'If Test cricket wasn't there, I'd retire'
Twenty years after his Ireland debut, Ed Joyce is still soldiering on as the team's key batsman
Twenty years ago, when Irish sport was another country, a handful of young men were selected for their international debut. That happens every year, of course, and 1997 saw the usual mix of those who would be flash in the pans, solid servants and long-term legends.
Rugby's Denis Hickie and footballer Kevin Kilbane were the best-known debutants. And while they, and all the rest, have long fled to warm seats in the stands, one other sportsman is still making a mark on the field.
Next Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of Ed Joyce's first game for Ireland, and you'll struggle to find anyone to quibble that he is still their best player. He averaged 60 the last two seasons, and while he's dropped a bit this year as the whole team struggled, he has sparkled in the Hanley Energy Interprovincials.
"Twenty years," he sighs as he settles into the sofa at the end of an eight-hour shift for Ireland 'A'. "It was such a long time ago - more years than I was alive at the time. I'd just finished school.
"I hadn't scored many club runs, and even in underage I hadn't done much. I wasn't particularly strong, which counted against me in club cricket, but I had a good technique and that's why I was given a go."
Joyce (38) had been spotted early by Ireland's first national coach Mike Hendrick. "He wanted me in there. He'd coached the under 15s and under 19s so it wasn't a flash-in-the-pan selection. Irish cricket owes a lot to Hendo - he did a good job back when it wasn't easy. He was passionate and he cared."
His debut was against Scotland. "The game was at West Bromwich, a club ground, so it was very low-key. We didn't have any support staff, just Hendo, ICU secretary John Wright and scorer Murray Power. I can't believe it's 20 years - I looked up the scorecard today, trying to remember the team, and got eight. We just played the game and had a few beers."
The Irish team - ten amateurs led by ex-county pro Justin Benson - included Alan Lewis, whose own career was winding down.
"I remember Ed loping to the wicket the way he always does, never getting too flustered," Lewis recalls. "His opening shot was a clip off his legs, square for four . . . Gower-esque. He looked like he'd been there ten years."
With more than 700 games since, Joyce recalls few details of the day. "One thing I remember is that we should have won. I played well to make 60, but I faced 100 balls."
Two years later, he signed for Middlesex and began to bloom. His career has been well documented, with a desire to play Tests necessitating a switch of allegiance to England.
He now has 142 Irish caps, despite missing out on over 200 more from 2001-2011, when he played only five games. Even then, his efforts almost single-handedly drove Ireland to the 2007 World Cup that kick-started the sport's renaissance.
Despite being settled in Brighton, where he captained Sussex, home began to beckon two years ago.
"Fran and I didn't speak about it until after child number two, and then we just wanted to be around family," he explains. "It seemed feasible the way things were going here. I was feeling far more passion about playing for Ireland, so with first-class cricket coming I thought I could make a difference and maybe play a year or two.
"I didn't enjoy last year with Sussex much - I had a hip problem and a knee operation. I was sore all the time and it started to grate playing 14 four-day games and so many 50-over games. Ireland became very alluring."
His return coincided with elevation to full ICC membership and the tantalising chance to finally play the format that forced him to sacrifice a decade with Ireland.
"I'm still not sure whether I'm going to be playing after this year," he grins. "If Test cricket wasn't there I'd definitely finish at the end of this year. But it's a very good reason to keep going. It's 50/50 at the moment."
Joyce has been coaching the next generation, which also weighs on when he calls it a day. "At some stage we've got to get those guys in. I've loved playing for Leinster but part of me thinks, 'Would it be more beneficial to have Stephen Doheny in?' I'm playing well and can help Leinster win things, but I wonder if I'm doing the right thing.
"I'm not sure if coaching is going to be a career choice, or even an option. I've had sessions with Doheny, and with Jack Tector and Jamie Grassi, and I'd love to do more. Those three are brilliant listeners and really want to work. I get a lot out of working with those guys.
"I'm not surprised at the talent, but I am at their hunger: they are looking at Test cricket and see opportunities there to have careers. That wasn't on the table when I was a kid, so it is exciting for them.
"In the short to medium term I'd love to be involved with Ireland. I don't really want to be head coach of anything for a while - you live the ups and downs of winning and losing as a player so much, and head coaches live that too. I want to concentrate on something I know I can be good at: working with batsmen."
While no-one is talking about Joyce replacing John Bracewell when his contract runs out at the end of the year, that is surely a job he'd like at some stage?
"One of the biggest things I've learned is that timing is important. I'm a big fan of Bracer's, he's done a lot of really good things and it's been overshadowed by the fact that the team hasn't played well. He was outstanding in India where we were outplayed by a better team but there were lots of encouraging performances.
"A lot of his issues have come from the team being older and just not as good as we were. Losing Trent Johnston, John Mooney and Alex Cusack . . . all-rounders, grizzled performers. We have such a small talent pool."
With the side still struggling, are they in for a chastening start in Test cricket?
"I think it might happen," he reasons, "but I'm not particularly concerned. You have to be realistic: any team that comes into Test cricket, even some of those there now, are not competitive all the time.
"We've got to do it cleverly: there's no point playing multi-game series against top teams who are going to hammer us. One-off Tests, England at Lord's - great. Australia come and play us before the Ashes - brilliant. But most of our games will be low-key: Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, West Indies."
Lewis, now chairman of selectors, wants Joyce in the team for that first Test, saying: "He has already had a great impact, teaching youngsters about the mental side of the game. I hope he's going to be the Misbah ul-Haq of our team, guiding the young players."
So, who does Joyce see coming to the fore in the early days as a Test nation?
"There's a huge amount of talent: I've seen most of Jack Tector, who's got a great temperament and a very good technique. We've a very exciting crop of fast bowlers; we need someone to take on the mantle of Boyd Rankin, and Peter Chase is starting to look like he could do that. Then there's Craig Young, David Delany, Josh Little, Max Neville, Fionn Hand, Aaron Cawley . . . Grassi gives it a lash so we'll look to him in T20."
The downside of full membership is that county cricket is unlikely to be a career option for much longer.
"I don't see it as a huge problem," says Joyce, "but that depends on the quality of cricket and facilities we can give players here. England is the best place to learn - you play every day, on different pitches against different types of bowlers, brilliant training facilities . . . that's going to be very hard to replicate. The biggest thing we need here is grass nets you can go to any day of the week. We've been talking about it for a while now."
Joyce has settled back well into Dublin, but where does he see himself in five years?
"People have mentioned me getting into administration because they think I'm smart," he grins, "but that doesn't really turn me on. I still want to be in a tracksuit. But I've no idea what I'll be doing in five years - and I quite like not knowing."
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