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Feature

Ireland's new 'golden generation' comes of age at the biggest stage of all

The true significance of this win might lie with those who orchestrated it, not the opponents who were defeated

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
26-Oct-2022
Most Irishmen come to Australia to escape the rain.

But the rain falling from the leaden Melbourne skies brought overwhelming joy to Ireland's men's cricket team as it confirmed their greatest-ever T20 triumph, beating England in a T20 World Cup.
"I've seen a lot of rain in my time playing cricket, and I've never been happier to see that rain come down when it did," Ireland captain Andy Balbirnie said in the post-match press conference.
To suggest that rain was the key factor in the result is to diminish an outstanding achievement in Irish sport. England captain Jos Buttler said his side were thoroughly outplayed.
Ireland richly deserved their victory. As their players got soaked while celebrating with the small pockets of Irish fans who were singing in the rain in the MCG stands, the achievement was not lost on Balbirnie.
Ireland had completed yet another great World Cup triumph to sit alongside Kingston 2007 and Bengaluru 2011. This is the third time they have beaten England in international cricket, including Southampton 2020.
But this might be the greatest triumph of all, on one of the world's great cricket stages. Ireland had never played at the MCG before. Such is the magic and mystique of the place; the Irish players toured the Australian Sports Museum that is housed in the Members stand on Tuesday night and took special note of a particular Irish MCG sporting triumph before adding another just 24 hours later.
"It will always be a special place because of tonight," Balbirnie said. "Ronnie Delany [1500m, 1956] won a gold medal here in the Melbourne Olympics, and you see his name etched in the history of Irish sport forever.
"I hope we've done something similar. I've always said cricket isn't a big game in Ireland. We're the flag bearers, and we want to make it as big as possible. But it's certainly an absolute pleasure to play here, to lead the first Irish team to ever play here."
The true significance of this win might not be in who they beat, or the stage they won on. It might lie with those who orchestrated it.
In Melbourne, there were just two members present from the side that won in Bengaluru and neither Paul Stirling nor George Dockrell were significant contributors.
There were also four significant changes from the Ireland side that did not progress to the second phase of last year's T20 World Cup, with two of the new faces, Lorcan Tucker and Fionn Hand playing a major part in the win. Tucker's 34 off 27 was vital alongside Balbirnie's half-century, as the pair put together a rollicking 82-run stand in the face of a blistering spell from Mark Wood.
Hand later delivered one of the balls of the tournament, hooping back through the gate of Ben Stokes, to leave England reeling at 29 for 3 in the powerplay. In combination with Josh Little, Mark Adair and Barry McCarthy, Ireland's attack was the key reason for their success against England as they had been against West Indies.
Balbirnie believed his young group is stepping out of the shadows of Ireland's golden generation that had been led by Kevin O'Brien.
"He's one of the best cricketers we've ever produced, but we knew we needed to kind of move on from players like that," Balbirnie said. "What he contributed was amazing, and I probably didn't get the opportunity to say that at the time when he retired.
"The guys who have come in have shown it's not just that generation that are a golden generation. This generation, with Harry Tector, Lorcan Tucker, Josh Little, they're a special group of cricketers, Mark Adair, there's so many of them. Fionn Hand showed today: he came in for his third T20 and showed that he can have an impact on the game with the ball.
"That generation laid the platform for us to be professional cricketers. We wouldn't be here without them, and we have to acknowledge that. But we also have a duty to take the game as far forward as we can with a group of players."
There is an acknowledgment that this current generation has had to do it slightly differently. For all the positivity around Ireland's promotion to becoming a full member of the ICC, there was a negative flow on effect. The price of being able to play Test cricket was that Ireland's best players could no longer cut their teeth in England's county system as locals before progressing to international level. They've had to do it a different way.
"I did genuinely believe that not playing county cricket would tarnish the way that our youngsters progressed," Balbirnie said. "I think my opinion's changed a bit, the way that I've seen our youngsters play. It's always been a bit of a sink-or-swim situation for a lot of our young guys. You have to see how they go at the highest level, and you have the names I mentioned earlier that have stood out and been key members of this squad.
"That's the hand we were dealt. We got the Test status, and we have to produce our own cricketers, and we're starting to do that."
Tucker believes the different path to Ireland's golden generation has its own benefits. "We don't have the opportunities that those lads had," Tucker said. "But we've got so much more international cricket. I think that's our finishing school now. I've played quite a few international games and I think most of it was learning."
The proof is in the results. A more aggressive, fearless mindset under Balbirnie and coach Heinrich Malan has yielded wins over West Indies and England in the space of a week.
"The knock-on effect is wins like tonight will hopefully trigger a bit of an interest back home," Balbirnie said. "Well, I hope so. If it doesn't, then I give up. We want to see those kids playing the game. It's a great game, and it's given me a lot of pleasure. Hopefully, nights like tonight can ignite a future generation of Irish cricketers."
Ireland are no longer troublemakers raining on the big boys' parade. There's a belief and a sense of belonging building after a famous day at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo