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Wilson ready for a brand new start

After a year overshadowed by the death of his mother and of a team-mate, Ireland’s Gary Wilson is ready to hit the ground running in 2013.

Wilson: in action for Surrey.
Wilson: in action for Surrey.
Image: Neil TIngle/EMPICS Sport

WHEN GARY WILSON looks back, it’s easy for him to draw a line between life on and off the cricket pitch in 2012; the highs of one and the lows of the other.

It was a year of great personal loss — “without doubt the worst year of my life off the pitch” — but as Wilson thinks aloud, the boundary between the good and the bad edges closer.

The 27-year-old from Dundonald, County Down has been at the heart of the Irish cricket explosion. Winning the World T20 qualifier in Dubai last spring and then representing his country at another World Cup, September’s T20 tournament in Sri Lanka, are happy memories that will last a lifetime.

But the year was overshadowed by two deaths: of his mother Iris, who lost her battle against lung cancer in April, and of his young Surrey colleague Tom Maynard who was struck by a train in June at the age of 23.

Losing a parent is “the biggest loss anyone can have,” he says, but in his grief he resolved to mark his mother’s life by doing something positive. With the help of Ireland team-mate and childhood friend William Porterfield he led the Big Bike Ride, a five-day charity cycle which raised over £30,000 for Cancer Research UK. Last month, their work was acknowledged when they were presented with the ICC’s Spirit of Cricket Award.

“I was very, very close to her and that was without doubt the worst part of the year,” he says.

I actually had quite a good year on the pitch, maybe even my best year, so I don’t know — maybe I used that to a positive effect on the pitch. I had a decent year on the pitch but it was without doubt the worst year of my life off the pitch.

Maynard’s sudden loss stunned Surrey too; the cricket world mourned the passing of one of its bright young stars. Although police treated the death as non-suspicious, a number of unanswered questions remain ahead of the coroner’s inquest which takes place later this month.

“I wasn’t his best mate but I was good mates with him,” Wilson says. “I would have rang him up and had a chat or met him down in the pub for a drink.

“I think possibly having lost Mum two months beforehand, that maybe helped me deal with Tom’s death a little bit better than some other people may have done.

“I’d like to think that I helped the other lads in some way when we lost Tom. It was very upsetting as well for myself but I already had a big loss that year, the biggest loss anyone can have, so I perhaps dealt with it slightly better.

He adds: “He was a huge character in our dressing room, one who can never be replaced. You don’t just replace someone like Tom Maynard.

“We had to completely restructure the way we played our cricket after we lost Tom — that’s how big a loss he was for us on the pitch. We relied heavily on him for middle-order runs and he bullied other teams. We tried to bully other teams after we lost him. They laughed at us because we didn’t have the firepower that existed whenever he was there.

The bottom line about Tom is that he was just a really, really nice guy who would have done anything for you. You’re always going to miss someone like that.

Wilson, centre, with William Porterfield and John Mooney at the announcement of the new partnership between Toyota Ireland and Cricket Ireland this week. (©INPHO/Billy Stickland)

Those losses endure but time heals and, at the start of a new year, Wilson now has a chance to start anew and build on the positives. As expected he is in coach Phil Simmons’ 14-man squad for the tour of the United Arab Emirates next month, the next step as Ireland look to secure a place at the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

The squad also includes a first call up for James Shannon, the 23-year-old Instonians batsman. The fact that Shannon has found it so hard to break into the senior squad is a mark of the quality that is there, Wilson explains.

“We’ve got a good crop of Irish players — in my opinion the best Irish team that I’ve ever seen.

“You only have to look at the players who aren’t in the side week in, week out. We’ve got James Shannon coming through who is probably the best player I’ve seen in Irish cricket since Paul Stirling. You have to look at people like him who aren’t in the side to know it’s a great team to play in.

“But it’s just important that we keep winning and keep beating the bigger teams.”

On the back of a brilliant 2012, Stirling is another who has hit the ground running this year with a string of eye-catching performances in the Bangladesh Premier League. “A special player” is how Wilson describes him but the worry remains that if Stirling keeps turning heads, England’s eagle-eyed selectors will eventually move to snap him up as one of their own.

“You run out of superlatives for him. He’s just something different that other teams don’t have and whenever he’s on form and going well, he’s impossible to stop. We’re just lucky to have him on our team rather than having to go up against him.

“I’m close friends with him but I haven’t spoken with him about what he wants to do if England were to come calling. I’d like to think that he would want to stay and play for Ireland but at the same time, he’s a professional cricketer and he’s got to do what he thinks is best for himself.

He’s the best player I’ve ever played with and I’ve played with some fantastic players: Eoin Morgan, Mark Ramprakash. Ramprakash is slightly different because he was a fantastic one-day player but if Stirlo wanted to, he could be the best of the lot. I don’t have any higher praise for him than that.

That star quality will be one of Ireland’s major threats in the UAE, where they play the next rounds of the Intercontinental Cup and the World Cricket League as well as a T20 match. In the past winning those tournaments was an aspiration. Now, Wilson says, it’s an expectation and that shows just how far the country has come in the last few years.

He was reminded of that progress last weekend when Ulster and Ireland rugby star Tommy Bowe visited as the national team linked up for a pre-tour camp.

“He was well aware of Irish cricket and how far it has come. For one of the biggest sports stars in the country to know all about Irish cricket, it’s great for the sport.

“Two or three years ago, people were saying cricket is still a minority sport and not too many people knew too much about it. To have someone of Tommy’s stature come in — and he knew some of the guys by name from watching on the TV and seeing scores in the paper — it was great.”

It has been a long road to this point, and the journey hasn’t always been easy. But with a big year ahead, Wilson has his eyes firmly forward.

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Niall Kelly

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