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Best foot Ford: The South African driving Ireland's Test dream

Graham Ford has worked with some of the biggest names in cricket, and now he’s the man tasked with leading Ireland into a historic new era.

THESE ARE RELATIVELY serene surroundings for Graham Ford — the new Ireland head coach — as he settles into the role, but then again, when a nomadic coaching career has taken you from South Africa to London via Colombo, this was always going to be something completely different.

Malahide Castle and Gardens is an idyllic and peaceful setting, particularly on a sharp January morning, and as the softly-spoken 57-year-old makes tracks for home just a few short miles away, he does so by passing the cricket ground which will become the focal point of his stay in Ireland.

Graham Ford New Ireland head coach Graham Ford in Malahide last week. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ford’s first two months in the job have been spent in the slightly warmer climes of Dubai where Ireland continued their recent upturn in fortunes, but upon finding his feet in north Dublin, the nature of the task ahead has become eminently clear.

A small village club with a dilapidated pavilion may soon be transformed into a temporary international stadium for Ireland’s inaugural Test, but even still, it’s a million miles away from the iconic Kingsmead or Oval grounds which Ford has previously called home.

Ireland may have been upgraded to Test-playing status of the ICC last summer, but they have not become a Test-playing nation overnight, and the disparities in resources, facilities and infrastructure between here and where Ford has previously worked are huge.

But that’s what made this job so appealing for the South African.

The idea of rolling up his sleeves and becoming immersed in a long-term project is a challenge Ford fancied at this stage of his career, against the alternative of living on the road and chasing contracts with Twenty20 franchises around the world.

“It’s very different to some of the previous roles I’ve had,” he says.

Those previous roles have included two separate stints as Sri Lanka head coach as well as jobs in England with Kent and, more recently, Surrey, where he was re-united with Kevin Pietersen, who has described Ford as his ‘mentor’. He was also offered the India job once upon a time.

And for those reasons, and indeed many more, Ford’s decision to come to this part of the world, coupled with his obvious enthusiasm and excitement about the job, means his appointment is a real coup for Cricket Ireland and a significant statement of intent from the organisation.

“When you look at a job opportunity the things you’re sort of looking for is it a group with the right type of attitude as you can’t make progress unless you’ve got the right attitude,” he explains.

“I certainly felt from what I’d seen and heard, this group of players had exactly that ingredient. I wasn’t certain so I’ve certainly been impressed by their attitude and how they go about their business.

“I guess the other thing that you look for is what sort of exciting challenges lie ahead and there are amazingly exciting challenges, particularly with the Test match coming up.”

Cricket - Royal London One Day Cup - Surrey v Glamorgan - Guildford Cricket Club Ford was head coach of Surrey in 2014 and 2015. Source: EMPICS Sport

Ford has always had a connection with Irish cricket, even if it came indirectly via his good friend Adi Birrell, who guided Ireland to a first World Cup in 2007 and then that famous victory over Pakistan on St Patrick’s Day.

He has also worked with some of the players. Niall O’Brien was at Kent during Ford’s spell as director of cricket in 2005 and then in 2014, he appointed Gary Wilson as Surrey’s interim captain following an injury to Graeme Smith.

“I’ve always had an interest in Irish cricket,” Ford says.

The chain of events which led to him moving permanently to these shores and assuming the reins from John Bracewell ahead of a critical period for Irish cricket makes for interesting reading. Birrell had a big part to play in it.

No more than 24 hours after Cricket Ireland had toasted their ascension to full membership status at the ICC’s annual conference last June (incidentally at the Oval), Sri Lanka Cricket announced that its head coach, Graham Ford, had stepped down after the team’s early exit from the Champions Trophy competition.

It’s funny how the planets align. Unemployed and back home in South Africa, Ford then received a call from Birrell to let him know there was an exciting job opportunity available on the other side of the world following public confirmation that Bracewell’s contract would not be renewed.

“I’m very friendly with Adi and he felt I would be ideally suited for the situation Ireland are in,” Ford explains.

“That got me really thinking about it and there were a few other possibilities. In the modern game, there are opportunities in Twenty20 tournaments and things like that but the more I thought about it, I wanted to get my teeth into a real project which does involve bringing on young players as well.

“That started to excite me and I’ve had the good fortune to have travelled to Ireland a few times and I’m well aware of what a nice place it is. So all of those things contributed to me saying ‘hey, this is what I want to do.’”

With a two-fold increase in annual funding from the ICC, Cricket Ireland was in a strong position when it invited applications of interest for the head coach position. Before, the pay package offered would have paled in comparison to other Full Member nations, but suddenly the organisation was targeting a high calibre candidate with a decorated international coaching CV.

Former Australia fast-bowler Jason Gillespie — who has previously been very supportive of Irish cricket – was the preferred choice after his agent made contact, but when that fell through, Ford was the next outstanding candidate.

The added funding in Cricket Ireland coffers allowed Warren Deutrom and Richard Holdsworth get the man they wanted and the deal — worth between €130,000 to €180,000 a year — was done by September.

“I had to put a lot of thought into it and sound out a few people,” Ford continues. “Try and understand the situation, particularly the resource situation and the fact that it’s a very small cricketing population and it’s not even a mainstream sport.

“Some of the facilities just can’t compete with the main nations in world cricket, so all of those things I did have to think about, digest and understand and just prepare myself mentally for what it’s about.

“I’m still trying to work out in my mind how we can work certain little things out better but hopefully, we’ll find some ways. Cricket Ireland are pretty determined to improve on that infrastructure and build up domestic cricket in the long run.”

England v Sri Lanka - Investec Third Test Match - Sri Lanka Nets and Press Conference Day One - Lord's Ford has worked with some of the biggest names in the game. Source: Paul Harding

When interviewed and then offered the position, Ford sought insight and advice from Birrell, Phil Simmons and Bracewell.

“I was able to talk to some of the players as well and find out a bit more about how things work. I did a bit of reading up and research but those main things I mentioned earlier about the right attitude and the fact there are so many exciting challenges, all of those things made my mind up and I said, yep this is something I hopefully can make a positive impact in.

“It’s never really been about what level of team I’m coaching or whatever, it’s more about getting into the job and hopefully seeing the team improve.”

It has been a good start in that regard, anyway.

Bracewell, who took over from Simmons after the 2015 World Cup, oversaw a downturn in recents and performances to the extent that he had lost the support of Cricket Ireland and supporters by the time Test status arrived last June.

The Kiwi was conspicuous by his absence from Ireland’s Test party and the writing was on the wall at that stage following heavy defeats to England and in the ODI tri-series to New Zealand and Bangladesh.

His reign did end on a high note with a series win over Afghanistan in Dubai, at which stage the handover process had begun with Ford there in the capacity of ‘watcher’, but overall Bracewell’s tenure was an unmitigated disaster, not entirely down to him but the slide of an ageing team after the dizzy highs of Sabina Park, Bangalore and Nelson.

But there have been signs of improvement of late. A second consecutive series win after Christmas now means Ireland head into the make-or-break World Cup qualifiers on the back of six straight victories in the 50-over format.

Suddenly, they had rediscovered their swagger. The performances against Afghanistan, UAE and Scotland was a throwback to former glory days when energy, passion, fight and spirit was the key to it all.

Conviction and confidence make a big difference, too, and as results turned, individuals found form and hit their straps having not done so for long periods under Bracewell. It was an encouraging end to the year, and certainly leaves grounds for optimism moving forward.

Still, Ford is under no illusions of the challenges ahead and is fully aware of the the issues he will need to address if Ireland are to qualify for a fourth straight World Cup and then be competitive against Pakistan in their inaugural Test match in May.

“I knew quite a few of the players and was aware there are some talented players and ones who have achieved quite a lot,” Ford said.

“I know it’s a good group of cricketers and they can achieve a lot but what’s worrying me a little bit is that there’s more and more cricket on our schedule and we need a depth base and more cricketers who can play at that level.

Barry McCarthy Ireland play their first Test against Pakistan in May. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“That’s something I’m not totally aware of and something I’m still figuring out but what I’m seeing is that there is talent, it’s just about trying to find the way of filling the gap. The ‘A’ team programme is something we need to put time and effort into as it will serve us and pay us back for sure.”

Ford also says the squad have spoken about generating that match-winning intensity in the dressing room again after things had fallen a little flat under the previous regime.

“The energy and the fight and the general atmosphere in the field is crucial and certainly what I’ve seen of the Irish team over the last few years is a never-say-die attitude. They just don’t go away and are always in a scrap and a fight.

“We did talk a bit on the last trip about having to create our own atmosphere because at times the team is on a big stage when there’s a big crowd and television but when you’re playing and there’s no crowd or TV and there’s a lot at stake, everybody has to dig in and help each other and get the energy up. That’s something we will have to pay attention to but something the boys are well aware of.”

Identifying, developing and bringing through young talent is also a big part of Ford’s remit, with Ireland’s depth chart practically non-existent amid growing concern over the future with the likes of Joyce and the O’Brien brothers reaching the twilight stages of their career.

Ford’s track-record as an uncomplicated coach with very good man-management skills is certainly encouraging in this regard.

He continues: “I think if you’ve got coaching in your blood and helping players and wanting players to improve, that’s what it’s all about. Depending on where you are, you’ve got to find different ways to make it happen but you’re still trying to achieve the same thing.

“I’d prefer to achieve in that area [bringing players through] and make sure we get a good depth base of quality players, that would be more of a priority to me than achieving instant success. The long-term plan for me takes priority.

“If and when I walk away from the job, I’d like to know we’ve achieved in that area and that Irish cricket is well set-up for the years to come. I think everyone in Cricket Ireland are aware of how important that is.

“The senior players are very good at passing on information and I’m sure they don’t want to see a situation…they’ve put Irish cricket on the map so they don’t want to see it all disintegrate. I’m sure they’ll contribute and we need to use them as best as possible to help bring in players to fill their boots.”

Challenges aplenty, so.

“Yeah, it’s a big challenge. It’s a real challenge and we have to find ways to do that going forward.”

Graham Ford Ford was appointed on a three-year deal. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Perhaps too big of a job for one man, even allowing for Ford’s experience. Only time will tell, but for now it’s about settling in, getting to know the squad and preparing for March’s World Cup qualifiers. And then the small matter of Pakistan at Malahide.

“I know there will be ups and downs as we go along but hopefully down the line we can look back and say I have made an impact and Ireland have earned recognition from some of the big nations as becoming a force in world cricket,” Ford adds.

“For that to happen we need to make big improvements but I wouldn’t have come here if that wasn’t possible. It’s not about me, it’s about the players and Irish cricket.

“For the team to play a Test match, that’s one thing but for me, it’s about playing successful Test cricket, whether it’s the first Test or some ones down the line. The real satisfaction will come if they put in a really good performance and it will be their hard work when we get there.”

Ford’s wife and family will join him in Ireland for the summer months, and will be in Malahide for what will be a significant moment for everyone involved on 11 May 2018.

“Hopefully they’ll witness the big Test win,” he smiles.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

‘I never thought we’d be anywhere close to a Test match in my lifetime, let alone in my career’

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