Monday 23 October 2017

These great Irish cricketers deserve more than a place in our imagination, even if that is guaranteed

Kevin O'Brien celebrates with his Ireland teammates after taking the wicket of West Indies batsman Dwayne Smith during their ICC Cricket World Cup clash in Nelson. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Kevin O'Brien celebrates with his Ireland teammates after taking the wicket of West Indies batsman Dwayne Smith during their ICC Cricket World Cup clash in Nelson. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Dion Fanning

Some tournaments are ruined by getting bigger and some will be destroyed by becoming smaller. After one week, it is clear that the Associate members, a title which sounds as if they are on the waiting list for a gentleman's club, are one of the joys of the Cricket World Cup.

As a meditative game, cricket deserves a World Cup that takes it time, a tournament that meanders along with games between Zimbabwe and UAE; Bangladesh and Afghanistan; New Zealand and England.

Anybody who has watched Out of the Ashes will understand the beauty of Afghanistan at a World Cup and why it is not something that should be surrendered as it will be when the tournament is reduced to ten sides in 2019.

Ireland demonstrated all that can be achieved against the West Indies and their game this week against UAE offers another opportunity to witness the side's immense strengths and the folly of marginalising a country that is a natural home for cricket.

Ireland's batsman Ed Joyce
Ireland's batsman Ed Joyce

For Ireland, the game can be seen as the one that got away. A five-day Test match would not tax the patience of Irish people, not while it opened up so many possibilities, so many opportunities for relaxation. It is clear to see that the cultural nationalism that destroyed it in the country worked, as all forms of extremism do, counter to the best interests of the people.

One-day cricket has, of course, a different rhythm to a Test match. It is squeezed these days by the urgency of Twenty20 and it doesn't have the nobility and the stubbornness of the five-day game but, in this World Cup, we are seeing what it can offer.

Ireland has become detached from its deep historical attachment to cricket but the Irish team which has achieved so much in the past years are both trailblazers and men who are reconnecting the country with a great tradition.

Mike Atherton touched on the popularity of cricket in Ireland until the late 19th century in a column last week and it is a subject that has been explored by Tom Hunt, sports historian and uncle of Stephen, at great length.

Kevin O'Brien of Ireland celebrates after dismissing Dwayne Smith of West Indies during the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup match between the West Indies and Ireland
Kevin O'Brien of Ireland celebrates after dismissing Dwayne Smith of West Indies during the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup match between the West Indies and Ireland

Hunt's studies on Victorian sport in Westmeath established that cricket's popularity in Ireland lasted much longer than many suppose. Between 1880 and 1905, close to a thousand games were reported to have taken place in Westmeath alone. Hunt believes that the actual figure is nearer to 1,200.

These games weren't played by an elite but mainly by young Catholic men. There were teams in workplaces across the county. There were the Athlone Woollen Mills XI, the Mullingar Mental Asylum XI and the Killucan Station XI. 62 per cent of the teams in Westmeath represented the townlands, parishes and villages of the county.

There was much to enjoy. "The opportunities for socialising associated with the game were also an important part of its attraction, including the opportunity to consume copious amounts of alcohol," Hunt wrote.

One correspondent to the editor of the Westmeath Guardian at the turn of the century was concerned with the high cost of the buffet and proposed some cutbacks.

Ireland's Niall O'Brien plays a shot against the West Indies in their Cricket World Cup match in Nelson
Ireland's Niall O'Brien plays a shot against the West Indies in their Cricket World Cup match in Nelson

"It has hitherto been the custom with country clubs to provide luncheon and a half-barrel of porter for the visitors; which has entailed expense to such a degree, as to deter clubs from engaging in more than a few matches during the season. Now as a good many matches is what most players desire, I would suggest that the luncheon be left out, and a half-barrel of porter alone be supplied."

As always, the essentials remained and we can see what the country was missing out on when cricket was dubbed a sport of "West Britons", a tag we know now is only used by extreme nationalists, as its intention is to relegate certain Irish people to a lesser status with the implication that their voices do not deserve to be heard.

Cricket suffered and other sports rose in its place. In 1903, the Ringtown club was reconstituted as a hurling club and so hurling and cricket have been interlinked long before it became conventional to attribute Eoin Morgan's array of shots to his time spent playing hurling as a boy.

The joy people felt at seeing Eoin Morgan lead the England team at the World Cup is ebbing away as his side conforms to timeless values.

On Friday morning, when Morgan lost his wicket, England were 104-3 and they ended shortly afterwards all out for 123. Morgan, meanwhile, is being diminished by the bureaucracy that is English cricket and the ECB is one of the world's great sporting bureaucracies.

He was appointed because of his instinctive genius as a batsman while he brought a spontaneous intelligence to captaincy.

In the aftermath of England's defeat to Australia, Morgan spoke in the same bureaucratic, meaningless language that is the signature of those in power in English cricket. By Friday, he had begun to sound more like himself as England entered another crisis but he may yet be sacrificed.

One commentator talked before the tournament about the favourable impression Morgan was making, adding that "he always struck me as quite a quiet guy, not one of those sort of lairy Irish people you get . . . I don't want to be rude to Irish people. You know what I mean, a quiet fellow".

After Friday's defeat, Morgan sounded less like the uninspiring England coach Peter Moores and while he was assertive, he was never lairy which can be a consolation to some. There were no positives to be taken from the defeat, he said, something which was obvious but also needed to be said.

Ireland could take nothing but positives from the World Cup if it wasn't for the fact that their three tournaments of memories could turn out to be their last as qualification for the next competition will be so difficult for the Associates.

The great cricket writer and romantic Neville Cardus wrote that cricket was distinctive in that "we remember not the scores and the results in after years; it is the men who remain in our minds, in our imagination."

These great Irishmen who beat the West Indies, who beat England in 2011 and Pakistan in 2007, deserve more than a place in our imagination, even if that is guaranteed.

Cricket was on the margins in Ireland but only for a hundred years which is no time at all. Now another form of extremism is determined to push them out there once again.

dfanning@independent.ie

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