Stepping out of the mire after eight protracted years

Sport is a funny entity. For the majority, it’s an avocation, but much more than an average hobby. It’s a wholehearted enthusiasm that is played as an amateur for pleasure and divertissement. On the other hand, there are those lucky enough to play it for a living: lucratively remunerated for something that millions do as a pastime. Then there are semi-professionals, devoting equal time and expending just as much effort as their full-time counterparts, but not for the riches, but as ardent athletes, for the love of their chosen field.

In an age of sporting opulence, semi-professional teams are few and far between and in most cases are powerless, with limited resources, to reach the benchmark set by their full-time adversaries. There are exceptions, however: those who embrace the full-time propensity regardless of their part-time status.

As Scottish author J.M Barrie once proclaimed: “Nothing is really work unless you would rather be doing something else.”

That couldn’t be any more applicable to the Irish women’s cricket team. A cursory glance of their strenuous training schedule, ahead of the ICC World Twenty20, and one would be forgiven for thinking it was that of the country’s rugby team. Monday: gym, Tuesday: fitness, Wednesday: training, Thursday: fitness, Friday: training, Saturday: training or rest, Sunday: training. It’s exhausting even looking at it.

But, in less than a month, they’ll reconvene at the vertex of the women’s game. It’s been a long time coming - 8 years, 11 months and 23 days to be precise - but when Isobel Joyce leads her side from the changing rooms at the Sylhet Stadium on March 25th for their opening fixture, the hours of toil and onerous itinerary will all be worth it. Those who work hard reap the rewards and they’re not prepared to let this opportunity slip.

“We’re training six or seven days a week at the moment,” Joyce said. “We’re really putting in the hard yards but the weeks are flying by and everyone’s enjoying it.”

“As a cricketer you want to play on the biggest stage and don’t want to miss out. Some of the girls have been around a while and have yet to experience it so it will be special for all of us but we’re fully focused and won’t be overawed.”

The all-rounder, who is currently ranked third in the ICC rankings, is, along with her twin Cecilia and Clare Shillington, the only players with World Cup experience on their CV. A generation has come and gone since their last appearance on the global stage in 2005 but for the spine of the side, it’s been a long and painful wait.

“I’ve always been a strong believer in that you don’t get something you haven’t earned and we simply haven’t merited qualification before now,” Joyce admitted. “People say why haven’t we been winning this and qualifying for that and it’s because we haven’t deserved it. It’s been a tough eight years but this is our opportunity now to kick on.”

Qualifying tournaments have come and gone since with little joy as apparent progress was curbed by setback after setback. Ireland were becoming victims of the sport’s increased levels of professionalism, unable to keep up with their competitors on an amateur footing.

A fresh approach was required, a new stratagem sought and a progressive blueprint was implemented with the focus on mixing youth and experience. Now, five of the squad are under the age of twenty-one. Elena Tice was just eight the last time Ireland appeared at an ICC event but now at 16-years-old, she is preparing to play a lead role on her country’s return to the big stage.

“I can’t wait, I’m so excited but it’s been a lot of hard work.” Tice, who is still in school, said. “It’s been fine for me as I’m in fourth year so that allows time off but it’s been hard for the girls who have a full-time job and have to juggle everything.”

“We haven’t got a good record in the past few years but everything has changed over the past eighteen months. The dressing room is a different place to be now, we’re such a strong unit with a positive mindset.”

That ethos has been instilled by the new coaching team of Trent Johnston and Mark Lane, who took over the reigns from Jeremy Bray after he left the post before Christmas. The increased levels of professionalism are palpable, not least because of the demanding training programme, but the results are beginning to reflect the new approach.

The recently appointed brains trust have had limited time to entrench their methods on the squad but a three-week tour of Doha in January started the groundwork for Bangladesh and Tice admits there is an overriding sense of optimism sweeping through the camp. “Both Trent and Laney have been brilliant so far and we have a whole new positive outlook that we didn’t have before. As players we have such a wealth of experience to feed off and that’s really beneficial.”

It was during the triangular Twenty20 tournament in the UAE that the confidence and sureness stems from. The sole victory of the tour - a six-wicket win over Pakistan - has superseded the profuse reversals and has installed untold belief to a side previously afflicted by constant comings and goings.

“It was a really good tour for us because there wasn’t a huge amount of pressure put on us, we just went out and played our natural game,” Joyce recalls. “That’s when the real preparation started as we got into match scenario training and everyone was sure on what their individual role was within the side.”

“We went into the match with really clear plans and when we did beat them , everybody executed their plan and that has given us so much confidence. It shows that when we stick to our plan and do what we know we can do, then we can beat anyone.”

Tice echoes those sentiments, but with just fifteen Twenty20 internationals to fall back on, the tour offered her and the younger players a lot more than the chance to rack up experience but allowed them to ascertain a definitive role in the side. The 16-year-old broke into the international set-up as a leg-spinner but under the tutelage of Johnston, has developed into a top-order all-rounder. Now, she shoulders the extra responsibility of being a vital cog in the wheel.

“Personally, I gained a lot of belief as I was given the opportunity to get out into the middle with the bat and that taught me so much and has definitely matured me as a player,” Tice says.

“It’s put a bit of pressure on my shoulders but I’m happy with my role and Trent talks me through it all before each game as well. I’m just really enjoying it.”

“As a team we maybe haven’t shown what we can do yet but we know ourselves that we’re more than capable of giving anybody a run for their money.”

The meticulous preparation that has become a fundamental part of the women’s set-up under the new coaching ticket has meant the hardened campaigners in the squad can focus on their own game and Joyce, who will win cap number 110 against New Zealand, is relishing the freedom to excel on the magnified platform.

“I’ve become accustomed to carrying the burden as captain over the past few years but I now feel less pressure because we’ve got such belief within the team,” The left-armer explains. “A lot of responsibility has been taken off my shoulders and now I can just concentrate on my cricket. Nobody really expects us to do much, so we can go out there as a team and individuals and play freely.”

Ireland begin their campaign against the White Ferns in Sylhet, a game which is preceded by a couple of warm-up fixtures, and despite the caliber of their opposition, there is no reason why the Girls in Green cannot follow in the footsteps of their male compatriots by causing an upset or two, according to the skipper. However, having endured the long and arduous journey to this point, the 30-year-old is all too aware that they need to take advantage of this opening or face slipping back into the mire.

“It’s time to kick on now and we all know that. Cricket Ireland have really supported us by appointing two fantastic coaches, a fitness coach, giving us gym time and all the resources but if our performances don’t reflect the substantial investment than we won’t continue to get it,” The leading Irish wicket taker concedes.

“We definitely think we can topple Pakistan again and having really worked on the areas we need to improve on since Doha, there is no reason why not. Twenty20 is anybody’s game and we’ll go into all the games looking to win and if we pull everything together than we’re in with a good chance.”

Just last week, the ECB announced that the England women’s team would be added to their payroll as full-time employees for the first time in a move that we see them become Britain’s highest paid sportswomen. Ireland’s World Cup opponents have similar structures in place as the women’s game continues to grow but while such contracts remain nothing more than a fantasy for Joyce, Tice and their teammates, come March 25th, none of that will matter. It will be a level playing field, the fact that they play for the love of the game and as a sideline is irrelevant.