The 25-year Journey to a Test Match at Lord’s
Pitch Publishing, 12 April 2021.
Spectating at cricket matches takes one to some wonderful places. Some spots are a little less obvious than others though. Fourteen years ago myself and a friend were sat on a couple of fold up chairs on the boundary edge of a ground located at the terminus of a humble concrete lane behind the local rugby club. Despite the modest surroundings said venue was about to host a fully fledged List A one-day international courtesy of its location in the chi-chi north-eastern Dublin suburb of Clontarf as hosts Ireland played the West Indies. Sadly the weather decided to intervene and only seventeen odd overs were bowled before a heavy storm curtailed proceedings. We packed up and headed north along the N3 to Navan to watch Meath take on Fermanagh in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship qualifier but the considerable crowd that had lined the Castle Avenue ground demonstrated how Irish cricket was cresting a considerable wave.
Four months earlier the team had reached the Super Sixes stage of the World Cup after a famous victory over Pakistan and discussions surrounding test status and Full Membership of the ICC began to drift on the wind. Ten additional years would pass before Ireland was afforded a place at the top table and the journey to such a point, and a test match at Lord’s the following summer, has been chronicled by David Townsend in the book Do They Play Cricket in Ireland? Almost a dozen personal trips to Ireland, including that which featured the aforementioned match, dictated that such a tome more than caught one’s attention.
The tome follows Irish cricket through a twenty-five year journey from their first appearance in the ICC Trophy to the landmark 2018 test match at Lord’s; the former somewhat aptly the author’s first assignment following and reporting on the team. However, the book is not just about Irish cricket but also Townsend’s career following the team and its constituent players along with his relationship with both. Nevertheless, the tone of the book is firmly established near the conclusion of the first paragraph in the opening chapter courtesy of the author informing the reader that one member of the 1994 ICC Trophy squad worked as a sheep strangler in his day job.
Thus, the humble beginnings of Irish cricket’s journey to Full Membership are detailed in a sort of travelogue format. Indeed, the short, sharp diary type entries in each chapter dictates that the read gallops along at a fair pace and one has progressed through thirty or forty pages in next to no time.
Naturally, many will be familiar with the exploits of Irish cricket’s more stellar performers of recent times so the detail and background of players from the mid to late nineties provides fascinating insight into the overall journey to Full Member status. Indeed, the far flung nature of the destinations in the early chapters make for intriguing reading, certainly more interesting than accounts from other tomes that simply describe the usual venues and locations utilised in the game’s highest echelons. The early chapters also highlight the challenges faced by countries attempting to achieve Full Member status with Townsend highlighting Ireland’s difficulties in the amateur days of the late nineties when players were missing games due to studies or work commitments with some having to weigh up their future career prospects against playing in matches.
Nevertheless, the early chapters offer great variety in terms of opponents, tournaments and venues. Paramount is the interesting Triple Crown series, including an England XI, normally played in some of cricket’s more provincial venues, that provided something of a gauge for Irish cricket against its closest geographical opponents. Of a similar ilk was the European Championship against continental opponents such as the Netherlands and Denmark. Competitions from a different era of cricket that likely would have stoked the fires of the cricket connoisseur. Similarly, Ireland’s participation in county cricket’s limited overs tournaments at a time when the English domestic game offered more variety and intrigue.
Townsend’s insights highlight different times, different attitudes and different mindsets in Irish cricket and its relationship with English cricket. Hence, one raised an eyebrow upon reading that it was actually the author who contacted Middlesex upon seeing Ed Joyce for the first time rather than a county scout spotting the young batsman, a prime example of how Ireland’s standing in the game was rather different than that of recent times. Of comparable note are the cultural differences outlined during the text, particularly those between the middle class affluent game in Dublin and its environs to the down to earth, run of the mill nature of cricket in the northwest of the island. Indeed, even The Hills club, located in Skerries just some thirty kilometres north of the capital, was deemed unfashionable due to not possessing a Dublin postcode.
In some respects, the book divides into two distinct periods: that before the 2007 World Cup in which Ireland first burst onto the international stage and that which followed. Indeed, Irish cricket’s ascendancy post their first World Cup appearance was perhaps no better highlighted than when Laurie Pieters of Namibian cricket proffered that Ireland were ready for test status as far back as 2008 in light of their Intercontinental Cup victory over the Southern African team. The desire for change had been very much bubbling away for some time though, perhaps no better illustrated than when the skipper at the time, Kyle McCallan, suggested the implementation of inter-provincial cricket after one particularly galling defeat during the 2001 season.
The same post 2007 World Cup period also featured the formative years of Eoin Morgan’s hugely successful white ball international career and Townsend’s pieces include glimpses of Morgan’s single mindedness to qualify for England, perhaps a trait that has been in evidence during his tenure as England skipper. Indeed, English cricket’s oft complicated relationship with their Irish equivalents is highlighted by the author with his thoughts on the attitude of counties toward a young Paul Stirling and how the Australian touring team of 2009 stayed on the island and mixed with the public whereas English teams seemed happy to leave as quickly as possible.
Townsend’s acute observations are not just limited to the cross Irish Sea relations though as he rather pertinently highlights how it is funny how professional cricketers seem happy to not be playing even at the expense and time of the paying public, a development that has not been lost on many a cricket supporter. Similarly, the thoughts on how too often ex-star players are used as commentators but possess little or no knowledge on the players or teams involved due to a lack of prior research; a somewhat lazy development in the internet dominated age.
Townsend’s thought provoking comments are laced with plenty of amusing quips and bon mots though. Particularly humorous is the author’s admission that he used to write for the Irish Examiner newspaper under an alias, a scenario that proved innocent until his alter ego incurred a modicum of ire from the playing squad once the real identity of his nom-de-plume was eventually revealed. Or the famous riposte from Kevin O’Brien to Jimmy Anderson during the 2011 World Cup victory over England and the use of ‘Bangalore2011’ as the Wifi password for the 2013 ODI at Malahide against the same opponents; a stunt that tickled former England skipper Mike Atherton.
Ireland’s glorious World Cup successes are likely to garner much interest from readers but, interestingly, Townsend doesn’t labour the passages on these landmark victories, perhaps underlining that the book is about the whole journey rather than a handful of great days from recent times. Such an ethos is further highlighted when, somewhat pertinently, in the final chapter Ireland’s waning star becomes apparent as a generation of players retired or had reached the twilight years of their careers at the same time as Full Member status approached. Interestingly, Townsend muses about whether the moment had perhaps passed for Ireland and whether Full Member status should be a more fluid process.
Nevertheless, the reader feels the sense of utter joy during the few pages that cover Ireland’s inaugural test against Pakistan in Malahide with all the ebb and flow that that match produced including the mesmerising century by Kevin O’Brien. Similarly, the sense of occasion that pervaded the days leading to the match courses through the words and paragraphs of the chapter. One expects a similar few pages on the following summer’s test match at Lord’s but Townsend finishes the book after the first day of the contest, post Tim Murtagh’s five wickets and Ireland skittling England for just 85 runs. In truth, such a finale proves fitting, again underlining that the book is about the journey as much as the destination.
Such an abrupt conclusion does not detract from one’s sheer enjoyment of Do They Play Cricket in Ireland? though. Perhaps one’s interest in the subject matter of the book is enhanced by one’s own affinity with Ireland. Indeed, from a personal perspective of a dozen or so trips across to the island of Ireland the various references to particular locales struck a reminiscent chord. Nevertheless, the book proves an excellent read and a superb insight into the difficulties faced by emerging nations wishing to progress on the international scene whilst there is a fine collection of photographs included from Barry Chambers, another longstanding devotee of Irish cricket.
Hector Cappelleti (@yahooovercc)