March 21, 2011

Journeymen no more

Gerard Siggins
Ireland's mostly homegrown World Cup squad is also their first full-pro side in 150 years. They have plenty of backing for their progress - except from the people who really matter

"I have one brother on the team, but 13 more wearing green here in India," said Niall O'Brien.

"We'd die for each other," said John Mooney. "These are my blood brothers."

It is no coincidence that these passionate calls to arms came from those two men. The Mooneys and O'Briens are Irish cricketing gentry, families whose names have adorned club and representative teams for decades. They exemplify the new Irish attitude - skill, aggression, and a passionate belief that their team has every right to be at cricket's top table.

They best showed that at this tournament with their ground fielding, which matched that of any other side in the world. Two stunning run-outs by Mooney and William Porterfield starkly illustrated the Irish approach to this competition - and the difference between them and other Associates.

Just before the tournament, the ICC granted an extra paid place in the official touring party to the so-called minnows. One of the other nations brought along an assistant manager, spending valuable resources on yet another time-served "blazer". Ireland hired top baseball coach Will Lintern to help sharpen their fielding and bring imaginative ideas to this crucial area. It paid off spectacularly and ground fielding became the one area Ireland were able to dominate every opponent. The inch-perfect run-outs of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis were a clear sign of how Ireland maximised their resources.

Alan Lewis, a retired allrounder with 115 caps, and now better known as a rugby referee, watched the win over England in Bangalore. "I've been overwhelmed with the spirit, the togetherness and just how good they are. They're just playing their own way, they're doing their own thing."

It was an approach that started with the appointment of Adrian Birrell in 2004. The former Eastern Province coach was fortunate that Ireland's economic boom had brought many young men from the southern hemisphere to Dublin, and several of them were fine cricketers. Four stayed, married Irish women, and by 2007 were key members of the Ireland team.

The wins over Pakistan and Bangladesh, and tie with Zimbabwe, in the last World Cup gave the game a profile it hadn't achieved since the 1870s, when it was the biggest sport in Ireland. History and politics conspired to reduce the game to a pitiful backwater before the Birrell revolution kicked it forward.

Birrell stepped down in 2007, believing Irish cricket needed a coach with international experience if the team was to continue to make progress, Phil Simmons proved an inspired choice, and his team has responded to him. While Birrell had three professional cricketers in 2007 - Niall O'Brien, Boyd Rankin and Eoin Morgan - Simmons has 13. The decision to encourage youngsters to try their luck in county cricket has paid dividends.

Alongside the hard-bitten experience of Trent Johnston (36), Andre Botha (35) and Ed Joyce (32) came the thrilling youth of Paul Stirling (20) and George Dockrell (18). The homegrown talent is now to the fore - nine of the side that played Netherlands were born in Ireland, compared to two native-born players in the opposition.

The arrival of Morgan meant there were more men born in the 32 counties at the World Cup than those born in England. Against the English, every single Irish player had first-XI experience with a county, state or province. It was also the first time in 150 years that Ireland had fielded a side entirely composed of full-time pros.

The on-field professionalism has been matched off the field. Ex-ICC official Warren Deutrom took the reins in 2007. Sponsors have flocked to the team - even in an economic crisis - and the Irish Sports Council (ISC) has upped funding. But it wasn't always thus.

The last World Cup cost Ireland a fortune. They received a US$15,000 participation fee, while the Full Members they knocked out pocketed $10 million. An official agreed to lend the union part of his civil service pension lumpsum, while the ISC also stepped in.

Olympic marathon silver medalist John Treacy now heads the ISC. "When I first met him he told me 'I haven't got a feel for cricket, Warren, but if you do well the Sports Council will back you'. And they were there for us, digging us out with a cheque for €350,000," said Deutrom

Since 2007 the numbers playing the game in the country have doubled, and Deutrom has plans to double them again by 2015. That is the year the next World Cup will be held, in Australia and New Zealand, but whether Ireland will be there at all is still to be decided. The ICC announced in October that the tournament will be confined to 10 teams, and have yet to consider whether to hold a qualifying tournament. Ireland could be knocked out of the 2015 tournament on a polished boardroom table in Dubai.

The ICC has rightly attracted criticism for such a retrogressive move, in which money - specifically money for the big three boards of India, England and Australia - seems to be the only object. Football has continued to swell its tournaments, while the much-less widespread game of rugby invites 16 to its World Cup. The likes of Spain, Georgia and Canada are always hammered, but the sport recognises the need to grow and be inclusive. Cricket, meanwhile, buries itself in post-Empire exclusivity despite the fact that the likes of Ireland and Kenya have added enormously to the fun of the last three World Cups.

"What other sporting body cuts the numbers of teams in a major tournament while saying it is doing what is good for the sport?"
Warren Deutrom, Cricket Ireland's chief executive, on the ICC's decision to restrict the 2015 World Cup to 10 teams

Even the argument of lack of competitiveness has been blown away by Ireland, who ran West Indies and India close - while Zimbabwe and Bangladesh suffered far more humiliating defeats.

Deutrom hopes the performances of Ireland will mean the Associates at least get a chance to qualify. "You want the best teams there, not simply teams that are there because of their membership entitlements. Associates need to be competitive, and I think Ireland has done that. There is also a commercial element and Indian people in all areas, from broadcasting to sponsorship to fans, all said Ireland were a fabulous draw - and the television ratings for our games with India and England were extremely good.

"We also brought around 500 supporters out there, which is as high as any of the non-hosting countries." Ireland brought 2000 members of the Blarney Army to the 2007 World Cup.

The future on the field remains bright, with only Johnston, Joyce and Botha certain to be gone by 2015. A healthy number of the youngsters left behind have already started careers in England, with Craig Young (Sussex), Graeme McCarter (Gloucestershire), James Shannon (Worcestershire), Stuart Poynter (Middlesex) and Shane Getkate (Warwickshire) among those bidding to join the squad in the near future. Others have opted to study in English universities just to enjoy three or four games against counties each summer.

One richly talented schoolboy, Jordan Coghlan, is on his way too, once the Leaving Certificate is put to bed. The Clontarf fast bowler has already had a successful trial with Hampshire, but Sussex are also keen to contract him.

But whether the likes of Coghlan and Young ever get the chance to play in a one-day World Cup is now in the lap of cricket's self-professed gods.

Yesterday Indians celebrated Holi, a riotous festival where people throw coloured powders and waters over each other. But as the cold purple dawn crept over Kolkata, Ireland's cricketers knew they had missed their own chance to paint the town red. They did provide a splash of colour to an often predictable event, but the primary emotion as they packed their cases on Saturday was regret at a missed opportunity.

The real regret at elimination, however, is not just that players such as Johnston, Joyce and Botha couldn't crown their careers in a World Cup quarter-final, but that the next generation may be hampered in its own efforts to do so.

Gerard Siggins has written about Irish cricket for more than a quarter of a century. He has written four books, including Raiders of the Caribbean with Trent Johnston