Wednesday 17 July 2019

Balbirnie swaps walkie-talkie for centre-stage on return to Lord's

Paul Stirling (back row), Andy Balbirnie (middle and Tim Murtagh (front) pictured at Lord’s as part of the Middlesex team in 2014. Photo: PA Images via Getty Images
Paul Stirling (back row), Andy Balbirnie (middle and Tim Murtagh (front) pictured at Lord’s as part of the Middlesex team in 2014. Photo: PA Images via Getty Images

Ger Siggins

Lord's Ground is less than a mile from Kilburn, long a centre of the Irish population in London. It's a place where you often hear voices of people from Ireland who've found work as pressbox attendants or on the catering or ground staff. There's also a long tradition of Irish cricketers playing there, as MCC Young Cricketers - the game's apprenticeship scheme - or with Middlesex, the 33rd county of Ireland.

Andrew Balbirnie did both, first arriving in 2010 when he stayed at a hostel in Hampstead and travelled to Lord's on the bus every day.

"Working around Lord's for a summer you can't fail to appreciate the place. You get to know the people who worked there, like Mick Hunt the head groundsman whose wife is from Wexford," recalls Balbirnie. "You can see how much the place means to the staff. You got to know a lot of the spectators, too. They are interesting unique people - they'd clap you if you got a first baller or 150.

"The YC's would act as net bowlers before the internationals, but my main duty for both test matches in 2010 was being stationed in the pavilion on a walkie-talkie, checking who was in next and relaying that to the PA guy.

"Bangladesh were playing and I hadn't a clue who any of them were. I had to go into the dressing room a few times to ask. I got it wrong once, and the really posh announcer had to stop and say, 'Oh no, that's not him,' so I got a bit of grief.

"The second game was the Mohammed Amir spot-fixing game - when we got in the police were everywhere, which was a surreal experience."

Balbirnie went on to play several games for Middlesex.

"There were a lot of Irish players there at the time - Morgan, Stirling, Murtagh. One of my first memories of going into the dressing room to do 12th man was seeing Eoin Morgan sitting in the corner reading the Irish Independent and drinking a can of Guinness after play."

Ed Joyce played with Middlesex for a decade from 1999, and admits it took him a long time to feel at home at Lord's, especially in its majestic Victorian pavilion. "But the more comfortable I got there, the more I felt able to wander around," he says. "It's surprisingly big - I've got lost a few times."

When a batsman is out, the next man in has to walk down two flights of stairs from the dressing room to the Long Room, where hundreds of members gather to watch the game.

"Walking out to bat through the Long Room on a busy day can be a bit of a gauntlet," says Joyce, "especially as they're all staring at you".

Like Balbirnie - and team-mates William Porterfield and Gary Wilson - Kevin O'Brien was a YC, spending two summers in St John's Wood.

"There's an aura about the place you get as soon as you walk through the North Gate. Immediately you feel you're somewhere special. It's like the Augusta of cricket, with more history."

He too loves the atmosphere of the Long Room.

"It gives you goosebumps," he says, "like you'd usually get at the end of a big innings. You think about the great players who have taken the same steps.

"I've played there four or five times, and I'm really looking forward to the famous teas!"

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