Thursday 19 October 2017

Timely claim for cricket's place in sports history

Eamonn Sweeney hails a documentary on Ireland's long cricketing tradition

Eamonn Sweeney

The best sports documentaries tell us something we didn't know before we watched them. Too often we're faced with the dispiriting spectacle of a load of talking heads underlining the familiar at great length. But from time to time there's a real gem which turns our preconceptions upside down and shows us something new.

That's why Batsmen is such a joy. Maybe you already knew that in the 1870s cricket was the most popular sport in Ireland and the first organised team game to enjoy widespread popularity. Or that as late as 1882 cricket fan Michael Cusack was still lobbying for the setting up of a national body to run the sport properly.

Perhaps you're already familiar with the working-class cricket enclave in north County Dublin which has produced current Irish senior champions, The Hills. And maybe you've seen film of the memorable 1969 match at Sion Mills in Tyrone when Ireland defeated the West Indies by nine wickets, having bowled Clive Lloyd et al out for 25.

It could be that you know that the spread of clubs in Ireland is currently the widest for over 100 years as the sport builds on those famous World Cup wins over Pakistan and England.

If you do, fair play to you. You've got one up on me and, I suspect, on most Irish sports fans for whom this documentary, beautifully directed by Maurice Sweeney and superbly written by sports journalist Gerard Siggins, contains a number of revelations which make for a thoroughly absorbing experience.

Siggins also appears as a kind of expert witness in the documentary where his enthusiasm for the game of cricket is palpable. And it's the enthusiasm underpinning the whole enterprise that makes Batsmen special. The programme makers, you feel, don't just want us to know about cricket, they want us to love the game and accept it as part of our national sporting heritage.

After all, the programme implicitly argues, we accept soccer and rugby as part of what we are when they were also introduced to the country by our former colonisers. Yet cricket has always had something of a bad rap. It used to be a commonplace that GAA players asked about their favourite sports would answer something along the lines of, 'I like all sports except cricket,' and supporters who had the wherewithal to follow all kinds of abstruse foreign games usually drew the line at cricket on the bizarre grounds that the rules were too complicated to understand.

The most intriguing part of Batsmen is when the makers posit an alternative sporting future where cricket might have maintained its number one slot and seen off those upstarts, Gaelic football and hurling, which were to take its place. UCD sports historian, and former Offaly footballer, Paul Rouse, who gives an intelligent and combative contribution, suggests that cricket's demise wasn't inevitable once the GAA had founded. He feels that had cricket been organised on a national basis, as Cusack had suggested, it might well have been strong enough to withstand the competition from the GAA.

I'd have my doubts about this. Such was the pace of cultural and political change in those decades that the old Irish Party, a far more powerful and well-organised entity than any cricket organisation could ever have been, was eventually swept away by Sinn Féin. The new forms of Irish nationalism were probably an unstoppable force. Yet Rouse's thesis is an intriguing one and it's hard not to agree with his harsh words for those who damned people who played cricket "as being less Irish than other people". Of course that's nonsense."

The First World War and the War of Independence also helped to create a situation where by the 1930s cricket had become almost extinct in the Republic outside the cities of Dublin and Cork. One area where it did survive was north County Dublin

where, in the words of Irish international John Mooney, cricket is played "by working-class people who absolutely love the game. We play the game in a different kind of way than the Southside person would play."

Batsmen, which shows on Setanta next Tuesday night, draws a loving picture of this anomalous cricketing stronghold, originally rooted in the local farming community and proud of its traditions. I especially enjoyed the veteran who waxed lyrical about the good old days when you'd get your hand broken by the ball and play on all the same. Every sport has one of these lads.

Such is Mooney's enthusiasm for the game you feel glad that this story has a happy ending. The story of how Adie Burrell steered the Irish team to those famous World Cup victories, and how Ed Joyce blazed a trail towards the pro game for ambitious Irish youngsters, are the most familiar part of the programme, but they're told well.

And so is the tale of that shock victory over the West Indies with the genial Ossie Colhoun, Ireland's wicket-keeper that day, contributing the immortal observation that by letting the tourists move from 12 for 9 to 25 all out Ireland had "let them off the hook."

Batsmen does a marvellous job of convincing you that these victories are an important part of our sporting story and that the current membership boom is merely a case of cricket returning to its proper place in the national affections.

It's wonderful. Make sure to watch it.

Irish Independent

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