Boyd Rankin April 12, 2007

In the skin of a lion

Boyd Rankin forsook a potential rugby career for his first love, cricket



Vital scalp: Boyd Rankin gets Michael Vaughan © Getty Images

In March, when the star-studded rugby team came agonisingly close to Ireland's first Six Nations Championship since 1985, it was a strapping cricketer that won the BBC Radio Foyle/Bank of Ireland Sports Personality of the Month award. Barely known a few days earlier, Boyd Rankin's heroics pushed the cricket team on to the back pages and the rugby heroes inside, yet he would be the first to tell you that it could all have been so very different.

Right through his secondary education at Strabane Grammar School, Rankin played No.8 for the rugby team. A pivotal position occupied by legends like Mervyn Davies (Wales) and Morne du Plessis (South Africa), it's evolved in recent times to such an extent that the man in possession of the jersey needs the ball-skills of a back and the brute strength of a forward. At 6'8", Rankin certainly wasn't lacking in strength, but there was something else holding him back.

That was a love of cricket. In Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family, it was eccentricity that was the common thread. For the Rankins, it's cricket. "Dad still plays, though each season he says it'll be the last," says Boyd with a goofy grin. "He's 57 now. My brothers both played for the Under-19s as well. Robert (21) played with me in Bangladesh in 2004, and David (19) played in Sri Lanka last year. My sister's only 16, but she's represented the region as well.

"Yes, it's in the back of your mind that it's not a big sport [in Ireland] in the way that football or rugby is. But it's not about being famous; it's about what you're good at."

His first foray on to the world stage was a big letdown. Little went right for him in Bangladesh and in his three outings, he had 2 for 104 at a whopping economy rate of 7.25. That wasn't going to discourage him though, or extinguish a dream that had started burning bright when he was in primary school. "We obviously didn't have much cricket in Ireland, but I watched a lot on TV. I modelled myself on Curtly Ambrose and Glenn McGrath, bowlers who hit the deck from just back of a length outside off stump."

By 15, he was playing for the first team at Bready, the local club, and he went on to represent Ireland at every age group from U-13 onwards. In fact, his Irish debut came even before the trip to Bangladesh. "It was against a team called the Free Foresters," he tells you. "We didn't play too many international teams back then."

That game at Eton College also saw the advent of one of Irish cricket's biggest hopes. A precocious 16-year-old named Eoin Morgan made his debut that day, but for all the talk of him being an England prospect one day, it's been Rankin that's caught the imagination at the World Cup.

Though he wasn't called up for the national side in 2004 or 2005, there were enough outings with the U-19s and the A team to attract the attention of county scouts. There were several offers of trials, but when it came to the crunch, Rankin chose Middlesex. The reason was a simple one. "It was because of the Irish connection, with Ed Joyce and Morgan there," he says. "I wanted to be some place where I knew a few faces."

He had a summer contract with Middlesex in 2004 and '05, but though he did fairly well for the second XIs, the call-up to the county side never came. When the winter of 2005 came along, it was clear that Rankin needed to make some tough choices.

That was when he came across an individual he had first met two years earlier in Spain, at the European Cricket Academy arranged to help young talent from countries like Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands and Denmark. Mike Hendrick had played 30 Tests and 22 one-day internationals for England, and was employed as Derbyshire's bowling coach when he invited Rankin over for a couple of training sessions.

The time was right for a change. "In my time at Middlesex, I didn't really prove anything," says Rankin. "They were also trying to change my action. Two or three different coaches were giving me tips, and it messed me up a bit. I came across Hendo again when I was at University, studying agriculture at Harper Adams College in Shropshire."

After that, things should have fallen into place, but they didn't. There was a game for Derbyshire's first XI and a Pro40 match against Kent where he took a wicket in his first over, but a side strain subsequently ended his season. The road back included another stint with Ireland A, before a couple of matches at the European Championships in Glasgow. When the World Cup squad was announced in August, he was in.

We're sitting on the steps of the Garfield Sobers Pavilion at the Kensington Oval, and Rankin stares quietly at the sun-baked strip in the middle as the practice session winds up. It's always been my dream to play against Australia, he says quietly. To do it in a World Cup is just unbelievable. Talking to McGrath after the game would make it even better.

From October, he trained full time with the Northern Ireland Sports Council, and then went to South Africa in January for more fitness training. "I did reasonably well in games against teams like Eastern Province," he says, "but didn't feature much in the World Cricket League [in Kenya]. I had one match, but didn't do nothing. I was down with a stomach bug."

He was steady rather than spectacular in the two warm-up games against South Africa and Canada - one wicket to Dave Langford-Smith's eight - but came into his own in the St Patrick's Day clash against Pakistan, dismissing Younis Khan, Kamran Akmal and Azhar Mahmood. On a day when the rugby team had to endure Six Nations heartbreak, the cricketers scripted their bit of folklore with a stunning three-wicket triumph.

Following that, there were messages of support from Eddie O'Sullivan, the coach, and the rest of the rugby team, and also from Roy Keane, the Manchester United legend now coaching at Sunderland. There was also good advice from Courtney Walsh, an icon in Jamaica and once the world's highest wicket-taker. "His advice was that it's basically a simple game," says Rankin. "Just do the basics well, and try not to overcomplicate things."

That accent on the uncomplicated also came from Jeremy Snape, the former England offspinner who worked briefly with the Irish in his role as sports psychologist. "I used to have a lot of negative thoughts at the top of my run-up," says Rankin. "I'd think of wides and no-balls, and of being hit. He taught me to get over that, and also block out the crowd."

We're sitting on the steps of the Garfield Sobers Pavilion at the Kensington Oval, and Rankin stares quietly at the sun-baked strip in the middle as the practice session winds up. "It's always been my dream to play against Australia," he says quietly. "To do it in a World Cup is just unbelievable. Talking to McGrath after the game would make it even better."

Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo