“And suddenly you just know it’s time to start something new and trust the magic of new beginnings.”
For decades, the cricketing family has become, what one would say, a close-knit family. Though the competitions and the challenges on the field remain replete with mind games, ugly aggression, scandalous incidents and unaccepted behaviour on most occasions, for a major part of it, the players, the fans and the experts all come together in a few select moments to either mourn a loved deceased or celebrate the initiation of the new.
Ireland, when they become the eleventh nation to turn up in the Test whites at The Village in Dublin, will be looking to break into a league that adhesives the rest of the teams together. As the William Porterfield-led team stands aloft in their white flannels, it will be a sight to cherish and to remember; to commemorate the struggles and the obstacles that the Irish athletes had to face in order to get their journey rolling.
Even though cricket in the country was played as early as in 1731, it was not until the early decade of this millennium that the sport was regarded as anything but a ‘stigma’. Under the Gaelic Athletic Association, the citizens of Ireland were prohibited to play or engage in any ‘foreign sports’, and even when ‘The Ban’ was lifted in 1971, the presence of cricket in Ireland remained a hushed affair. It was for this reason that brothers Kevin and Niall O Brien had to keep their love for the game under wraps in their school years.
But passion does find a way of oozing out and maybe if it wasn’t for their undeterred dream, Ireland, probably would not have been standing on the periphery of a magical beginning. Yes, there have been many cricketers and many administrators who have helped Ireland achieve the coveted Test status, but if it wasn’t for Niall’s match-winning 72 against Pakistan in the World Cup 2007 or Kevin’s quick-fire hundred against England in the same event four years later, the country in all probability would have failed to achieve the feats that are in their kitty today.
After participating in a number of English county one-day competitions, Ireland, after three failed attempts at qualifying, finally made it to the 2007 World Cup that was held in West Indies. For most teams, a mere qualification to the grand stage would have accounted for as a victory but not for the Irish team that was composed of painters, farmers, decorators, a postman and just three or four professional cricketers. After a tie in their first ever World Cup game against Zimbabwe, the Ireland team set foot at the Sabina Park in Jamaica on St. Patrick’s day to a green pitch and overcast conditions that were eerily similar to the conditions they would have found at home.
Bowling out Pakistan for 132 was the first major achievement, but knowing that the rival had a plethora of quality match-winning bowlers kept them grounded. It was here that Niall came to the party, scoring a brisk 72 but when he was dismissed with the side needing 18 more, the clouds of gloom peaked through. However, his brother Kevin and then-skipper Trent Johnston held their nerve to take the team to a historic win that would only be the first in a line of upsets in the upcoming editions.
Though the win in 2007 kicked Pakistan out of the tournament, it was enveloped in the mysterious death of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer, and according to Niall, the celebrations were muted as a wave of grief engulfed the tournament.
However, four years later, the Irish country had more reasons to celebrate for a World Cup upset had been scripted against their arch-rivals England, the same country that had played an indirect role in suppressing the growth of cricket in Ireland. The chase of 327 not only dismissed the hard-held belief that their triumph four years earlier was a fluke, but it also showed the world that the team of Ireland was here to stay.
Captain Porterfield was dismissed for a duck and soon the team had succumbed to 111-5. Needing 217 in 25 overs was going to be tough for any side, let alone a side who had little prior experience of playing against the English fast bowlers, but Kevin, the hero of this game recounts the thought process in such a moment.
“I remember saying to Alex Cusack we could knock it around for another 20 overs, get 250 and lose respectably, or we could have a go, and if we get bowled out for 180 who cares? So we had a go for about 10 overs and things went our way. And we never looked back. Once it was 15 overs to go and we needed 100 I knew we’d win the game.”
A hundred in 50 balls for Kevin and a fine victory over England later, the hopes were buoyed in the Irish camp and yet another win over a higher-ranked team West Indies in 2015, reinforced that their journey towards the summit was on an up-slide.
A few years earlier, in 1969, the Irish team had punished the Clive Lloyd-led West Indies side after they travelled to the Sion Mills in between their tour to England. Expecting an easy path towards a win, they were left shocked and befuddled after they found themselves dismissed for just 25. That match in many ways started the love-affair with cricket in Ireland and when the national team gets together to sing the Amhrán na bhFiann, expect a 6000-strong crowd to proudly participate in the proceedings as well.