La Manga’s grass roots to play part in Irish cricket’s growth

Ireland and Scotland join forces in European Cricket Performance Centre

Ireland’s recent elevation to full Test status will see the International Cricket Council double its funding of the game here from $20 million to an expected €40 million over the next eight years.

There will be plenty of hungry mouths to feed, working down from the top where Cricket Ireland face the return of players from county cricket from 2019, after they are recategorised as overseas players in England.

The growth in status of the domestic interprovincial competitions will require plenty of funding to continue the momentum, while the women’s game and underage cricket – through both national and regional academies – will also require increased investment.

And then there’s the grassroots, so vital to the game in Ireland over the years, and somewhat neglected in the chase of Test-playing status.

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Some of that money will make its way to the grass roots of Murcia in south-east Spain where Cricket Ireland and Cricket Scotland have joined together with ICC Europe to open the European Cricket Performance Centre at La Manga Club.

The 1,400 acre complex near the Roman port city of Cartagena has long been a home for soccer teams in search of warm-weather winter training, while it also boasts a highly regarded tennis facility, along with three 18-hole golf courses.

Cricket Ireland high-performance director Richard Holdsworth has been involved in the project from the start after visiting La Manga for the first time in 2003 in his previous role as European development manager with the ICC.

"I was literally in the job in the ICC a couple of months when I came here and saw what an incredible resort they have here. There's an air of sporting excellence around everything that goes on here," Holdsworth told the Irish Times at the launch of the cricketing complex in May.

“As the discussions moved on La Manga Club were very, very keen to bring cricket here and said what would you need? And the one thing that professional teams and performance teams need is grass. It’s no good playing on artificial surfaces, the world game is played on grass so that’s what you need to develop here.”

The project has been far from plain sailing, with the economic downturn and a change in direction by the ICC seeing plans mothballed for a number of years.

Once the decision was made to go ahead with the project, with ICC Europe releasing funding to both countries, the job of building a state of the art cricket facility in the south of Spain threw up its own problems, with the tricky job of getting the right soil for the pitches proving a particularly tough task.

La Manga sporting director Chad Harpur, who has been involved in the cricket project since he arrived in Spain four years' ago, explained how they finally hit paydirt.

“You’ve just got to try and find the mix and we worked really hard to find it locally,” said Harpur, a former professional goalkeeper from South Africa.

“Once or twice we had a few problems with it but we managed to find the final mix and we’ve got enough of it and we know where to get it now which is really important.”

The big advantage of the warm weather comes in the pace of grass growth, allowing full-time groundsman Scott Hawkins to turn around a worn pitch in as little as a third of the time it would take in Dublin, Belfast or Edinburgh.

Hawkins also pointed out that the warm soil conditions will allow him to recreate pitches from around the world by varying the mixtures of soil and loam to change the speed or levels of turn.

The cricketing complex houses two full first-class squares with both grass and artificial surfaces, complete with old style scoreboxes. The practice facilities include 18 grass pitches and five artificial strips, while there is also a separate area for fielding practice.

Groups will make use of the purpose-built Los Lomas apartments close to the fitness centre and spa, which includes a high-performance gym and sports science centre, run in connection with a local university.

Cricket Ireland and Cricket Scotland have signed 10-year deals to use the facilities, but the performance centre will also be used by Cricket Espanha, while the recent launch was attended by directors of cricket from many English county sides.

Irish senior and underage squads have been using the facilities ahead of the official opening of the main pitches, which is expected to happen next spring, possibly with a game between Ireland and Scotland.

Holdsworth believes the facility will help Cricket Ireland to extend the summer season and take pressure off clubs in terms of both availability of players and overuse of playing facilities.

“We’re trying not to impact too much on club cricket with players being asked to play for numerous teams,” said Holdsworth. “But if we can extend our season into September, October and even early November, that might take some of the pressure off the domestic programme where we know club grounds are being used most days of the week. So that will help and I think a lot of those players would really look forward to coming here as well.”

Shirt-sleeve cricket in October under a warm Spanish sun? Muy bien.