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Feature

The Josh Little journey, from Pembroke's Under-11s to the IPL's bright lights

Fast, skillful and entirely homegrown, the left-arm quick is Ireland's brightest ambassador on the global stage

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
03-Apr-2023
Josh Little is the first active Ireland player to play in the IPL  •  BCCI

Josh Little is the first active Ireland player to play in the IPL  •  BCCI

As Ireland's squad gathered on Friday night, their first-ever win in Bangladesh was not the only cause for celebration.
Instead, they crowded into the team room of their Chattogram hotel with a few Hunter beers for the first meeting of what captain Andy Balbirnie called "the newly-formed Irish Gujarat Titans supporters club", toasting the achievements of an absent squad member.
Eoin Morgan was the first Irishman to play in the IPL some thirteen years ago, but Josh Little's debut for Titans on the opening night of the 2023 season was different: he became the first active Ireland player involved in the competition, taking 1 for 43 as the defending champions started with a win.
While Little suffered some rough treatment from Ruturaj Gaikwad and MS Dhoni, his maiden wicket - ripping out Ambati Rayudu's middle and off stumps - demonstrated his ability. Most pertinently, his comeback after his first ball was swung over square leg for six in front of 100,000 people suggested that he has the temperament to perform on the biggest stage in franchise cricket.
It was a significant night for Irish cricket. For many years, their leading players have crossed the Irish Sea to further their ambitions in the game - either to play for England, like Morgan and several others, or to develop through the county system. Little, by contrast, is a product of the Irish pathway alone.
"He's come through the system, all the way up from under-age cricket - and hasn't had to go to England to learn his trade which a lot of us had to do," Balbirnie says. "He's just come up through the ranks and naturally done well. I'd like to think it's shown to a lot of youngsters back home that you're never too far away. He's a great ambassador for that next generation now."

The natural who lit up Pembroke


As a ten-year-old schoolboy at St Andrews Primary School, Little picked up a soft cricket ball and threw it hard and flat back at Andrew Leonard, now an established broadcaster but then a development cricket coach in Dublin. "I have a vivid memory of it," Leonard recalls. "I asked him, 'Who are you? Which club do you play for?'"
He told him his name was Josh, and that he didn't play cricket; Leonard insisted that he should follow his friend Sanil Gupta down to Pembroke Cricket Club in Sandymount, the affluent Dublin suburb he lived in. He called his boss, Brían O'Rourke, and told him, "you won't believe this kid I found!"
A week later, Little rocked up at Pembroke for the first time. "He ran up and bowled," O'Rourke recalls, "and he just had everything. He didn't need any coaching, just a bit of mentoring and the opportunity to play. He came straight into our Under-11 programme, and looked really good, really comfortable."
Before long, word started to spread about the young left-armer who was making an impression on everyone who watched him. Balbirnie, who rose through Pembroke's ranks himself, remembers watching Little play for their Under-15s in an age-group final.
"I actually felt that the game could have got dangerous with the way Josh was bowling," Balbirnie recalls. "He was just so much quicker, so much better than the other team. I was a bit concerned about the welfare of the opposition."
Throughout his teenage years, Little was a keen player at Monkstown Hockey Club and even represented Ireland at age-group level. "We've lost that battle a few times over the years," O'Rourke says, "but luckily we won it with Josh."

Ford meets Ferrari


Two months after his 16th birthday, Little went to Bangladesh to play for Ireland in the Under-19 World Cup, where his 11 victims in the tournament included India's captain Ishan Kishan. Later that summer, he was used as a net bowler when Sri Lanka toured for an ODI series.
"I remember there was this young lad bowling left-arm, lively pace, swinging the ball nicely in the nets," recalls Graham Ford, who was coaching Sri Lanka. "I overheard a few of our players asking him why he wasn't in the squad."
It didn't take long before he was: he made his T20I debut later that summer, against Hong Kong. Balbirnie believes that early exposure to international cricket was a major reason that Little ended up choosing cricket over hockey: "Being capped at 16 might well have swayed his decision."
But a year later, when Ford became Ireland's head coach, he encountered a young bowler in his final year at school who did not resemble an international athlete. "I don't think he fancied academics," he recalls, "but he would use it as an excuse not to come to training."
As an 18-year-old, Little was more interested in his social life than thoughts of a professional career. "He went on holiday as soon as he finished school and he missed some training sessions because of that - which the hierarchy didn't like," Ford says.
"He was out of nick, he put on weight. He missed an interprovincial game to go to Electric Picnic, the music festival. My common terminology for a bloke like that is, he was loose."
Before long, Ford decided to intervene. "I called him aside, and I told him, 'you can make a lot of money playing this game. I've seen a lot of players in my time, and you've got what it takes - and it's a far easier way of making money than having to study, or work, from 8 until 6 every day. With the talent you've got, you can live a wonderful life.'
"Credit to him, because after that, it was like a switch had been flicked." As Little recently himself told the Sunday Times Ireland: "That five-minute chat changed my entire perception of things… Ever since then I've been head down, just gym and cricket."
Perhaps the first sign of that turnaround came on Little's ODI debut, which came in May 2019 against an England team preparing for an imminent World Cup. He took 4 for 45 in his eight overs, including the scalp of the returning Morgan for a third-ball duck, fending a sharp bouncer behind via the glove.
"He wasn't shy: he certainly didn't care who Eoin Morgan was," O'Rourke recalls. Ford adds: "He gets into the battle, switches on competitively, and he goes like hell. He'll get into the scrap and is very happy to do that. You need to have that - particularly as a fast bowler."
Little's competitive streak got him into trouble early in his international career. In 2020, he was reprimanded for a sweary send-off after dismissing Jonny Bairstow; a year later, he was adjudged to have made "inappropriate physical contact" with Quinton de Kock, barging into him with his shoulder.
"He was a bit raw," Balbirnie reflects. "The emotions can bring out the best in him, but he's learned to control them a bit more. But I've never pulled him aside, and I've never really seen him cross the line. He still has that fire in his belly to do well, which is what makes him tick."
Over the last 18 months, Little's stock has soared on the T20 circuit. He won his first franchise contracts during the 2021-22 season; after impressing in the Hundred and the T20 World Cup in 2022, he has been in high demand in 2022-23, picking up deals in the SA20, the PSL and the IPL.
His point of difference as a bowler is his whippy wrist action, developed playing 'stumpy' - a variation on tape-ball cricket in which batters use a stump instead of a bat - in the Pembroke nets. "You bowl off 12 yards with a tennis ball, and have to snap your wrist to get some pace into it," Leonard explains. "His extra pace comes from that."
Those who have worked closely with him describe a headstrong individual, who sees no point in preparing for the sake of it. "He will do the bare minimum," O'Rourke says. "In his warm-up, he might bowl two or three balls to the keeper. If it's coming out nicely, he'll say, 'that's enough. I don't need any more.'" At last year's IPL, he left his stint as a net bowler with Chennai Super Kings - his opponents on debut - ahead of schedule, unhappy at his limited opportunities to impress the franchise's coaches.
Ireland's challenge is to keep hold of him. His IPL contract is worth INR 4.4 crore (€0.5 million approx.), around six times the value of his central contract; he is missing their first three Tests since 2019 in order to play for Titans, though will return home in mid-May for an ODI series against Bangladesh that Ireland must win 3-0 to qualify for this year's World Cup.
"It's a situation that is going to have to be managed pretty well by the people above me," Balbirnie says. "Money is always the elephant in the room when you're talking about things like this, but it's huge amounts - money that could take five, six, or even more years to earn while playing for Ireland. There is a fine balance there.
"We want to have Josh available for our key games, but you can't begrudge a player getting picked up like that."
Ford puts it simply: "If they played hardball and said 'no, you can't go', then they'd lose him completely. They don't want that; Ireland need to keep him in their system."
Back at Pembroke, Little's rise makes him the club's latest success story, representing them in the men's national team alongside Balbirnie, Barry McCarthy and Lorcan Tucker. Kim Garth, who became a dual international last year after moving to Australia, is another graduate of their system. "Pembroke are very proud of all those five," O'Rourke says.
The club's end-of-season dinner last year coincided with the final of the Hundred, where Little was playing for Manchester Originals. "The man was ringing the bell saying, 'lads, the food's on the table'," O'Rourke recalls. "And everyone was saying, 'no, no, Josh is into his second over here, we want to watch him!'"
And so, he expects Pembroke's bar to be busy during Titans' games over the next few weeks: "It's what sport is all about. You never forget your own."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98