| 16.1°C Dublin

Cricket's finest take centre stage

Awards ceremony highlights sport's rising popularity, writes Ger Siggins

PAUL Stirling and Clare Shillington took the International Player of the Year accolades at the inaugural Cricket Ireland RSA Awards in Dublin on Friday night.

The Aengus Fanning Award for Emerging Player was won by Stuart Thompson, the Limavady all-rounder who made an immediate impact when he broke into the Ireland team this year.

The Mansion House event saw the previously marginal sport show off all it had achieved as it moves towards its stated goal of becoming a Test nation by 2020.

Warren Deutrom, Cricket Ireland CEO, thanked the guests for joining with "the cricket family to celebrate the best in our sport", and went on to detail the various achievements by Irish sides in 2012, including how the Twenty20 side was ranked higher than Australia at one stage, albeit for just 48 hours. He also welcomed sports minister Michael Ring's assertion in March that "cricket is no longer a minority sport in Ireland."

Deutrom detailed the progress of the game through areas where it had disappeared since the 19th Century, and hailed the likes of Galway, Co Kerry and Ballaghaderreen who took part in the new RSA National Cup.

"Organised cricket is now played in 30 counties across the island of Ireland, with only Leitrim and Monaghan yet to be conquered. Who doubts that we will get there?"

He also paid tribute to the various organisations that had backed the Irish team, including major sponsor RSA, media partner the Sunday Independent, the sports councils and the various sponsors who backed the eight awards.

Anne Harris, editor of the Sunday Independent, introduced the award for Emerging Player by remembering Aengus Fanning's great passion for the sport.

"Cricket was his essence," she recalled. "It was not until he told me that the definition of winter was 'someone, somewhere on the sub-continent, hitting Vic Marks for six' that I realised cricket was an elemental life force, not just a sport."

Ms Harris talked about the Sunday Independent cricket dinner, the first annual awards scheme for the sport which ran for more than a decade.

"Aengus made it happen. Poets and politicians, many of whom knew nothing about cricket, sat alongside sportsmen and sponsors. Aengus plucked sponsors from the vasty deep.

"Aengus followed the careers of the players who won the Sunday Independent Cricketer of the Year award – Ed Joyce, Eoin Morgan and Niall and Kevin O'Brien – with the languid obsessiveness that he reserved for those who soared above the ordinary.

"It was on April 19 last year that we learned that he was facing a huge health challenge. It was the evening of the Sunday Independent cricket dinner and nothing in his demeanour indicated anything other than this was a night to celebrate cricket."

Aengus Fanning's three sons, Dion, Evan and Stephen, attended Friday night's awards as well as several of his friends and colleagues, among them Charles Lysaght and Godfrey Graham of the Sunday Independent Cricket Society.

Ms Harris presented the award to Stuart Thompson, who flew in from Newcastle where he is attending university. Thompson made great progress in 2012, starting off on the 'A' team, where he made a crucial 93 in their win over their Gloucestershire counterparts and took 4-56 against Kent. He also continued to impress for Somerset's 2nd XI.

Thompson made his full Ireland debut against Afghanistan in July when he took 3-51. More runs and wickets followed in the series against South Africa 'A' and he won a place in the squad for the ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka. Kevin O'Brien raved about Thompson's "dream season", and said he was "sure that 'Borat' will be in the Irish team for years to come."

Both Irish senior teams were there at close to full strength – although John Mooney's appearance was something of a cameo on the evening of his stag party. There were many stars of Ireland's cricketing past in attendance too, swapping tales of past deeds, including Brendan O'Brien, Conor Hoey, Ted Williamson, Gerry O'Brien, Peter O'Reilly, Stan Mitchell, Roy Torrens, Junior McBrine, Jeremy Bray, Frank Whelan, Matt Dwyer and Naseer Shaukat.

And although, by the standards of the last six years, it wasn't the greatest of seasons for Irish cricket, the governing body ensured the highlights were all celebrated. Even the rain that marinated much of the summer was written out of history and a six-minute video sparkled as six after six rained into grandstands from Dubai to Stormont to Colombo.

Paul Stirling was a popular winner of the International Player award, and in a witty exchange with MC Matt Cooper he promised he would spend the winter "trying to get off a bit of weight so I can actually run in our next game in March". Stirling pointed to winning his 100th cap as his personal highlight of 2012, but said he was glad to win the RSA award as he was fed-up watching George Dockrell collecting prizes. "It's nice to pip George, and it's good the award is going to a proper spinner," he quipped.

Clare Shillington was also in buoyant form as she collected her award, and she too said she had enjoyed winning her 100th cap in 2012. She dismissed coach Jeremy Bray's hope that she would collect 200 caps, insisting her only chance of doing so was to "buy them on eBay".

John Wills won coach of the year for leading The Hills to the Bob Kerr Irish Senior Cup for the first time, and Aideen Rice was named Volunteer of the Year for her work in reinvigorating YMCA's junior section. Merrion's highly promising all-rounder Tyrone Kane won the Junior Player award, and Johnny Thompson (Brigade) was named Club Player of the Year.

The Club of the Year prize went to the Co Tyrone village of Donemana, which won four trophies in the North-West and has an enviable record as producer of talent. Captain Richard Kee won the biggest cheer of the night for revealing the secret of his club's success: "There's no point trying to coach players. They're either good or they're not – fact!"

Sunday Indo Sport