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Mary Waldron always wanted to play a World Cup, but she didn't think it would be in cricket

The Ireland keeper and umpire talks about how she came to cricket after nearly making it in football

S Sudarshanan
S Sudarshanan
Mary Waldron (crouching, left) ahead of umpiring a BBL game

Waldron before going out to umpire a BBL game. Australia was where she first really got into keeping, and she has officiated in the men's and women's BBL  •  Oisin Keniry/Cricket Ireland

Cricket was nowhere on Mary Waldron's radar.
"My only recollection of it growing up was watching my dad watching a cricket match on Channel 4 during my school holidays," she chuckles. "And I was mad because I was like, 'What is this on TV? This is ridiculous!'"
About 25 years on, Waldron has played not just as a wicketkeeper for Ireland Women, she has also represented Ireland in football. She also tried her hand at basketball and hockey in school.
She was among the first players to benefit from Cricket Ireland's part-time contracts for women in 2019 and also among the 20 first fully professional women cricketers for Ireland, when the board invested £1.5 million in the game last year. She has also been on the ICC's International Panel of Development Umpires for over three years.
Waldron is now in South Africa for the T20 World Cup - her fourth, after Ireland narrowly missed out in 2020 - and at 38 is the oldest player in the competition. Her enthusiasm belies her age, though. She believes this is the best time to be playing cricket for Ireland.
"We have been crying out for more support over the years and it's finally here," she says. "The bus is nearly full with all the support staff. To be part of that journey and to see it come to fruition and see all the other players just at the start of their journey. It's actually really exciting.
"Gutted not to play in the last World Cup, purely because you get to play against the best in the world on such a cool occasion.
"Because even a couple years ago, we'd be like, 'What's the fixture list for the year? We might be going on one tour' - or you just never really knew. But now we have a Future Tours Programme. We know what we're doing. And it's very exciting."
Growing up in hill country south of Dublin, Waldron only got into organised sport at 12, in secondary school, when she joined a football club. She was picked for the Ireland Under-16s when she was 13. She also played basketball, volleyball, and a bit of hockey at school but football was her focus. Transport was limited in the mountains, so her parents - whom she calls "very good sports parents" - drove her around. There was only one occasion, she recalls, when her father said no to her on a matter to do with sport.
"I asked my dad if I could join a basketball club as well and he said no," she says. "And that was just purely because there was not enough hours in the day. I was already going to hockey training at that stage, going to soccer, going into school games and stuff. It was just not logistically possible."
Her first brush with cricket came when she was at University College, Dublin. By then she had represented Ireland in football and had played all the age groups in the sport. One of her friends was "obsessed with cricket" and asked her to come watch her play. Waldron went along and liked what she saw, and ended up joining Pembroke Cricket Club in Sandymount, which her cricket-mad friend played for. While football was important to her - she was training hard and playing at a high level - playing cricket allowed her to socialise and network outside of her primary sport, which she liked.
Once, when Pembroke's wicketkeeper was unavailable, they picked Waldron to keep because of her ability to be unflinching. "I wasn't scared of the ball, and actually in hindsight now, looking at some of the fielding I did - like standing far too close to the batter and that sort of stupid stuff - I didn't know what I was doing!" she says. "I kept for a few games even though football was still priority.
"The following pre-season I was keeping in a game and the Ireland A coach saw me and said I should come to training the following Friday. So it was very random, very organic, how that came about, but I just loved it from there."
She made her ODI debut in July 2010 and played her first T20I three months later. Her rise was too rapid for it all to sink in - in her mind, football, which she played for Raheny United and Shelbourne FC, who played the Premier Division in the Irish league, was still her real game.
"It was all a bit of a whirlwind. And I don't think I thought too much about it at the time. And looking back, it was kind of mad. I remember playing in the European championships in cricket, and we're in Holland, and I remember saying that I can't stay because I had to go back - this was after about a year after my debut - because we had a training camp for the soccer team. It did take me a few years to transition my mindset that cricket was actually more important."
With Ireland rising as a cricketing team, it was increasingly tough for Waldron to juggle her two sports. Ireland qualified for the Women's T20 World Cup 2014 and with cricket activities - gym, conditioning, skills work - taking up the better part of the week, she had to let go of football.
"I just knew that I wouldn't be able to commit to the soccer training," Waldron says. "Playing in a World Cup has always been a goal, though I never wrote it down as a goal. I knew that I'd always love to play in a World Cup, and I assumed that would have been with soccer. But it just turned out that it was in cricket."
An invitation from 1990s Australia wicketkeeper Julia Price, who coached Tasmania and wanted to expand the club structure there, took Waldron to Hobart in 2015. While playing and training in Australia, she completed the Level 1 umpiring course. Back home she was a cricket development officer in a club in Malahide, where she coached the Under-15 boys' side and also scored for and umpired in those games.
That kicked off a period where, unless Ireland had a winter tour, she would travel to Australia to play and umpire. Ahead of the qualifiers for the Women's World Cup in 2017, she moved from Hobart to Adelaide to be able to play more 50-over matches. There she took more umpiring courses and got more games under her belt as an umpire.
In 2018, Waldron was appointed to the first-class panel of Umpires in Ireland and became the first woman to umpire in a men's List A match, between Ireland Wolves and Bangladesh A. She and Eloise Sheridan of Australia became the first pair of women to umpire in a men's first grade game in Australia in 2019. That year she stood as one of the umpires in the men's T20 World Cup Europe Region Qualifiers. She also has officiated in the men's and women's Big Bash League and in the Women's National Cricket League in Australia.
When the pandemic struck in 2020, cricket in Ireland was thrown into uncertainty. They had missed out on making it to the Women's T20 World Cup and the next tournament was at least two years away. The 50-overs World Cup, originally to be played in 2021, was postponed.
Waldron was clear - cricket was her priority and umpiring had to wait. "The potential progression for Irish women's cricket at that stage was still huge, so even though I love umpiring, I wasn't ready to finish playing," she says. "There was a lot of unfinished business. Many people told me that I should retire and umpire.
"I enjoyed the opportunity to train even when it was a two-day-week contract. To be fair, Cricket Ireland still gave me the opportunity to go away whenever we didn't have a winter tour. Between time at home and being able to travel in the winter, it still was a great lifestyle. I wasn't planning on giving that up anytime soon.
"I have to be based in Ireland now for full-time contracts. But that's not hard. Having the opportunity to play full-time and train full-time is brilliant. I wasn't able to go to Australia for the winter but I'll be playing [the T20 World Cup]. I don't mind missing out on a few umpiring opportunities because I'm sure there will be chances down the line. And even if they are not, I still wouldn't miss a chance to play in the World Cup for anything."

S Sudarshanan is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo