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Alan Lewis, Irish cricket's unknown hero

Former Ireland international Alan Lewis at the YMCA sports ground ESPNcricinfo Ltd

In 1996, Melbourne's Coburg cricket club welcomed a new arrival, a skinny kid in his late teens. And while he looked solid with the bat, he didn't look amazing. The young man was Ed Joyce. He struggled that year, and yet the word was he was set to become the best cricketer from Ireland.

Once you heard that, you had to ask yourself: had there ever been a good cricketer from Ireland? No one at the club could name one.

Irish cricket to the wider world did not exist. No one knew about Jimmy Boucher's offspin, Alec Riordan's left-arm seam or the spin twins Dermott Monteith and Mike Halliday.

And in 1997, as Joyce's career was beginning, one of the greatest players in Irish history was about to retire because Ireland didn't make it to the 1999 World Cup. No one knew of Irish cricket, so how could they know of Alan Lewis?

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Cricket is an heirloom, passed through generations like a family relic. Alan Lewis' father, Ian, played cricket because he grew up just two decent hits from the YMCA ground in Dublin. Ian represented Ireland 20 times and legend has it he once savaged Alf Valentine. From the age of five, Alan was at the ground; he was a cricketer before he was even old enough. He and his father played two games together for YMCA.

Cricket in Ireland is an even more family-orientated sport than in other countries. Lewis is one of three generations of Irish cricketers and both his daughters have played for Ireland. It would be a weird story in other cricket countries. But there are two O'Brien brothers in the current team and you can't turn your head in Ireland without bumping into a cricketing Joyce. And Lewis seems to have played with or against the fathers of all the current players.

Cricket was not promoted in Ireland; the Gaelic Athletic Association had a rule banning members from playing sports like cricket, and more so cricket because it was seen as such an English game. So it was these magic families that kept the flame alive. Cricket in Ireland is fed by the talented north-west of Northern Ireland and the royal cricket bloodlines of Dublin.

In 1984, at 20, Irish Cricket Magazine Annual declared Lewis "Al of the Thousand Runs". No local batsman had ever made 1000 runs in a season. It was that year, as an allrounder, that Lewis made his debut for Ireland. He would play for Ireland over the next 13 years, eventually becoming captain. At that point, Ireland cricket was games against Scotland, matches in England's Benson & Hedges Cup, a few smaller opponents and, after 1993, the odd ICC tournament.

Most of Irish cricket was seen as club cricket. In Dublin, cricket was mostly amateur and, in the words of Lewis, "jazz-hat cricket": posh boys playing for fun, more of a private members' club and soiree than a fully fledged sport. People enjoyed being members, they liked the blazers, and the exclusiveness of their sport. In Ireland, these types are called "West Brits".

Lewis wanted more than that. He loved the competitiveness of cricket, he always wondered why his father didn't make the most of his talent. He knew from a young age he could play as he'd dominated schoolboy cricket. So in 1984, as a 20-year-old who had already played for Ireland, he went to Somerset's 2nd XI. He made a fifty against a Hampshire team with Robin Smith in it. But, he hated 2nd XI cricket. He'd hoped it would be the professional environment that would inspire him and instead, he saw a bunch of people moping they weren't in the first team, all playing for themselves. He soon left.

His real calling was not county, but a chance to play for Mosman in Sydney's Grade cricket. In Sydney, Lewis saw what he had always wanted in cricket.

"I was an impatient bowler," he says. "In Ireland, everything was about containing." Lewis remembers an over for Mosman that went for 11, in which two short balls were hit for six and four. He trudged off downhearted before his skipper came over and told him he was brilliant and should keep going like that. "If that were in Ireland, it would have been, 'bad luck, but I'm going to have to take you off now'."

Lewis was an Irishman who longed to be an Australian cricketer: "I felt Australian." He even talks up the training, and the competitiveness and intensity were far beyond what he was used to back home. Largely he was a novelty. "Mate, we didn't even know the Irish played cricket," he'd be told many times. But his performances won over the Sydney cricketers. On his first grade debut, he took 8 for 69, including a hat-trick, which led to him and his Ian Botham-inspired mullet ending up on the back page of the Sydney Morning Herald. He loved the frankness of Australian cricket and would have loved to come back year after year and try to make it as an Australian player.

How far could he have gone? He pauses, and his eyes come alive. "I saw real opportunity there. I know that sounds really far-fetched. At the end, I felt like I belonged. I think I would have only improved with that kind of dedication. "

You can see in his eyes he dreamed of being an Australian Test player. "I would have been all over it, without a doubt. Oh, without a doubt. I would have loved it."

Whether Lewis was good enough, we'll never know, but as a schoolboy, he went up against the best cricketers in the UK. "I look at players who I played against at school level, and they went on to make 1000 runs year after year in county cricket, and some became Test players," he says.

"My burning ambition was for Ireland to beat a professional team, and that year, with Hansie Cronje in our side, we did that" Alan Lewis on Ireland's 1997 win over Middlesex

And Lewis isn't just talking about himself. He believes, as many in Ireland do, that their junior cricketers are as good as anywhere. Hansie Cronje (who lived with Lewis when he played for Ireland as an overseas player) told him when he looked at young Irish cricketers, "There is nothing here that I wouldn't see in Free State, but the big difference is where they can move to." Even now, a well-funded posh school in England has better facilities than Irish cricket.

Lewis loved cricket in Sydney, playing against Greg Matthews and Mark Waugh, and with players like Gavin Robertson. He was close to the Flower family and the Streaks of Zimbabwe. But where all those guys lived cricket and had access to all the facilities and coaches they needed, Lewis was stuck as an Irish amateur. "The first proper batting coaching I ever got in Ireland was at 29."

Lewis never went back to Australia, and other than a trial at Glamorgan, which he knocked back, there were no offers to play county cricket.

The most significant problem was that his body was already playing up. In the space of two years he had to give up playing scrum-half in rugby because of a cruciate knee injury, and after that, his bowling slowed down with what he believes to be a stress fracture of his back. He played through it, making it far worse. As a young man, with no professional infrastructure, he just kept playing - but he went from a bowling allrounder to a batsman who bowled occasionally.

His batting matured well, leading to four hundreds for Ireland. He believes his best innings came against a Zimbabwe Union XI just over a year before they received Test status. It was a near full-strength side, and Ireland made 225. Of those, Lewis made 96, against a team with three future Test bowlers. Because of his innings, Ireland dominated the game though Zimbabwe held on for the draw with seven wickets down.

Lewis saw himself as an "accumulator, technician" rather than a flamboyant batsman. In Ireland they rarely played anything more than one-day cricket, and his style was best suited to the longer forms of the games. In his 13-year career, he played only eight first-class matches, all against Scotland - who were among the better Associate teams in that era. In those eight games, Lewis averaged 53.

In 1997 he retired. "It was probably a silly thing to do, it wasn't a wise decision. I did it in the bar after a few beers.

"I was only 32, but once we didn't qualify for the 1999 World Cup, I didn't want to wait around six years for the next World Cup, so I thought that was it. My burning ambition was to beat a professional team, and that year, with Hansie Cronje in our side, we did that." (Ireland overcame Middlesex in the B&H Cup, Lewis making 34 before being bowled by Phil Tufnell.)

Lewis informed Mike Hendrick, Ireland's first professional coach, of his decision to retire. Hendrick did wonders for Irish cricket, but he was a pragmatic man, and once Lewis announced he was retiring, he was out of the side. Lewis laughs about it, though many in Irish cricket were angry that one of their best players, a veteran of 13 years, wasn't given a final game at Lord's.

Unlike when Netherlands' Peter Borren retired, there were no glowing articles about Lewis' career. He disappeared from a cricket world that hadn't noticed his existence.

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"I was throwing tennis balls to a 10-year-old at an Easter camp, and after throwing a few, I went to someone and said 'Who is that kid over here?' because he was just different to everyone else. He hit six tennis balls, and you just knew."

Eight years later, Lewis told Hendrick, "Just pick him, pick all these young guys." It was the same guy, Ed Joyce. In a 50-over match against Scotland in West Bromwich, Lewis batted three, Joyce at four. Joyce almost won his first game for Ireland with a 60, before being run out near the end of the chase.

Joyce had the kind of career the ghosts of Irish cricket past wish they had. He could play with Cronje as a teenager, played under Hendrick, Adrian Birrell and Phil Simmons for Ireland, became a professional with Middlesex and then an England player. Before Joyce, that wasn't a pathway. Lewis never got those opportunities; he would finally find fame in rugby, not cricket, as a World Cup referee.

Just after I arrived in Malahide my B&B host asked what kind of work I was doing around the cricket.

"Tomorrow I'm interviewing Alan Lewis."

"The rugby referee?"

"Yes."

"What's he got to do with cricket?"

"He's one of the best cricketers you've ever had."

"Really, well I never knew that".

Lewis, O'Riordan, and Halliday, and so many others were the men who kept Irish cricket going. None of them are famous in their own country or within the game they loved. When Joyce was a cricket-obsessed boy, he'd travel to watch the Irish cup finals and to his young mind, "Lewis was a big deal, he seemed to make a hundred every year." On Friday, young Irish kids will be able to turn on their TV and watch Joyce play a Test match.

It doesn't matter to Alan Lewis that he is unknown because Ireland cricket is known. And the boy he threw balls to will become a Test player. Eleven men will make their debut for Ireland; hundreds more will have tears in their eyes for the dream they never even dared to have. Ireland is a Test nation, Ireland is known.