Interview- Reuben Wilson: 'My mother got the call-up, I was probably playing Playstation'

Ireland U19 bowler on being robbed of Baby AB's wicket, Lightning debut and road back from injury ahead of upcoming World Cup

We kick off a busy 2024 with an interview with Reuben Wilson ahead of Friday’s U19 World Cup opener. If you’ve forgotten, Wilson was the 15-year-old seam bowler at the last World Cup who broke onto the scene by threatening to tear through South Africa’s top order.

Since then, he has become a fixture in the YMCA 1st XI and has made his professional debut for the Leinster Lightning. Wilson is something of a rarity in Irish cricket - a young fast bowling prospect to be excited about.

With this in mind, I spoke to him before he flew out to South Africa for the upcoming World Cup…🏏

Looking back, hindsight has turned a scene of frustration into one of hilarity.

Two years ago almost to the day at the U19 World Cup, Dewald Brevis, the talented South African batter who was already earning comparisons to AB de Villiers, saw a delivery canon into his pad. The culprit was Ireland’s Reuben Wilson - a seam bowler then, rather than fast. He was only 15.

The ball-by-ball commentary on Cricinfo described the impact as 'plumb in front’. Judging by the appeals, Wilson and his Irish colleagues agreed. The umpire said no.

Up in the stands of the Brian Lara Stadium in Trinidad & Tobago, one member of the Ireland backroom staff, renowned for being a reserved character, launched his notebook skywards when he watched it back on a laptop. Moments later, when the replay reached the big screen, another Irish coached looked over at a friendly colleague on the South African balcony. The latter couldn’t bring himself to meet his gaze.

Brevis was, at that point, on 2 off 8 deliveries. South Africa were 18-2 four overs into the game, Ireland sniffing an upset with two early wickets. ‘Baby AB’ went on to score 96, putting on a stand of 118 for the fourth wicket with his captain George van Heerden. It’s not quite as simple as saying, if Brevis had been given out, Ireland would have gone on to win that game, given van Heerden did pass three figures himself (111). But it nonetheless left a sense of what might have been in a contest that was targeted by the Irish coaching staff as their best chance of an upset at that competition.

Two years on, Wilson, now 17 and preparing for his second World Cup, remains diplomatic about the incident: “The umpire’s call is the umpire’s call.”

When pushed further, he does offer more, albeit the politician’s veneer doesn’t fold. “I had one nip back a little bit, could have been a different story if it was given out.

“Sure look.”

Two years on, Wilson is of the opinion that he was lucky to even be bowling at players of Brevis’ caliber. Less than four months after that World Cup, the South African was playing for Mumbai in the IPL.

Aged 15, Wilson wasn’t really supposed to be at that tournament. He didn’t play in the qualifiers or go with the squad on a pre-tournament training camp to Spain. He hadn’t even played first team club cricket by then.

But Ireland were short of seamers. Wilson was asked to an informal net. After that, a training session with the U19 squad as a whole. After that, he was given a plane ticket to the Caribbean.

“I had heard of the U19 World Cup but I didn’t have an eye on it,” explains Wilson. “The more daunting thing was I didn’t know anyone on the team, I was just getting on the plane.

“I got there and I was mesmerised by the facilities, different players, the standard of cricket. Getting on a bus and showing up to an international ground, I loved it really.

“I was 15 at the time. Getting thrown in didn’t seem overwhelming because I didn’t have that much pressure on me so I was just told, ‘Go on and do what you do, sure look if it doesn’t come off it doesn’t come off.’ Luckily for me it went pretty well.”

Things went better than expected, both from Wilson’s point of view and that of the coaches. He was taken as a development prospect, someone with promise who wasn’t taking up a slot at the expense of a more developed seamer because there wasn’t anyone else.

The plan wasn’t for him to feature heavily at the tournament. Not until the final warm-up game against Zimbabwe where Wilson took five wickets. The coaches realised their hunch was correct; the 15-year-old had something.

“We played four games against Zimbabwe and I didn’t play the first. I remember sitting there watching. They were good players, but they’d only really attack your bad balls. I just thought if I bowl boring, play boring cricket, they’re gonna do something stupid eventually.

“When I got my chance… that’s what I did. Luckily some of them missed a few, nicked a few. That game gave me the confidence to know I can do this at this level, I’m not just here for the experience, I can play.”

That conviction didn’t quash all of his nerves. There are some particularly daunting memories of the scenes prior to that South Africa game a few weeks later.

“I remember I locked myself in the toilet about half an hour before the game started and… I don’t even know how to describe it. I’m sitting in this massive changing room in the Brian Lara stadium with loads of guys who, I had been on tour with, but I didn’t know before I went on tour.

“I’m playing against South Africa and the night before we’d analysed their openers and I’m just watching them whack the ball.

“It was more getting the panic out of my system, then playing simple, boring cricket. My first over wasn’t that good, but the last ball of my first over I got the ball exactly where I wanted, took a wicket. Once you take a wicket, you settle down.”

Wilson nicked off one of the South African openers with an out-swinger, trapped Brevis with a nip-backer - albeit without the reward - then returned in the 12th over to clean bowl Gerhardus Maree with another delivery that moved back in off the seam.

With each wicket, the testosterone-fuelled roars of the Irish teenagers grew louder and louder. Perhaps a release of all that nervous energy.

“I hadn’t planned any of the celebrations, I don’t think I’ve done that before in my life,” he says, laughing. “I don’t know what I was doing. I was more shocked than everyone else.

“In that World Cup I was conscious of soaking up as much of the experience as I could. I remember bowling a ball in the back end of the innings, it nipped away just over the top of fifth stump. He picked it up straight over mid-wicket for a massive six. Bowling that ball and him whacking me I was thinking, ‘This is so cool.’

“Having a chance to bowl to those guys, whether you get them out or not you learn so much. It was less about what I had to do and more about what I can learn from this.”

Those who don’t get to watch Lightning games may not have seen Wilson bowl since that last World Cup was shown on Sky Sports. Two years older, Wilson is quicker now, but he doesn't describe himself as a prospect with an abundance of raw pace.

“I’m a skills bowler. I’m doing a lot of work in the gym so who knows what I’ll get on the radar, but I wouldn’t be concerned if I wasn’t knocking guys on the floor with pace.

“When I bowl my first over I try show a few things, bring one back in, bowl a wobble seam, try get something out of the pitch. Having shown a batter those things, they’re playing in the back of his mind. Playing with uncertainty is where I’m going to get wickets.”

The learnings from his first World Cup experience saw Wilson earn a first Leinster Lightning call-up at the back end of the following summer.

Well, he earned the call-up, but wasn’t old enough to receive it.

“My mother got a call from Nigel Jones [former Lightning head coach], I don’t know what I was doing, probably playing Playstation or something. She came down to tell me I was going to Pembroke for a T20 festival.

“Again, similar to that U19 World Cup where I’ve just been thrown in, now I’m in a changing room, my chair was beside Josh Little’s, I had Harry Tector and Balbo [Andrew Balbirnie] in the tent. That was about soaking up as much as I could and watching the cricket. That was when I thought I really could play here next season.”

He was right, making a full debut in the first List A game of the following season against the Northern Knights. On the scorecard, Wilson’s figures took some punishment as Neil Rock went off on the Lightning attack, only the card from that day doesn’t tell the full picture.

In his first few overs, Wilson caused plenty of problems for Ruhan Pretorius. He found the outside edge on a number of occasions. There were a handful of drops, another that flew through the cordon.

Most fast bowlers would react with understandable rage. Wilson simply couldn’t. He was 16 and the cordon was, let’s just say not a group any teenager would easily express displeasure at. The wicketkeeper? Lorcan Tucker. First slip? Harry Tector. Second slip? George Dockrell.

“That was hard to be angry about,” says Wilson, again laughing. “Inside I was thinking, ‘If I was five years older I’d be spraying them.’”

Two days later, Wilson played against Munster. This time the scorecard looked much better, a maiden List A five-wicket haul announcing his arrival onto the interpro scene.

“It took us 30 overs to get a wicket, my first bowl was not good. I got thrown the ball again in the middle overs, bowled a decent over, nothing special and at the end of the over I had three wickets. It was all momentum that started taking over, I didn’t feel like I was controlling my body.”

That one over saw the dismissal of Ireland international Murray Commins, Ali Frost, and then Curtis Campher for a golden duck.

“I’ll take that.”

“When I got that fifth, Tim Tector ran at me from point, everyone got around me even though Munster had won the game by that stage. That was an experience I still fall back on. Those types of feelings are why we play, it makes me work hard, do my rehab and get back to have those experiences.”

The mention of rehab brings us to the one significant obstacle Wilson has faced in his young career to date. His season this summer was cut short by a back injury, initially thought to be a stress reaction rather than a stress fracture.

He has dealt with pain on and off for the last two years. Only midway through the summer, it got to the stage where he had to stop bowling for his club. He took four weeks off but still travelled with the U19s to England in August where he could progress his recovery by returning to bowl in the nets.

Things still weren’t right. Worried that he didn’t feel as his physio said he should, Wilson went for further scans. The results showed the initial diagnosis was incorrect. He had indeed suffered a stress fracture. Given he had taken a number of weeks off prior to that, it had already started healing.

“That knocked me back again. Those first four weeks felt like ages and getting told you were at the same place you were four weeks ago wasn’t great. Then I had another period, six weeks, until I started walking in and two weeks later I started bowling.”

Now fit and well for Ireland’s World Cup opener on Friday against the USA, Wilson has arguably gone from Ireland’s most inexperienced player at the last tournament to one of the few with a decent number of of List A games under his belt.

Add to this Ireland’s preparation. Having reached the plate final in 2022, they didn’t have to qualify this time around, meaning a settled schedule that was not subject to the whims of a qualifying event. The highlight of recent months was undoubtedly beating England in August.

“We set out a plan a year ago and stuck to it,” explains Wilson. “Even with myself and a few others being out for a few weeks, we have gelled and I still think we can do pretty well.”

Despite having played a high level of cricket for a 17-year-old, it is still an experience from early in his career that Wilson leans on for success, one that came as a 14-year-old for YMCA even before the last World Cup.

“My 2nd XI debut couldn’t have gone worse. That was because I thought I had a point to prove because I had been promoted from the 3s, I should be doing something here.

“After that 2s debut went bad, I thought ‘These guys aren’t expecting much from me’ and that’s something I’ve fallen back on whenever I’m feeling the pressure of high expectations. I tell myself I know how to bowl, I’ve taken plenty of wickets and the less I think about it the better it goes, really.

“It’s the same with a lot of bowlers, the more you overthink the more it can go wrong.”

Because of what happened at the last World Cup, there are expectations of Wilson and others who showed promise, such as captain Philippe le Roux. Yet that success has brought with it the chance to develop the tools for dealing with pressure.

All of us, Wilson included, eagerly await the results. Only this time, maybe umpire’s luck might be on his side.


This article first appeared on the Part-Timer and is reproduced by kind permission of the author (@nathanrjohns)

This page has been something I sporadically use to write about what I find interesting within Irish cricket for a while now, without ever being a consistent place to come to for content.

During the recent men’s series away in Zimbabwe, I committed to publishing pieces more regularly, more as an experiment than anything. Thankfully, readers responded well, and the audience grew.

With that in mind, in 2024 I’m committing to writing more regularly on The Part-Timer. There won’t be regular match reports. Instead, this will be a mix of player interviews, analysis, opinion and audience engagement (eg the recent mailbag) that you won’t find in a newspaper or on other sports websites.

This will only be as good as you, the reader, thinks it is. If you have ideas for the content you want to see, please share. Let me know on Twitter/Threads/Bluesky (@nathanrjohns).