Whether Adieu or Au Revoir, Thank You Ireland

John Mooney, left, and Niall O'Brien celebrate Ireland's win over West Indies at the World Cup

Originally published on DV Mace’s Smorgasbord of Sport, 16-Mar-2015.

St Patrick’s Day, 2007. Kingston, Jamaica.

It’s Ireland’s first Cricket World Cup. They’ve just tied with Zimbabwe, and now they’re coming up against a strong Pakistan.

Eoin Morgan, a young Irish lad batting first drop, is being held up by many amateur commenters as the shining beacon of home hope. Ed Joyce, meanwhile, is a “traitor”, off playing for England. Morgan’s double-ton against the UAE in the Intercontinental Cup just a month earlier confirms these views.

Niall ‘Nobi’ O’Brien, an aggressive and chirpy little bugger, is at the crease early in the Irish chase after both Jeremy Bray and Morgan himself fall early.

O’Brien and William ‘Purdy’ Porterfield put on a good partnership, but Porterfield eventually falls for a 50-ball 13. O’Brien soon sees Andre Botha fall too, adding yet another shocking call to umpire Brian Jerling’s repertoire. Easily forgotten in the midst of the day’s commotion is that Jerling had a Dies Horribilis.

But despite the gloom, the rain delay, the falling wickets and the atrocious umpiring, Nobi O’Brien fights on. The self-described “pipsqueak” hits hard, and hits sweetly.

A cut off Umar Gul, another off Mohammad Hafeez, a lofted drive off the same, he started to throw the Pakistani bowlers around.

58 not-out, Iftikhar Anjum running in. A rubbish ball, short and wide. O’Brien hammers it through cover, puffs his chest out, and stares the bowler down…before the ball so much as crosses the rope.

Real Tony Greig-signalling-his-own-fours stuff.

At the end of it all, with drives through mid-off and on, flays through covers, lofted drives for six and pushes to the leg side all behind him, Nobi finishes on 72 – stumped the ball after his six. Ireland win by three wickets, and O’Brien claims the Man of the Match award – just fending off the young, strapping, 22-year-old quick Boyd Rankin.

Ireland’s day has come. They would soon be overshadowed by the horrific death of Bob Woolmer, but the lasting memory of that day will always be Ireland’s amazing win.

§

It wasn’t the first big day for that modern incarnation of the Ireland cricket team however.

Nor was it Nobi O’Brien’s first big moment in the green shirt.

Cut back to 2004, at the Stormont Cricket Ground in Belfast. The West Indies are playing a tour match, and are so expecting a win that they bat Brian Lara at eight.

It’s not low enough for O’Brien to stay out of trouble however, with Lara infuriated by the Irish ‘keeper’s criticisms of his refusal to walk.

Dwayne Bravo is the only thing holding the Windies back from ignominy, his 100 the defining factor in the archipelago’s 292. John ‘John Boy’ Mooney performs brilliantly for the Irish, taking 3-for – figures only spoiled by the ten wides he sprayed.

But when Jason Mollins and Jeremy Bray put on 111 for the first wicket, the West Indies were under pressure. When Bray and Andre Botha added another 52, the West Indians were on the verge of a historic defeat.

And when Nobi added 58, the West Indies were vanquished. It was a six wicket victory, sealed with a boundary, and with nineteen balls to spare.

It was a day that paved the path to ’07.

§

It’d been a long path to 2006. An Ireland XI played the Gentlemen of England in Dublin in 1855, but the Irish Cricket Union – formed in 1923 – didn’t become an Associate member of the International Cricket Council until 1993.

From there, Ireland failed to qualify for the 1996, 1999 or 2003 Cricket World Cups, and it wasn’t until the 2005 World Cup qualifiers – where Ireland were runners up – that they had gained entrance to a World Cup, and into the inner sanctum of Official ODI Status. A full 160 years since that match against the Gentlemen.

It meant they were able to challenge England on level terms; and in those pre-Big Three, pre-anti Associate days, England accepted. It was a near-full strength England side, and a slightly below-strength Irish side.

When Marcus Trescothick started England off with 113 off 114 balls, it became obvious England were to be dominant. Ian Bell’s 80 and the 30 extras simply compounded these thoughts.

An Ireland XI forced to bat Trent Johnston at six, with Dom Joyce opening the batting, and with Kyle McCallan at four was expected to be on the end of a severe hammering.

Missing Niall O’Brien and Eoin Morgan was indeed a big blow for the Irishmen, but they gave a mighty account of themselves, falling just 38 runs short of the English total.

“I thought they played really well, and put us under pressure,” said England’s stand-in skipper Andrew Strauss. It was true – England, the almighty cricketing nation who had just won the Ashes, were put under pressure by a freshly anointed Associate team.

§

Ed Joyce, the traitor? No, Ireland had a new villain, and he’d once been the hero.

Eoin Morgan – how dare he? He’d helped Ireland qualify for the 2011 World Cup at the 2009 qualifiers, and promptly jumped ship.

He’d abandoned his nation. What’s more, England only played him in one game in the 2009 World T20!

But Ireland still beat Bangladesh in Group A, and qualified for the two-pool top-eight stage. That resulted in three losses, including a heart-wrenching nine-run defeat to the Sri Lankans.

It didn’t help that Ireland couldn’t find a settled line up. In their three second-round matches, they played three different openers, three number threes, two number fours, a tailender at five in two of the games, and used all fifteen members of the squad over the three matches.

Perhaps they were minnows after all?

England got cocky too. When they played an ODI a couple of months later, the England side couldn’t have been any closer to a B-team. Ravi Bopara and Joe Denly were the openers.

Ireland lost on Duckworth/Lewis.

By three runs.

Don’t get too cocky, England.

§

2011. The Cricket World Cup.

Ed Joyce the traitor? Pah. He’s our number three.

Dhaka, always a tough place to play. Bangladesh rarely give up easily at home.

But Andre Botha wants to fight just as hard. 205 Bangladesh make – more than chase-able.

But with the exception of the two O’Briens, making 38 and 37, Ireland fail. 178 all out.

Minnows?

Pietersen makes 59, Trott 92, Bell 81. England make 327.

William Porterfield makes a golden, Paul Stirling and Ed Joyce 32 apiece. Nobi only makes 29.

Gary Wilson just three.

Eoin Morgan was out injured at this stage; the traitor isn’t present. That makes it harder to fire up.

“Obviously, we were in a fairly difficult situation, but myself and Cusey we just decided to see the ball and try and hit it, and obviously got a little bit of luck. And as they say the rest is history.”

We all know the story – Kevin O’Brien makes the fastest World Cup ton, Alex Cusack makes a stoic 47. Ireland win with five balls to spare.

I asked Nobi O’Brien before the 2015 World Cup which was Ireland’s greatest win. “It’s a tough question, but I think probably England 2011 was the standout game for the kind of run chase it was, 320, and seeing Kev score such an amazing hundred was pretty cool. Mum and dad were in the stands in tears watching, so that was pretty memorable. They were all good wins, but that one probably stands out a little bit more.”

Losses to India and the West Indies, a hammering at the hands of South Africa, another outstanding run-chase against Netherlands. None of them have any effect on the memory of that game against England. Paul Stirling, William Porterfield and Nobi O’Brien set up the consummate chase against the Dutch, but it’s Kevin O’Brien whose name sings off the page of the 2011 World Cup.

Who needs Eoin anyway? We’ve got Ed. We’ve got Boyd. Boyd Rankin will be the best bowler Ireland will ever produce.

§

“We have to make sure that Boyd is the last Irishman to play for England.”

That was Trent Johnston speaking, not long after his retirement.

It was a quote quite inconceivable after 2011. Ireland was on a high, the players were heroes. Irish cricket had reached its highest point.

When Ireland and England met at Malahide in 2013 however, Boyd Rankin was steaming in to bowl the first ball for England.

Eoin Morgan was captaining his team – England.

Rankin showed why he was such a target for the Poms, taking four wickets – including both openers and the first drop.

William Porterfield made a ton, but was outdone by the other Irish skipper, who made a not-out 124.

England’s half-strength team won convincingly.

See, Ireland? 2011 was a fluke. You don’t even need to play in 2015. This is why we said 2015 would be ten teams.

§

Of course, that decision had been overturned in June 2011. 2019 was still to be ten teams, but Ireland got a reprieve. They played 2015.

We all know what happened in the first Irish game of that tournament.

“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.” In that match, he was “the lynchpin.”

Roy Torrens, who retired as Irish manager after the 2015 World Cup, was speaking to me in late-2014 about Nobi O’Briens knock in 2007.

Replace Pakistan with the West Indies, however, and you could be talking about that remarkable victory at the genteel Saxton Oval.

It was a pleasant reminder of old times, but things were certainly different.

Ed Joyce was Irish, Eoin Morgan was full-time English captain, Boyd Rankin had been sacked by England but was still solely available for the three lions.

Ireland had gained one but lost two since 2007. Despite the net loss, despite the battle they had to face even to get into the World Cup, they continued to prove their ability. They weren’t minnows, they were equals of anyone they faced. Teams did their homework, because Ireland wasn’t a “potential banana skin” anymore, they were genuine competition.

A remarkable win over the United Arab Emirates, when Kevin O’Brien played out of his skin to save his side, was followed by a morale-deflating and NRR-decreasing loss to South Africa.

The side, so full of intent against the West Indies, suddenly looked as though they expected the loss. It was as though Ireland didn’t even show up.

A controversial match against Zimbabwe, won following that John Mooney catch, was followed up by a gutting loss to India. The Irish gave their all, but the lack of a genuine quick, and the collapse of the middle-to-lower order showed through.

So it came to Pakistan. A West Indian win against the UAE – a given – meant that whoever won the match went through, but whoever lost didn’t.

Ireland’s NRR had been so hammered by the loss to South Africa that their win against the Windies would count for nothing.

The preceding few days had been emotionally charged. A disgraceful article by a writer for the Zimbabwean Herald had seen the world’s cricket community up in arms. Sikandar Raza and Brendan Taylor, among others, sent their personal apologies to John Mooney for the abhorrent words written about him.

It was an article that didn’t represent Zimbabwe, didn’t by any means reflect what the players or average citizen felt, but still stung deeply. The Irish fan contingent were outraged. John Mooney himself was unperturbed. The article wasn’t going to impact on him, he said, but he was worried that it would put off others with mental health issues from seeking help.

Meanwhile, England went home early. A loss to Bangladesh sent them packing. Ireland were the “Best Team in Europe”, shouted the signs at the Irish matches. “Eoin Who?”

The fans turned out en masse at the Adelaide Oval, and William Porterfield gave them a treat. A proper, traditional captain’s 100. Unfortunately the lower order – which had been their saviour so many times previously – collapsed again. It was their biggest let-down at the World Cup.

The bowlers couldn’t stop Pakistan, who romped home. Well, romped nearly-home, when the batsmen decided to make sure Sarfraz Ahmed got his century. The Pakistani batsmen tiddled and fiddled and showed a terrible lack of respect for Ireland – it was farcical.

But nonetheless, Ireland had given yet another great account of themselves. Had it not been for the strange results – the Pakistan collapse to the West Indies, and the Pakistani hammering of South Africa – Ireland would have made it to the knockouts.

Porterfield was fired up at the end of the game. It was a scathing attack he mounted on the ICC, but the line that will ring and reverberate around the cricketing world for years to come was this: “If you cut World Cups from the agenda, then what’s the point really in us keeping going?”

What’s the point in us keeping going?

Ireland, despite their incredible performances, despite the strength of their players, despite being an equal of any team in the world, could disappear.

The likes of Paul Stirling, Niall and Kevin O’Brien, William Porterfield, George Dockrell, Peter Chase, John Mooney, Alex Cusack, Gary Wilson, Max Sorenson, Stuart Thompson, Andy McBrine, Craig Young, Ed Joyce and Andy Balbirnie may never be seen in the green strip of Ireland again.

It would be a great loss. The entire cricketing world would be worse off for it, and it would stagnate the game. The hard work put in by the Mike Hendricks, Adrian Birrells and Phil Simmons’ of this world would be wasted.

The hours put in by those who played for love – the Andre Bothas, the Trent Johnstons – would be thrown away.

The time and effort put in by people like Roy Torrens, who stayed in the shadows, was never a public figure, and yet has done as much for Irish cricket as anyone else, would just be pointless.

We don’t know yet what will happen to Irish cricket – to Associate cricket – but whether it’s adieu and farewell, or au revoir and we’ll see you next time, thank you Ireland.

Thank you for the great times, for the highs, for showing us a passion for the game sadly lacking.

Thank you for the lows, too, when you fought in the face of adversity.

Thank you Ireland, and we all hope we’ll see you soon.


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