March 2, 2011

A wake-up call for a cliquey sport

Ireland have proudly carried the associates' standard for two World Cups in succession. They're not asking for free lunches, just for a fair chance

Just how do you begin to make sense of what happened under lights at the Chinnaswamy Stadium on Wednesday? The cricket World Cup has seen upsets before. Zimbabwe beat Australia in 1983, and Ireland first came to prominence with that thrilling triumph over Pakistan in 2007. But Australia in 83 were a team in decline and the Pakistanis were a shambles. England, as they showed on Sunday night against India, are an upwardly mobile force.

You can look to other sports and still not find an answer. Argentina lost to Cameroon in the opening game of Italia 90, while the French slipped on a banana skin against Senegal 12 years later. But the French, with Zinedine Zidane injured, had played one tournament too many as a group, while the Argentines had always been mercurial and prone to implosion.

Comparisons with Ireland's Italia 90 adventure aren't accurate either. They may have been unfancied quarter-finalists but the man who scored against England, Kevin Sheedy, was a household name, a legend of the great Everton sides of the 1980s. Rugby comparisons fail too, because Brian O'Driscoll, who led them to a first Grand Slam in 61 years in 2010, has long been recognised as one of the game's greats.

So, where do we slot Kevin O'Brien and this innings for the ages? The only comparison that makes sense to me is with another team that played in green 42 years ago. The New York Jets were huge underdogs going into Super Bowl III against Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts, but Joe Namath played the game of his life to upset the odds.

The Jets were part of the much-derided American Football League, the new kids on the block. Against the might of the National Football League, they weren't given a chance. Their win paved the way for parity, for a level playing field.

The O'Brien family has some previous when it comes to such heroics. Let's not forget that it was Niall's classy 72 that provided the ballast for the tricky run-chase against Pakistan. A game earlier, Kevin's sturdy medium-pace produced a wicket-maiden when Zimbabwe needed just nine to win from 12 balls. They would only tie.

How wonderful it would be if this triumph could do for Irish cricket what the Jets did for the AFL. Ireland have proudly carried the Associates' standard for two World Cups in succession. They're not asking for free lunches, just for a fair chance.

"The ICC have made the decision to reduce it [the next World Cup] to 10 teams and that's pretty disappointing," said William Porterfield afterwards, managing to look serious even with purple hair. "We will have to wait and see what happens in April when they decide if there will be a qualifying tournament. If we don't get in, it could be the death knell for Associate teams."

As special as Ireland's three results in 2007 were, this easily eclipses them. Zimbabwe were there for the taking, while Pakistan scripted their demise with shots of staggering stupidity. Bangladesh just couldn't cope with a fast and bouncy pitch in Barbados

The elitists' argument has as many legs as Long John Silver did. A cosy clique works for those within, but it alienates everyone else, and destroys their chances of development. Sri Lanka won just two of their first 15 World Cup matches. Had the ICC lost patience after they lost every game in 1987, there would have been no Cinderella story in 1996.

Of course, Sri Lanka had a thriving school system to produce talent, and fine coaches. The likes of Ireland and Netherlands don't, yet, and they never will if young kids are denied the chance to dream of being the next O'Brien or ten Doeschate on the world stage.

This was my 25th World Cup game, and half a dozen of them have featured Ireland. No one who was there will ever forget St Patrick's Day in 2007, "Cotton Eye Joe" blaring from the speakers and throats increasingly lubricated by Red Stripe, singing "The Fields of Athenry" and "Molly Malone". Those were "I- was there" moments I'll treasure all my life, and the World Cup would be immeasurably poorer without them.

Having watched Ireland play and also in training, and talked to the likes of Trent Johnston and Boyd Rankin, it's not hard to guess why they so consistently punch above their weight. If you could bottle the spirit within the camp, it would sell as well as Guinness or Bushmills. They're a tight unit, and take such joy in each other's successes. Against a team of prima donnas or those that feel success is their entitlement, they will always have a chance.

As special as the three results in 2007 were, this easily eclipses them. Zimbabwe were there for the taking, while Pakistan scripted their demise with shots of staggering stupidity. Bangladesh just couldn't cope with a fast and bouncy pitch in Barbados.

Here, England made 327. Against Bangladesh in Mirpur, Ireland had needed just 55 from 81 balls with five wickets in hand when O'Brien Junior was dismissed. They fell apart. Here, Alex Cusack was run out when 55 were required with just 51 balls remaining. This time, there was no disintegration.

The previous highest World Cup score by a "minnow" batting second was Sri Lanka's 276 for 4 in the inaugural World Cup. That day at The Oval, Australia had made one more than England did at the Chinnaswamy. When the Powerplay was taken, Ireland needed 161 from 114 balls. Associate teams just don't do that against full-strength opposition. Neither do batsmen who play in the Leinster League after county contracts have been terminated make 50-ball centuries on the biggest stage.

Till now. This is the wake-up call that cricket needs. Embrace, don't alienate. Nurture, don't destroy. Take the Ghanas out of the football and the Irelands out of the cricket, and what we're left with would be a much poorer spectacle.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments