Sunday 21 January 2018

Hold the Back Page - Beating down barriers in cricket

George Dockrell
George Dockrell

Eamonn Sweeney

Nothing gets our goat in this country like the feeling we're being condescended to. But sometimes we do a pretty good job of condescending towards our own. Take for example the local reaction to the Irish cricket team's fantastic World Cup victories over Pakistan in 2007 and England in 2011.

All those eye-rolling protestations that we never even knew we had a cricket team were tiresome enough first time out and entirely cringe-worthy after the second victory. You'd have sworn the Irish cricketers were the equivalent of the Jamaican bobsleigh team in Cool Runnings, a unit whose very existence was enough to provoke theatrical levels of disbelief and hilarity.

The reality is that anyone who didn't know we had a national cricket team obviously didn't know much about Irish sport. The most interesting thing about the Irish cricketers, who begin their World Cup campaign against the West Indies at 10.0 our time tonight in the New Zealand city of Nelson, is not how unlikely their victories were, but how good they are.

Because since the last World Cup Ireland have done remarkably well to consolidate our position as the number one country outside the 10 full Test nations. In fact, in Twenty20 cricket we rank ahead of the bottom two Test nations, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, and aren't all that far behind England.

The competition between the Associate Nations has been pretty ferocious over the past four years with the likes of Afghanistan, Holland, the United Arab Emirates, Scotland, Kenya and Namibia all bidding for the top spot. But it is Ireland who go into this World Cup as holders of the Intercontinental Cup, the premier competition for Associate Nations, and its one-day equivalent the World Cricket League, both of which they won comprehensively. It is a fine achievement.

We are the best of the rest and would be in pole position if the International Cricket Council decided to increase the number of first-class nations. But here's the rub. While you'd imagine that the ICC would be delighted with the rise of Ireland and that of Afghanistan, who are coming on in leaps and bounds, the opposite seems to be the case.

Uniquely in world sport, the ICC apparently want to contract rather than expand the appeal of their game. Initially they tried to keep the Associate Nations out of this year's World Cup before being pressured to change their mind. They have, however, cut the number of teams in the next tournament from 14 to 10 in a pretty blatant effort to achieve the same result.

The situation beggars belief. One can only imagine, for example, how pleased the rugby authorities, who seem determined to get any country who can make a fist of playing the game at all into the World Cup, would be to have an emergent nation who've come on like Ireland have.

But it seems the better Ireland get the less the cricket establishment likes it. Since the last finals, that famous victory over England notwithstanding, Ireland has been granted just nine one-day matches against Test playing nations, a total which team captain William Porterfield described as "nothing really." In fact, Ireland had played more one-day internationals against the big countries going into the last World Cup.

And with the country's best batsman, Eoin Morgan, captaining England at the tournament and best bowler, Boyd Rankin, also having declared for England, it looks as though the cards are stacked against Ireland. Yet Cricket Ireland have sounded a commendably bullish note heading into the tournament with CEO Warren Deutrom declaring, "If we don't make it out of the group stage, we would regard that as a failure which therefore means being in the quarter-finals is our expectation. We would believe that if we don't do that we will have failed in our task. We've never had a better prepared team or a more talented squad or a side that has more caps going to a World Cup."

The order is a tall, or at least a tallish, one. Ireland's group contains the world's second- and third-ranked teams, India and South Africa, who realistically speaking should be far too strong for Ireland and everyone else in the group. Pakistan, ranked seventh, can be a bit vulnerable in the one-day game but have a fine record in the World Cup so the chances are tonight's match against the West Indies is the one which will make or break Ireland.

It's odd to think of the West Indies as a weak link given their one-time status as the Brazil of world cricket. Yet they have been in decline for the past couple of decades and haven't been beyond the last eight since 1996. It is 2002 since they won a Test series against one of the big five of Australia, England, India, Pakistan and South Africa and they are not much better at one-day level. Their decline, which may have something to do with the fact that the youngsters who might have emulated the fast bowlers of yore seem to have taken to the athletics track while soccer is also luring away promising performers, has been absolutely shocking. Ireland will have targeted this one from a long way out.

Yet while the gap between the major nations and the associates may have narrowed, it has not disappeared entirely. It was the West Indies who finished Ireland's quarter-final hopes at the last World Cup with a 44-run victory and the likes of Marlon Samuels, Andrew Russell and Chris Gayle are a cut above the kind of batsmen the Irish bowlers normally face.

On the other hand, the withdrawal of off spinner Sunil Narine, one of the best one-day bowlers in the game, is a huge blow to the West Indies and their morale may not be too high following a players' strike during their tour of India in October.

Ireland, meanwhile, should be feeling good about tonight's challenge after completing their warm-up with a very impressive win over Bangladesh. The strength of the team is its batting, Kevin O'Brien's 100 in 50 balls against England at the last World Cup remains the fastest in the history of the competition, Paul Stirling has five one-day centuries to his name at the age of 24, Ed Joyce, once capped for England, has a 46.76. average in his first-class career with Middlesex while William Porterfield is the country's all-time record scorer. And there are great things expected of Andrew Balbirnie who has not yet made the jump to English county cricket but showed his vast potential when posting an unbeaten 67 against Bangladesh on Wednesday.

It seems beyond doubt that Ireland will put up decent scores in the competition. The big question is whether they can be as effective on the bowling side. The loss of Rankin has been exacerbated by the withdrawal from the squad of experienced Middlesex seam bowler Tim Murtagh. Spinner George Dockrell, who's already topped a half century of wickets at the age of just 22, is a class act who should go well. Elsewhere, Ireland will be hoping someone rises to the occasion.

Perhaps it will be battling all-rounder John Mooney, who bounced back from depression to make the tournament and took three wickets against Bangladesh. Or perhaps one of the two promising but relatively inexperienced bowlers the selectors have gambled on, Peter Chase from Dublin or Craig Young from Derry, will work the oracle. It's hard to see Ireland bowling out top-class opposition so damage limitation may be the name of the game here. But if the bowlers can leave the batsmen in with a chance, Porterfield, Joyce and Co can take it.

It's a team well worth supporting and you'd hope the large Irish emigrant population in New Zealand and Australia will turn up in numbers to get behind it. The prominence of the great Trent Johnston in both striking the winning runs and being an inspirational captain in 2007 did have the effect of seeing the team caricatured in some quarters as a foreign enterprise. In fact, 10 of the 11 who played against Bangladesh the other day were born in Ireland, the exception being South African-born bowler Max Sorensen. They come from Dublin and Derry, Down, Antrim and Tyrone and they are on a mission to prove their point with such force that the ICC cannot continue to lock the door against them.

Their chances of doing so will be much clearer after this game. Time to burn the midnight oil and dream.

Wozniacki lands a blow for sexism

Remember Ian Cohen? He was the guy who, ohmigod I can hardly say this it's so terrible, asked Canadian tennis player Eugenie Bouchard to "give us a twirl," when he was interviewing her at the Australian Open. The horror, the horror.

All over the place the kind of people who'd usually parade their pristine liberalism by, for example, asking us not to condemn the murderers of the Charlie Hebdo staff out of hand but to consider their motivations, agreed that there was simply no excuse for what Ian Cohen had done. He was a sexist beast and that was that. Down, to coin a phrase, with this kind of thing.

It now turns out that Cohen's mistake was to have adopted the wrong approach. What he should have done was offered Bouchard a large sum of money to strip down to her underwear and pose for the camera. By and large, people would have been OK with that.

At least that's the conclusion you'd draw from the reaction to Caroline Wozniacki's decision to pose in a bikini in the annual celebration of Austin Powers-style dumb sexism which is the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Or rather the non-reaction. The mob who'd set off in pursuit of Ian Cohen left their torches at home on this one. An unknown broadcaster is a much easier target than someone granted immunity by virtue of being rich and famous.

Yet it's beyond dispute that, by posing like this, Wozniacki has contributed far more to the sexual objectification of female tennis players than Ian Cohen ever did. For all the pretentious drivel which surrounds them, the SI swimsuit shots are no different to those which adorn the brain dead lad mags. Wozniacki and other sportswomen who take the SI shilling seem notably lacking in solidarity with the female athletes who struggle for respect for what they do rather than what they look like.

It pisses me off too that a great magazine like Sports Illustrated only gets mentioned in the media here in connection with this annual feast of kitsch. As a subscriber, it's the one issue I stick straight in the bin. I have, after all, got daughters who will later in life have to deal with the sexist attitudes which are only cemented further by this kind of nonsense.

But you know what annoys me most of all? The hypocrisy of papers who, when they reproduce these shots, pretend this stems from some spirit of female solidarity, as though they're the fat black woman in the Jerry Springer audience shouting, "You go, girlfriend."

The Wozniacki shots, and similar ones of Cristiano Ronaldo's ex, we're told, "show him what he's missing." But Rory and Cristiano know already what they're missing because they saw it, and plenty more, many times. And they decided, as people of both sexes sometimes do, that they wanted to see something else instead. So Rory McIlroy isn't the one made to look stupid by these photographs.

You want to print girlie shots, print girlie shots. Just spare us the guff.

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