Modern connoisseurs of the game could be forgiven for thinking that Ireland is a newbie to the noble game of cricket, much like Afghanistan who were given Test status at the same time late last year. That is however far from the truth.
The first foreign teams to visit Ireland were in the 1850’s and the first international match played by Ireland was against the MCC in 1858, 160-years ago. Cricket was very popular until the 1880’s when politics played spoilsport. The Gaelic Athletic Association placed a ban on “playing foreign games” which remained in place until 1970. Anyone playing foreign games like cricket would be banned from playing the popular Irish games of Hurling and Gaelic Football. This draconian sporting response was however far from unjustified when looked at in the perspective of the times.
Between 1844 and 1849 Ireland suffered the worst famine in its history. Potato was the primary crop of the country and a dreaded disease Phytophthora infestanis arrived in Ireland, possibly from Mexico, in 1844 and wiped out the potato crop. As John Mitchel, the Irish nationalist and political journalist was to write: “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.” He was not wrong for the British parliament refused to stop the export of food from Ireland to England and the rest of the empire. Where the food could have been distributed among the hungry, it all left the country, in a move reminiscent of the British actions in India in the early 20th century.
The political backlash to the roughly 1.5 million deaths over those five years and the 2 million people who were forced to emigrate to other countries (of a total population of 8 million at the time), would last for decades. Anything considered English was taboo and fodder for political activity. Cricket would not escape this, and as a result, the progress of the game would be set back a hundred years.
Time for Retribution
Finally, on the 2nd of March 2011, 153-years after the first international cricket match was played by Ireland, the country was ready to sacrifice Hurling and Gaelic football at the altar of cricket. No one expected Ireland to win the World Cup being held in India. The focus instead was on one match. England was the rival. Retribution was the aim. All of Ireland was up early to watch it.
At the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies, Ireland had defeated Pakistan in a stunning upset. Celebrations of their victory, the biggest in their new international history (they had played their first ODI against England in June 2006) was marred by the unfortunate demise of Pakistan’s coach Bob Woolmer that very night. But this was England, a team they had never beaten, and a victory here at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore would be sweet indeed.
England puts up a big score
Ireland’s optimism about their chances appeared misplaced when England won the toss and went after the hapless Irish opening attack. Boyd Rankin, who was later to play a solitary unsuccessful Ashes Test for England, was dealt with severely by Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen, the England openers who put on 91 before Strauss departed. Jonathan Trott came in and knocked off 90 precious runs at a run-a-ball before he was bowled by John Moonie. Ian Bell added 81 to the total and when the 50 overs were completed, the English scorecard read 327 for 8.
328 was a target that was daunting for most teams. That number had never been chased down in an ODI by any team. It would be optimistic indeed to expect that Ireland whose highest score till that day had been 325 scored against Canada the previous year, would achieve it against England. The most Ireland had scored against a full member of the ICC was 263 against England in their very first ODI in 2006. The Irish songs in the crowd at the packed stadium in Bangalore were beginning to lose some melody.
Ireland makes a statement
As if chasing 328 wasn’t bad enough, Ireland lost reliable opener Porterfield to the first ball of the innings, stumps uprooted off an inside edge by a Jimmy Anderson delivery. Ed Joyce joined Paul Stirling to contain the damage and the two took the score to 62 before Stirling fell after smashing the English bowling around for five fours and a six. Wicketkeeper Niall O’Brien kept Joyce company for a while but when both were dismissed, at 111 for 5 it looked like the Irish retribution on the big stage had just been a pipe dream.
At this point Niall’s younger brother, Kevin O’Brien walked in. Kevin was known as a hard hitter but with half the team gone, the green flags around the stadium were beginning to waver as shoulders dropped. The fact that O’Brien had never scored a 50 in his career was not lost on the Irish supporters.
63-balls later the world had changed. The ‘Kevin O’Brien Show’ had been thrust upon an unsuspecting cricketing world.
Displaying brutal power, O’Brien’s half-century off 30 balls featured successive sixes off Swann and a pull off Anderson that cleared the ropes by some distance. A ball from Bresnan was drilled over cover point for another six, and Anderson was heaved over long-on for the biggest maximum of the tournament so far as O’Brien added 30 more runs of his next nine deliveries.
Alex Cusack at the other end had been playing a crucial supporting role. Cusack’s run out for 47 in the 42nd over and the end of the 162-run partnership with O’Brien briefly gave England hope but Mooney kept the momentum going with some sensible batting.
On the 50th ball that he had faced, Kevin O’Brien went past the 100 mark, registering the fastest one-day hundred of all time, shortening the number of balls required by 25% at one go from Matthew Hayden’s 66-ball effort four years previously. When he was run out with 11-runs required, England sensed an opportunity to turn the tide.
But the damage had been done. Trent Johnston returned the favour for his harsh treatment earlier in the day by smashing his first ball for four. Now there was seven needed. Without further ado, Mooney hit the winning runs and the Irish players and fans went berserk.
What the victory meant for Ireland
Looked at in isolation, this was just an upset on a grand scale, nothing more. But for Ireland, it went well beyond a rare and precious victory. It was not only retribution for past political and economic wrongs that had been very appropriately delivered through a sport banned as a result of those actions. The near-term implications were equally important.
Ten days after the match I happened to be on a domestic flight to Kolkata alongside the Irish team who were going to play their next match at the Eden Gardens. Seated next to me was Kevin’s brother and Irish wicketkeeper Niall O’Brien. We spent much of the next 2.5 hours discussing cricket and Ireland. I asked Niall what the victory meant to the team and to the nation. His answer put the victory in perspective.
“For the team, this victory is huge. Cricket does not give us a livelihood because there is no money in it in Ireland. Many of us live in England and play county cricket because that’s the only way we can treat this as our profession. We have started losing our best players to English cricket. Eoin Morgan is the perfect example. The team understands why he did it and we support him. Each of us dreams of playing Test cricket, and we are not getting any younger. I hope the ICC gives us Test status soon. It is victories like this which will help us get it” he said. Niall himself at the time had been playing for Northamptonshire in the summer and doubling up as the Hospitality Manager for Everton Football Club in the winter to make a career out of sport.
The expectations that the World Cup victory against England raised within the team and back in Ireland would, however, take six long years to fulfil. In June 2017, the ICC would finally make Ireland a full member and give them Test status.
When Niall O’Brien and his mates walk out on to the picturesque Malahide cricket ground north of Dublin on the 11th of May 2018 to play their first Test match against Pakistan, the wheel would have come full circle, 160-years after the first international match was played on Irish soil.
The pressure will be on Pakistan when they come up against a team that will play with tremendous national pride, secure in the knowledge that they will duel as equals. Pakistan will not take the encounter lightly, for they will be very aware that Kevin O’Brien’s flashing blade that scythed through the English, will be waiting to play its role on the biggest stage, in the highest form of the game, before a packed house at Malahide.