THE RISE OF THE DARK HORSES – THE IRISH CRICKET TEAM

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Everybody knows cricket is one of the most popular sports in the world, after hockey and football. In today’s world, cricket has become so popular in non-cricketing countries that the popular global sport has been followed everywhere and everytime, even if it is a club match or a high profile match. Well, judging that current scenario, cricket has now started making its appearance in other countries along with the 10 ICC(International Cricket Council) Full Member Teams – India, Australia, South Africa, England, West Indies, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Zimbabwe.

The ICC, with its headquarters at Dubai, United Arab Emirates has designated each and every country coming forward to promote the well-renowned sport in each and every continent. They have also set up regions affiliated to ICC, known as the ICC Development Regions. The cricket giant currently holds a membership of 107 countries, equally divided into six development regions – North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia and the Trans-Pacific. There are 10 full members, 60 affiliate members and 37 associate members.

According to the ICC’s Laws of Cricket rule, a full member of ICC denotes that the sport has been well established, along with new and sprawling cricket grounds and recognition of club cricket leagues. A country then gets the Test status, alongside ODI(One-Day International) status. An associate member of ICC implies that the sport has been firmly established in a country, but it has not yet covered further rules of the ICC. The sport body can or cannot grant ODI status as per their wishes, but cannot give Test status as yet. An affiliate member, as the name suggests, means that the country has got the recognition from playing club cricket leagues and have not yet played international matches.

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Well known non-cricketing countries like Afghanistan, Nepal, UAE and Hong Kong from Asia, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Fiji Islands from Trans-Pacific, Kenya, Namibia, Egypt and Zambia from Africa and Ireland, Scotland and Netherlands from Europe have made their countries proud by striding forward in the gentleman’s game, winning every matches they play comprehensively. However, associate countries like Afghanistan, Nepal, Kenya, Namibia, Ireland, Scotland, Netherlands and Papua New Guinea have failed to gain the winning momentum, when they play against full member nations of the ICC. But, there are some interesting exceptions.

Kenya were really exceptional during the World Cup in 2003, held jointly by South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya. They even shocked powerhouses New Zealand and Sri Lanka in the group stages before losing the battle against India in the semifinals. Scotland and Netherlands both recorded their first victories against England and Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup and winning against other teams once in the 2007 and 2011 editions. The Netherlands once again shocked England in the 2012 ICC World Twenty-20, that was held in Sri Lanka.

Now, finally I come to the main gist of the article after explaining about ICC and its structure in brief. International sporting events need surprises and underdog stories to keep them interesting. And the Irish national cricket team chose to provide it in a different manner. They were, in no uncertain terms, the favourite amongst the neutrals, and amongst the associate countries. Also, they were the only team that showed that they belonged in a global competition of elites. Their performances were an impassionate plea against the ICC’s decision to cull the number of nations playing the World Cup 2019, to be held in UK after this year’s World Cup, which is underway in Australia and New Zealand.

Ireland continues to inspire and bring everyone into attention, as a result of their stupendous performances, since the ICC upgraded the country from affiliate to associate member in 1993. Cricket in Ireland was not a very popular sport initially, though it was established long time back. It even ranks quite low on any list of Irish hobbies, preceded by association football, rugby, basketball and even golf. Having been a team of amateurs for a while now, Ireland, for the first time in their history, came into the competition with a talented bunch of professionals, with many of them playing in professional leagues and county cricket just across the Irish Sea in England.

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Things are changing drastically for Ireland, and its proof was evident in some of the most exciting cricket they have ever played. Building on where they had left off, in the 2007 World Cup, they defeated Pakistan for the very first time and in such a way, that it led to a sudden demise of Pakistan’s national coach, Bob Woolmer. Certainly, they proceeded to the super eights round, but lost out all their remaining matches. It was a great courage by this small country that they almost pushed every opponent team to fight till the very end.

Cricket Ireland, officially the Irish Cricket Union, is the governing body for cricket in Ireland(both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland), and oversees the Ireland men’s cricket team and the Ireland women’s cricket team. The Union also organises the premier club cricket competition in Ireland, the Irish Senior Cup. Generally speaking, the women’s team have played more matches and won more matches, than their male counterparts. Due to their grand success, they were granted Test status in 2001.

An Irish Cricket Union(ICU) was formed in 1890, though its only function was to select an Irish international cricket team for playing only away games. The Irish Cricket Union was officially founded in 1923, and is made up of five provincial unions, namely the Leinster Cricket Union, the Munster Cricket Union, the Northern Cricket Union, the Connaught Cricket Union and the North West Cricket Union. Its powers initially were strictly limited and it was reconstituted in 1933, with greater autonomy. In common with a number of other Irish sporting governing bodies, the Union represents all of Ireland, rather than just the Republic of Ireland. In common with other sports, the Union therefore does not use the Irish tricolor, but instead employs its own flag.

Cricket was introduced to Ireland by the British in the towns of Kilkenny and Ballinasloe in the early 19th century. In the 1830s, many of the clubs which were founded by them are still in existence today. Of course, the game of cricket was played and first introduced by the British in other countries, that were under the British Empire. The first Irish national team played in 1855 against the English national team in Dublin, where they lost. In the 1850s, an Englishman Charles Lawrence was responsible for developing the game in Ireland through his coaching. In the 1850s and 1860s, Ireland was visited for the first time by touring professional teams. Ireland’s first match against Marylebone Cricket Club was held in 1858, a match where they won comfortably for the very first time.

The game increased in popularity until the early 1880s. Two issues then affected the popularity of cricket and cricketers in Ireland. The first was the outbreak of the Anglo-Irish Land Wars, resulting from the mistreatment of tenants by absentee landlords, when landlord and tenant were alienated. The second was a ban placed on the playing of ‘foreign’ games by the Gaelic Athletic Association, which was not lifted until 1970 by the Irish Government.

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Anyone playing foreign games such as cricket would be banned from the extremely popular Irish games of hurling and Gaelic football, as it was popularly referred to as a ‘garrison game’ enjoyed primarily by the occupying British forces and the landowning protestant oligarchy they protected. Irish teams toured Canada and the USA in 1879, 1888, 1892 and 1909. On top of this, Ireland defeated a touring South African side in 1904. Their first match with first-class status was played on May 19, 1902 against a London County side, including the great W.G. Grace. The Irish, captained by Sir Tim O’Brien, lost the match convincingly by a whopping margin of 238 runs.

Reflecting the rising popularity of the game in Ireland, Cricket Ireland committed to developing the grassroots of the sport over the next four years. New plans were unveiled to provide a significant boost to the domestic game with a series of initiatives designed to strengthen the game on the island and help achieve the ambitious target of 50,000 participants by the end of 2015. The initiatives taken are:-

  • The ‘Get into Cricket Scheme‘ is a major new programme targeting schools and cricket clubs encouraging six to twelve-year olds to take up the game of cricket for the first time.
  • ‘The National Cup’ is a new domestic National Club competition for clubs not already competing in the Bob Kerr Irish Senior Cup. This provides 32 new clubs with the chance to compete for an All-Ireland title and the opportunity to play cricket outside of their local area.
  • The ‘Better Clubs Initiative’ is an innovative programme supporting local cricket clubs across the country to improve their facilities. This programme is a volunteering initiative aimed at encouraging local cricket supporters, their friends and families to undertake work to improve the facilities at their local club houses and grounds.
  • ‘The Cricket Ireland National Awards’ is a major awards event recognising players, coaches, volunteers, groundsmen, officials and clubs for the contribution they make to the cricket sport in Ireland. This will be an annual event that commenced in 2012.
  • The establishment of a ‘Regional Academies’ is to develop and foster the young talent from the ages of 15 to 19 and ensuring a pipeline of players playing for the international team.
  • The relaunch of the ‘Inter-Pro Series’ as a precursor to setting up a first class domestic playing infrastructure in Ireland.

There are three international cricket venues in Ireland that have been approved by the ICC to host international cricket matches. The first one, the Castle Avenue in Dublin, hosted a match in the 1999 Cricket World Cup between Bangladesh and West Indies. The second ground, the Civil Service Cricket Club Ground in Belfast, hosted Ireland’s first ODI in 2006 versus Scotland. The Malahide Cricket Club Ground is the biggest ground in Ireland, with a maximum capacity of 15,000 seats.

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The Irish cricket team made it to the front page of all Irish and English newspapers and of course, all newspapers in every cricket loving nation, with one of the most exciting comebacks and upsets in the modern cricketing history. Kevin O’Brien, the 27 year-old all rounder, chose the match against big brothers England to play the greatest knock of his life. It was a knock so spectacular that he might just end up spending the rest of his career living up to it. His magnificent 113 helped the team to score a daunting target of 327 runs and won the nail-biting match with three wickets to spare, at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, India.

Ireland has been a feeder country to England. Lack of infrastructure, money and opportunities has often led to good cricketers seeking greener pastures in the county cricket of England, followed by a chance to play in the English national team with a regular contract. Gavin Hamilton of Scotland did so in the last decade, and so did Ed Joyce of Ireland some years ago. But now, Ed Joyce is now back in the Irish cricket team.

Irish players Boyd Rankin and George Dockrell are under the scanner of the ECB(England & Wales Cricket Board) at the moment, while the very Irishman Eoin Morgan is in the English national cricket team, ironically after playing a major role in getting Ireland into the 2007 World Cup. For many of the Irish cricketers, England is where they eventually gravitate, not because they wish to but because they have to. Opportunities and the realistic need to play on a larger scale trump minor concerns of loyalty. Kevin O’Brien is the both leading run-scorer and leading wicket-taker for Ireland. Paul Stirling’s 177 is the highest individual score against Canada in 2012. More importantly, Ed Joyce’s score of unbeaten 114 is the highest individual score against a full member team, Pakistan in 2013. Kevin O’Brien’s 113 is also the second highest individual score against England in 2011.

The rapidly growing popularity of cricket in Ireland is showing no signs of slowing down, with junior participation numbers more than doubling in the last six to seven years. After Ireland’s dramatic win against Pakistan in 2007, a number of measures have been taken to strengthen the sport’s infrastructure all over the country. According to the Cricket Ireland’s website, there was a strong growth recorded throughout all categories in the survey undertaken by ICC, with the overall participation figure for cricket standing at 40,414 in 2014, up from 25,170 in 2011, which is an increase of about 70 percent. There has also been a 30 percent increase in the number of active coaches in Ireland, increasing from 910 to 1175 of them.

In a further sign of the game’s increasing popularity throughout Ireland, the number of teams playing the sport increased from 895 to 1056 competitive teams. There has been an incredible expansion in the number of junior teams across Ireland, while adult team growth has also been strong in the Connaught and Munster county areas, where the game has enjoyed a surge in interest following Ireland’s exploits on the world stage. The Cricket Ireland Development’s mantra is “Cricket For All”, and its team have worked tirelessly to promote the game throughout all the regions, with these results and the testament to the excellent work being carried out.

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The expansion in development work has been made possible thanks to additional funding and support received from ICC Europe Development Region and official Cricket Ireland’s sponsor RSA. Also, the RSA’s “Get into Cricket” initiative has proved incredibly popular at grassroots level throughout the country, and the programme has proven extremely effective at getting youngsters involved in the sport for the first time.

In Leinster, the development team has been instrumental in projects working with the disabled, while the Leprechaun Cup competition for primary schools has grown into one of the most successful youth competitions in Ireland, with over 53 schools taking part in 2012. In Munster, there is a renewed appetite for the sport, with new projects involving 17 new schools in Clare, Limerick and Tipperary, and the first ever national schools mini-tournaments in Midleton, Waterford and Thurles being particular highlights.

The Northern Cricket Union’s development efforts to involve young women in the game has seen the formation of an Under-17 Inter-Regional squad for the first time, while the North West has promoted the game in non-traditional areas. St Columb’s College, the alma mater of three Nobel Prize winners on Derry’s West Bank, has seen the college entering the Schools’ Cup for the first time in their recent history. The development team has also been instrumental in helping new clubs in Maghera and Enniskillen find their feet too.

National Development Manager Tim Simmonite appreciated the measures of the Cricket Ireland and thanked them for their outstanding work which has been carried out across Ireland by the Development Team. Their passion and commitment to growing the game is clearly evident, and these superb figures are evidence of the that. He also gave enormous credit to the Provincial Unions and the constituent cricket clubs who have embraced the continuing changes in the game and have delivered high standards on the ground.

Warren Deutrom, the chief executive of the Cricket Ireland, has stated that it wants to seek actively to place Irish players into top-level cricket, by developing relationships with county cricket clubs of both Ireland and England, which will incorporate appropriate player release for their Irish international duties and feeder systems for developing Irish cricketers. The governing council sought closer links with the English county teams, encourage the development of age group cricket, and to introduce a professional element into the Irish game. They also want to take the Ireland cricket team on winter tours more often.

In 2013, Cricket Ireland set out a bold vision for the future of the game in the country. Deutrom outlined the ambition as he unveiled the new strategic plan for Irish Cricket. The plan sets out a series of stretching goals including increasing the number of participants in the game to 50,000, setting a target of reaching 8th in the ICC World Rankings, establishing a domestic first-class cricket structure and reinforcing cricket as the 4th major team sport in Ireland, all by 2016.

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Deutrom mentioned that ICU’s clear long ambition is to become a full member nation of the ICC by 2020. He also added that it was not a dreamy aspiration, but a real ambition founded on the playing talent being developed everywhere in the country, the growing passion and profile of the game, a sustained and proven track record of achievement on and off the field and a clear roadmap set out by the ICU for fulfilling its objectives. Phil Simmons, the coach of Ireland, extended his third contract for three more years, after taking the reins in 2007. Reflecting on the decision for extending the contract, Simmons said that he has enjoyed every minute of his involvement with the Irish cricket and have achieved great things, with more good things to come.

As an additional boost, Cricket Ireland also announced that they have offered 23 contracts to players for the 2015 ICC World Cup, which is a record number of player contracts. The contracts include 12 first-choice senior squad players on category A and B contracts plus an additional 11 players on category C contracts. Simmons added that a key part of cricket’s success to date has been the move to professionalism. With a plethora of players on full or part time contracts, it now has a structure supporting the senior squad as well as succession planning to make sure that the body can maintain the competitiveness on the international stage. The full list of player contract awards are given as follows:-

Category A: Alex Cusack, Trent Johnston, John Mooney and Kevin O’Brien.

Category B:  William Porterfield, George Dockrell, Ed Joyce, Niall O’Brien, Boyd Rankin, Paul Stirling, Andrew White and Gary Wilson.

Category C: Andrew Balbirnie, Peter Connell, Tom Fisher, Shane Getkate, Nigel Jones, Rory McCann, Andrew Poynter, James Shannon, Max Sorensen, Stuart Thompson and Albert van der Merwe.

Lastly, it is hoped that the ICC will recognize the leaps that the Irish cricket has taken and ensure that it all does not fade away like the former giant-killers Kenya and Zimbabwe. Globally, cricket fans like us can only hope that we get to see some fresh and exciting countries playing in regular ODIs and T20s matches. Ten nations playing each other all through the year does lose its sheen after a lifetime of watching the game. It will push the TRPs(Television Rating Points) of all cricket channels if we see a taste of a new team taking on an old team and fighting for its glory and pride.

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