ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
Bangladesh v Ireland, World Cup 2011, Dhaka
Average Joes who want to be so much more
The Ireland side are a better-prepared side this tournament because 2007 happened. They have been able to focus on cricket without having to bother about their other jobs, because 2007 happened. Now they will need to make 2011 happen
Sidharth Monga in Dhaka
February 23, 2011
Four years ago, a farmer, a painter, an electrician, a postman, a textiles salesman, and a couple of teachers joined their mates and set off to train for the World Cup of cricket. Two months later, they lived the best six weeks of their lives, tying a game with Zimbabwe and beating Pakistan and Bangladesh in a manner so delightful the world celebrated with them. The Irish cricketers were an instant hit with everyone: they were not only underdogs doing well, they were amateur underdogs doing well, they were journeymen underdogs doing well.
Except for the talent and the hard work, they were like you and me, enjoying six weeks of top-flight cricket, fully prepared to going back to taking Physical Education classes or lambing or delivering letters. One of us fans, Paul Davey, was so inspired he left Australia and travelled with the Irish team, without much money, sharing players' allowances, documenting Ireland's journey on camera. Breaking Boundaries turned out to be a heart-warming story, and Ireland cricketers now even had IMDB pages.
It all changed a lot back home in Ireland. People in pubs, on streets, in offices talked cricket. The likes of Boyd Rankin, 6 foot 8 inches in height, started getting recognised on the street. Football and rugby, albeit for an odd day or two, were pushed off the back pages. Sponsors started getting attracted towards the game. Young players now, the likes of Paul Stirling and George Dockrell, who were 16 and 14 respectively then, call it as their best memory in cricket and an inspiration. This group of then-journeymen did an unimaginable amount for the game in their country.
Still by the end of that year, Niall O'Brien, the wicketkeeper-batsman who scored 72 in the win against Pakistan, was headed towards the ICL, a possible end of international ambitions. Two years later, Trent Johnston was on the verge of retirement because he was getting too old to manage both cricket and his day job. The recession had hit, people were being laid off, a job had to be kept. The few who played county cricket couldn't simply choose to play for Ireland whenever they got international fixtures. The counties were their primary employers. Cinderellas were well and truly back to mopping floors.
That is the reality of Ireland cricket, of being an Ireland cricketer, despite there being much advertisement - not without merit - about the fact that 13 of their squad are full-time cricketers now; four years ago, 13 of them had day jobs. On July 4 in 2005, with Eoin Morgan gone for 4 and Ireland's score 23 for 4, their dream of making it to the World Cup was slipping away. They were chasing UAE's 229 at Civil Service Cricket Ground. Had they lost, they were gone. Out came Ed Joyce, scored a century, chased the target down, and kept the dream alive. He still rates that innings his best ever. However, he was not one of those who had the six weeks of their lives in the Caribbean. He, like every cricketer does, wanted to play Test cricket, and that took him to England. Ironically he faced his countrymen wearing the three-lioned jersey in the World Cup.
Four years on, Joyce is back, seeing no future for himself as an England cricketer, but Morgan, who in alliance with Joyce and O'Brien would have turned Ireland's into a middle order to contend with, is now an England Test cricketer. What do you do Jack?
The players keep themselves under no illusions when it comes to the clash with county contracts or losing the best talent to England because nowhere else can they play Test cricket. "From my point of view, I am contracted to Northamptonshire and Cricket Ireland," O'Brien says. "I don't know financially what some of the guys are earning, but without the Northamptonshire contract, it wouldn't be a viable option just to pay for Ireland."
Does he feel helpless when he has to represent Northamptonshire when Ireland are playing? "My main employers are Northamptonshire County Cricket Club, so I have to give them preference on many occasions. At the same time, I love to play for my country. I wear my green with absolute pride, and I want to play for Ireland as much as I can, but sometimes that choice is taken out of your hands. It is tough. Life is tough sometimes. You have just got to get on with it, and make the most of it."
Nor does the team begrudge the players who make a living in England. Johnston is one of the six who are employed only by Cricket Ireland. "It's a sacrifice. I would be earning more money out working, but it's given me an opportunity to be a professional cricket 24-7."
"The county players that we have here, their major employers are the county sides. They can't do much about that. We have a good relationship with the counties, we certainly don't push them. There's new rules that the ICC has brought in, that when we are playing ODIs, they have to be released. Even if it's not a big game. [However] Simmo [Phil Simmons, the national coach] doesn' go down that path every time.
"If the county guys have a game, we don't always force the issue. We know there are certain times when we do need them. Personally, even without the four-five guys we are good enough to beat the Associates, which we proved last year in Holland when we won the World Cricket League. County guys weren't available for that. Disappointing, but on the other hand, those guys have come forward, with the facilities and the cricket and that sort of stuff. So, it's a give-and-take situation I suppose."
Rankin, a farmer until he finally got to make a living playing cricket, was one of the brightest prospects from the 2007 World Cup. He grew up around Strabane in Northern Ireland, where cricket has always been big. Rankin is one of those who have always wanted to play cricket, and play cricket at the highest possible level. To play cricket at highest level, he has already done his time and qualified for England.
"I have been involved with the ECB programmes over the last couple of years," Rankin says. "And so it is an ambition of mine to play Test cricket, which is the highest level you can play at. At the minute you can't do that for Ireland. The only option I do have is to play for England. That's my thing, I just want to be able to play at the highest level. Quite a few guys have asked me the same question, but that's my feeling. The fact that Ireland don't play Test cricket at the moment. That's my ambition. To play Test cricket.
"I have been involved with the ECB's fast-bowling programmes over the last few years, and I came to MRF [pace academy in Chennai] with the ECB. I am part of their plans I think, but at the moment I am trying to concentrate on playing with Ireland."
It is a good time to ask, now that he is still trying to do his best for Ireland, whether Rankin's team-mates will feel let down or betrayed if or when he does get to play for England. "I would hope not," says Rankin. "I would hope to think that the same way I saw Eoin first play for England, I was really happy for him. So were the rest of the guys. I don't think any guy would hold it against me if I did go and play Tests for England. I feel everybody has the same ambition to play at the highest level. That will be quite tough, but just from my personal experience, hopefully it shouldn't be much of a problem."
Going by the Morgan example, it indeed isn't much of a problem. "We knew he was going to play for England from the age of 15 or 16, that's how good a cricketer he was," O'Brien says. "Since he has played for England, he has become even better. Ireland cricket probably took him as far as it could take him, which is probably a sad state of affairs."
Did O'Brien feel betrayed when Joyce turned up for England in the 2007 World Cup? It's a natural question to ask, for Joyce's experience and calm in the middle order could perhaps have taken them farther, who knows? "I wouldn't say there's any betrayal at all," says O'Brien. "Ed wanted to play Test-match cricket, and everybody loves to play Tests. Can't hold that against Joycey. Now he is back where I believe, and he believes, he belongs, and I know he is enjoying it thoroughly, and he is going to score a lot of runs because he is playing really well."
Depending on how you see it, it is both good and sad. It's good that the really good players need not feel guilty if they join another nation; it's sad that the really good players' mates know their ultimate aim in life is not to just help their side win. Nor does Cricket Ireland have the finances right now to feel bad about the state of affairs.
"We have the same problem with other sports too," says Basil McNamee, Cricket Ireland's president. "Our very, very good players have gone to play football, and even rugby in England. I don't think that people in Irish cricket will blame the boys who are attempting to play well for England. We will be sad, and we will welcome them back with open arms, but we can't do much about it right now."
On the contrary in fact. "If we have two boys playing Test cricket for England, that will give the game a big boost in Ireland," McNamee says. "We will be getting more people playing the game, we will have a higher profile."
On paper, the easiest solution is the Test status, which will mean the players won't even have the choice of playing for England. There has been a previous too, when Bangladesh got the Test status after only one upset in the World Cup, back in 1999. However, they are well aware of the pitfalls of a premature promotion.
"Don't think Bangladesh have it easy," says O'Brien. "They are constantly up against the odds every series they play. [Moreover] it's a different situation to us. They have got millions and millions of people playing cricket day in, day out. You only have to walk in the street to see kids play cricket in every corner."
McNamee knows Ireland are not ready. "We don't want to go too far too quickly. We have a small playing base. You are talking about a thousand people. The player base in Bangladesh could be a hundred thousand. And they are having problems playing at this level. So it would be an enormous task for us. Secondly we are trying to promote a game that is very, very tiny part of Ireland sport."
There's a TV next to where I am sitting and talking to Rankin. As he leaves, he sees it is showing highlights of an England game. He stops and watches, having spotted Morgan batting. That one moment says a lot about where Ireland cricket finds itself. And I thought of four years ago, and what the cricketers thought worked for them then. The unanimous answer was the unity, the bonding that can only happen among people who make sacrifices for a common goal, among people who work 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, fit in a few gym hours in the week, then drive hours to train on the weekend, and back to work 9am Monday morning. They say when they are down they think of those six weeks, trying to go through the same motions. On this World Cup tour, they are playing for the Snip Mooney Trophy, a routine of playing competitive touch rugby before their games and nets sessions that began during the 2007 World Cup.
They are a better-prepared side this time because 2007 happened. If they make it to the next round this year, they won't be calling school head masters to extend leaves, because 2007 happened. They have been able to focus on cricket without having to bother about their other jobs, because 2007 happened. To retain the talent in the country, to play the highest level of cricket for Ireland and not England, to not tear themselves up between country and county, they know they will need to make 2011 happen.
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