Tuesday 24 October 2017

Cricket: Our neighbours from hell

English cricket chiefs are rubbing Ireland's noses in it yet again

The manicured outfield in Malahide can do without the liquid deposits that were left for The Oval ground staff to mop up last Sunday.
The manicured outfield in Malahide can do without the liquid deposits that were left for The Oval ground staff to mop up last Sunday.

Ger Siggins

"All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?"
– Life of Brian (1979)

I SUPPOSE Irish sports fans do have to thank the English for quite a lot. But apart from rugby, soccer, tennis, cricket, table-tennis, boxing and hockey, what have the English ever done for us, really? Certainly, this weekend Irish cricket followers are grumbling about our nearest neighbour more than ever.

It's not just that their selectors have been cherry-picking our best players for nearly a decade. Nor that they have rubbed our noses in it by selecting one Irishman to captain England – at his former club – and another to make his one-day debut here. Nor even that they have ridiculed Cricket Ireland's best efforts to create a national stadium in a village field and sell 10,000 tickets to watch the nations clash by sending a team devoid of any of its household names.

No, although all the above contribute to the throbbing ulcer that typifies the long-suffering aficionado, the real pain and anger is caused by the utter lack of support for Ireland's efforts to lift itself into the game's elite.

Perhaps Irish fans should be glad that the sour, self-obsessed bunch that have just won the Ashes are not on their way. Certainly the manicured outfield in Malahide can do without the liquid deposits they left for The Oval ground staff to mop up last Sunday. On their last visit here the response of one player to an autograph request was to tell a nine-year-old to "f*** off".

The three-times Ashes winners are unloved in their homeland too, and it really rankles with them. When they took a 3-0 lead in that series the public reaction was underwhelming and focused on the team's flaws – which moved spiky wicketkeeper Matt Prior to demand that supporters lay off the criticism and "show us some respect". And last week, when England fans who had paid £110 (€129) to watch a display of time-killing batting responded with boos, Stuart Broad – whose £700,000 annual wedge is paid out of those ticket receipts – tweeted that 'true fans' wouldn't have done so.

The response of columnist Michael Calvin last weekend was typical of the UK media which has fallen out of love with Andy Flower and Alastair Cook's team: "These have been the counterfeit Ashes . . . the contests have lacked authenticity. The approach of the England management has been myopic and mean-spirited. Cook's team have played in a vacuum of joylessness and indifference to their wider responsibilities. Matt Prior's demand for respect, a dressing-room buzzword without meaning or merit, sums up their isolationism. It is the product of an overwrought, self-regarding culture which has manifested itself most ominously at The Oval, where the attempt to kill the game degenerated into a parody of professionalism."

* * * * *

The cricketing relationship between our islands is like our whole history writ small: Cromwell banned it, the Duke of Wellington played it, Parnell scrapped over it, De Valera hid his love for it and McGuinness and Paisley united over it.

On Tuesday, President Michael D Higgins will shake the hands of the teams before taking his place in the stands – a far cry from the day that one of his predecessors attended a match in Trinity College during the Second World War.

Dev had dropped down from Leinster House to meet Sir John Maffey, the British representative here, who was playing in a match. Dev picked up a bat and demonstrated some textbook shots, at which a photographer hurried over to check out the commotion. Dev flung the bat away and fled, terrified at what his own Irish Press might be forced to write if a photo appeared of him enjoying the hated game.

That apparent need to keep Irish cricket as a guilty secret extended into this century, but the surge in our fortunes after the 2007 World Cup has at least taken the game out of those shadows.

But the one entity that keeps Irish cricket at arm's length is the one you might expect to be keen on encouraging a promising neighbour. Ireland's qualification for 2007 also meant our games against ICC full members qualified for ODI status. But when the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) agreed to come to Stormont in June 2006, it tried to have the game downgraded.

It wanted a 'friendly', meaning it could use up to 15 players willy-nilly, making a farce of the biggest game Ireland had played up to then. It took an intervention by ICC to force the ECB to accept the game's status.

And when Warren Deutrom took over as Cricket Ireland CEO in 2007, one of his first initiatives was a tri-cornered tournament involving India and South Africa. It was hit by weather and typical Stormont fan apathy, but it infuriated the ECB which saw such events as a potential threat to its TV deal with Sky Sports.

Heavy-handed threats followed but a deal was patched together that prestige Ireland home fixtures would no longer clash with England games, in return for which they would deign to visit once every second season. This week, as in 2011, Flower sent over a second string peppered with has-beens, would-be's and never-gonna-be's. They demanded a 10.15am start to facilitate an early exit, staying barely 36 hours in Dublin in contrast to the Pakistan and Australia teams who came for a week and visited schools and clubs.

And the courtesy of negotiating dates doesn't come into it, with this week's game coming via a one-line email to CI saying "we will play you on September 3rd". An Autumn Tuesday the week schools reopened didn't make CI's marketing campaign an easy one.

But the most damage the ECB has inflicted on Ireland has been grooming our best players. Back in 2001 when Ed Joyce began his quest for Test cricket, few begrudged him his desire to push himself to the limit. One of his first games for England, a floodlit T20 in Southampton, gave him a good idea about how he was valued.

A nasty ankle injury saw him ambulanced from the field to hospital, some miles away. When he got the all-clear, after midnight, he limped outside in his full kit where he realised he hadn't a penny on him. His new masters hadn't bothered to send an escort, or organise transport back. A taxi driver took pity and returned him to his hotel, bruised inside and out.

Eoin Morgan (pictured) was next, a brilliant batsman whose Test career looks over after 16 games, and is now doomed to the same one-day limbo of his former comrades.

Boyd Rankin was coerced by his county to ditch his country, but now he lines up against them with faint hope of forcing his way into Test cricket and no way back to Ireland until he's over 31. There are real fears that one-day specialist Paul Stirling could be next.

Deutrom insists Ireland's drive for Test status will head off this problem, and says the ECB "does as much as they have the time, effort and resources to do".

ICC encourages full members to support associates in their region, and the CI supremo says, "I think they take that pretty seriously". He points to the Ireland women's participation in the English county championship, the offer to the men to play in the YB40, and to "unseen support" in coach education and player development as evidence of good faith.

Deutrom is in Ireland long enough to know how a good host behaves, and he certainly won't be welcoming his guests with a broadside, but even he must bridle when he reads names like Overton and Briggs in the England squad, let alone Morgan and Rankin.

Tuesday's game is close to a sell-out and the Blarney Army will certainly out-sing its Barmy counterpart. On the field, with no shortage of motivation, the team in green will be hoping to do the same.

Ireland v England, Malahide,

Tuesday, 10.15

Sunday Independent

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