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Tuesday 25 July 2017

'Foreign hurling' is coming home . . .

Eamon Carr looks at the rise of cricket here in the wake of the International Cricket Council's announcement that Ireland will now be eligible to play the sport at an elite level

Irish international cricketer George Dockrell giving lessons to Matthew Cullen, in his whites, as Oisín Bhoja, Nathan O’Reilly, Zayon Khaleik, Katie Crosby, Joanna Loughran and Matthew O’Reilly look on at the Leinster Cricket Club in Rathmines. Pic: Doug O’Connor
Irish international cricketer George Dockrell giving lessons to Matthew Cullen, in his whites, as Oisín Bhoja, Nathan O’Reilly, Zayon Khaleik, Katie Crosby, Joanna Loughran and Matthew O’Reilly look on at the Leinster Cricket Club in Rathmines. Pic: Doug O’Connor
Warren Deutrom, CEO of Cricket Ireland
Ireland star Dockrell. Pic: Doug O’Connor

Over 200 countries have international football teams. By comparison, just ten countries play Test cricket, which is regarded as the sport's supreme format.

Last month, the International Cricket Council announced that two further teams would now be eligible to compete at the elite level of the sport. Ireland and Afghanistan.

Yes, "foreign hurling" is coming home.

Warren Deutrom, chief executive of Cricket Ireland, greeted the news with obvious delight, saying: "Test cricket is the pinnacle of the sport and it's what we've all been aiming for."

It's been a long time coming. Especially when you consider how cricket was firmly established in Ireland before Britain sent Captain Cook in search of Terra Australis.

Historian Patrick Bracken has shown how in 1834 there were 260 cricket teams playing in County Tipperary.

Cricket was played in every county in Ireland. By the end of the 19th century, there were 173 teams recorded in Westmeath.

Contrary to popular belief, cricket transcended class structures. Only a small fraction of these teams were associated with the military.

The expansion of the Gaelic Athletic Association around 1900, in tandem with a wider nationalist movement and the introduction of the infamous "ban" in 1902, impacted negatively on cricket, which, along with Association football, was claimed to be a "foreign" sport.

Cricket dipped in terms of players but, as we know, it didn't go away.

Now, with millions in funding set to flow annually into the sport in Ireland from the ICC, and the exposure assured globally for the Ireland team, it's likely that cricket will begin to attract youngsters who might otherwise have opted for hurling, rugby or soccer.

With former Ireland player Eoin Morgan earning in excess of €500K a year, Irish players know they can have viable career prospects as professional cricketers.

Ireland finally got elected as an associate member of the ICC not that long ago, back in 1993. In 2003, a chief executive was appointed. He the first full-time professional administrator in the sport here.

In 2005, the Ireland team qualified for the 2007 World Cup.

Ireland's cricketers have created some memorable sporting moments over the last decade.

Shock

On St Patrick's Day in 2007, Ireland defeated Pakistan in the World Cup. It was a shock result and the heroics of a bunch of talented part-timers, who took time off from day-jobs as chippies, sparks and farmers, caught the public imagination.

It wasn't the whole story but everyone loves an underdog.

Four years later, at the World Cup, England scored what seemed a comfortable total in Bangalore. Ireland then broke the record for the highest successful run chase with John Mooney's bat taking them past their target. The Fingal man, who'd previously played Gaelic football, was heard on TV sets around the world enthusing, "Best f**king day ever."

Dubliner Kevin O'Brien added his name to the history books that day by scoring the fastest century in the World Cup.

Explaining the significance of the win, Mooney said: "I'm from a real GAA background. Cricket would have been frowned upon. We are changing public opinion on cricket within the country."

Further signs that Irish cricket was moving up in the world came in New Zealand in 2015 when Ireland defeated the West Indies in the World Cup.

However, the demands of Test cricket are a long way removed from success in the One Day International game.

Before the ICC could grant Ireland Test status they needed to be convinced that, apart from consistent performances, Ireland could meet important criteria in relation to governance, finance and development.

As Ireland's international squad were showing signs of establishing themselves as a reliable force on the field, behind the scenes, systems were put in place that took Irish cricket from its amateur base and consolidated its professional credentials.

Cricket Ireland now have the structures in place to sustain the growth and development of cricket here. And it's not exclusively a male domain. Women's cricket is also growing and standards are improving.

The number of people playing cricket is increasing dramatically and, for the first time since the 19th century, cricket is poised to become a major sport in Ireland.

In terms of team sports, the aim is to bring cricket closer in terms of numbers and disability to the three big sporting codes, Gaelic games, soccer and rugby.

In Leinster alone, currently there are 44 clubs. Each club has a number of teams which means that there are 145 adult teams and 166 youth teams playing competitively in the province.

Development officers are working with schools introducing kids to cricket. In Leinster, almost 3,000 children are receiving coaching.

The elevation of the domestic Inter-Provincial Championship last season to first-class status by the ICC was described by Warren Doutrom as "a significant milestone."

Ireland's Inter-Pro cricket is now on a par with domestic first-class cricket leagues in the established Test nations.

With a robust infrastructure in place, cricket in Ireland is thriving and set to become part of the mainstream in Irish sporting and social life. It seems the only way is up.

Development officers in every province are working to introduce cricket to primary schools. While there's no suggestion that cricket will ever threaten the popularity of hurling, it's interesting to note how exposure to "the sideways game" is changing the way people think about the sport.

Tipperary hurler Brendan Maher, who lifted the Liam McCarthy Cup as captain last year, got to experience cricket first hand in Australia for RTÉ's The Toughest Trade documentary.

Having trained with the Adelaide Strikers, Maher admitted he enjoyed his cricket experience.

Technical

"It's similar to hurling in that it is very technical and technique has a lot to do with it, in terms of batting," he said. "It's something you need to do from a young age. The attributes you have as a hurler do cross over, the hand-eye co-ordination."

"I'm a fan of it now," he added. "It was a lot different than what I thought it was going to be. The pace they are able to throw the ball, the concentration levels have to be massive, especially for Test cricket. Mentally, it's very challenging. You have to think of a lot of things before the ball comes at you and before you know it, it has whizzed past you. And timing, there is an awful lot in it."

One of the things that struck Maher was the difference in approach to training and pre-match preparation.

"I noticed that in the warm-ups for training (in cricket) it was all laughing and joking," he said. "It was completely different to the Gaelic games. The whole approach is far more relaxed. Maybe that's the way it is with professional sport."

In a changing Ireland, clubs are benefitting from the arrival of Asian members who share a belief in the core values of ambition, integrity and enjoyment of the sport.

More international games will mean more visibility for cricket in Ireland. A bar has been set by the Boys in Green.

The drive now is to prove Ireland is capable of competing at the highest level of the sport.

And that's before anyone mentions the fantastic teas club teams enjoy between innings.

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