Monday 27 February 2017

Mix of desire and talent make Joyce a true great

Close to retirement in 2012, Ed Joyce is still Ireland's driving force

Ger Siggins

“Ed is a very fine player — the best we have ever produced — and that gives the team great confidence when he is batting”
“Ed is a very fine player — the best we have ever produced — and that gives the team great confidence when he is batting”

It was seven words long and took up less than a quarter of the 140 characters allowed, but Maureen Joyce's first ever tweet opened the door just enough to give the world a glimpse into that extraordinary home in Co Wicklow where five international cricketers were raised.

Mrs Joyce is a kind and generous woman, but on Wednesday morning as one of her sons was preparing to resume his innings - which at 229 was already a record for Ireland - she tweeted "Keep it going @edjoyce24 #begreedy".

That the innings was only extended by two runs is irrelevant, as Ed Joyce's efforts set Ireland on their way to victory in the first game of the competition whose prize is a tilt at the weakest Test nation in 2017, which itself carries the prize of Test status. But Mrs Joyce's tweet showed where her son got some of the steel and single-mindedness with which he built himself a stellar career as Ireland's greatest ever exponent of the sport.

As he gathered himself at the end of play on Tuesday, having faced 223 balls in more than five hours of intense concentration, he was reminded of the last time he had played a two-innings game in Ireland.

"1998? That was 17 years ago, an age away," he mused, mentally bridging the gap to when he was still a teenager before his career took him to Lord's, to a World Cup with England, and another with Ireland. He was the youngest batsman on that team that played Australia 'A' in 1998, but already everyone knew he was on the road to greatness.

Jason Molins was a team-mate that day and recognises how important a role the left-hander was to play. "Ed's trail-blazing on the English county circuit gave Irish cricketers a belief that playing the sport professionally was a realistic goal," he said this weekend. "There were a number of Irish players before Ed who played county cricket and made the odd first team appearance, but not many secured a first team place and dominated games. Ed clearly had the talent but also the hunger and desire to succeed. That set him apart from all those before him. The Irish players now playing the game professionally owe a huge debt of thanks to Ed."

Joyce was keen to push himself as far as he could, which at the time meant qualifying for England. He stopped playing for Ireland in 2001 but a rule change meant he could still represent his homeland in the World Cup qualifiers.

By 2005, Molins - by then Ireland captain - and Joyce were both living in London. "We were close friends and I remember sitting down for a coffee with him one day," Molins recalled. "I handed him a document with a list of all the reasons why he should leave his county for a short period of time to help us qualify.

"It was an easy sell as Ed was passionate about the Irish game and when he saw we had achieved some decent results in the run-up (beating Zimbabwe and West Indies) I think he realised it was a cause worth committing to."

While coach Adrian Birrell's side had some talented players, it was Joyce's return that made the difference. "We seriously under-performed and were lucky to qualify," admits Molins. "Without Ed in the team I don't think we would have qualified. Against the UAE we were struggling in a relatively small chase but Ed, in a partnership with a very young Eoin Morgan, saw us home. In several of the other games he also played match-winning innings."

Joyce went on to play for England in 17 ODIs and two Twenty20s but he was quickly discarded by their notoriously fickle selectors. After serving a four-year decontamination period he was back in green for the 2011 World Cup and has been the mainstay of Ireland's batting ever since.

Niall O'Brien, who followed Joyce into a career in England, explains what Joyce brought to an already successful team. "He is a leader in how he goes about run-scoring. Ed is a very fine player - the best we have ever produced - and that gives the team great confidence when he is batting."

Last week he brought his batting to its apotheosis with the biggest innings ever made for Ireland. A trademark effortless glided shot through backward point brought him the boundary that passed his own career best (211) and Eoin Morgan's Irish record (209). Afterwards, Joyce was typically modest, although delighted to claim such a landmark.

Just four years ago in India he wondered would he be able to play much longer, given the fragile state of his hips, even naming an expected retirement date of September 2012. At that stage he was just glad to be playing what he expected to be his last World Cup. Earlier this year he played in his third, making important scores in each of Ireland's three wins and crowning it with a century against Zimbabwe.

His fitness is no longer a major issue - wife Fran claims the credit for her kale stir-fry - and he has set his sights on completing the job of seeing Ireland into Test cricket. Should they get there, the first of the four-match qualifying games - likely to be against Zimbabwe - would begin on his 39th birthday.

"There's a good few of us saying that Ireland has to move from being that plucky, underdog side, win-a-game-every-two-or-three-years type of team," he said recently. "I think we've got to have a change in mindset to push on and become a better team.

"We'll always be a decent team because we have good players. We're located very close to England so a lot of the guys are playing county cricket, which will improve them. But I think the next step is to lose that slight inferiority complex."

To further the ambition of playing Tests, Joyce has pulled out of the faster, frenetic T20 format. "I feel now is the right time to concentrate on the two longer formats of the game for Ireland," he said. "With the possibility of Test cricket in the near future as well, I feel like I'd be able to contribute more if I stop playing 20/20."

Last week, new coach John Bracewell reiterated that his priority over the next two-and-a-half years is to guide the team through the Test qualifiers, and the maximum 20 points secured has given him a kick-start. His captain, William Porterfield, spoke for the players when he said: "I want to play in that first Test and look back having played a significant role in getting us there. Since this pathway was announced, all the lads have known deep down that this is it and it's where we want to be."

Ed Joyce showed last week that the flame still burns strongly and that he will be with them all the way.

Sunday Indo Sport

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