Ireland Cricket: Part 2 – Building a fortress

Part one is here.

At Malahide the crowd was alarmingly not drunk. There was a lack of beer snakes and men running around in costumes behaving like morons. No one seemed to be thrown out. And attractive women weren’t whistled at every time they moved. Had it been an ODI at a ground in Australia or England, some of those things would have happened.

This was different. This was a group of intelligent fans who were there for the cricket, not the day out and to sink as much piss as they could. There were more kids and families than you would see at most ODIs. Almost every second person seemed to have a replica shirt on.

They knew the game too. For a while there was a pause when Ed Joyce stood on his stumps, but once the replay was shown, the crowd made the noise of “Oh, that makes sense” at once. They picked on Michael Carberry mercilessly, as you do when a bloke is making a mistake every time he is anywhere near the ball. They booed Eoin Morgan when he came out, and then applauded him when he made his hundred.

It was one of, if not the most, intelligent and respectable crowds you would ever find at an ODI.

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All of Ireland’s recent history comes down to one decision: the ICC making them an Associate member in 1993. At that stage Ireland were very much amateur in every way. They were routinely smashed in county cricket’s List A competition. They had Alan Lewis, who would end his first-class career with an average of over 50, a bunch of handy club cricketers, and the odd naturalised pro. They were the sort of team that would lose by an innings in a first-class match against a current Irish side.

Yet someone at the ICC, which was largely an amateur organisation itself, believed in them. It was an accidental, largely out-of-the-blue decision. Scotland, who had spent decades beating Ireland consistently, had to wait another year to get the same status. But you don’t question the ICC when they give you a gift horse. You take it and ride it to pretty places.

It was in the 1990s that the passion of those who kept cricket alive really started to pay off. The Irish women’s team was in the middle of representing their country at five straight women’s World Cups. Northern Ireland played in the Commonwealth games. And for the first time, Ireland showed they were as good as Scotland, and then started to beat them. Yet most of this was only news inside the Irish cricket community.

In 1996, Joyce travelled to Melbourne to play club cricket at the Coburg Cricket Club in the sub-district competition. Joyce was not hired; he tailed along with a member of the club who had played in Ireland. The club was told he was the best cricketer in Ireland. In his entire season, he made one half-century, and played most of his time in the seconds.

No one who saw Joyce play that year would have thought he would become a dual international cricketer, or that Ireland would ever win a World Cup game.

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In 2006, Paul Stirling was 16. At that stage, a young Irish kid who loved cricket would have heroes from other countries. Lara. Tendulkar. Warne. By 2007, their heroes were Jeremy Bray, Andre Botha and Trent Johnston. It was a big step. But as great as Johnston has been for Irish cricket, the next step needed to be Irish-born players as heroes.

Eoin Morgan was lost. Joyce had just come back. But it was Kevin O’Brien who became the hero.

Much like Johnston he is an allrounder who may not always get picked on either skill. His batting is better than Johnston’s, his bowling is worse. O’Brien has played in the CPL, but not much in county, IPL or Big Bash. He is just below top-level international standard.

But like the tennis player who saves his best for the Davis Cup, O’Brien plays his best cricket when he pulls on the shirt of Ireland. He may never make it as a globetrotting T20 player because there is something that changes within him when he plays for Ireland.

He came from a proper Irish cricketing family. His father and brother represented Ireland at cricket as well. His school had no cricket club. Without his family, he may never have made it to where he is now. But he has, and when he went to the wicket at 106 for 4 needing 222 from the next 27.4 overs, against England in a World Cup, no one expected Ireland to win.

They did.

Unless you saw the innings as it unfurled you can’t really ever take it in. The numbers 113 off 63 don’t look real. In real time it started off as a novelty, went into farce, then turned into hope and was ended by a run-out just as they got close. His innings was enough, though, and John Mooney finished England off in the next over to complete the biggest chase in World Cup history.

It was without a doubt one of the most amazing ODI knocks. This home-grown Irish bloke, who was hidden at the non-striker’s end during his first senior game of cricket by his brother, had given Ireland their best win.

When Ireland beat Pakistan, Kevin O’Brien was at the non-striker’s end. When Ireland beat England, Johnston was at the non-striker’s end.

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Warren Deutrom looked like a proud parent as he gestured at Fortress Malahide and asked people what they thought of his baby.

It was probably the very opposite of what he felt when only a few days after Ireland had beaten England in the World Cup, the ICC announced only Test nations would play in the next World Cup.

Up until that point, Ireland had been situating themselves as the rightful next Test-playing country. They were setting up a first-class competition, which the ICC is now funding. They were getting professional on the ground, offering their players contracts. They were one of the first cricket boards in the world with independent governance. They had their own sponsors. Had now won games in two World Cups running, and were at least as good as Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Outside of the World Cup, Ireland didn’t exist for most cricket fans, so how could they continue to survive without the tournament?

Ireland had assumed they were a member of the ICC until that point. Now they knew that Associate essentially meant “something we have on our shoe”. The ICC was investing millions of dollars in Associate countries like Ireland, and now they were saying that Ireland couldn’t even have the chance to prove that they were worth it.

After the cricket world mocked them, the decision was changed. But none of that bodes well for Cricket Ireland getting their Test status. There is even a chance that there will never be another Test-playing nation. With Test cricket being played less and less by the smaller nations already, why mess that with another team that is clearly not good enough to compete with the top four teams? A team that will clog up FTP dates and take years to become good.

But Ireland aren’t trying to become the No. 11 Test team. They want to become one of 12 teams over two divisions. And essentially they don’t want to play the top six teams until they are ready, until they are good enough to be promoted. As a Test team right now, you have nothing to lose by playing poor Test cricket for a couple of years. Being relegated, and perhaps given less ICC spoils for being in the second division, would mean that teams would have to earn their spots.

Ireland could also become the new New Zealand. For years New Zealand was a trip that was tacked on to larger Australian tours. It took them years to become a consistent destination of their own. Every team that tours England could play two ODIs or T20s against Ireland as part of their trip. Meaning that Ireland could move forward and sell their future plans to Sky, rather than needing the ECB to be involved.

All of this is part of the Irish cricket dream. And it may sound far-fetched, but it is not as far-fetched as Ireland chasing down over 300 in a World Cup game.

Deutrom is behind everything in Irish cricket. He is one of the most intelligent people working in cricket today. He knows that a lot needs to go right for Ireland to become a Test nation. His role is to make sure that he does everything that the ICC asks. If they still aren’t given Test status, it won’t be for lack of trying, professionalism or passion.

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“We don’t want our best players playing for England” was a sign a fan held up at Malahide.

The feeling was the same when you talked to anyone involved: Don’t tell us we’re rubbish if England steal our players when we get any good. In seven years it has only been three players. But the best three. Take the best three players out of any team and see how they go.

The bigger fear is that the drain won’t stop. With Simon Kerrigan failing, Monty Panesar slipping and Graeme Swann coming towards the end, George Dockrell can’t be far away. Then there is Stirling. With England’s perpetual struggle at the top of the ODI order, a dashing opener could come in handy. And that’s not including the future stars who are in junior competitions.

It will only stop happening when Ireland become a Test-playing nation or become financially sufficient. Ireland hope that in the future the regulations about cricketers playing for an Associate one day and for a Test-playing nation the following day will be changed. Then if you want to choose to play for England, you have to give up four years of playing for Ireland. Possibly one World Cup and two World Twenty20s. It’s a nice idea, but the other Associates may not agree.

There are some fans who suggest that it suits England to not have Ireland as a Test-playing nation. That they can siphon off the odd good player and control the entire West European cricket rights. If only cricket worked that way.

To Cricket Australia, the BCCI and the ECB, the Associates are irrelevant. To those three boards, even the other seven Test teams are not relevant. These big three are hosting all the ICC tournaments; they are playing each other perpetually. They are running the game as they like.

Why would they want another team in Test cricket? They have already made it be known they didn’t even want more than ten teams in the World Cup. Votes are no longer counted at ICC chairmen’s meetings, so Ireland’s vote is not an issue. There is just no reason for the ECB, or any major board, to bring Ireland in. And none of the smaller countries wants a smaller piece of the pie, or have enough strength of character to make a big decision.

In the next five years, Ireland will have done everything the ICC asks of its full Test nations. Hopefully by then the political climate of cricket for greed’s sake will be replaced by people who put cricket first. If not, the only way for Ireland to become a Test-playing nation is by shaming the ICC into action.

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Johnston used the new ball well for Ireland against England in Malahide. He beat the bat, seamed the ball, and took the wicket of Carberry. It was a typical Johnston spell. Reliable, handy and effective. After five overs he had 1 for 15. England were 27 for 3.

When he came back on, he truly looked his age. Those first five overs seemed to stiffen him. And with Bopara and Morgan in good form, there was little he could do to stop them smashing their way to victory.

The last ball that Johnston will ever bowl in an Irish shirt at Fortress Malahide was hit for six over cover to give the Irish-born Morgan a hundred.

At the end of the game Johnston jogged across the field. He was slow and stiff. You could almost hear his joints squeak as he did it. Eventually he hugged a bunch of family and friends on the boundary line. It was clearly an emotional time for him, leaving the ground after nine years of service to his new country.

Irish cricket has had many important players. Lewis, Joyce, Alec O’Riordan, Bob Lambert, Charles Lawrence, John Hynes, Kevin O’Brien, Lucius Gwynn and so many others all did their bit to keep it alive through all these years.

Johnston may not have been born Irish. But he was Irish cricket. As much as any of those names above.

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Cricket Ireland has finished its home international season now. Its new and improved office is now looking ahead to the next games. It is working hard to develop new players, get more kids involved and find different revenue streams. But nothing is more important right now than turning Malahide CC from a club into a permanent international cricket stadium. It will fight every day to make sure Ireland is never again lost to the game of cricket.

But it needs more. With this much history, the sport deserves a home in Ireland. The country deserves for Fortress Malahide not to be a joke but to be their home of cricket.

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One thought on “Ireland Cricket: Part 2 – Building a fortress

  1. Michael Halliday says:

    Great article. As a past Irish captain I have to point out one point concerning the remark about Scottish supremacy in the Ireland/Scotland almost annual first class fixtures. These matches became first class in 1909. Up to the introduction of the Intercontinental Cup in 2004 the statistics read: played 74 Scotland wins 19, Ireland wins 19, Draws 36. In the intercontinental cup matches Ireland are now ahead and have just beaten Scotland without any of the 7 English based players who played at “Fortress Malahide”. An interesting tale from a match at Malahide in 1966. The ground was small enough for a beamer to glance off the head of the Dublin Univesity opening batsman, Rupert Lane, and travel on to hit the sight screen for 6 leg byes.

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