'I don't have to look back very far to when we were a shambles'
This week’s ODI series against England is the culmination of a long journey for Irish cricket, writes Jonathan Liew
Ed Joyce sighs at the memory. The year was 2001, and Joyce was a promising Middlesex batsman looking to help his country qualify for the 2003 World Cup at the International Cricket Council Trophy in Canada. But things were going badly.
"We had two or three injuries," Joyce remembers. "One of our players was sent home for fighting the coach. So we only had 11 players left for our last game."
And so it was that Ireland's 12th man for their final group game was a journalist called James Fitzgerald, who happened to be in Canada working for the ICC. "We were the very opposite of a professional set-up," Joyce says. "Whenever we have a bad day playing for Ireland, I don't have to look back very far to when we were a bit of a shambles."
If you had told Joyce that 16 years later, he would be stepping out at Lord's to play a full one-day international against England, he would probably have laughed you out of the room. But that is what he will do on Sunday: the culmination of a long and unlikely journey on which Irish cricket has risen from the ranks of the amateur also-rans to claim a seat at the very top table.
For England, this week's two-match series at Bristol and Lord's will be little more than a handy tune-up ahead of this summer's Champions Trophy.
For Ireland, it is vastly more significant. It represents progress.
Recognition. Vindication. The gap in reputations and expectations has certainly not dampened ticket sales: both games are close to being sold out.
"It's going to be a very proud day for all of us," says all-rounder Kevin O'Brien. "It's a great achievement for the team, for the organisation. But we've got a job to do."
The story of Irish cricket is one of rise and fall, and rise again, and perhaps one day even fall again. It is a game whose principal means of transmission has not been the school or the television, but the family unit: Joyce is one of five siblings, male and female, who have played for Ireland at cricket. O'Brien's brother Niall and father Brendan have also represented their country.
Cricket has a long and cherished history in pockets of the island - Bready, Clontarf, Malahide - yet has barely pierced the consciousness in others.
"There are pockets of the country where it's entrenched," Joyce says. "North County Dublin, where a lot of the English garrison towns were: those cricket clubs are now part of the fabric of those towns. But where I grew up in Bray (just south of Dublin), very few other people played cricket.
"You didn't even tell many people you played. It was hugely strange to a lot of my friends. They all wondered where I disappeared to during the summer."
Joyce went on to play for Middlesex and Sussex, and was the first Irishman of his generation to make a living from the game. But, in many ways, he came to encapsulate one of the major obstacles to Ireland's cricket development. Like all promising cricketers, Joyce dreamed of playing Test cricket. So by the time Ireland qualified for the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies, he was playing for England.
In his absence, Ireland announced their arrival on the global stage in style. Unbelievably, they tied with Zimbabwe and then beat Pakistan to qualify for the last eight. "It was the birth of Irish cricket," remembers O'Brien, then just 22. "I remember (captain) Trent Johnston's speech during half-time of the Pakistan game. He just said: 'Do you want to go back to your day jobs? There's 132 runs on the board. Let's stay here for an extra four weeks.' "
The man charged with building on the success, Cricket Ireland chief executive Warren Deutrom, soon found that it was going to be a tougher job than he had imagined.
"I used to say I was the chief and only executive," he says. "I was the only full-time administrator. There was a part-time PA, and a full-time coach. We had about 11,000 cricketers, although we didn't really have the resources to count them in any meaningful way. Turnover was about €260,000. We had one sponsor. It was rudimentary, to say the least."
What Ireland did have was a golden generation of talent. Defections continued to sting; Eoin Morgan and later Boyd Rankin would later follow Joyce in choosing England. But in the O'Brien brothers, Johnston, William Porterfield, Paul Stirling, Gary Wilson and Alex Cusack, Ireland had a team who could compete with the very best. At the 2011 World Cup, they pulled off one of the sport's greatest shocks, beating England by three wickets, with O'Brien scoring the tournament's fastest-ever century.
"After that, cricket really got a boost in Ireland," O'Brien says. "It was a bit surreal. I remember being stuck at traffic lights. A taxi driver got out and knocked on the window and said, 'Well played'."
But Ireland's long road to recognition has not always been paved with good intentions. The reduction of the World Cup to 10 teams from 2019 has dealt them a grievous blow, and for years their ambitions of Test cricket have been thwarted by the ICC.
Meanwhile, the golden generation are beginning to leave the stage.
Results have turned for the worse in the past two years, with defeats by Afghanistan, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea. Test status is finally on the horizon in 2018, but ironically Ireland's greatest moment may come at its weakest point.
"From 2009 to 2015 was the pinnacle of the squad," says O'Brien. "We've had a lot of retirements, but the future's bright. We've always produced very good cricketers. We've just got to keep pushing forward on and off the pitch."
It is off the pitch where Ireland continue to make the greatest strides. A new academy and a domestic provincial tournament with first-class status should help to bridge the gulf between recreational and international cricket. "The step up from club to country was just becoming gargantuan," Deutrom says.
And for all the tribulations on the field, Irish cricket has cast off its amateur days for good. Deutrom's goal is to establish cricket as one of the big four sports, along with football, rugby and Gaelic sport.
"If you compare the numbers I gave you earlier," Deutrom says, "we now have 30 members of staff, about 53,000 players, 19 contracted cricketers and a turnover of about €6m. It's been exponential growth."
For Joyce, who has been on the whole journey, the main legacy is that a sport once derided as a pursuit for "West Brits" is now part of the national conversation. Walking out at Lord's in Ireland colours may not be the end of the journey. But it may well mark the end of the beginning.
"Cricket is now accepted as a mainstream sport," he says. "Kids walk around with cricket bats. And nobody looks at them sideways." (© Daily Telegraph, London)