Friday 24 February 2017

Forgotten heroes have defied odds yet again

Cricket in Ireland, so often played in forgotten fields in front of a handful of spectators and two blind dogs, has a way of elbowing its way into the national consciousness every now and then.

Yesterday was one of those times.

Those of us who play and follow the game can hardly bring ourselves to speak, let alone believe, this sentence: Ireland beat England in the Cricket World Cup.

At the last World Cup in 2007, we beat Pakistan and Bangladesh and earned the right to play against the top teams in the shorter, one-day form of the game.

Ireland still does not have full Test status; we are what the International Cricket Council calls an Associate Nation. So beating England is a huge sporting upset, the equivalent of a non-league side beating one of the Premiership giants in football.

But the reaction to Ireland's heroics yesterday will probably be similar to the surprise that greeted their 2007 victories: "Cricket? I didn't even know Ireland played cricket."

Well, we do. In fact, before the GAA came along, cricket was by far the most popular game on the island. There were more than 80 clubs in Tipperary alone.

Over time, to play cricket came to be seen as unpatriotic and the game declined just as hurling and Gaelic football increased in popularity.

But it survived in little pockets here and there.

It continued to be played in places with a Church of Ireland population, or in those villages that grew up beside the great old estates of the Ascendancy.

In Cork, around Birr, in parts of Kildare, in Dublin city and, most notably in north county Dublin, around Rush, Lusk and Skerries, the game is still thriving.

This Ireland team is backboned by players from north county Dublin and from Northern Ireland, hard players who are no respecters of reputations.

Cricket still suffers from the perception that it is arcane and difficult to understand. Robin Williams called it baseball on valium; Groucho Marx reckoned it was the perfect cure for insomnia.

The idea that a Test match can last five days and still end in a draw perplexes audiences used to higher octane sports. Some refuse to believe any game that features intervals for lunch and tea can really be called a sport.

Others can never work out why two members of one team (the two batsmen) are on the field, while all 11 of the opposition are allowed on. And the lbw rule is a bit like the off-side rule in football, much debated but not much understood.

In its simpler forms, such as Twenty-twenty cricket and the 50-overs a side World Cup format, cricket is really about scoring more runs than the other guys.

There are many subtleties to batting, bowling and fielding strategy, but it boils down to who scored the most runs. And yesterday, the answer was, gloriously, Ireland.

Torture

Watching the match itself was a kind of torture. Texts and tweets were flying back and forth between a group of us armchair cricketers. When England batted first and got 327 runs, one tweet read: That's it. Back to work now.

No team in World Cup history had ever chased down 327 runs. When our skipper, William Porterfield, was out without scoring, things looked even blacker.

Cricket is a game of statistics, and the on-screen display is a merciless predictor of the game.

Ireland had to score at more than one run for every ball bowled. We needed sixes and fours, and we needed them quick.

Niall O'Brien and Ed Joyce fell, and the required scoring rate soared again. Then Kevin O'Brien came to the wicket, his normally red hair dyed a luscious pink in support of the 'Shave or Dye' fundraising event.

With a deadly calm, he went about the English bowling, carting such stars of the game as James Anderson and Stuart Broad to all parts of the ground. He hit 13 fours and six sixes on his way to the fastest 100 in World Cup history.

O'Brien was eventually out for 113 (smashed off just 63 balls), but John Mooney and Trent Johnson were there to see us home.

In the last over, we needed three runs from six deliveries. Mooney only needed one. He hit Anderson for four and all hell broke loose.

This win easily eclipses Ireland's other most famous win, over the West Indies in Clontarf in 1969 -- not least because England's players were sober when we beat them in Bangalore last night.

Irish Independent

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