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Hockey player, business student, death bowler - meet teenage Ireland prospect Josh Little

Having made his Ireland debut as a 16-year-old and then been dropped, Josh Little is back on an upward trajectory

Josh Little emerged as a consistently economical bowler at the death in Oman  •  Peter Della Penna

Josh Little emerged as a consistently economical bowler at the death in Oman  •  Peter Della Penna

March 2, 2011. It's a date etched firmly in the memory of every Irish cricket fan and, begrudgingly, a few English ones too. It was on this night in Bangalore that Kevin O'Brien slayed England with the fastest century in World Cup history as Ireland chased down 327 with five balls to spare.
Like older brother Niall's seminal knock against Pakistan in Jamaica on St Patrick's Day four years earlier, Kevin's 113 may also be remembered for the role it had in inspiring a new bunch to take up the game in Ireland, among them 19-year-old left-arm quick Josh Little.
"The first time I really looked at cricket and said, 'I'd love to make it', would be that game Ireland beat England when Kev scored that hundred," Little told ESPNcricinfo. "That was the first time I went, 'I'd love to pursue this'."
Eight years on from that night in Bangalore, Little might just be making his ODI debut against England.
Little's cricket journey has been slightly unconventional. His first love was actually hockey and he represented Ireland at the Under-16 and the Under-18 level to be a dual junior international. But his innate athleticism as a 10-year-old had spurred a chance suggestion and a trip to Dublin's Pembroke Cricket Club.
"I was playing hockey in school at the time with one of my mates," Little said. "They're an Asian family and his dad was like, 'You've got hand-eye coordination, do you want to come down to our cricket club and just give it a go?' From day one, I thought there was something there with the old cricket, so I've stuck at it."
From then on, he has been a fast learner. Before the end of his first summer, Little was picked for a Leinster Under-11 side. At age 16, he was in Ireland's 2016 ICC Under-19 World Cup squad. In the tournament opener against a squad filled with future India senior team and IPL stars such as Rishabh Pant, Khaleel Ahmed and Washington Sundar, Little struck with the third ball of the match and ended with 3 for 52 while being clocked at around 130-135 kph, a performance which saw his stock rise further in Ireland circles.
"The lads always slag me about [the wicket of] Ishan Kishan, who has done well for his team over in the IPL," Little said. "Seeing them at the time, not really knowing how good they really were, and then seeing them the next year going big was nice to know you had done well against them and kind of puts it in perspective.
"You've got to relish things like that. We had a game against India and New Zealand. So getting those opportunities is a good chance to go out and express yourself, show what you're made of, and get your name out there if you do well or give it your best shot. It was a good learning experience playing against top players who are playing IPL or in the main India squad. Taking three wickets there for me was probably one of the biggest steps in my career towards breaking into the Irish team."
A month later, Ireland's senior side flopped at the T20 World Cup in India. Returning home without a win led to significant changes in the men's team and Little was fast-tracked to make his debut at the end of the home summer against Hong Kong at 16 years and 309 days - at the time the second-youngest men's debutant ever in T20Is.
The subsequent winter, he played two more T20s at the Desert T20 Challenge in the UAE but was then left out of the side for the rest of the tournament and didn't play another match for Ireland for 19 months.
I pride myself on being quite a relaxed person. Sometimes the guys might say I'm a bit too relaxed but I think that's very important for me
"I suppose when I was so young in Dubai, I didn't really know what was being asked of me," Little said. "I didn't really know my own game. I just knew I was there to bowl. I didn't really know whether I should bowl six slowies or six seam-ups. I didn't really know what was being asked of me but now I have a clearer idea. As I've played, I've seen what works for me and what doesn't, and stick to that and it's working for me now."
Injuries also played a factor in his absence. The challenge of balancing his dual pursuit of hockey and cricket finally caught up with him in a college hockey match in which he damaged ligaments in his right ankle.
"After I did that injury, which was in the final in my last year at school, that hit it on the head for me that I need to give it up," Little said. "I played hockey first but as I got better and better at cricket I realised I reckon I'll make it as a cricketer instead of a hockey player."
Josh isn't the only member of the Little family drawn from hockey to cricket. His two younger sisters, Hannah and Louise, have followed in his footsteps as well. Louise created her own share of history when she became the fifth-youngest female to play ODI cricket when she made her debut against South Africa in 2017, at just 13 years and 360 days. Hannah has also represented Ireland Women at the Under-17 and 'A' level, making the Little family possibly the new-age version of the Joyce clan. It also means quite a commitment from their parents.
"They're right behind it, they love it," Little said. "It gets a bit tough sometimes driving us out to North County and Balbriggan, which is at least a 40-minute drive away. My mom does 12 hours in the car every week so that's tough for her but they only want us to do well."
Besides rehabbing his ankle injury, the other main obstacle keeping Little from competing more consistently for playing time with Ireland has been his commitment to academics. He is just wrapping up his first year of a four-year degree majoring in business and marketing at Dublin Business School.
"Juggling the two of them was pretty tough," Little said. But he has worked out a plan with Ireland's coaching staff where he must attend three training sessions per week, and they've shown flexibility.
"Sometimes if I had an assignment due in college, I might miss a session or fit it in earlier in the day. I try to get the three sessions in regardless of other commitments."
He finally made his return to the national team last August against Afghanistan, taking 2 for 20 in his first match back. It helped him earn selection for Ireland's tours of Oman in February and Dehradun to play Afghanistan in March.
During the Oman T20I quadrangular series, he only took two wickets but regularly frustrated opposition batsmen with his variations at the death, which include a well-disguised slower ball and a consistent ability to hit his yorkers - assets that make him appealing as an option going forward in ODI cricket as well.
Little pays a lot of credit to Ireland bowling coach Rob Cassell for his video analysis feedback as well as veteran tips from fellow fast bowlers Peter Chase and Boyd Rankin. But having a laidback teenager's mindset is something he feels has also helped him not get caught up with the pressure of international cricket.
"I pride myself on being quite a relaxed person," he said. "Sometimes the guys might say I'm a bit too relaxed but I think that's very important for me. Once I get stressed out, I start underperforming and bowling bad balls. So just being as relaxed as I can, backing myself and knowing I have the ability to do it, I'm in the team to do that and having a clear head is important."
While Little has only played T20Is for Ireland and was included in the ODI squad for the first time this week, he also has ambitions to play Test cricket going forward. He acknowledges though that he still has some way to go to make that a reality, having taken figures of 1 for 160 during the two unofficial Tests that he played with Ireland A against Sri Lanka A over the winter.
"I've been so stop-start from injuries so getting bowling fit, just getting as many overs under my belt for a sustained amount of time would allow me to be in better bowling shape," Little said. "I think I'm too young to go, 'I'm going to be a white ball player'.
"I'm still finding myself. We played red-ball cricket in Sri Lanka and I didn't go as well as I would have liked. It's something I need to work on but something I have aspirations of for sure. I want to play as many games as I can for as long as I can."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna