England arrive in Ireland as unloved neighbours
Reg: "All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"
- Monty Python's Life of Brian, 1979
Irish sports fans do have to thank the English for quite a lot. But apart from football, rugby, tennis, cricket, table tennis, boxing and hockey, what have the English ever done for us, really? Ahead of England's biennial visit to Malahide this week, Irish cricket followers are grumbling about the nearest neighbour more than ever.
Warren Deutrom, Cricket Ireland's chief executive, politely insists that the ECB "does as much as they have the time, effort and resources to do" but many of us long-suffering aficionados of Irish cricket are not so sure.
It's not just that their selectors have been grooming and cherry-picking our best players for more than a decade. Nor that they have rubbed our noses in it by selecting one Irishman to captain England - at his former club - and another to make his one-day debut here.
Nor even that they have ridiculed Cricket Ireland's best efforts to create a national stadium in a village field and sell 10,000 tickets to watch the nations clash, by sending a team devoid of any of its household names.
No, although all the above contribute to the throbbing ulcer, the real pain and anger are caused by the perception of an utter lack of support for Ireland's efforts to lift itself into the game's elite.
Perhaps Irish fans should be glad that the self-obsessed bunch that have just won the Ashes are not on their way. Certainly the manicured outfield in Malahide can do without the liquid deposits they left for the Oval ground staff to mop up last Sunday. On their last visit here the response of one prominent player to a request for an autograph was to tell a nine-year-old to "f*** off".
England, the three-time Ashes winners, seem pretty unloved in their homeland too, and it clearly rankles with them. When they took a 3-0 lead in that series the public reaction was underwhelming and focused on the team's flaws - which moved spiky wicketkeeper Matt Prior to demand that supporters lay off the criticism and "show us some respect".
And last week, when England fans who had paid £110 to watch a display of time-killing batting responded with boos, Stuart Broad - whose £500,000-plus annual wedge is paid out of those same ticket receipts - tweeted that "true fans" wouldn't have done so.
The response of Independent columnist Michael Calvin last weekend was typical of the UK medi, which has fallen out of love with Andy Flower and Alastair Cook's team:
"These have been the counterfeit Ashes… the contests have lacked authenticity. The approach of the England management has been myopic and mean-spirited. Cook's team have played in a vacuum of joylessness and indifference to their wider responsibilities.
"Matt Prior's demand for respect, a dressing-room buzzword without meaning or merit, sums up their isolationism. It is the product of an overwrought, self-regarding culture which has manifested itself most ominously at The Oval, where the attempt to kill the game degenerated into a parody of professionalism."
The England players talk of respect, without realising that the notion is one you command, not demand. And they are pretty slow to hand it out too, as one incident from the 2011 ICC World Cup illustrates. Ireland stunned England - and the world - by chasing down 327 in Bangalore, a victory that was largely down to Kevin O'Brien's 50-ball century.
In his book Six After Six, O'Brien wrote about an incident during his innings.
"... just after I got to 50, James Anderson bowled a ball at my feet. I got my bat down on it just in time.
'Good ball, Jimmy,' I said to him. Anderson's face darkened and snapped back, 'What would you know what a good ball is?' 'Well, I mightn't know what a good ball is,' I came back with, 'but I know a bad one. I just hit your last one over there,' as I pointed my bat towards the grandstand."
The cricketing relationship between our islands is like the whole of Irish history writ small: Oliver Cromwell banned the game, the Duke of Wellington helped restart it, Charles Stuart Parnell scrapped over it, Eamon De Valera hid his love for it, and Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley united over it.
On Tuesday, President Michael D Higgins will shake the hands of the teams before taking his place in the overflowing stands - a far cry from the day that one of his predecessors attended a match in the centre city ground of Trinity College during the Second World War.
"Dev" had dropped down from the parliament in Leinster House to meet Sir John Maffey, the British representative in the Irish Free State, who was playing in a charity match. De Valera picked up a bat and demonstrated some textbook shots, at which a press photographer hurried over to check out the commotion. Dev flung the bat away and fled, terrified at what his own strongly Gaelic and nationalist Irish Press might be forced to write if a photo appeared of him enjoying the hated game.
That apparent need to keep Irish cricket as a guilty secret extended into this century in many quarters, but the surge in fortunes after the 2007 World Cup has at least taken the game out of those murky shadows.
But the one entity that keeps Irish cricket at arm's length is the very one you might expect to be most keen on encouraging a promising neighbour. Ireland's qualification for the 2007 World Cup also meant games against ICC full members qualified for ODI status.
But when the ECB agreed to come to Stormont in June 2006, it tried to have the game downgraded. It wanted a 50-over "friendly", meaning it could use up to 15 players willy-nilly, making a farce of the biggest game Ireland had played up to then. It took an intervention by ICC to force the ECB to accept the game's status.
And when Deutrom began his visionary leadership of Cricket Ireland in 2007, one of his first initiatives was the Future Cup, a tri-nation tournament also involving India and South Africa. This really infuriated the ECB, which saw such events as a potential threat to its TV dominance of Western Europe and its lucrative deal with Sky Sports.
Heavy-handed threats followed but a deal was patched together that Ireland's prestige home fixtures would no longer clash with England games, in return for which they would deign to visit once every second season.
In 2011, as he has this week, Flower sent over a second-string peppered with has-beens, would-bes and never-gonna-bes. They demanded a 10.15am start to facilitate an early exit, staying barely 30 hours in Dublin - in contrast to the Pakistan and Australia teams who came for a week and visited schools and clubs, giving a priceless boost to the development programme.
And the courtesy of negotiating dates doesn't come into it, with the setting of this week's game coming via a one-line email to CI saying "We will play you on September 3rd". An Autumn Tuesday during the week schools reopened after the summer holidays made CI's marketing campaign a far more difficult one.
But the most damage the ECB has inflicted on Ireland has been its grooming of our best players. Back in 2001 when Ed Joyce began his quest for Test cricket, few begrudged him his desire to push himself to the limit of his ambitions. One of his first games for England, a floodlit T20 in Southampton in 2006, gave him a good idea about how he was valued.
A nasty ankle injury saw him taken by ambulance from the field to hospital, some miles away. When he got the all-clear, after midnight, he limped outside in his full England kit, where he realised he hadn't a penny on him. His new masters hadn't bothered to send an escort, or even organise his transport back. A Southampton taxi driver took pity and returned him to his hotel, bruised inside and out.
Eoin Morgan was next, a brilliant limited-overs batsman but one whose Test career could well be over after 16 games, doomed to the same one-day limbo of his former comrades.
Boyd Rankin was coerced by his county to ditch his country, but now he lines up against them with just a faint hope of forcing his way into Test cricket and no way back to Ireland before the 2015 World Cup, when he will be 31. There are real fears that belligerent one-day specialist Paul Stirling could be next.
The last time England came to Dublin, Morgan was made captain, which even the UK media decried as "indelicate" and "insensitive". He saw it as a huge compliment to Irish cricket:
"I played with Ireland when Ed Joyce made his debut for England, when he played at the World Cup for England, when he scored his hundred at the SCG for England, and again it was a proud moment for Irish cricket," he said. "The fact that you can pride yourself on producing guys who can play at the highest level is a huge compliment."
Paying a compliment to Irish cricket was unlikely to have been foremost in the mind of the England underage coach who sidled up to Morgan and William Porterfield in 2000 after Ireland U-17s beat England U-15s at Oakham in Leicestershire.
"He was impressed with them, and encouraged them to go 'down the England route'," another member of the squad told ESPNcricinfo this week. "The headmaster of the host public school offered Eoin a scholarship that very afternoon and the following year he was back and forth with Middlesex, the start of the qualifying process."
Deutrom insists Ireland's drive for Test status will head off this problem. ICC encourages Full Members to support Associates in their region, and the official view handed down by Cricket Ireland is: "I think they take that pretty seriously".
He points to the Ireland women's participation in the English county championship, the (rejected) offer to the men to play in the YB40, and to "unseen support" in coach education and player development as evidence of good faith. It also must be acknowledged that the counties have acted as a finishing school for Irish talent and provided a living when there was none at home.
The Irish people are noted for the warmth of their welcome to visitors, and Deutrom has been living in Malahide long enough to know how a good host behaves. He certainly won't be welcoming his guests with a broadside, but even he must bridle when he reads names like Jamie Overton and Danny Briggs in the England squad, let alone those of Morgan and Rankin.
Tuesday's game is a sell-out and the Blarney Army will certainly out-sing its Barmy counterpart. On the field, with no shortage of motivation, the team in green will be hoping to do the same.
Ger Siggins has been writing about Irish cricket since 1984 and has written four books on the subject