Roy Torrens – Irish Cricket’s Life Servant

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Originally posted on DV Mace’s Smorgasbord of Sport, 20-Oct-2014.

A long time ago – well before Ireland managed to qualify for ODI status, before they fought for Test status, before they caused World Cup upsets – they had a handy bowling all-rounder; starting his Irish career in the late 1960s, he played thirty times for his nation. His whippy bowling and sometimes brilliant batting (once hitting 177 in a club game) meant he was regarded as one of Ireland’s best cricketers – and one of Ireland’s best sportsmen, representing Northern Ireland at football too.

The all-rounder’s name was Roy Torrens, and he had ignited a lifetime of involvement with Irish cricket. Indeed, at both local and national level, Torrens has never been anything other than intertwined with the game in Ireland.

He’s been the board’s president, was a national selector, and has held the role of manager of the Irish national team since 2004.

Under ten years of his managerial guidance, the team has developed, strengthened and seen incredible achievement like never before.

While his team had a training session at Seddon Park, the day before their match with the Northern Districts side, I was fortunate enough to have a chat with Torrens; about his career as manager, and the changes in Irish cricket over that time.

As we sat in the team-room in front of the changing sheds at Seddon, the Irish players were preparing for training out on the park; stretches, warm-ups and ball games were being accompanied by the occasional cacophony of cheers as a goal was scored, or other hilarity had occurred.

It must have been a very different sight to what Torrens himself had been a part of as a player many decades ago. Indeed, that was the first question I asked him – how much had the game developed in Ireland since his playing days?

“Oh, in my days, it was more a recreational game.”

As he pointed out, it wasn’t until 1995 that the Irish side had its first full time coach, and joined the ICC Associates list the same year.

The game developed slowly but steadily after 1995; they played in World Cup qualifying tournaments in Kenya in 1996, and in Canada in 2001, but it wasn’t until the qualifying tournament in Belfast in 2005 that Ireland finally made it to a World Cup. Torrens was by this time team manager, and he takes over the story:

“By that time a South African chap called Adrian Birrell, who’s the current assistant coach of the South African team, he took on the job of head coach in Ireland. And through his guidance, we qualified for the World Cup in the tournament held in Belfast in 2005, and made our first appearance in the World Cup in the West Indies in 2007.

“We were in a group with Zimbabwe, Pakistan and the West Indies, and of course we tied with Zimbabwe, and beat Pakistan in 2007. And I think it’s fair to say that cricket in Ireland has never looked back from that occasion.”

So was that 2007 Cricket World Cup the turning point for Irish cricket?

“Oh, very much so, very much so yes. That, and the influence of the full-time professional coaches which we’ve had since ’95, and we never had up to that.”

Mike Hendrick was that first coach, back in 1995, and his influence on Irish cricket cannot be underestimated. Even if the side’s results weren’t miraculous, he brought a much needed atmosphere of professionalism to the side; and the work ethic – and results – followed in due course.

Indeed, Torrens recognises the importance of that professional, hard-working team environment. He first became the team manager back in 2004, and I asked him what the biggest challenge he faced was, when he first jumped into the role.

“Getting the right commitment from the boys. I think it’s fair to say that in the late nineties and early 2000s, guys were part-time cricketers – a lot of them amateur cricketers – and they were subjected to, obviously, a lot of pressure at home; making themselves available for matches and all of that. When finances started to come in from the ICC and from our sponsor, we have an excellent sponsor in RSA, an insurance group in Ireland, and when the finances allowed us to contract the players, and make them full-time, I think that was a huge stepping stone since I took over in the advancement of cricket.”

Two years after he became the manager, Ireland played their first ever ODI, against England in 2006.

My comment that it must have been pretty special to be involved with drew a glint in the eye and a small grin from the Irish manager, who said simply: “Well. Ireland v England at any sport is a magnificent occasion, and that particular game in Belfast drew what was then an Irish record for a cricket ground. Seven and a half thousand people turned up in Belfast to see Ireland play England.”

He said that the Irish certainly didn’t perform poorly – “in no way did we look out of our depth” – and he pointed out that they played each other a few times in the next few years, with England once scraping home by a minute four runs.

In his words; “So, you know, a shock was on the way. And of course we produced that shock in, of all stages, the World Cup in India.”

As I said – what more can you say? It was incredible.

“Absolutely incredible. And, to be honest, if I was being really honest, at 111/5, chasing 328, you would’ve counted out almost any team.”

But, of course, Kevin O’Brien played “the innings of his life”. And as Torrens said, the three wicket victory didn’t just see them scrape home, but win “comfortably enough in the end”.

“That would have to be – have to be – the pinnacle of my career as manager of the Irish side. Yes, we got over the first hurdle, we beat Pakistan on St Patrick’s Day 2007, but we were an unknown quantity then and perhaps people underestimated us. But in the England game, in India, we’d had good results against other countries, and they certainly didn’t underestimate us, so it was all the more pleasurable to win that game.”

But that 2007 World Cup, that St Patrick’s Day game, was (as Torrens said earlier) the turning point. How did the team prepare for that tournament?

“Well, we had played in six team tournament in Kenya about six or eight weeks before the tournament. So we had been in Kenya, playing nonstop cricket for about two to three weeks. We then called in to Abu Dhabi where we played a four-day game against the UAE. We got home in time to wash our cricket clothes, and then we headed out to the West Indies. We had the usual two warm-up games before the World Cup started, and then went straight into the competition.”

As he said, in those days Irish cricket was a “non-entity, no one had ever heard of us. But with the tie against Zimbabwe, beating Pakistan, and going on in the next round beating Bangladesh, suddenly everyone wanted to know about cricket in Ireland. And as such, any success that we’ve had since then has become even harder to get – because we’re no longer the unknowns.”

No longer being the unknowns, Torrens says, means Ireland are looked upon “by the big boys” as “a potential banana skin”.

But that 2007 World Cup was Ireland’s big day out. And the win over Pakistan, their shining moment, was thanks to their wicket-keeper Niall O’Brien. Indeed, Ireland’s two great World Cup successes have been at the hands of the O’Brien brothers – Niall in ’07, Kevin in ’11.

We discussed the importance of those two on the nation’s cricket.

“Ah,” he exclaimed, “they’ve been magnificent servants to Irish cricket.”

“By the way,” he pointed out, “I played with their father in the Irish team! He was a bloody good cricketer as well.”

The cricket in their blood certainly shows. “Kevin. Kevin, here’s a player with immense talent – batting and bowling. He’s a wonderful guy to have in your team, coming in six and seven.”

Niall – “Nobi” – has “been around the block a long time”. “He’s a gutsy wee boy and a great man to have in a crisis. And when we needed him, he stepped up to the block against Pakistan.” He was, says Torrens, “the lynchpin.”

The genuine affection he feels towards both brothers is quite obvious (as it is from all Irish cricket fans). And with the passionate tones when he recounts Niall’s feats against Pakistan, it becomes even clearer just how important the two have been to Irish cricket.

But he contrasts the two – while Niall is the gutsy one, Kevin is described very differently: “Kevin’s a bit more flamboyant. Kevin’s the…shall we call him the Kevin Pietersen of Irish cricket?”

“They’re two excellent lads, and they’re great ambassadors for Irish cricket, they really are.”

Another important man has been coach Phil Simmons.

Simmons has been head coach since after the 2007 World Cup – but, as Torrens says, Simmons in fact came into the coaching squad for the World Cup. Adrian Birrell, the previous coach, had announced he was standing down after the tournament.

As such, Ireland announced that Simmons was going to take over after the Cup – but Birrell “was wonderful about it” and allowed Simmons to come into the side from an observational point of view, and was able to see the team functioning. It made the changeover a lot easier, Torrens says.

“He took over a team that had come a long way, and you know, people were wondering if he could continue the success that Ireland had, and I think he’s answered that. Since then, we’ve played quite a few Test-playing nations. We went to the West Indies last year and beat the West Indies, we’ve beaten Bangladesh, we’ve beaten Zimbabwe. And Phil has, let’s say, taken on the baton that Adrian gave us. Phil leads by example, he’s a perfectionist and he demands the best from the boys, and he’s been a tremendous coach for Irish cricket.”

Of course, the one area that neither the O’Briens, nor Simmons, nor anyone else has managed to lead Ireland to success to is in the World Twenty20s. Because of the tournament structure, 2014 was their best chance of making a splash. Instead, Netherlands had their greatest day as an Associate nation.

Is World Twenty20 success an area the team wants to work on going forward? Is a World Twenty20 upset a goal?

“Very much so, yes. We started off trying to become a four, five-day side. Then we were thrust into the World Cup limelight in 2007, so we had to adjust to being a 50-over side. We don’t have that huge a pool of top players in Ireland that we can segregate them into 20-over players, 50 over-players and four-day players. So you’ll find there are a few guys having to play in all the formats. We’re learning, but we don’t play Twenty20 cricket very often, in fact, since 2007 we’ve been averaging – against the one day teams – one or two games a year. And this has been our huge disappointment, in that the ICC are expecting us to improve, but we don’t improve if we don’t play. And our main cry is that we want to play more games against the Test-playing countries at Twenty20, 50-over and five-day level.”

That player pool he mentioned – is developing those players, developing the domestic structure, something that’s being worked on particularly hard?

“Yes, we’ve just quite recently announced that our academy that we’ve been getting off the ground in the past couple of years has just had a major boost, in that we’ve just secured a major sponsor for the academy. An Indian company, and that has been announced in the last two to three weeks. And we’re really excited about that, it’s a huge sponsorship for us, and we hope to spend the money wisely. We have got a decent bunch of young players coming through, sort of 16, 17, 18, 19, and hopefully with the finances now given to us we can expand our academy, send these young lads to places like India, South Africa and London for schooling there. I hope, and I think, that we’ll see the benefit of that in years to come.”

But from the mouth of the man perhaps most certified to speak on the matter – will Ireland become a full member nation?

“Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. And we have set ourselves goals. Took a long time, but the ICC eventually gave us a pathway. That’s all we asked for, was a pathway. We feel that everyone in Associate cricket should have a pathway open to them to proceed in. For a while we didn’t have a pathway, we have been the number one Associate nation for the last five years, I mean we’ve won everything at four-day level, 50-over level, 20-over level. We’re the current champions at each of those three formats. So we’ve done everything that we can at this level. We’re hoping the ICC will facilitate us more games against the big teams. We’re playing Australia and England next year. But that’s only two games – now, they’ll be huge games for us, but that’s only two games. And we need more if we’re going to continue our improvement.”

And if they do manage to fulfil the requirements of that pathway, and make it to Test cricket, Irish cricket will owe a debt of gratitude to Roy Torrens. He’s offered almost his entire life to the game, and could have offered little more – while many team managers and various administrators often look out of place alongside the team, Torrens fits in. In the team area, he looks as much a part of the Irish cricket family as anyone else. That’s testament to his longevity and his passion.

He says that the influence he’s had on Irish cricket is “for others to say, I wouldn’t know.” So I’ll say it – his impact has been huge. He might not have had the hands-on role of a player, or of a coach, but he’s been there every step of the way, guiding the team through their successes. But, he says, his time is almost up.

He says he wouldn’t know what the impact he’s had is, that “All that I know is that I came into this job in 2004, but the job I’m doing now isn’t the job that I took over in 2004, as you can imagine. It was fairly low-key then, we were playing five or six games a year, and when I took it on, that was the situation at the time. Within two to three years, we’re now playing up to 30 games a year. There are guys playing ten years in the Irish team and they’ve got 200 caps – and they haven’t played every game. So, you know, we’ve probably played about 250-300 times in those ten years. I didn’t sign up to that – doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it, but I’m now leaving middle age, approaching old age, and I’ve told the guys that when I get this World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, that I think that it’s time for me to step aside and give the job to a younger man. Because it is a younger man’s job. There’s so much travelling, so much going through airports and so much hassle – getting visas organised, hotels, transport, luggage. It’s a full time job, I can tell you.”

So it seems that Roy Torrens’ time as manager of the Irish national cricket side is almost up. Given his involvement with Irish cricket for so long, it seems impossible that he’ll be gone from cricket entirely. But as manager, it’s almost time to say farewell.

There’s only one thing to be said – for whoever follows him, he’ll leave some fair old footsteps, footsteps that can never be fully filled.

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