Ian Callender (Sunday Life)
IT seemed like a good idea at the time. Graham Ford would fly to Durban to visit his family before meeting up with the Ireland Wolves squad when they arrived in South Africa for their eight-match tour – a chance for the Ireland head coach to look at the ‘next in line’ before the senior squad returned to action.
The only problem, although he didn’t know it when he boarded the flight from Dublin, was that not only had he a broken vertebra and three fractured ribs, he had also damaged his lung.
Seven weeks on, now back in semi-lockdown in Dublin, "still in a bit of pain but getting a lot stronger”, he has described the decision to fly as the “dumbest, but bravest move I've ever made”.
“I thought I would have that miracle cure, go over there and get over it in a couple of days,” Ford recalls.
“I never really had a serious injury so when something happens you think you will be ok in a couple of days, but the flight was absolute hell and as soon as I got there I knew it was not something to mess about with.”
He had injured himself when walking down his steep driveway, he slipped on the side of the pavement and landed on his side on the raised area.
“I thought it was just my ribs, but when I went for a check up in hospital in Durban they told me apart from my breaks, my lung was inflamed and that was what forced me into hospital.”
Unable to take any part in the Wolves tour he returned to his home in Malahide and was then forced to miss Ireland’s series against Afghanistan in India. They lost the series but, by winning the final match, Ireland recorded their first Twenty20 win over their Asian rivals since 2013.
“It was a helluva tough watch,” Ford admits. “I was in touch regularly with the captain and Rob (Cassell, the acting head coach) over selection etc. Modern technology makes it so easy. But the character and fight of the players shone through.
“It’s all about progress. In the West Indies series and lately against Afghanistan, the younger guys are saying ‘I can mix it with the big boys’ which is just so important for our future. We are going toe to toe with big teams and competing.
“We have some very ambitious, very determined players in the group supported by good quality older guys helping them come through, so it’s a good mix.
“It’s disappointing our summer programme has been disrupted because these guys are going to get better and better, but they need cricket to develop their game and we have had this setback. Our challenge is to try and make sure we get some decent cricket whenever things do settle."
The halting of all sport around the world could not have come at a worse time for the Ireland cricket team because the T20 World Cup is due to take place in Australia in October and Ireland’s plans to have a minimum of 12 T20 internationals this summer have already been disrupted.
A three-match series against Zimbabwe was due to start this week, four matches against Bangladesh at the end of May have been postponed and there are already huge doubts over the games against New Zealand in June and Pakistan in July.
Although sport is insignificant in the greater scheme of things at the moment, the lack of match action is the major worry for the head coach.
“We need to keep up the intensity of work rate and the development of players and this whole virus thing has knocked that back,” he said.
“If we go to the World Cup in October and three quarters of our season is wiped out, it is going to be very hard for a small nation to compete.
“If we had the build-up we had originally planned I would have backed ourselves to really compete. But you can’t complain, and if everybody stays healthy we’ll be happy with that.”
For now, Ford remains in constant contact with the players – there are 19 on full-time contracts – and High Performance director Richard Holdsworth, but there is only so much he can do.
“It’s easy to keep in touch with modern technology, you can just drop a message. We have a regular High Performance meeting every couple of days, medical staff are involved with that, keeping in touch with players, so that is all going on.
“We’ve got psychology support for all the players, we’ve got mobile fitness and some of the guys have found a way to get out and do different drills and sprints in fields, but there’s not much more we can do until things settle, because we can’t get facilities. They are all closed.
“No-one really understands the danger and impact of this thing and how easily it can spread. For now one on ones, which I would normally do, are out because you are touching balls and then you have another session with another guy, so we have to be more cautious than adventurous. But we will review that in two weeks’ time.
“Thanks to Richard who has done a massive amount of planning for scenario A, scenario B, scenario C if we start at certain times, but at the moment it is unknown how we are going to come out of this. It is a very scary situation. Thankfully, all the players are fine and long may that last.”
Into his third year in the job he adds: “I really care about every one of them, I want them to perform, so it becomes like your family,” he says.
“Once you get that going it is something very important to you. “There are challenges, it’s not anywhere near what I have experienced before (as head coach of South Africa and Sri Lanka) with their much bigger fan base, much bigger media support when every move you make people are watching.
“We have a limited top playing population but they are desperate to succeed and it’s my job to support them all. Some of the results have been so exciting against top teams – there are signs of something happening, starting to emerge. They are special guys and we show the Irish fight, we’re never down and out, like the last T20 game against Afghanistan (won in a Super Over) and for a coach to work with that is great.
“When I signed up for the job, a lot of it was my knowledge of the older blokes but in my first two weeks I was lucky enough to get along to the Under-19 sessions at North County, before Harry Tector took that squad to the World Cup.
“When I saw that, there was Harry, Josh Little, JJ (Garth), a lot of decent players so I saw what was coming through, something to work on.
“Afghanistan and Bangladesh have millions of players, so much talent, cricket is their religion and that’s what we are up against, but we can still stay up there and fight like hell. I like the challenge.”
Ford has lost his right hand man for the last two years, Rob Cassell, who could not turn down the opportunity of joining the coaching staff at the lucrative Indian Premier League – ironically set to be the next victim of this worldwide pandemic - but the coach now has the same captain across all three formats, his preferred option, in Andrew Balbirnie.
“I think that works best, he is the boss, he’s the main man, a quality bloke and very fortunate he follows on from a great captain (William Porterfield) who set great examples, and they get on well.
“Balbo has had the benefit of that and he’s really taken to it. Also with his batting over the last two years he has really stepped up in all formats. You always need your captain to lead from the front and he is doing that.”
And Ford's proudest moment so far?
“I was pretty proud of the effort and competitiveness in the Pakistan Test at Malahide, pretty proud for a day or two at Lord’s and qualifying for the T20 World Cup was obviously a goal so getting that right was pretty exciting. Good teams have come unstuck in those tournaments so you had to get the job done and it’s a relief when you do it because it was so important.”
And that’s why Ford remains excited about the future and the challenge ahead.
“When I first started, I was walking around the grounds watching club cricket, and there you speak to some of the really passionate supporters. Some of them were saying ‘the team isn’t the fighting unit it used to be’ but I think recently they are showing that.
"That last T20 game (against Afghanistan) showed that, because they didn’t make nearly enough runs but they won it. The ability to handle the pressure was so impressive because a lot of them are young kids”