Saturday 23 November 2019

More a journey than an arrival

Buoyant after beating England, Ireland are ready to challenge cricket's world order, writes Gerard Siggins

BETWEEN innings at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, the English team relaxed and began planning their night ahead. They ordered up three cases of the local beer for the post-match party and walked out onto the field to complete the job of subduing Ireland. Four hours later, they slunk out of their dressing room as soon as they could and headed off into the night.

A smash-and-grab raid brought the crates of chilled Kingfisher into the Irish changing room. Never can pilfered beer have tasted so sweet.

The Irish people have had a strange relationship with cricket. The game first took root more than 200 years ago and it was the most popular sport in the land in the decades before the GAA was founded. After that it went into steady decline and, it's safe to say, was the most despised of the garrison games by the hardliners.

But television has opened many people's eyes to the thrills and magic of the sport, just as the national team started to make its presence felt on the world stage.

Four years ago, Ireland shocked tournament favourites Pakistan and continued to impress as they progressed to the last-eight stage. Now, with the structure of the event rigged to guard against such irritants to the game's powers, Ireland are again threatening to upset the mango cart.

What happened here in Bangalore on Wednesday night was one of those moments where sport leaps beyond its boundaries and captivates a nation. Or in that case, at least two nations. The Indians were just as delighted as the Irish, a nation it feels great affinity and affection to. If I had a rupee for every time I was told how they based their flag on the Irish tricolour, then I could probably afford to buy a house here.

And if our export board were on the ball, they would be out here drumming up business pronto. The Indian economy has grown by at least eight per cent per annum for five years and the country's rapidly-expanding middle class has a taste for quality western food and drink.

Cricket unites this vast nation more than anything, and India's star players are used to sell every product imaginable. Eighty per cent of TV and billboard adverts feature the faces of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag or MS Dhoni.

A 50-foot tall poster of Sachin gazed down at the Irish team bus as it pulled into the stadium on Wednesday. It was two and a half hours before play began and there was a remarkable absence of nerves as the players joked and chatted. The team -- the first time Ireland had fielded 11 full-time professional cricketers -- were primed for action.

They lined up arm in arm in the dressing room for coach Phil Simmons' pre-match speech. A quiet, modest man, Simmons told them they were ready, that all the work was done. The last act was a spirited chorus of Ireland's Call.

Disaster struck before a ball was bowled, however. Jogging gently around the field during practice, Andre Botha felt a twinge in his groin which rapidly worsened. "It was terrible," he recalled later that night, "But I had to pull out".

It is a measure of how much Ireland have progressed that they were able to call up Gary Wilson, who is a regular on the star-studded Surrey side in England.

Just as against Bangladesh, Ireland's bowlers were quickly on the rack. The English top four batsmen are in prime form and all made a contribution, even if Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen threw their wickets away. But the Irish bowlers stuck to their task well and ensured that a target that looked at one stage to be approaching 400 was a more manageable 328.

The Irish dressing room was a little subdued. "Yeah, you have to believe in yourself," said Niall O'Brien, "but when you look up at the screen and see 328 you know you are struggling."

There was more struggling moments later when Ireland captain William Porterfield was out off the first ball of the innings. O'Brien was in the lavatory and had to scramble to get on his kit and pads in case he were needed as next man in.

The Irish fans responded to this crisis by increasing the volume. There were fewer than 200 in the stadium, but they made a fair amount of noise. The Indians were keen to see superstars such as Strauss and Pietersen do well, but quickly changed loyalties when Ireland began to play aggressively.

The outrageously talented Paul Stirling took the attack to England, scoring his first runs with a hook for six off Stuart Broad. The Belfast 20-year-old, whose father Brian was a top international rugby referee, has a dynamic approach to batting which could see him match Kevin O'Brien's greatest innings.

Even though Irish batsmen came and went regularly, the scoreboard was ticking over rapidly. "We can't just push the ball back," Ed Joyce told Niall O'Brien when the latter came to the wicket. "We've got to be aggressive." England had set a rate of more than six and a half runs per over, but Ireland had little problem keeping it within sight. Even when Graeme Swann ran through the middle order with three wickets in 13 balls, Ireland remained positive.

Kevin O'Brien knows no other way to play. He will never die wondering. "Phil has given me licence to play my shots, which is great. I love hitting the ball hard and high. That's how cricket should be played."

Before Swann's next over, he rested on his bat and chatted with Alex Cusack. Although Swann, the world's number one spinner, had had a good day -- and had just two overs left to bowl -- O'Brien reckoned he could take him apart. He faced three balls from Swann, two of which were dumped into the cheap seats where the Indian fans were now firmly rooting for Ireland. That brought O'Brien to 25, a satisfactory day's work if it were to end then. Ultra-aggressive batting like that rarely pays big dividends. A quick 20 is the usual result before the bowlers find a weak spot or a gap is plugged in the field. "I've seen Kevvy do that two or three times, but he would usually get out for 50 or 60," explained brother Niall.

But on he went, and on again. It was the most sustained display of hitting ever seen in a World Cup. At one stage during the brutal assault, Ashes hero James Anderson bowled a sharp ball that cut back and forced O'Brien to defend hurriedly.

"Good ball, Jimmy," said O'Brien.

Anderson's face darkened: "What would you know what a good ball is?" he snapped.

"Well, I mightn't know what a good ball is," grinned O'Brien, "but I know a bad one. I just hit your last one over there" as he pointed his bat towards the grandstand.

Cusack played a vital role alongside O'Brien, giving the younger man the strike as much as possible but hitting bad balls to the fence as he racked up a rapid 47.

Back in the dressing room the Irish were rooted. Cricketers are superstitious about moving one's seat, believing it leads to a wicket. "We couldn't move a muscle," one player told the Sunday Independent. "If you needed to use the jacks you had to wait till the official drinks break. It was torture."

Cusack's dismissal could have been disastrous -- wickets have a habit of falling in clusters as the new men let nerves get the better of them. But John Mooney's innings was a gem, one of the greatest he has ever played. He was nerveless, never fazed by a succession of scoreless balls when another man might have swung impatiently. When O'Brien passed his 100, Mooney took up the lead and hit a sparkling series of drives and brutal pulls.

O'Brien fell within sight of the end, allowing him to take the ovation that emptied every seat in the stadium. "O'Brien was sensational," former Indian star Ravi Shastri said. "He did something which the best of teams and players had never managed, even against the minnows."

Mooney kept up the pressure and was joined by Trent Johnston, who hit his first ball for four. It was that moment when everyone knew it was game over. Johnston and Mooney are the two shining successes of Cricket Ireland's policy of putting players on full-time contracts. They can now rest, practise and play without distraction or fear of alienating employers.

Porterfield hailed their new professionalism: "It does add to the pressure to perform, but also brings a lot of confidence. You are given the opportunities to improve as a cricketer and raise the benchmark. You start believing in yourself."

The scheme would not be possible without the help of sponsors RSA, who have been backing the Irish team for three years now after CEO and cricket nut Philip Smith saw their potential. Ireland's first game with the RSA logo on its shirt was televised live on Sky Sports and the worldwide company's chief executive happened to spot it as he flicked through the channels in London. A quick "what on earth is going on" call to Smith was smoothed over as the Irishman assured his boss of the value of the deal. The same chief executive rang Bangalore in delight on Thursday, and Philip Smith's stroke has seen him dubbed the 'Arnold O'Byrne of cricket'.

There were still another five balls to be bowled when Mooney drilled the ball over the rope to seal the victory. He hurled his bat as high as the grandstand and the stars twinkled back at him.

He was submerged by team-mates and support staff as the fans danced and hugged in the stands. There were enough tears to flood the Ganges as Ireland's cricket community celebrated its finest hour. On the bus back to the hotel, the Irish team sang their songs once again, and taunted their opponents with "Are you Scotland in disguise?"

When Strauss walked through the lobby he received a rendition of 'Happy Birthday' before, with a shrug, he decided that if-you-can't-beat-them . . . and joined his conquerors for a pint.

It was only in 2006 that England granted Ireland a first international fixture, although they have been supportive in other ways. Ireland have come close once or twice, improving all the time. The cricket authorities have ambitious plans and the talent continues to flow.

Wednesday wasn't the end of a long road, rather it could be the start of something very special.

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