Sunday 10 December 2017

Cricket's old order hit for six

John O'Brien

W HEN some people chose to get upset over Geoffrey Boycott's "you leprechauns" remark during the closing overs of Ireland's momentous victory in Bangalore on Wednesday, it was another depressing example of how the target is invariably missed when it comes to sporting relations between this country and her closest neighbour. Frankly, on the richter scale of Boycott pronouncements, this wasn't even sufficient to cause the merest tremor.

And from there, of course, it was no more than a gentle dink to mid-wicket before we reached familiar, well-trodden ground: accusations of self-indulgent paddywhackery bordering on Anglophobia as the tide of joy washed over the nation followed by predictable counter-claims that our cross-channel cousins were being a tad, you know, sensitive about it. As a colleague noted: "Always hard to rise above our harassed colonial history in such matters."

Much more telling, though, was Boycott's post-match assessment on BBC 5 live. After analysing England's weaknesses, the former England and Yorkshire batsman turned his attentions to Ireland. "That young left-arm spinner," he said. "What's his name?" "Dockrell," he was reminded. "Yeah, can't pronounce it," Boycott replied. "And that off-spinner who's going to play at Middlesex?" "Stirling," came the prompt. "Yeah him."

There are those who would say that this is just Boycott's way, a sort of haphazard, faintly-charming, Jack Charlton-like ineptitude when it comes to remembering names. How lame. Boycott had just sat through a match that had taken over seven hours to complete and yet, at the end, he still couldn't name two players who had played a key role in an historic victory. How more patronising can you get than that?

Nor was it just Boycott. Anyone who has followed Irish cricket closely will tell you that the patronising of the team by English commentators has been sustained and endemic for a number of years. One colleague has a clear memory of John Mooney being virtually ridiculed a couple of years back. And seeing Mooney strike the winning boundary on Wednesday, he said, made it all the sweeter.

Earlier when Andrew Strauss became England's first batting casualty, Boycott was unmoved. "Maybe it's not such a bad thing," he said, "because it gives someone else a chance to spend time in the middle." Later as Ireland languished on 111 for five, the Sky team urged England to finish them off to improve their net run rate. A few runs later, they were casually concluding that the 50-over game was too much for associated teams like Ireland.

Mark Nicholas was a persistent offender. Nicholas spent most of England's innings cooing over shots as if it was a Sunday stroll on the village green. "The name's Kevin Pietersen and the target is 100," he trilled when the England batsman blasted Mooney for six. Then when he departed on 59, Nicholas muttered incomprehensibly: "Pietersen doesn't want to let an ordinary fellow bowl, does he?" Whatever he meant, it clearly wasn't flattering to the bowler, Paul Stirling.

It had been a similar story when Ireland played Bangladesh the previous Friday. As Ireland attempted to chase down a total of 205, Kevin O'Brien had joined his brother, Niall, at the crease and, together, they set out to eat into the Bangladesh lead with impressive poise. As Kevin lashed a fine shot away to the boundary, one of the commentators on Sky couldn't help but be impressed. "This guy can bat," he said.

The way he said it made it clear O'Brien's ability had come as a revelation. It was as if the 2007 World Cup had never happened. As if O'Brien hadn't struck a fine 48 against Bangladesh during the Super Eights. Or smashed a brilliant 49 against New Zealand that included three sixes. Nothing suggested he would do what he did when he arrived at the crease on Wednesday but O'Brien was hardly an unknown quantity.

In South Africa last summer, Alan Shearer was rightly pilloried when he previewed a game between Algeria and Slovenia by saying, "Our knowledge of these two teams is limited." The subtext was it was beneath Shearer and his colleagues to conduct even rudimentary research into such inconsequential minnows. Sky and BBC are often lauded for their cricket coverage, yet in India they too have fallen prey to the same streak of laziness that blighted the football analysis last summer.

What makes this worth dwelling on is the strong suspicion that the lack of respect afforded Ireland in the commentary booths was a mirror image of the team's approach. Emboldened by their Ashes victory against a declining Australia, this England squad had been proclaimed as the 'golden generation' and they basked in the hype. It wasn't in their DNA to contemplate the notion of being turned over by Ireland, so they had little hope of guarding against complacency. Their arrogance was a death-sentence in waiting.

Had Andrew Strauss simply forgotten the day at Stormont in 2006 when a kid by the name of Kevin O'Brien, bowling his first ever ODI ball, took him out for four runs? Had England collectively forgotten the day two years later when Ireland restricted them to 203 at the same ground and came within two runs of a seismic victory? Still they didn't rate them. Not even slightly.

Clearly, Ireland have been feeding off their lowly status for years. Four years ago, the English media was critical of the number of foreigners in Ireland's squad and such blatant hypocrisy spurred them on. This time the controversial decision of the International Cricket Council to reduce the 2015 tournament from 14 to 10 teams has served as a key motivating factor. William Porterfield, Ireland's captain, confirmed as much after Wednesday's victory.

Of course, now that they have taken a huge scalp, the road ahead gets tougher. Teams will be slower to underestimate them, though such is the arrogance of the top cricket-playing nations, you wouldn't rule it out. Yet Ireland faced the same problem in 2007, how to push on and maximise the opportunity they had earned for themselves and not let it slip as might easily have happened.

That they didn't is a tribute to the players and to Warren Deutrom, the chief executive of Cricket Ireland, whose deft handling of the transition from the old amateur days to the bright new professional set-up should be set down as a blueprint that other sports would do well to follow. Bringing in Phil Simmons as coach was another masterstroke. Ireland can lose a talent like Eoin Morgan now and still have enough to compete.

The ICC would be better employed ushering teams like Ireland closer to Test status rather than pushing them further back down the hill. What was truly memorable about Wednesday wasn't the old-fashioned sense of getting one over on the old enemy, to use the most jaded of clichés, but watching Ireland strike a blow for the smaller nations, proving that the game could develop and be the richer for it.

As David 'Bumble' Lloyd put it: "The associate team there saying, 'Up yours!'" Well put except that Bumble didn't get it that Ireland weren't just flashing two fingers to the ICC, but to Bumble himself too, and all those happy to keep on patronising until, late in the day, Ireland finally managed to convince them they were there to win.

Sunday Indo Sport

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