The importance of being part of sport’s biggest carnival was once beautifully expressed by Roddy Doyle, the great Irish novelist. “It was one of the great times of my life, when I loved being from Dublin and I loved being Irish,” he wrote, looking back on Italia ’90. “Three years later, it still fills me. The joy and the fun and the pride. Adults behaving like children. Packie gritting his teeth. Being able to cry in public. Getting drunk in daylight. The T-shirts, the colour. Mick McCarthy's long throw. The players. Paul McGrath. The excitement and madness and love. It's all still in me and I'm starting to cry again.”
This summer, there’s no such green connection. The Irish, like millions of Indians, are distant onlookers, outsiders excluded from the biggest party in town. Sports fans in the Republic have had consolation in the shape of their rugby team, whose epic series win in Australia came 18 months after a historic first win against the mighty All Blacks.
Cricket had its moment in the watery sun in May, when Pakistan came to Malahide for Ireland’s first Test match. William Porterfield’s team scrapped tenaciously after a nervous start, with Kevin O’Brien’s superb second-innings hundred giving them a whiff of an upset victory. But it didn’t happen, and the absence of a Test against India – the game’s commercial heavy-hitters – in the next Future Tours Program (FTP) tells you a lot about the current state of play.
When India last visited the island of St. Patrick, Irish cricket was still coming down from the euphoria of a first World Cup campaign – one where they had tied with Zimbabwe and beaten Pakistan and Bangladesh. A motley crew led by Trent Johnston, a travelling salesman with roots in New South Wales, were the nation’s new sporting heroes, and the future was bright.
But despite building on that with victories against England in Bangalore (2011 World Cup) and West Indies in Nelson (World Cup 2015) and dominant performances in the tournaments involving associates, the call-up to the top table came a few years too late.
Unlike Afghanistan and Nepal, to name just two emerging nations, the Irish had a fairly rich cricket history. The most notable chapter in those early years was written at Sion Mills in County Tyrone nearly half a century ago. A West Indian team led by Basil Butcher and also comprising Clive Lloyd, Joey Carew and Clyde Walcott, were skittled for just 25, with Douglas Goodwin (5 for 6) and Alec O’Riordan (4 for 18) doing the damage.
Goodwin is 80 now, and O’Riordan 77, and both would have gone through periods in their lives when they wondered whether those with the shamrock on their chests would ever get to test themselves against the big boys. India toured England in 2011 and ’14, without any trips across the Irish Sea. Encouragement from England, the Big Brother, has also been patchy. It’s hard to speak of support, after all, when you’re busy poaching Irish players. As a result, Ireland never got the sort of backing that Afghanistan have received, first from Pakistan and then from India.
Had Ireland been elevated to the top table around the time they beat England in such thrilling fashion at the 2011 World Cup, there’s every chance that they would have managed to swim rather than sink. But by 2015, without the riches to truly promote the game at grassroots, they were a team in decline, a side slowly growing old together.
The lack of youthful vigour has been especially apparent in the white-ball formats. Missing out on the World Cup was no great surprise. The current rankings – 12th in ODI, and 18th in T20Is – are an accurate reflection of those recent struggles.
A generation ago, Bangladesh were fast-tracked to Test status. Their initial difficulties queered the pitch for those that followed. Ireland, who needed that accelerated development to build on the gains of 2007, didn’t get it, and a decade on, cricket is paying the price. The Indian tour, if you can call two abbreviated matches that, is in keeping with Ireland’s place in the pecking order. But it could all have been so different with a bit of foresight.
To understand what jousting with the best means to those making their way up, you only have to think back to Italia ’90. “So, can you remember where you were when Neil Armstrong stood on the moon. Or when the crowds stormed through the Berlin Wall?” wrote Sean Diffley in the Irish Independent. “Perhaps not. The great moments of history tend to fade like over-exposed watercolours. But you will never forget, will you, where you were when Packie Bonner saved that penalty?”
Sabina Park and the victory over Pakistan should have been Irish cricket’s Packie Bonner moment. Instead, a decade of relative neglect has meant that it’s now one of those faded watercolours.
First Published: June 27, 2018, 11:20 AM IST