All pieces of the jigsaw now in place -- except final one
IRISH CRICKET'S BEST XI: The people, plays and key decisions that brought a Cinderella sport into the mainstream
Joining the outside world . . .
Cricket had been played here for more than 200 years when Ireland finally joined the international governing body. Hitherto it had been an adjunct to English domestic cricket, a "minor county" which was occasionally granted prize fixtures because touring teams enjoyed trips to Dublin, Cork and Belfast. Every game was a friendly up to 1980, the year Ireland joined the English 60-over cup, although a win against a county took 17 years more.
Irish Cricket Union officials Derek Scott and Frank Malin negotiated the ICC constitutional problems of remaining in a domestic event while playing other nations and Ireland took part in qualifiers for the 1995, 1999 and 2003 World Cups, albeit unsuccessfully.
At last, a coach . . .
"We always had good teams but we were limited in our outlook," says Alan Lewis who won 121 caps from 1984-97. "It was the appointment of Hendo that showed us what we were capable of if we adopted a professional approach." 'Hendo' was Mike Hendrick, a respected England bowler of the 1970s, who was the first to be given the job of national coach when the ICU made it a full-time role.
"I thought I'd give it a season, but it soon became obvious that there was so much talent and potential and passion for the game in Ireland that I fell in love with it," Hendrick said. He stayed for four years, winning Triple Crowns and the 1996 European Championship, but narrowing missed out on qualification for the 1999 World Cup. "Mike Hendrick built the tracks and Adi Birrell drove the train down them," sums up current manager Roy Torrens.
The arrival of Adrian Birrell in succession to the hapless Ken Rutherford was greeted with puzzled looks and shrugs by many followers. The 41-year-old had coached Eastern Province for four years and was little known outside his native South Africa, but he brought an energy and willingness to get stuck in that hadn't been seen before. "It was a bit dispiriting in the beginning," he told me. "Cricket was never in the press. It was a really low-key affair. I had to learn what made Irish cricket tick before making plans. I spent the first year learning before embarking on my plan for us to be competitive on the world stage."
Birrell worked hard -- he amazed one Strabane-based player who rang for advice when he turned up on his doorstep three hours later -- and drummed into his players the need to get right the tiny details, "the one per centers".
He benefited from a club scene energised by migrants from south Asia and the southern hemisphere, several of whom became Irish and key members of his squad, including Andre Botha and Jeremy Bray. "I needed certain players to play roles," he recalled, "and once I knew what direction we were heading, I got the players to fit into my strategy."
Jason sends an email
Jason Molins was an ambitious Ireland captain but knew he needed some good fast bowlers. He heard that an Aussie called Trent Johnston was on his way to play in Scotland and was hoping to get an Irish passport to make visiting here easier. Molins and 'TJ' had played together for Carlisle when they were teenagers in the early 1990s, and the former pro had married an Irish woman. Molins zapped off an email with a plan for him to instead join Old Belvedere -- and play for Ireland. After much soul-searching ("I wasn't sure Adi would pick me") Trent and Vanessa packed their suitcases and followed their dream.
Ironically, it was the emergence of Johnston as a leadership exemplar that convinced Birrell to ditch Molins before the World Cup. Ten years later, Johnston has just retired with 198 caps and is now charged with guiding the next generation of quicks.
Scotland's hollow victory
The ICC Trophy was held in Ireland, and the hosts were expected to make the top six and qualify for their first World Cup. That was duly achieved, mainly due to the brief return of Ed Joyce -- thanks to another email from Molins -- for his only Ireland appearances between 2001 and 2011. Joyce hit 399 runs in five innings, but his 81 in the final wasn't enough to overcome Scotland.
As it turned out, that defeat was fortuitous -- by the pre-ordained draw, Scotland had qualified for a World Cup group with Australia, South Africa and Netherlands; Ireland drew Pakistan, West Indies and Zimbabwe -- formidable opponents all, but liable to be mercurial. A win and a tie were secured, Ireland made the second phase, and their star began to rise. The Scots lost all three, were on the plane home within a week, and their cricket has continued to slide.
The key signing
Like most minority sports, cricket in Ireland was run by volunteers, former players giving something back in middle age, all guided by an indefatigable Hon Sec in John Wright and team manager Roy Torrens. A full-time chief executive was appointed in 2003 but departed for a minor English rugby club three years later. There was a stand-out candidate to replace him, Warren Deutrom, who had worked for ICC in Dubai for four years but was keen to get off the carousel of international sport and settle down with his Dubliner wife and young family. He had seen Irish cricket up close at the 2005 ICC Trophy and saw great potential. He started just weeks before the squad jetted off to prepare for the World Cup.
In a parting interview, Adrian Birrell pleaded for his achievements to be built upon. "In order to move Irish cricket forward, we need more investment in the game -- better pitches, more development officers, more schools playing the game, better facilities," he said. "The money must be found. I encourage the Irish Cricket Union to think big, I don't think historically this has been the case. However, with the appointment of Warren Deutrom the CEO, they have a man who thinks big, and I reckon cricket in Ireland has a bright future if handled properly."
Deutrom's vision has sustained his organisation through the bad times, and he continues to cajole governments, administrators, players and everyone else as he leads the drive to Test cricket.
Ireland's World Cup debut in Kingston, Jamaica ended in a thrilling tie with Zimbabwe after Jeremy Bray made a battling century. Two days later, Pakistan came a cropper on a St Patrick's Green pitch and a strong team display brought a stunning victory. Ireland qualified for the Super Eights where they hammered another full member, Bangladesh, thus elevating their status with ICC so subsequent games would be included on the ODI ranking table.
Their performances entranced the nation for three weeks and later earned them the RTÉ Team of the Year award. It also saw the end of Birrell, who had decided long before that the tournament would be his valete.
"I've probably taken it as far as I can take it," he told me at the time. "I think they're capable of better and bigger things. With (Phil's) experience he's better placed than me to take them forward. The team of Warren Deutrom and Phil Simmons will continue the momentum forward. The guys are in good hands." Birrell is now assistant coach of South Africa. "Adi was the catalyst," says Trent Johnston, "he's the father of Irish cricket."
Post-Caribbean, not all was rosy. The players felt they had been short-changed on win bonuses and took industrial action for a time, refusing to talk to the media. It came to a head with a confrontation between Deutrom and a near-naked Johnston in a dressing room just after an ODI at Stormont. "As an organisation we probably didn't take the players seriously enough, and didn't treat them well enough," says Deutrom. "I met a group of them later and promised I would look after them."
The CEO had taken over a tiny office with one part-time secretary -- the national coach was the only other member of staff -- but following the Stormont fiasco a member of the women's squad, Suzanne Kenealy, was appointed international teams' administrator. "That was probably the most important appointment we've made," Deutrom said. "It freed me of a lot of work and was a signal to the players that we would look after them."
Sponsors on board
Bank of Ireland had sponsored the Irish team up to the World Cup but by late 2007 they were shedding such deals. A cricket-mad chief executive at RSA pitched in to sponsor a couple of the senior men's side's games early in 2008 and saw in the thrusting sports organisation a good fit for his firm. The sponsorship deal was crucial for the newly-renamed Cricket Ireland, enabling it to invest and expand just as many other sports were tightening their belts.
"The crucial moment in the past ten years was when Cricket Ireland introduced central contracts for the players," says Trent Johnston. "That allowed us to train full-time without worrying about work the next day. None of the progress would have been possible without that professionalism." And contracts would never have been possible without Philip Smith and RSA. The troubles in the group have cast a shadow over the run-up to the World Cup but the insurance firm insists it is business as usual after Smith's resignation and its contract runs to the end of 2015.
Ireland had opened the World Cup by getting into a winning position against Bangladesh but ended up losing, and now they faced a cocky England side in Bangalore. Andrew Strauss's side set Ireland a target of 328 to win -- more than any side had ever made in a successful chase in the competition -- and at 111-5 it looked futile. But Kevin O'Brien made the fastest World Cup century ever, in 50 balls, and had great back-up from Alex Cusack and John Mooney as Ireland won with five balls to spare. It was then that Deutrom realised the Test dream could happen. "That was the moment when it all crystallised," he said.
India went wild, Ireland had a billion new supporters overnight, and O'Brien became a star. He has since launched a career as a peripatetic T20 player, lining out for teams in England, Bangladesh and West Indies on short-term deals while dreaming of the ultimate Indian Premier League contract.
The kudos Ireland earned in the competition helped overturn an ICC plan to shut out associates from the 2015 event.
Mine's a treble
The global tournaments have proved to be the best opportunity to make waves, given the reluctance of the full members to give Ireland games. In the past three years only England (twice, two ODIs), Pakistan (twice, four ODIs), Australia (one ODI) and Bangladesh (once, three T20s) have visited Ireland -- and no-one has invited Simmons' men to tour. So instead they go about their business, hoping their overwhelming dominance of their scene will catch someone's eye. They finished 2013 by collecting the last two elements of the Associates' treble, world champions in all formats outside the Test world. "This is not a flash in the pan, it's consistency of performance. We are bringing on new players all the time, and we're dominant at all formats," says Deutrom.
The appointment of the former West Indies all-rounder as coach brought hard-edged experience of the very top of the sport, and Simmons has continued the job by introducing young talents such as Paul Stirling, George Dockrell and Max Sorensen.
Ireland also ended the year with a new home, a mightily impressive venue to which 10,000 people came to watch them tussle with England. The attendance at the last rites of the Inter-Continental Cup final in Dubai last month was less than one per cent of that at Malahide, but as it took place just outside the HQ of the ICC it may have had even more impact on the sport's decision-makers.