The rise, fall, and resurrection of Irish Cricket

You may have seen a slightly contrived ECB video doing the rounds of the comedian Dara Ó Briain commentating on footage of Ireland v England from 2013.  “Let’s cricket this!” he says, as it begins. Then, as William Porterfield harmlessly leaves a ball from Steven Finn: “Yep, that’s cricket in a nutshell.” 

Ó Briain’s accent may be Irish, but the overall message confused Celt struggles to understand the basics of the most English of sports ‒ is decidedly imperial: My dear old things, what japes! Isn’t it just so delightfully kooky to be playing the Irish at cricket… or should that be craic-it! Whatever next! The hun at rugger? The yanks at croquet?

It’s a message that doesn’t do Ireland justice. They have beaten Full Members at each of the three World Cups they have been involved in, including England. And, if the whispers from the ICC’s meeting in February are to be believed, could be playing Test cricket in the next couple of years. Ireland are a force, no matter what the marketeers say.

The message is also historically illiterate: around 150 years ago, cricket was the most popular field sport in Ireland. As the British Empire expanded, its sports spread with it, since the good men of uniform needed something to speed the longueurs between genocide and G&Ts. Much like India and the Caribbean, Ireland took cricket to its breast, and by the 1870s there were 300 clubs across the land, with little religious, geographic or class divisions. They even had a Wisden analogue: John Lawrence’s Handbook of Cricket in Ireland, which ran 16 annuals until 1882.

Its popularity declined as the Irish nationalists rose to prominence and began to reject British language, rule and sport. Unlike the West Indians, who found in cricket an outlet for their self-deterministic urges described memorably by C. L. R. James in Beyond a Boundary the Irish expressed their independence with a turned back.

In 1884, the Gaelic Athletic Association were established to foster the growth of Irish sports, such as hurling and gaelic football. Their founder, Michael Cusack who had been a cricketer himself, and in 1882 had called for a club to be established in every parish in the country, until evidently undergoing a radical change of heart said: “Our politics being essentially national, so should our athletics.” In 1905, the GAA went further, adopting Rule 27 into their constitution, which banned members from playing or watching cricket, as well as all other foreign sports.

The cricket clubs who did not form a union to match the GAA’s administrative muscle until 1923 were shorn of playing stock, and all but disappeared apart from the North, Dublin and parts of Cork. During this time, any association with the “garrison games” marked one out as a persona non grata, a feeling intensified by bloody conflicts such as the Easter Rising of 1916. Merely holding a cricket bat became an impediment to ambition: Éamon de Valera, a leading nationalist and later Taoiseach of the Republic, reportedly dropped a blade he had been wafting when alerted to the presence of photographers for fear of reputational damage.

Yet still, between the cracks, the sport survived. In 1969, the Irish national team welcomed the West Indians fresh from a draw with England at Lord’s to Sion Mills, County Tyrone. Dublin seamers Alec O’Riordan and Douglas Goodwin took advantage of a lush pitch and bowled the tourists out for 25. The result drew interest from far and wide. Wisden said: “In some ways it was the sensation of the 1969 season.” The Times added: “Even the Duke of Wellington, who played cricket for Ireland in his youth, never quite achieved a comparable victory.”

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Kevin O’Brien launches into a drive during his 63-ball 113 against England at the 2011 World Cup in India. (Dibyangshu Sarkar/Getty Images)

Throughout most of the 20th century, cricket remained politically febrile. But as an independent Ireland grew in confidence, things were becoming less black and white. In 1971, a good 50 years after the Anglo-Irish treaty, the GAA revoked their ban on foreign sports. Martin McGuinness was 20 at the time, and would be second in command of the IRA in Derry a year later, yet was known to be an avid cricket fan. And when John Mooney caught Umar Gul during Ireland’s rousing St Patrick’s day victory over Pakistan at the 2007 World Cup, he performed a gaelic football kick to himself a solo as a tribute to his club back home in Fingal. As a boy he had never owned up to playing cricket at all.

That victory brought huge interest back home, but was tempered by the presence of three Australians and a South African in the side, drawn to Ireland by the Celtic Tiger of the 1990s and early 2000s. The immigrants had improved the standard of cricket in Ireland, but didn’t help its image as a foreign sport.

When Ireland upset England at the 2011 World Cup at Bangalore, they still had two from Australia, but this time no one cared. They had beaten England (who had four players born in South Africa, by the way), the one they wanted most. John Mooney hit the winning runs, then screamed “Fucking best day ever!” near a microphone. Everyone forgave him. Mary McAleese, the Irish President, called Kevin O’Brien, who had hit the fastest hundred in World Cup history, to congratulate him. It would have been hard to see that happening a generation before. By beating the English, they had emancipated cricket from them.

Now, England host Ireland in a one-day international for the first time, and in the first bilateral series between the two countries. Ireland need much more of their like. In 2011, the ICC infuriated Ireland, and many others, by deciding to ignore their wins over Pakistan, Bangladesh, England and West Indies, and contract the 2019 World Cup to a ten-team tournament.

In 2015, the ICC offered a (somewhat perfunctory) lifeline: if Ireland could squeeze into the top eight of the ODI rankings by September 2017, they would be invited to the tournament, without any qualifiers. To make the most of that chance they need to play and beat those above them in the standings. Given Ireland’s situation and form in 2016, an ageing team had their worst win-rate since they introduced central contracts in 2009 it’s going to be a challenge. It’s just as well their cricketers are used to those.

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