Cricket Ireland are to award contracts for the first time to the country's women's team ©Cricket Ireland

Ireland's women cricket players are to be awarded playing contracts for the first time in the country's history. 

Cricket Ireland officials hope that it will help the team qualify for the International Cricket Council (ICC) Women's Championships when it expands from eight to 10 teams after 2021.

Ireland are currently ranked 10th in the world. 

"The International Women’s Championship is an international cricket tournament used to determine qualification for the Women’s Cricket World Cup, and - like Ireland’s inclusion in the men’s Future Tours Programme - would mean that our senior women’s team will be playing some of the world’s biggest teams more regularly," Richard Holdsworth, Cricket Ireland's performance director, said. 

"As was noted by many observers at the recent T20 World Cup, the standard of Irish women’s cricket has increased significantly in recent times, but so has the standard of all of the world’s top teams. 

"We need to introduce new measures like this to remain competitive against the world’s best and to push our game forward.

"To prepare for our potential inclusion in the Women’s Championship, it will require further investment and improvements to be made in the women’s game – and a need to call on players’ availability more regularly. 

Ireland's women's team are currently 10th in the world ©Getty Images
Ireland's women's team are currently 10th in the world ©Getty Images

Holdsworth added: "When relying on players who are juggling work and study commitments, availability for international games can quite often become a challenge. We believe that offering a small number of contracts, at least initially, will begin to ensure improved playing standards and better availability of our first-choice squad members."

Ireland have appeared at the ICC Women's World Cup on five occasions since 1988, when they produced their best performance, finishing fourth. 

Their last appearance was in 2005 when they finished eighth.

Ireland also played last year's ICC Women's World Twenty20 in the West Indies, but finished bottom of the group without winning a match. 

"We are delighted to become one of a very select number of sports in Ireland to offer professional contracts to women players. It has been an ambition of ours for a number of years, and we now find ourselves in the position to push ahead with this much-needed improvement to our sport," Warren Deutrom, chief executive of Cricket Ireland, said. 

"The professionalism shown by our senior women’s team during preparation, qualification and performance at the recent ICC T20 World Cup was a demonstration that this side of our sport is ready to progress and grow.”