at this stage. Overall, the match was a huge success; it helped to put the ground on the map and is hopefully a sign of things to come."
The success of Ireland's inaugural international fixture is critical to sowing the seeds for the ground's ongoing development, as Richard Holdsworth, Performance Director at Cricket Ireland, explains:
"It was a spectacular day and Malahide certainly felt like the home of Irish cricket. Considering it was a weekday and school term had started, the turnout showed the huge support the sport now has in Ireland. There was a tremendous atmosphere in the ground and around Malahide, and we even had some very special guests in the form of the Irish President, Michael D Higgins, and ICC's CEO, David Richardson."
"The feedback since the match has been outstanding. Philip Frost has done a great job in a very short time - he was very pleased with the outcome, as were the players. We had great feedback from the England team; in particular their Irish Captain Eoin Morgan who, in fact, used to play his youth cricket at Malahide. There were also very favourable comments from key ICC senior management who came to the game, and we're hopeful that the ICC Development Programme Facility Fund will help support the next stage of the ground's development."
With the England team set to return for a fixture in 2015, ambitious plans for the ground's infrastructure and cricket continuing to grow in popularity in Ireland, the future of 'Fortress Malahide' as a venue for international cricket looks very bright indeed.
Images ©Liam Donnelly/ICC