WHEN NORTHERN IRELAND BEAT BANGLADESH

"A hugely talented team with a great blend of youth and experience. We let South Africa get off the hook and despite being the lowest ranked team made the others take notice, including a famous win against Bangladesh who would be made a Test nation shortly afterwards."

Paul McCrum's memories from the Commonwealth Games in Malaysia back in 1998, when cricket was included for the first and only time in the sporting extravaganza.

Northern Ireland were a late addition to the 16-team competition, following England's refusal to send a team, citing a clash with County Championship matches.

So with just five weeks’ notice, 14 players plus three officials did their best to prepare before taking on South Africa, Barbados and Bangladesh.

Former India Test player Bobby Rao was given the role of Head Coach, and along with Brian Walsh and Alfie Linehan formed the support staff.

"We began training in Queens PE for five weeks, before the contingent of 169 Northern Ireland Team left Belfast bound for Kuala Lumpur," said Rao.

"When we landed in the Commonwealth village it was unbelievable! I met with all the other countries cricket coaches, some of whom I had played against. Such luminaries like Viv Richards, Larry Gomes, Siddiq Mohammed , and also players of the calibre of Sachin Tendulkar and Steve Waugh.

"Waugh was captaining Australia and was determined to win Gold, but they lost out in the final and he was bitterly disappointed. He did have the consolation of the silver medal and scoring the tournaments only century.

"The camaraderie in the tournament was exceptional with the spirit of cricket very much alive and well. Whatever the result we would replay the matches over in the bar afterwards and learn and reflect. We used to laugh at one of the coaches who when asked how his team had done would lament - 'how am I expected to turn donkeys into horses!

"The competition was to be a watershed as Ireland were brought up in the rankings to 13th in the world which made them then eligible for ICC Youth funding. The tournament overall was an unbelievable experience."

Allan Rutherford led the Northern Ireland squad, and he had the added honour of being chosen to carry the flag at the opening ceremony.

"I was lucky enough to be selected to carry the NI flag at the opening ceremony which was a brilliant experience," said Rutherford.

"I think my abiding memory of the event was being part of a bigger team. Going down for breakfast and you are sitting beside Tendulkar and other great players and athletes from different sports.

"On a cricketing front we ran South Africa close after a rain interruption, Barbados gave us a serious beating but the highlight was beating Bangladesh in the final game.

"Our team spirit was brilliant, most of us had all played for Ireland together so it was easy to get as a team," added Rutherford.

"Overall a truly exceptional life experience and one of my highlights of my cricket career. Since then I have been to Melbourne, Manchester, Glasgow and am currently attending the Gold Coast games."

Ireland were drawn in Group C and faced South Africa first up. On a tough track they struggled against Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini, and it took a battling partnership between Neil Carson (22*) and Derek Heasley (19*) to set their opponents a DL target of 131.

Ryan Eagleson with 3-28 made early inroads into the top order - including Herschell Gibbs, and with Paul McCrum and Gordon Cooke also taking wickets, the Africans were reeling at 23 for 4 and 57 for 5.

However, as always a few chances went begging and Dale Benkenstein (44*), Pollock (30) and Mark Boucher (12*) held their nerve in the chase. It was a feeling of pride mixed with regret at one that got away against the eventual winners, who beat Australia in the final. 

Next in the schedule was a powerful Barbados side that included a plethora of Test and international hardened cricketers. One of them, Philo Wallace took a distinct liking to the bowling of the previously confident Eagleson.

"I got hit for some huge sixes against Barbados!" said Eagleson. "Wallace, Sherwin Campbell and Adrian Griffiths all got 50's, before Kyle (McCallan) and Dekker (Curry) slowed them down somewhat.

"It didn't do my confidence much good as I was fielding in front of their dugout when one of them shouted, "Don’t worry boys, the runs will come, Big Eagy he got more overs coming back!”

Barbados eventually posted 296 for 5, and with Ottis Gibson, Vasbert Drakes and Winston Reid bowling fiery spells, it took a half century from Stephen Smyth to offer any semblance of respectability as they were beaten by 176 runs.

The final group game saw one of the best displays by any Irish side on an international field.

A solid batting display saw 'Norn Iron' reach 177, led by a fine half century by Kyle McCallan (53) with valuable contributions from Andy Patterson (31), Stephen Smyth (21), and Neil Carson (20).

A modest total, but one which proved more than enough as Bangladesh were blown away bu the opening attack of Cooke and Eagleson - who showed immense character after the Bajan mauling.

Cooke took a Man of the Match 5 for 35, Eagleson 3 for 15, and there was a wicket apiece for Curry and McCallan as Bangladesh were skittled for a barely believable 63 in 21 overs of mayhem.

The final word goes to Eagleson who summed up the experience saying: "Just an incredible time for us all.

"We were with most of the best cricketers in the world and having regular conversations with them in the athlete village.

"You couldn't help but learn from that experience and to top it all off with a victory against a soon to be Test nation was I'm sure one of the highlights of all our careers."

An interesting footnote is the fact that quite a few of the participants would later come and play as professionals in Northern Ireland.

Test players Shoaib Akhtar (Strabane), Wajahatullah Wasti (Brigade), Taimur Khan (North Down), Craig McMillan (CIYMS) and Ridley Jacobs (Eglinton) all added to the rich tapestry of the cricketing fabric, while of course the Waugh twins would represent Ireland too in the following seasons.

Much of that was down to the performances of the Northern Ireland team in Malaysia, and cricket throughout Ireland has never been the same since.

NORTHERN IRELAND COMMONWEALTH GAMES SQUAD 1998

Allan Rutherford (capt), Neil Anderson, Neil Carson, Gordon Cooke, Dekker Curry, Ryan Eagleson, Peter Gillespie, Derek Heasley, Kyle McCallan, Paul McCrum, Gary Neely, Andrew Patterson, Mark Patterson, Stephen Smyth.

PARTICIPATING COUNTRIES

Antigua, Australia, Bangladesh, Barbados, Canada, India, Jamaica, Kenya, Malaysia, Nortthern Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe.

NOTABLE PLAYERS

Richie Richardson, Curtly Ambrose, Ridley Jacobs, Eldine Baptiste (all Antigua). Steve and Mark Waugh, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting (all Australia). Harbhanjan Singh, Anil Kumble, VVS Laxman, Sachin Tendulkar (all India). Stephen Fleming, Craig McMillan, Daniel Vettori (all New Zealand). Shoaib Akhtar, Wajahatullah Wasti, Taimur Khan (all Pakistan). Sherwin Campbell, Philo Wallace, Joel Garner (all Barbados).