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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 16 October, 2019

Metaphors abound as Ireland's cricketers navigate the Long Room at Lord's

This could be a landmark summer after a gruelling journey for Irish cricket, writes Tommy Martin.

IT’S ONE OF the most famous walks in sport – though few of us will ever see it.

On Sunday, Ireland’s cricketers will make their way through the Long Room at Lord’s to play England at the famous ground for the first time, polite applause from the lunching members of the Marylebone Cricket Club accompanying their march to the hallowed crease.

Cricket - Second Investec Ashes Test - England v Australia - Day One - Lord's Queen Elizabeth walks through the Long Room in 2013. Source: Anthony Devlin

The walk from dressing room to pitch that takes in the Long Room is famously, well, long and complicated. But then, Irish cricket’s route to Lord’s has hardly been straightforward thus far.

Most of us are familiar with the rough outline: the hint of Cool Runnings about the famous World Cup adventure in 2007; becoming the toast of India with victory over England in 2011; then the scalp of the West Indies in 2015. The parallel battles with cricket authorities for greater recognition and the Irish public for precious attention spans.

While the folks at home remain fickle, an increased One-Day schedule against the top nations has been followed by news that the International Cricket Council will vote in June on a proposal to accord Ireland long-awaited Test status.

So Sunday’s invite to the Home of Cricket should feel tantalisingly close to a fairytale ending. Why then do many in Irish cricket feel like Cinderella when the clock struck midnight?

Unfortunately just as all that buccaneering success and dogged diplomacy started to pay off, Ireland suddenly stopped doing the very thing that made their name: winning cricket matches. They are, in fact, stinking the place out in alarming fashion. Their carriage has turned into a pumpkin just when the prince was giving them them the glad eye.

Paul Stirling Paul Stirling batting in Bristol today as Ireland take on England in their 1st One Day international. Source: Andrew Fosker/INPHO

Most have pointed to the passing of the ‘golden generation’ into either retirement or sporting dotage, and a lack of young talent coming through in their stead. Trent Johnston, chicken-dancing captain in the 2007 Caribbean adventure, and the swashbuckling John Mooney are gone, while in William Porterfield, Ed Joyce, Paul Stirling and Kevin and Niall O’Brien, the stars of past glories still shoulder much of the burden.

The downturn in results has also coincided with the reign of current coach John Bracewell, who took over from the beloved Phil Simmons in 2015. That the Kiwi’s job is under pressure is reassuring in a way, reflecting at least a healthy dose of higher expectations.

Irish cricket fans fear that accession to Test status, even if initially against the likes of Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, will result in embarrassing wallopings in the sport’s most unforgiving arena. But perhaps this is a good point to consider how far Ireland have come, and how quickly. That until 1993 Ireland didn’t actually exist in international cricket, rather were considered a sort of adjunct English county.

And how the sport existed on the margins here, intruding occasionally. I spent much of the hot summer of 1993 with the curtains drawn watching the Ashes series. I should have been doing something more productive, but seeing Shane Warne deliver the Ball of the Century to Mike Gatting trumped any summer job. Few shared my enthusiasm.

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” asked the West Indian intellectual and author CLR James in one of the most famous lines in all sportswriting. For Ireland, the line might simply read “What do they know of cricket?” Popular in many parts of the country throughout the 19th century – especially in Kilkenny, which boasted 50 cricket clubs in the late 1800s – it disappeared into a few dedicated pockets, before the current scarcely believable revival.

Kevin O'Brien celebrates winning Happier times: Kevin O'Brien celebrates at the 2015 World Cup. Source: Barry Chambers/INPHO

As well as the on-field successes, when current CEO Warren Deutrom took over in 2006 Cricket Ireland employed just one other paid staff member. Now they have 30 staff, as well as 19 players on central contracts. Kevin O’Brien spoke on Newstalk last week of his early games for Ireland against the likes of Denmark and Germany, a stark contrast with what awaits on Sunday.

But they have a long way to go. Cricket Ireland’s latest strategic plan has a three word title: Making Cricket Mainstream. Therein lies the rub. The body cites increasing playing numbers and claims that cricket ranks fourth in terms of popularity behind the other major field sports, but admit GAA, soccer and rugby are somewhere off near the horizon.

Making cricket mainstream, and keeping the national team competitive, will require investment in facilities and structures. As well as giving future Eoin Morgans (the Irishman who captains England in Bristol today and at Lord’s on Sunday) with a reason to stay with their home country, the financial benefits of Test status would be as game-changing as a Brian Lara double century.

But Test status is about more than just money. Despite the success of the T20 Indian Premier League, for cricket purists, the Test match is supreme. If a T20 match is a three minute pop song, a Test is a Wagner opera, and a Test series the full Ring Cycle. Or as the English sportswriter Simon Barnes described it: “a complex metaphor about life and death.”

Cricket - World War Two - Lord's Benches stored in the Long Room during the 1940s. Source: S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

So here’s Irish cricket’s metaphor: After a promising opening partnership, they’ve suffered a middle order collapse (I learned that term watching England in 1993); now they need a good nightwatchman to dig in and see them through until close of play. In many ways they have already made the most unlikely and astonishing journey in all of Irish sport. The members in the Long Room will show their appreciation as they take the next steps.

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About the author:

Tommy Martin

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