Ireland are in pole position to play their first Test match in 2018.
The current Intercontinental Cup holders and No.1 Associate nation are favourites to become only the 11th country to play Test cricket, probably against Bangladesh, the last team to be granted Test status in 2000.
The ICC board yesterday confirmed what the Belfast Telegraph revealed on February 11, that the winners of the next edition of the I-Cup will play the team at the bottom of the Test match rankings on December 31, 2017, in a four-match Test match series – two at home and two away.
If the Associate side wins the series they be eligible to play official Test matches for a four-year period from 2018-21.
They will need to play eight matches to get a Test match ranking and the four games in the Test Challenge in 2018 will count towards that tally.
"If the I-Cup winners win the series they will not automatically get Test fixtures, it will be a case of scrambling around for games as the Future Tours Programme (FTP) has been scrapped and Test match series are now a bilateral arrangement," said Cricket Ireland chief executive Warren Deutrom.
"But the 11th Test match nation will get a (small) chunk of the beaten Full Member's funding to help over the four-year period."
One Test match, against England, has already been promised by ECB chairman Giles Clarke, as we revealed in February, and writing in the new edition of the Wisden Cricketers' Almanac, published yesterday, he said: "The ECB have already reserved a date in the cycle 2015-23 for a Lord's Test for the Associate who wins the Intercontinental Cup and goes on to defeat the number 10 side in the Test rankings. A glittering prize!"
A second (four-match) Test Challenge has been confirmed for for the winners of the 2019-21 I-Cup. If Ireland win the 2018 Challenge, they will, of course, be playing Test matches during those three years and would be replaced in the competition by the Full Member, with Ireland the likely opponents for the winners in 2022.
Although there was nothing new in the detail, the ICC Board has given what Deutrom calls "operational certainty" to the pathway to Test match cricket for the top eight Associate nations and an Ireland v England Test at Lord's would be the ultimate prize for Cricket Ireland.
The pathway to a place alongside the 'big boys' at the next World Twenty20, however, will be just as long and arduous as it was this year for Ireland with the qualifying tournament again only getting them into a first round group of four, with two fellow Associates and either Bangladesh or Zimbabwe.
The ICC board confirmed that "following the success of the ICC World Twenty20 in Bangladesh 2014 the same format will be retained in India in 2016".
Once again Ireland should have little difficulty in getting back onto the world stage for what would be an eighth successive global event, since 2007, especially as all their qualifying matches will be played on home soil, the tournament confirmed for July 9 – August 2, next year in Ireland and Scotland.
Many Irish cricket fans will be irked at a qualifying tournament only getting them into what is, in effect, another qualifying tournament, albeit in front of the worldwide television audience, but as Deutrom said yesterday, in defence of the existing format: "If we had qualified for the second stage in Bangladesh would we be complaining about it?
"If you do not beat your fellow Associates, do you really deserve to play alongside the Full Members?
"I am sure that no-one in the Netherlands (who defeated Ireland last month to progress to the second phase where they defeated England) is saying it is a bad format."