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Part one

How Ireland got their groove back

Cricket was played on the island as far back as the 1730s. How the game fell out of favour, and is now finding its feet again, is a tale and a half

Jarrod Kimber

September 13, 2013

Comments: 44 | Text size: A | A

Trent Johnston trains ahead of the clash against South Africa, World Cup, Kolkata, March 14, 2011
Trent Johnston: Aussie bloke turned Irish hero © Associated Press
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In December 2006, Warren Deutrom entered the office of the Ireland Cricket Union. His role was CEO, replacing Peter Thompson, who had left the job six months earlier. It had taken the ICU months to even work out if they wanted another CEO.

Their only other off-field staff member was a part-time PA called Marie. They had email accounts. That was about all.

Their offices were shared with organisations that looked after rowing, mountaineering, university sports and community games. All had bigger offices. Were more professional. And had far more staff.

Despite having qualified for the World Cup, Irish cricket was a minnow even compared to mountaineering.

****

"In the soft grey silence he could hear the bump of the balls: and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl," wrote James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Cricket fans from the Test-playing nations, even the newer ones, like to suggest that cricket is theirs. That people from other countries aren't smart or cultured enough to get the great game. But cricket was played at least as far back as the 1730s in Dublin's Phoenix Park.

Clongowes Wood College was playing cricket in the 1820s, and had its own local playing regulations - that you couldn't be out if you dragged on, and that the long stop could stop the ball with his coat. It was the school of Joyce. Colin Farrell played junior cricket. Samuel Beckett played two first-class games. Even Jedward have played cricket.

In 1855, Ireland beat the Gentlemen of England. At that stage cricket was the biggest sport in Ireland. WG Grace visited heaps of times. Ireland's debut as a first-class team was in 1902, when they beat a London County side that included Grace.

John Wisden took a seven-wicket haul against them. In 1865 they even had their own version of Wisden, John Lawrence's Handbook of Cricket in Ireland. In Sir Stanley Cochrane they had their own version of Kerry Packer and Allen Stanford, who built a ground, brought in big teams, paid county stars to play and also built a railway line into his ground.

Cricket was a major part of Ireland.

****

There is a Trent Johnston in every pub in Australia. Even if you didn't know he was Australian, one look at him would probably confirm it. Leaning on the bar, looking weathered from a life outdoors, getting on with everyone. The man's man. It's hard to imagine Johnston ever being young. It was as if he was born exactly the age he seems to have been since the 2007 World Cup, roughly mid-30s.

 
 
It is not uncommon for a Cricket Ireland employee to cover six or seven areas in their job. These are people who are passionate cricket fans, but even more passionate Irish cricket fans. The press box wifi network name at Malahide was "Go team Ireland", the password was "Bangalore2011"
 

This quintessential Aussie bloke has become an Irish hero. Kids running around playing cricket behind the stands at Malahide have his name on their back.

For major international teams, Johnston probably wouldn't be good enough. His bowling is nagging but slow. His batting is powerful, but his highest ODI score is 45 not out. For a major side he would be a bits-and-pieces player who is just not good enough at either discipline. For Ireland he is perfect. A utility player who can fill any gap. He has been the captain, the aggressor, the motivator, the professional, new-ball bowler and death-overs specialist. He has moved around the batting order and done whatever he needs to do for his adopted country. He's been their rock and their kick up the ass.

In the future, should Ireland continue to progress as they have done, they won't need players like Johnston. But without him over the last decade, Irish cricket wouldn't be where it is right now.

****

Malahide is a cricket ground. That is all. There is no grandstand. No gates. No toilets. Not even an indoor training facility. There is a Malahide Cricket Club building, but if it had better days, they were long ago.

Nothing else at Malahide is permanent. You might have seen the ground when Ireland hosted England and thought you saw more, but that was all an illusion, a costly illusion. An over €375,000 illusion. A 10,000-seat dream of what Ireland want. A home. As a joke, some locals were calling it Fortress Malahide as the temporary stands were erected.

Three weeks before the game was held, all the plans had to be changed when the grandstands were found to be in the wrong place*. Nothing is easy in Irish Cricket.

Each seat cost roughly €15 to be brought in and installed. Then those seats were sold for €40. That is €25 per seat to hire security, pay for England's travel, the brochures, promotion and everything else that goes with setting up a 10,000 people event. By the end, Cricket Ireland will have hoped to make a €30,000-40,000 profit. But this game was not about making money, it was about doing it right and making sure people noticed.

In other countries any profit from tickets is a bonus. The real money is made by the TV rights. Cricket Ireland gets its money from the ICC, from the two governments (Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland), sponsors, and then a retainer from the ECB. Due to a particular quirk of the European broadcast rights, the rights are not done on a country-by-country basis; England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are one market. And the ECB manages that deal by paying Ireland a small retainer.

Ireland could say no, and try to get their rights out of this deal, but would the ECB still send teams to play them, and would Sky buy the rights off them for more than the retainer fee?

It means that unlike for the ten Test-playing nations, TV rights are the fourth-biggest source of revenue for Ireland, not the largest.

If India came to Ireland to play two ODIs, and Cricket Ireland could sell these games on without the ECB being involved, they would essentially completely change their entire financial situation in one go. That can't happen at the moment. When the IPL was interested in playing games in Ireland during their off season, the ECB said no due to many reasons, one of which may have been that Sony owns the IPL rights.


A buoyant Ireland do a  victory lap around Sabina Park, Ireland v Pakistan, Group D, Jamaica, March 17, 2007
The win over Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup: when Ireland found out they had a cricket team © AFP
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Cricket Ireland's full-time staff tops out at 20. That includes coaches and on-field support staff. It is not uncommon for a Cricket Ireland employee to cover six or seven areas in their job. A cricket development officer will man a booth at Malahide during the break because they have simply run out of people to do it. These are people who are passionate cricket fans, but even more passionate Irish cricket fans. The press box wifi network name was "Go team Ireland", the password was "Bangalore2011". The Cricket Ireland employees cheered every wicket and boundary during the England game.

Then there were the volunteers. The day before the game there seemed to be hundreds of them. All proud to be involved, doing any job. Showing their family and friends around the ground like they'd built Rome. Considering where Irish cricket had come from, it was their Rome, at Fortress Malahide.

****

Despite repeated calls from those who loved and played cricket in Ireland, no official board was brought together during the 1800s. Unlike in other countries, no group of crusty old men in blazers sat around complaining about things while also doing important things like inventing competitions. Cricket in Ireland had no administration at all. It simply existed. Not that it mattered when it was the most played sport in Ireland.

Cricket's decline in Ireland was much like that in the USA. Both were proud, nationalistic cultures that saw cricket as the most English game; two countries that were proud of who they were and resented the English in many ways. Both turned to their own sports. Ireland took to Gaelic football and hurling, the USA to baseball and American football.

With no one in charge of cricket or no real formal set-up, the game in Ireland slowly evaporated. Cricket, being the insular, conservative, private gentleman's club it has always been, just let these two nations fade away.

The Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884. There was an Irish Cricket Union, but it did little more than select the national team. The GAA did far more than that. It started off by structuring the country's sports, creating competitions that still exist today. It then went about attacking the other sports. Most importantly the foreign sports that were not part of the association.

In 1901, the GAA brought in law 27, which banned GAA players from participating in or watching the English sports of rugby, football and cricket. If you played these foreign games, you would be banned from hurling and Gaelic football. The true Irish sports. The feeling was well known that if you played cricket, you were less Irish. "The ban", as it was called, was not the final nail, it just made it more official.

According to Ger Siggins' book Green Days: Cricket in Ireland, former Ireland head of government Éamon de Valera was at a cricket game once when he picked up a cricket bat and showed some decent cricket skills. A photographer ran over with a camera. The Fianna Fáil** founder dropped the bat straight away. He knew that a photo like that would mean he wouldn't be invited to Croke Park, the home of Gaelic football. With stories like that, it is amazing that cricket survived as well as it did.

The effects of the patriotism, missing admin, the ban, lack of interest, or even knowledge are what cricket in Ireland is still fighting today. For every border patrol officer who is upset that England won't send their best players to play his country, another ten Irish people don't know the sport exists.

 
 
Australia had Tiger Bill O'Reilly in the 1930s and '40s, a man clearly of Irish ancestry. Had he been eligible for Ireland at that stage, he would have been wasted on them
 

The perception of cricket, when people know of it at all, is often that of a middle-class garrison, Protestant and snobby sport. Those who do play are the same sorts of people who are referred to as West Brits by the local Irish: people who think of themselves as posh and above the local culture.

These are the thoughts of the people who love the GAA sports. The sort of people who wear their Gaelic shirts with pride as they walk around the streets. Those shirts are often made by a company called O'Neills.

O'Neills is also the Irish cricket team's shirt-maker. In a perfect case of O'Neills trying to reach a new market and Cricket Ireland trying to show how Irish it really is, these two organisations have met in the middle to form a partnership that they probably both believe is beneficial.

For Cricket Ireland, they want to feel as Irish and home-grown as possible. While Ed Joyce might be the best player, he lives in the UK, and is middle class. John Mooney doesn't look or sound like he should be a cricket player. In fact, he has talked about not telling people he played cricket when he was younger. It was Mooney who tweeted that he hoped Margaret Thatcher's death was "slow and painful". That's not the sort of thing a posh West Brit would do.

Cricket Ireland regularly uses Mooney ahead of other higher-profile players as a promotional tool, much in the way Lonwabo Tsotsobe or Fawad Ahmed might be used in campaigns by CSA and CA to reach non-traditional cricket markets. When you are a minority sport, and a minority team within your sport, you have to use everything you have.

Ireland cricket benefited from the economic boom. Not just by attracting sponsors but also because as money flowed into the coffers of cricket clubs, they could afford more and more pros in their clubs. They could afford overseas players for their county limited-overs team. They could afford to hire professional coaches.

Johnston came to Ireland for club cricket. Then he stayed. He wasn't the only one. Jeremy Bray did the same. Andre Botha and Naseer Shaukat also came over. These players all strengthened the club system, before strengthening the national team. The booming times had made Ireland a great country to emigrate to, and cricket certainly benefited from that.

Ireland was multicultural. Their talisman was an Aussie. Botha was South African. Their most consistent batsman, Bray, was another Aussie. Shaukat was a Pakistani first-class cricketer. Their coach was Adrian Birrell from South Africa, and then he was replaced by former West Indies player Phil Simmons. Even their CEO was English.

These men brought a culture of professionalism. They used experience, immigration and naturalisation to move Ireland to the next level: a team that could upset major nations.

Johnston, as captain, was often the main focus of this. There is a long- standing joke in Australian cricket that New Zealand can take all the Aussie-born players they want, since Australia got Clarrie Grimmett from New Zealand. Australia had Tiger Bill O'Reilly in the 1930s and '40s, a man clearly of Irish ancestry. Had he been eligible for Ireland at that stage, he would have been wasted on them. Johnston may not be as good as Tiger Bill, but he was the right man at the right time.

****

In 1990, Raman Lamba upset his new Irish team-mates by refusing to pay for his Irish kit. He was virtually the only professional player in a team of amateurs, and as a professional he didn't see why he would have to buy a jumper. When Ireland were trying to qualify for the 1999 World Cup, journalist James Fitzgerald had to substitute, twice, because of injuries. In the preparation for the 2007 World Cup qualifiers, captain Jason Mollins would fly back from London every weekend to play club cricket in Ireland. Kevin O'Brien talks in his book Six After Six about learning professionalism when playing on an ODI contract at Notts. Until 2009, Ireland had no international player contracts. Their only professional players were county players. For the 2012 World Twenty20, Craig McDermott was their bowling coach, and he was paid by the ICC.


The redeveloped Malahide ground was hosting its first ODI, Ireland v England, one-off ODI, Malahide, September 3, 2013
Malahide hosts its first ODI, early in September 2013 © Getty Images
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****

The Irish Cricket Union was officially founded in 1923. It was too late, as the damage had been done, but finally there was a board in charge of the Irish game.

On the field they beat South Africa in 1904, and West Indies in 1928. But until they arrived in the World Cup, there was only one game anyone wanted to talk about.

In 1969, West Indies went to Sion Mills straight from a Test match against the English. They were there for an exhibition match. There was not even a toss, as both teams agreed the crowd was there to watch West Indies, so they should bat first. Perhaps Basil Butcher didn't look at the pitch before he made this decision. This was a pitch that was more glue than grass.

Each ball took a chunk out of the surface, and then deviated in any direction it wanted to. West Indies also ran into perhaps the greatest talent Ireland had produced in years, the allrounder Alec O'Riordan. Even the Australians rated O'Riordan. He was backed up by Doug Goodwin, a decent bowler in his own right. These two took nine wickets between them, West Indies made 25 runs. That included a 13-run last-wicket partnership.

In Batmen - The Story of Irish Cricket Ozzie Calhoun suggests the Irish boys let West Indies off the hook a bit. West Indies refused to wait for the ball, and were continually caught in the ring as they tried to play their expansive shots. Sion Mills was not the village ground for driving on the up like Butcher (2) did. Neither was it made for the extravagant whip through mid-on Clive Lloyd (1) tried. And it couldn't have been any further from the sort of place you lean back and hit a left-arm bowler over cover for six like Clyde Walcott (6) did.

On his way off, Lloyd could be seen chatting to one of the Irish players, who just had a massive smile on his face. Walcott was not smiling; at one stage he walked down the wicket and smashed the surface back into place with the full force of the back of his bat. It had probably been a while since he'd needed to do that.

Instead of being a comeback to the glory days, it was more of a weird flare-up that Ireland could never replicate. Rather than anything else the win was more about West Indies' humiliation at being smashed by a country that didn't even play cricket.

In 25 first-class matches, Alec O'Riordan would average 21.38 with the ball.

****

 
 
Johnston stomped around the pitch, screaming at his players. He was not trying to gee them up, he was literally trying to scream them into action. His eyes were wild. He looked more like a man looking for the bloke who punched his daughter than a captain of an international cricket team
 

Ireland were patronised, laughed at, and couldn't stop nicking off in their first game at the 2007 World Cup. Against a Zimbabwe team that had just decided it was not good enough for Test cricket, Ireland struggled to 221. Johnston had done his bit, a sloggy 20 off 24. A signature sort of innings.

In the field Ireland struggled to keep Zimbabwe to the small total. It was not a pretty game, it was two out-of-touch teams slinging mud at each other. Zimbabwe trying to get out of the puddle, Ireland not letting them. Johnston had been predictably accurate, miserly and stubborn with his 1 for 32 off ten.

Now it was his captaincy that was needed. He stomped around the pitch, screaming at his players. He was not trying to gee them up, he was literally trying to scream them into action. His eyes were wild. He looked more like a man looking for the bloke who punched his daughter than a captain of an international cricket team. It wasn't subtle motivational captaincy. He was loud and angry. He wanted this win. He wanted his players to want it like he did. And he wanted Zimbabwe to know how much Ireland wanted it.

In the last over, Zimbabwe needed nine runs, with Stuart Matsikenyeri and the No. 11 at the crease. In an MS Dhoni type move of true faith, instead of using his seamers, who had overs left and were in form, Johnston went with allrounder Andrew White, who had only bowled two overs in the day. It was a messy last over. Zimbabwe tried to give their wickets away, White bowled more than a few boundary balls, and with one ball to go, and Matsikenyeri back on strike, the scores were tied.

They would remain like that after the last ball. A tie. Ireland had tied their first-ever World Cup match.

In the Setanta documentary Batmen - The Story of Irish Cricket, there is footage of just after that match of coach Burrell telling his side that they can also beat Pakistan. Johnston is behind him, topless, playing with his chest hair.

During the Pakistan match it was Johnston who gave the speech. It was the sort of speech many Australian and Irish sports legends have made before. Angry, passionate and direct. He suggested that if the players didn't want to go back to their day jobs straight away, working as postmen and buying fabric, they had better win the game. It was, much like his cricket, blunt and effective.

In that game it was Johnston who hit the winning runs. A dirty slog to the leg side from a ball outside off. On St Patrick's Day Ireland had won their first World Cup game, and a whole country found out it had a cricket team.

In part two: Ireland's push for Test status and their fear of losing their best players to England till then

08:37, 13 September 2013: *Changed from "the plans had to be changed when the council said they couldn't put stands in certain places because of important tree roots". **The piece originally described Eamon de Valera as Sinn Fein Taoiseach.

Jarrod Kimber is 50% of the Two Chucks, and the mind responsible for cricketwithballs.com

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Posted by   on (September 14, 2013, 11:15 GMT)

A poignant article. It would be great if cricket was a truly global sport. Hopefully Ireland and Afghanistan will get test status in the near future. Great to see Zimbabwe win today too, a nation whose test status has been questioned.

Posted by PJD74 on (September 14, 2013, 10:34 GMT)

Ireland want Test cricket but aren't able to get it and you think they should just say 'ah well' when their players choose to play for England to play Test cricket. I think that's naive in the extreme.

And you don't think cricket looks a bit amateurish when the likes of Joyce plays for Ireland, then England, then Ireland again, or Rankin bowls Joyce for Ireland against England and then Rankin bowls Joyce for England against Ireland. I think it's embarrassing.

Posted by shillingsworth on (September 14, 2013, 9:25 GMT)

@Colm Mooney - and your point about players being 'needed' remains nonsensical. It's not for me, you or anyone else to say who can play for which country. If Rankin and Morgan are qualified for England, how on earth can Cricket Ireland dictate to them and 'keep them in Ireland'? Whenever an English born player chooses to represent another country most clear thinking people say good luck to them, however much they might have contributed to England. Your suggestion that the choices made by individual players reflect badly on whole countries, based on your highly subjective test of 'need', is just daft.

Posted by shillingsworth on (September 14, 2013, 9:07 GMT)

@UpforSix - What you term defensiveness is merely people correcting some of the many inaccuracies in this article. On the Irish side, it seems to me that people all too readily resort to blaming England for the inaction of the ICC. Amid all the innuendo, there actually appears to be little real evidence that England aren't supportive of Irish ambitions.

Posted by shillingsworth on (September 14, 2013, 9:05 GMT)

@PJD74 - Ireland wasn't a 'different political entity' when test cricket began. England was called that merely because that was where most of its players came from and cricketing people presumably weren't hung up on political entities, flags and symbols. The reality is that the England team has always featured players from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as British nationals born overseas who are none of the above, just plain and simple British. The England team plays home matches in Wales. Regrettably one of the by products of the welcome resurgence of cricket in Ireland is the expression on this site of a particularly dated and petty form of nationalism.

Posted by   on (September 14, 2013, 8:43 GMT)

Yevghenny - I don't think we're a better side then Zim/BD, but certainly not far from it, while I'm not sure how we'd cope in spinning tracks in BD, but a lot of full established full sides also struggle.

I'm not saying we're ready now for Test status, although I do think we deserve more regular games against full members.

The ICC said after 2011, we would be given 10-15 ODIs per year against full members, that simply hasn't happened at all.

I think when Ireland's current domestic system has been tried and tested and shown it's of a good foundation and has talent, then the ICC in 1 seasons or 2 seasons time can come over and inspect it. Should they award it FC status, then we can start talking Test status.

As of now, the Ireland side is hugely talented but there needs to be something in the back to support the team with fresh players, and talented players. So hopefully within 4/5 years this can happen.

Posted by   on (September 14, 2013, 8:39 GMT)

clarke501 You miss my point entirely, I was talking about Ireland complaining about their players going off to England while Ireland themselves had foreign players.

The foreign players playing for Ireland were never needed by their own countries so I've no problem with them playing here.

However Morgan/Rankin would be needed here, and if it was down to the Irish board I'm sure they would have preferred to keep them here.

Whereas the likes of Murtagh wasn't needed by the ECB, was never going to be selected. Had Ireland selected a current England player then I'd say we were no better then others.

Also we can't stop anyone wanting to leave, I'm not going to hold them back, while most of us fans might resent them for it, we certainly can't stop them.

Posted by PJD74 on (September 14, 2013, 8:18 GMT)

And that has also included players from the Irish Republic going back long before Joyce and Morgan, despite them being from a different political entity. That does not make it a British or British Isles team though, it's an England team that wears England's three lions. My point to Salazar on Rankin though was that the Irish team is a combined team of both north and south not a Republic of Ireland team.

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