A gentle wind blew across the Holm Field last Saturday. It brought with it a soft rain that warmed the face and settled on the scene of one of Irish cricket’s greatest victories. There are people around the world who only know the name of one Irish club, Sion Mills, hosts of that amazing victory in 1969 when the West Indies were routed for 25.
They’ve been playing the game in the Co Tyrone village since 1864, but few I spoke to at the weekend expect them to be playing there in 2019. The field was empty, and the little cricket played there nowadays is in the third tier of north-west competition. Last Friday a raft of key members resigned and there are complex issues to be resolved after the site, which includes Herdman’s Mills and several sportsgrounds, was sold to a local Euromillions lottery winner in 2014.
The listed buildings were damaged by fire in May, and the wind whistles through the broken windows of the long-closed linen mills. The cricket ground, too, is in need of some attention, investment and love. Sion Mills is emblematic of how the north-west as a whole currently feels about its standing in Irish cricket.
On the field the Warriors this season became the first to break Leinster Lightning’s five-year dominance in the first-class championship, and four of its players – William Porterfield, Boyd Rankin, Stuart Thompson and Andrew McBrine – are in the current Ireland squad. Youngsters such as Aaron Gillespie, Ross Allen and Graham Kennedy will surely follow them in time.
But all is not well in the region, and Sion may not be the only club with an uncertain future.
The north-west has long been regarded as the poor relation. It hosted its first international in 1934, Ireland’s 144th game, and they didn’t return for 30 years. The West Indies game was the last at Sion. Since Zimbabwe, in 2003, no Test nation visited the region before Afghanistan this week.
For years north-west players rarely got a look in, with the likes of John Flood and Brendan Donaghy winning far fewer caps than they merited. Paddy Gillespie played on the first NW side to win the Interpro in 1966 and although approaching 80, he still looks after the grounds at his beloved Strabane. He’s seen them all.
“Ossie changed everything”, he explains. Ossie Colhoun played for Sion and was a far-too-gifted wicketkeeper for the Dublin and Belfast selectors to overlook. He rarely missed a match between 1959 and 1979, winning a then-record 87 caps. “After that they realised the great players we had here.” Gillespie has seen all four of his sons play for North-West, Mark and Peter also playing for Ireland.
This week’s T20 series at Bready was the catalyst for an outburst of anger, with a north-west spokesman venting on the CricketEurope website about the lack of promotion (“nothing short of atrocious”) and the infrastructure provided by Cricket Ireland.
"Originally we were told that temporary seating for up to 600 people would be put in place and then that was changed to 200. Now apparently we're to get a quota of folding plastic seats instead. It has all the makings of a slapstick comedy sketch. A couple of hundred folding plastic seats around the boundary at Bready, where if the wind gets up, half of them might end up across the Foyle in St Johnston.”
Dennis Cousins, Cricket Ireland commercial director, hit back saying it had been “promoting and rolling out support for over several months. The radio campaign alone is the most comprehensive we've ever undertaken in Northern Ireland. Our digital channels have carried promotion of the series since July.”
Addressing the lack of a grandstand, he said "To keep ticket prices at an attractive rate, we have chosen to go with the same solution we have had in place for previous Afghanistan games in Ireland and other games of this size, that is providing fold-out seats."
Ironically, the hard-hitting article seemed to have the effect of galvanising support. While half the ground is closed to spectators, the rest was well-populated on a showery Monday evening.
Lawrence Moore, NWCU PRO and operations director, hears all the gripes about the national body as he goes around the grounds.
“We don’t have the playing or financial resources, or the reach of the other unions. That breeds resentment and it’s devolved down to the clubs who say ‘Cricket Ireland doesn’t care about us.’
“The main sponsors, the people who pay for and run cricket are based in Dublin and to a lesser extent Belfast and CI doesn’t want to be running up and down here dragging corporate people all this way. That’s understandable.
“But this is a well-run series and we wanted more promotion and a stand to add to the occasion. Instead we got a line of blue seats. It’s symptomatic.”
As international horizons widen, back home they’re tightening. “Numbers have dropped, as it has for all sports up here. Even the GAA has been very badly hit in participation numbers”, says Moore.
“We’ve got tighter and cleverer – we’ve invested in coaching and development officers and they cover a lot of ground.” Former India Test player Bobby Rao, and ex-internationals Gary Neely, Peter Gillespie and Stephen Smyth are all involved in developing underage Warriors.
“We’re very confident about the future,” says Moore. “We’re interpro champions, we’re developing players. Every one of our players besides Niall O’Brien is a north-westerner – and we’re providing players to other regions too.”
Next summer marks the 50th anniversary of that glorious day when Dougie Goodwin (5-6) and Alec O’Riordan (4-18) humbled the Caribbean giants and etched the name of Sion Mills in cricket history. It would be a shame if the jubilee was also an obsequy.