No matter how far Irish cricket travels in this world, and they’ve circled the globe many times this past decade, it will still always be about the club.
The lowest unit of the game is feeling pretty neglected these days, seeing little of benefit to it in Test cricket or the glittering occasions when Virat Kohli comes to town.
Cricket Ireland took a policy decision a decade ago to prioritise the men’s senior team, seeing potential in the ability of its players to forge a pathway to the top. That vision paid off, but came at a cost.
The grassroots feel neglected, and now they are starting to wither. Creevedonnell has folded, Sion Mills face a huge battle to survive, and all over the island from Terenure to Burndennett clubs are struggling on and off the field.
There is plenty to celebrate about club cricket too, and the weekend finals of the Irish senior and national cups were well contested by impressive outfits.
The word “village” is used disparagingly by players for a wide range of sins, a sneer at poor organisation, umpiring, or play. But it is two essentially village sides that stand tallest at summer’s end.
From Dublin, Rush — with a strong crop of loyal, home-produced youth — took the junior competition for the third time in four years, run close by an impressive Limerick. At one stage this summer Waringstown held all six leagues and cups that they enter.
They lost the NCU league recently but made up for it with a brilliant 85-run win over Merrion in the final of the Clear Treasury Irish Senior Cup on Saturday.
It was a strange occasion, with the infrastructure of ODIs surrounding the ground slowly being dismantled through the day. The broadcasters had packed up, the wifi disconnected, leaving Merrion player Tom Stanton using €40 of credit to beam video back via his mobile phone hot-spot to supporters in Dublin.
And worst of all, the pitch was the one William Porterfield complained about the day before. Ireland were irked about playing a game on the same strip on Monday and Friday, so imagine how the sides that had battled through to the final felt about being asked to play on it 24 hours later.
Dominick Joyce, who skippered Merrion to the final with wins over Donemana, CIYMS, Leinster and Clontarf, had a pop at Cricket Ireland after the game. “How can you not have a new wicket for a final? It’s a showpiece occasion. Was that too much to ask?” he said.
Hosting the final should be a big deal for a club, and this was the first time for Stormont, but being asked to do it immediately after three ODIs was an unfair burden. The toss decided the game as Waringstown boast three high-quality former Ireland spinners, and a fourth who played in non-cap internationals.
And when their equally-stellar top order all contributed to setting a target of 265, all semblance of a contest drifted away. It was a thoroughly convincing win by a side that is undoubtedly the best in the land, and started a conversation about who might have rivalled them.
Former Ireland player and selector Greg Molins tweeted next day: “I arrived at the ISC believing the @Waringstown team I played against as a kid in the 90s was the best club side ever. However after seeing them in action I reckon the 2018 team would come out on top.”
Michael Halliday, who played for Ireland for two decades, reckons an earlier Waringstown side was the best.
“The team with Michael Reith, Ivan Anderson and all the Harrisons would probably get my vote. They won eight cups and won or shared eight leagues in the ’70s but I would pick them as a team with six proven internationals. Reith and Anderson were two of the best players I saw over 50 years. It is a pity the Phoenix side of those years never had a competitive game with them.”
Halliday refused to put forward his own Phoenix side who won five leagues, seven cups and one Irish Senior Cup. The arrival of that trophy in 1982 has allowed clubs in all unions to measure their relative strength.
Only one Leinster side won it in the first 19 years, but the last 18 years has seen 13 Dublin wins, one by Limavady and four by Waringstown.
In the 1990s YMCA, with six internationals including two all-time greats, won seven Leinster cups and three leagues but drew a blank in the All-Ireland.
North County had a stunning run early this century, winning five Irish Senior Cups in eight years (and the only club to defend the trophy until last Saturday), four leagues and a cup in the same period.
Halliday, a keen historian, also offers: “The Phoenix sides in the 1920s with EL Kidd, and the Leinster sides with Bob Lambert who dominated the 1920s and ’30s. Jimmy Boucher plus the Quinns, George McVeagh and Jim Ganly, when they all played for Phoenix, were pretty formidable in the ’30s and later.”
My choice is the 1893 Trinity team who had nine Irish internationals (the other two were Australians) and went unbeaten all season. Captained by Clem Johnson, who later played Tests for South Africa, they won seven of their eight local games, rain ruining a perfect record, but it was on tour they showed their class.
They drew with Essex and beat Leicestershire (by 136 runs) and Oxford University (by eight wickets) but their zenith came at Edgbaston. Fifties from Dan Comyn, Jack Meldon, Lucius Gwynn and Frank Browning — the four finest Irish batsmen of the 19th century — set Warwickshire 214 to win in the fourth innings. But Johnson (four for 3) and Kerryman William McCarthy-Morrough (five for 12) bundled the county out for 15.
You won’t beat that, Waringstown.