A BRIDGE TOO FAR

I varied my walking route last week, passing one of three graveyards in the district when I spotted an old primary school friend whom I hadnít seen since 1979. Heíd emigrated to New Zealand and was back paying respects to his mother who had died recently.

I spent an hour in the sunshine going around the various graves, saying a wee prayer here and there to people I knew, and indeed many I didnít. The saddest ones for me werenít the children who had died so early in their young lives, but the young men who had been killed in the various wars while still in their teenage years.

My fatherís best friend at school was one of them. Heíd joined the Second World War after turning 18 in 1944, killed soon after at Arnhem in Operation ĎMarket Gardení. It was one of those operations that was a master-class in how not to do things that army generals seem to specialise in, but as always itís the young soldiers who suffer.

The film ďA Bridge Too FarĒ tells the tale if you ever get the opportunity. My father would often speak of his lost friend, and the waste of it all. A talented sportsman, athletics, football, cricket, this young man had it all before dying as a teenager.

Iíve been doing some interviews with players ahead of the start of the interprovincials next week, and was struck in particular by Graeme McCarterís story.

Picked by Ireland at 18, but discarded at 22. What a massive disappointment that must have been, and all too easy to pack it in. It got me to thinking just how much talent is wasted. Who can say their career is finished at such a young age. Itís cricketís version of the 11 plus. I shudder to think if I was to be judged at how I was in my late teens and early 20s as a person!

Cricketing wise I would say my best years came as a batsman once I went past 30, and as a bowler a bit earlier. We have stats and analysts everywhere these days; I canít think of many cricketers who did better between the ages of 18-21 than in later years.

We have little enough quality cricketers to condemn them to the scrapheap so early in their careers. Weíve all seen too the fall-off at Under 19 level where so many leave the game disillusioned at their treatment. Itís an area where we could so much better, especially in the current climate.

Still, a new season beckons, and with 48 of the best talent on show in the interprovinicals, plus the safety net of a new Emerging Interpro series including Ireland U19s, thereís hopefully plenty of opportunities for players to showcase their abilities to the selectors.

BATTLE FOR HEARTS AND MINDS

There was much cause for optimism over the past week, with lots of clubs returning to training, and it was especially pleasing to see so many youth programmes up and running. It wasnít just cricket though, but all sports with GAA, hockey, football and rugby all featuring strongly on my media timelines.

Thereís no doubt that the timing of lockdown easing has been ideal for the sport of cricket, offering clubs the perfect opportunity to reset and re-engage with their communities.

However, there are some dark clouds hovering on the horizon, with signs that the aforementioned other sports arenít going to observe traditional timeframes. Everyone is in a battle to capture the hearts and minds of the youth, jockeying for position as the number one for the teenagers.

The first inkling came with the news that Belfast High School, the alma mater of Irish international Paul Stirling, was going to concentrate on rugby for the rest of the year, opting not to enter the Cricket Schools Cup in Northern Ireland. Itís a worrying development, but perhaps understandable given that almost a year of sporting activity has been lost to the pandemic.

It would be naÔve of cricket to think that their participation and engagement programmes will be operating in a vacuum. Itís going to take a major effort for clubs to keep and indeed attract new members to the game.

The initial signs are encouraging, but itís going to be tough, and the clubs will need all the help they can get.

THAT WAS THE YEAR THAT WAS

Blue skies, temperatures in double digits, grass getting cut, buildings and sightscreens getting painted, lockdown easing. There were signs everywhere that a new season isnít too far away, thank God. Itís been a tough year for all, with lockdowns taking a heavy toll, especially mentally.

Editing the website has been a very welcome distraction, and itís been great to have so much feedback over the past 12 months, thanking the CricketEurope team for their efforts. John Elderís Ireland International Guide is a superb ĎLegacy Projectí Ė I call it our back catalogue of greatest hits!

Ian Johnston and John Boomer have been beavering away on various projects, while the list of contributors to various articles have made the site such a success. Jim Bennett, Deryck Vincent, Brian Dalton, Joe Curtis, Peter Prendergast, Ger Siggins,  Odran Flynn, Ian Callender, David Townsend, Lawrence Moore and many others.

Itís a strange quirk of the past year that the websiteís audience grew despite the lack of cricket. More visitors, more time spent on the site, more articles than ever, record months for July and August in the 21 years involved. Whatever metrics used itís been a superb year for CricketEurope.

No doubt we have been helped by other sites going into furlough/hibernation, but rest assured we wonít be resting on our laurels. We will continue to bring you the coverage that has made us the number one website for Irish cricket at all levels. Thank you all.

MORE GOOD NEWS

Cricket Ireland CEO Warren Deutrom was on the radio at the weekend with Dan Pitcher of Dublin Q102, and was still in ebullient form after the recent spate of good news around funding and cricketís imminent restart. He hinted about the live-streaming plans, confirmed on Monday, which will see Heatley and co covering around 40 matches at all levels, but primarily interprovincial.

The good news continued as he all but confirmed that Ireland will soon have their wish for a stadium to be built at Abbotstown. Itís been a long haul, but definitely a step in the right direction in terms of their funding.

I will be sad to see Malahide missing out, but I suspect it may be many years before itís completed given the pace at which the initial phases, mucky pitches and all, have progressed.

Continuing the good news theme there was additional Sports Council funding for five Northern based clubs, with Bready, Newbuildings, Lurgan, Drumaness Super Kings, and North Down all getting money for community based initiatives in conjunction with other groups in their area. Well done all, and best of luck with the programmes.

PADDY OíHARA

Iíd like to finish the column this week by sending our best wishes to our resident umpiring guru Paddy OíHara, who is in hospital following an accident at home last week. ĎSir Pí has been a great help to the site over the years, and is my go-to guy for any queries we have, generous with his time, and patient. His articles on umpiring colleagues in the NCU were very popular.

Get well soon Paddy, and hope to see you at a game before too long.