Coming off one of their busiest ever home summers and what could be deemed a successful T20 World Cup campaign, it’s fair to say the Ireland Men's team are in a healthier place with their T20 cricket than 12 months prior.

As the new year broke in 2022, the team had just scraped by a 1–1 drawn series against the USA amid a Covid-19 outbreak and the recent resignation of head coach Graham Ford.

Having just been humiliatingly dumped out of the 2021 T20 World Cup by Namibia, the team was struggling, playing timid cricket and failing to find a settled XI.

12 months on and with the guidance first of interim appointment David Ripley and then of new Head Coach Heinrich Malan, the team has rapidly improved. A new aggressive style has paid dividends and the year culminated in a rain-assisted victory over England at the MCG.

Now attention must turn towards kicking on in 2023, with the first challenge being a trip to Harare to take on a Zimbabwe team who proved reports of their death to be very much exaggerated with their own World Cup performance.

One of the biggest challenges approaching the team though is off the international field: dealing with the increased influence of T20 franchise leagues around the world.

The new SA20 and ILT20 leagues are scheduled right in the heart of Ireland’s traditional away season, smaller leagues like the BPL and Nepal T20 continue to trundle along and the now well-established PSL plays catch-up to the ever expanding IPL.

In previous years this wouldn’t be of too much concern to the Irish selectors. Paul Stirling’s globetrotting career would take him on a tour of the circuit but he would always be expected to be available for Ireland fixtures. To his credit he always has been, flying back and forth between leagues and always dutifully pulling on the green jersey with zero fuss.

2023 promises to be different though. With the number of leagues reaching critical mass and some excellent performances over the previous year, a number of Irish players have been snapped up.

Chief among them the young spearhead of the Irish bowling attack Josh Little. The 23 year-old left-arm seamer has been picked up for the SA20, PSL and IPL, providing some headaches for the selectors over the coming months.

Lorcan Tucker, Andrew Balbirnie, Harry Tector and Curtis Campher will also be turning their heads towards the franchise game as will the ever-travelling Stirling.

In a change of tack from Cricket Ireland they have granted No Objection Certificates (NOCs) to Stirling and Tucker to miss international duties in order to participate in the ILT20 and the same to Josh Little in the SA20, both starting in the second week of January. All three players will miss the T20I leg of the tour to Zimbabwe in order to play for their franchises, though will return for the ODI series as Ireland build towards qualifiers for the 2023 World Cup.

On the other side, Balbirnie and Campher do not seem to have been given permission to take up their contracts in Bangladesh before the end of the tour. Both are listed in the T20I squad and Cricket Ireland have yet to indicate anything different.

High Performance Director Richard Holdsworth has said that “on a case-by-case basis, where an opportunity to leverage a franchise league offer may provide a benefit to the Irish set-up or player development, we will consider flexibility in selection.”

If you can read between the lines, it’s obvious that within the Irish camp they see these leagues as an opportunity for players to learn outside the confines of the national setup. Until a few years ago this finishing school was the English county game, where players like Ed Joyce, William Porterfield and Boyd Rankin really polished their games with regular high-level matches.

That avenue is now unavailable due to Ireland’s ascent to Full Member status in 2017. In its stead the Interprovincial Series, Ireland’s domestic competitions, have performed admirably in readying players for international cricket — see the homegrown development of Josh Little and Harry Tector. However the standard outside of the international pool is not high enough to really challenge the best players.

The greatest test of this approach is yet to come in March and April. Ireland are due (if you would believe the Future Tours Program) to tour Bangladesh and Sri Lanka for white ball series and possibly/probably a Test each during these months.

These tours also come in the middle of the IPL schedule, Josh Little’s first season. Whether or not the young pacer will be granted an NOC for the white ball series may come down to whether Ireland can still qualify for the World Cup though the ICC Super League. Little himself surely would not pass by the prospect of a Test debut.

At the central heart of this issue is money. Ireland simply cannot afford to pay their players anything like what the top-end franchises can offer. Josh Little was bought at auction by the Gujarat Titans for approximately €450,000, this is about 10% of the entire funding that Cricket Ireland receives from the ICC each year.

The worst case scenario for Ireland would be for a Little or a Tucker to abandon international cricket, to go to the highest bidder and play around the world. Luckily there’s no signs of this happening, but the administrators would do well to remember that it is a possibility.

Ireland have lost players before due to lack of opportunity.