Ger Siggins (Times Ireland)
Forget this 100-ball nonsense and imagine a new format of cricket in which nobody bothered counting runs, instead a panel of aesthetes could award points based on the beauty of the grounds. Munster would challenge for the world title, let alone the interprovincial one, every year.
The Mardyke is a special place, a well-kept ground with a strong heritage and stunning views of the sunlit uplands of Cork city. It has a rival, though, in the Oyster Oval, home of Co Kerry.
The latter traces its origins to 1872, but lay dormant for more than 40 years until the late 1980s. Two years ago it moved into a new home near the celebrated Oyster Tavern, outside Tralee. The brainchild of Dave Ramsay, the Atlantic Ocean laps the boundary and the views across Tralee Bay to Sliabh Mish are stunning on a sunny day. MCC were persuaded to visit in 2017 and returned this year.
But pretty grounds butter no pay cheques in the new professional era of Irish cricket, and Munster has to deliver on the field of play too. The biggest unions have been playing three-cornered interpros in all formats since 2013, with “Munster” admitted for the T20s last summer.
It’s Munster in inverted commas though, as few of the players come from the southern province. The trade-off for admission was that they would field those Leinster players who couldn’t make the Lightning side, meaning coach Ted Williamson had just a handful of places for local players.
The original dream of a side that locals could get behind, spearheaded by seam bowlers David Murphy, Aaron Cawley and Allan Eastwood, has never worked out. Eastwood is still bowling at a keen pace for Rush in Leinster Division 2, while Murphy has been playing with Oxford MCCU and Warwickshire 2nds, but neither could find a place with their native province.
“I could understand it if it was a franchise operation being based there but picking three locals and calling it Munster… it’s not really Munster is it?” asks Eastwood.
“If I was a supporter going down and seeing a side not born or based in Munster… well, they could have called it a Development side.”
Peter Dineen, a former Munster player, is pragmatic about this. “I brought my young lad to watch Munster Rugby, he didn’t care that Christian Cullen or Dougie Howlett weren’t born here. But we do need more of a Munster flavour and greater player identity with the province. We missed an opportunity in the first year when we should have made Allan Eastwood captain.”
Although the Munster Reds main role has been giving experience to the likes of Jack Tector, David Delany and Stephen Doheny, it has also drawn in those with Munster roots such as Robert Forrest and Max Neville. The best local youth, notably Diarmuid Carey, Murtaza Sidiqi and Seanan Jones, have also been blooded.
In 2017 the Reds lost all their games but finished this season with two excellent wins over Leinster Lightning and North-West Warriors. That provoked hopes of more opportunities but a Cricket Ireland spokesman said this week that “the inclusion of the Reds in the IP50 remains an ongoing objective of growing the competition, but it won’t be on the cards for 2019.”
Robert Duggan, Cork County batsman, sees progress in their own hands. “The Reds have certainly made waves this season with two big wins in the T20 Festival in Dublin, and it's great that some of our players have been able to contribute to this success. Ideally, we'd like to see more of the local players get that opportunity to step up, particularly, with some of the Cork County players performing regularly at Leinster league level also. However, the onus is on our own players to perform and Munster Cricket as a whole to provide suitable foundations in which these players can flourish.”
Dineen is disappointed that a youth structure has still not been organised after years of talking. “We have about 150 young players and they play almost no cricket among their peer group. Playing in Division 4 with adults means they don’t get enough opportunities and that makes the learning process slow.”
The talent is there – the province’s U15s played in the Leinster club competition and reached the cup final, and also beat Leinster in a T20. It’s hard playing cricket in Munster, with more travelling than in any other Union.
Take Waterford and District, who played five away games this season in Division 3 – at Limerick (a distance of 140km), two in Cork (130km and 127km), Lismore (63km) and Kerry (207km). That’s 1,300km return, or over 800 miles in old money. A couple of promotions and they could face a 460km round trip to Galway. Some Leinster sides never travel beyond the M50.
A new facility has taken root in Waterford IT, while Limerick are developing a grass square at Adare Manor. There are hopes an Academy might be established at a school ground in Cork.
This summer saw a first Munster side reach the final of a Cricket Ireland competition, with Limerick giving Rush a good game in the National Cup decider.
“They’re are a quality side,” says Eastwood. “They’ve some excellent players and would do well in Leinster Division 2.”
Down at the Oyster Oval Kerry celebrated its first Munster Senior Cup to add to the Junior Cup. Their seniors are captained by Yaqoob Ali, a Pakistani who only played tape-ball cricket at home and was introduced to hard balls in Kerry. He went on to win two Ireland ‘A’ caps and represent both Munster and Leinster.
A name to watch there is Awais Saghir, who made four centuries in 2018. With Co Clare and Shannon recently folding, only the north-western corner of the six counties is currently without a club.
Munster are looking beyond their own boundaries to Leinster, however, where Cork County play in Division 2 while a development side, Munster Heat, had a good run in the T20 Cup.
The passion is there, the talent is there. Munster will get there.