bowling against the West Indies in 1984
Imagine the high glee for an Irish bowler in dismissing four England batsmen in the one competitive innings? Surely for a totally amateur cricketer a feat of such dizzy magnitude is simply not on, some might exclaim, forgetting for a mere moment Michael Halliday’s achievement against Middlesex in Ireland’s 1980 Gillette Cup debut.

Then, on a nail-biting June afternoon, Clive Radley, Roland Butcher and the two Mikes, Brearley and Gatting, all fell to the Phoenix off-spinner as, with nagging accuracy and ability to turn the ball on a damp Lord’s pitch, he inspired Ireland to within a whisker of what would have been a wonderful win for a team given no chance whatsoever by the critics.

That unquestionably has been the zenith of Halliday’s international performances, the day he will remember best of all when eventually he sets his spinning fingers at rest. Not even his appointment as captain of his country, nor last season’s record 88th appearance in the centenary match against Scotland, in which he batted brilliantly in each innings, will hold fonder memories for him.

Nor will his 11 for 106 against Matabeleland on the 1986 tour of Zimbabwe, his seven for 58 in 32 overs (including the prized wicket of Conrad Hunte) against MCC at Eglinton in 1978, his defiant 43 out of 187 against the 1984 West Indians at Rathmines, nor again his record-equalling ninth-wicket stand of 96 with Davy Dennison against MCC at Castle Avenue three years ago generate more wistful reminiscences when at some distant point he looks back on his highly distinguished career.

Halliday’s startling figures that still talked-about afternoon at Lord’s moved Jim Laker, the same Jim Laker who had himself bamboozled 19 Australian batsmen with off-spin in the 1956 Manchester Test, to sing the Irishman’s praises. ‘That was an outstanding exhibition of off-spin, the best I have seen for quite a while,” he eulogised at the after-match ceremonies.

In The Times the next day John Woodcock commented: “Middlesex were embarrassed not to say mesmerised by the bowling of Michael Halliday: the way they played him brought to mind England’s playing of Ramadhin 30 years ago. I am not saying that he is a better bowler than Emburey, but on this occasion he was certainly the more puzzling one.”

There are those who would argue that Halliday, despite all his subsequent success, never totally fulfilled the rich promise of that heady afternoon, that like so many of his spin brethren he succumbed to the temptation of bowling negatively on the leg stump to a defensive field. To his supporters such suggestion smacks of slander of his superb skills with the ball.

Whatever nagging questions there may be as to whether he achieved his full potential as a bowler, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Halliday’s batting is one aspect of his game that has progressed vastly. Connoisseurs of his early stroke-play (for want of a better word) will recall the ironic cheers whenever he managed to hit the ball off the square.

More than once in recent years has Halliday gone in at critical moments for Ireland and seldom on these occasions has he not made a lasting contribution. For my money, there is no player in the Irish side whose nerve is so surely to be relied on.

As a captain, competency rather than dynamism marked his three-year reign. While his leadership did not want for the security of conventional orthodoxy, the flair of a Dermott Monteith was seldom in evidence, he still never went down in battle against any of annual opponents and when he relinquished the reins at the close of the 1986 season his record of four wins and ten defeats in 25 matches was far from depressing considering the quality of the opposition in some cases and the fact that he lost 14 successive tosses, so right away putting him at a disadvantage. Only Monteith (37) and Alec O’Riordan (28) have led Ireland in more matches.

When Halliday, then at Trinity, made his international debut against Scotland at Perth in 1970, another off-spinner, Raymond Moan, was also appearing in the Irish sweater for the first time. It was to be Moan’s one and only cap. Such are the contrasting fortunes of sport.

Despite taking only three wickets in five matches that season at a cost of over 80 runs apiece Halliday survived to prove his true worth in later times. Persevering selectors were richly rewarded for their confidence in the young player still striving to hone his bowling to the needs of international competition.

Halliday, two decades on and now 40 years old, is still our best off-spinner. As a top ICU official said recently: “Such is his form and fitness that, if he so chooses, Michael could be a vital member of the Irish team for a long while yet.”

Certainly, with Irish bowling resources as thin as ever they can have been, we can only hope Halliday finds the time he has already retired once and the inclination to keep going. It would be nice to see him hailed as Ireland’s first cricket centurion.