Fuelled by team spirit
The son of James Joyce was instrumental in Ireland qualifying for this World Cup, with two centuries and two fifties in the 2005 ICC Trophy. And before the more literary among you get apoplectic, yes we do know that the man who wrote Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake passed away in January 1941. But by a happy quirk of fate, Edmund Christopher Joyce, Ed to his Irish and English team-mates, was also born to a James, and his 399 runs from five games were the focal point of a campaign in which the next highest scorer for Ireland was Trent Johnston with 183.
Joyce's heroics were proof that Ireland weren't just a team of journeyman pros imported from countries like Australia and South Africa. While the likes of Johnston, opener Jeremy Bray and South African allrounder Andrè Botha have all contributed to Irish cricket's dramatic rise through the associate ranks, Adrian Birrell, the coach, is keen to emphasise that 11 of the 15-man squad were born and bred in Ireland. "Ed was our best player," he says. "And he now opens for England. So we don't just import talent, we're also exporting it [smiles]."
Under Birrell, who spent 16 years with Eastern Province in South Africa, the different elements have combined together quite beautifully. "When I took over, we were probably ranked 18th or 20th in the world," he says. "Now, we're arguably the strongest associate [nation]. And along the way, we've picked up some major scalps."
Victories over Zimbabwe in 2003 and a Surrey team with eight internationals in 2004 were followed by a defeat of West Indies (2005), their opponents in the final Group D game on Friday. And the disappointment of losing to Scotland in that 2005 ICC Trophy final was offset to some extent by their triumph in the Intercontinental Trophy, a competition in which they have reached the final again this year.
And it's not only the national side that's doing well. At the European Championships in 2006, Ireland were champions at all six age groups from Under-13 to seniors, and according to Birrell, "some of the young boys waiting in the wings are exceptionally good."
Irish cricket has history too. The old-timers still wax eloquent about Dougie Goodwin (5-6) and Alec O'Riordan (4-18), who routed a West Indian team for 25 on a damp pitch at the Sion Mills Ground, south of Londonderry. Over the years, the feat has lent itself to urban legend and the name of Sir Garfield Sobers crops up, but though he was captain on that ill-fated tour in 1969, injury prevented him from crossing the Irish Sea. It was Basil Butcher that led a side which could also boast of a young Clive Lloyd and the 43-year-old Clyde Walcott.
With that history of giant-killings in Irish cricket's past, Pakistan would have been wary last Saturday. But again, the conditions were to play a vital part in bridging the gulf in ability between the two sides. Though the pitch wasn't Sion Mills-damp, there was enough life in it to encourage the seam bowlers. And while both Dave Langford-Smith and the strapping Boyd Rankin were erratic, they produced the odd unplayable delivery.
Botha, with his experience of South African domestic cricket, did even better, exhibiting the mastery over line and length that was such a feature of South Africa's bowling in the Bob Woolmer-Hansie Cronje years. It was like watching Craig Matthews or Fanie de Villiers bowl, and even someone of the quality of Inzamam-ul-Haq was clueless as Botha bowled his eight overs for five runs and two wickets.
Over the course of an unforgettable St Patrick's Day, what we saw was a team where every individual appeared to raise his game, whether it was Johnston with that sensational catch to dismiss Kamran Akmal or Eoin Morgan with superb slip catches. William Porterfield rode his luck for a valuable 13, blocking up one end while the pint-sized Niall O'Brien went for his shots, and after a late wobble, Kevin O'Brien helped Johnston see it home with a fighting knock.
The bald and affable Jeremy Bray had played his part in the tie against Zimbabwe, scoring a brilliant 115, while Kyle McCallan, the teacher who might now need to take some extra days off, got the fortunate touch that changed the course of a game that Zimbabwe seemed to be have in their grasp.
They may come unstuck against West Indies, but unless things go drastically wrong, there's a Super Eight date with England to look forward to in Guyana a week on Saturday. For James Joyce's son, there will certainly be mixed emotions.
What they say
"But for me the weekend - the whole winter, come to that - was lit up by the brothers O'Brien, that nerveless brace of freckled Celtic redheads who with such serenity and staunch skill at the crease dispatched Pakistan from cricket's World Cup. - Nobody tells it quite like Frank Keating in The Guardian
What the Irish say
"Our fielding is excellent, we have a long batting line-up and the bowling's very good when we get it right. But if you ask me what our greatest strength is, it's the team spirit." - Adrian Birrell talks about his side, and no, he wasn't referring to Guinness or Bushmills. At least, we think not.
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Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo