This series of articles was first published in early 2001.
Cricket in Ireland has always been a minority sport, imported by British settlers, landlords and the army. This is, of course, true of all parts of the world where cricket is played and the same can be said of other sports which originated in Britain and were given an organised format for the first time in the nineteenth century. The oldest club still playing in Ireland is Phoenix (founded in 1830) and its colours reflect this. The green and red are the colours of British regiments stationed in Dublin at the time and the black represents the black soil of the Phoenix Park. This British connection was to have a negative effect on the development of the game after the extremely successful foundation of the GAA in 1884. Cricket was categorised, along with Football, Rugby and Hockey as a 'foreign game' and those who played it were seen as somehow less Irish than those who wielded the hurley or played the Gaelic version of football. It was not until 1970 that the GAA dropped its ban on its members playing these imported games.
The narrowness and insularity of the brand of Irish nationalism that developed as the twentieth century progressed tended to exclude from membership of the Irish nation anyone who could be tainted with things British and that could include Protestants, players of foreign games, or even writers of such note as Yeats and Synge who refused to conform to the stereotype demanded by the nationalist critics of their day. Thus one day in August 1978, in an Irish fixture in North of Ireland Cricket Club in Ormeau, Belfast, I was forced to ponder the incongruity of fleeing from a hail of stones and being described as an 'Orange Bastard' while representing my country and wearing the shamrock proudly on my sweater. The fact that cricket is one of the games that brings all thirty two counties together in one team would be lost on the youths who were firing the stones and those who a few years ago torched the clubhouse. Downpatrick Cricket Club also lost their pavilion three years ago. It is also fair to add that GAA clubs in Northern Ireland have suffered similar abuse and worse in recent times, from those who see the GAA as some sort of threat to their British identity.
Despite this rather grim picture cricket does play its part in bringing people of all classes and creeds together in the modern Ireland and politics is successfully relegated to the Recycle Bin when sport takes over centre stage. This was well illustrated by the warm welcome afforded to the thousands of supporters draped in Ulster flags who made their way to Dublin for the final of rugby's European Cup in 1999. In all the time I have been involved, as a player, manager or recently as a selector, I have come across no efforts to select or overlook players because of where they came from. Whether or not Ireland selects the best team available is always a matter for argument, but politics does not play a part.
The story of Irish cricket since the Second World War falls neatly into two chapters, the pre overs cricket period, which comes to an end with the entry into the Gillette Cup in 1980, and the last twenty years which saw the expansion of the fixture list and the appearance of a number of overs competitions. The most important of these is the International Cricket Council Trophy for those nations ranked one rung below the Test playing Nations. This is played every four years and (depending on the rules) the sides that finish in the top three in that competition will play in the next World Cup alongside the best sides in the world. That is what Ireland aspires to as it would raise the profile of the game in the country and attract much larger funding and sponsorship. Ireland were within 30 runs of qualifying for the last World Cup, in 1999, but missed out to Scotland. Predictably Scotland found the going pretty tough in the competition and there was a very heavy burden on their amateur players. However the structure and money in the game has improved as a result. By the time this chapter has been published we will know if Ireland have qualified through the ICC tournament in Toronto in July 2001. The problem for the Irish Cricket Union and the players is coming to terms with this challenge and deciding how best to prepare. The goal, outlined in a recently produced strategic three year plan, is to achieve One Day International status. Kenya have recently been accorded this standing. Bangladesh have recently become a test playing nation and the International Cricket Council are very supportive of any country which sets its sights as high as is reasonably possible. Included in this new plan is the provision of two offices in the North and South for the administration of the game and the appointment of a Chief Executive and appropriate staff. These officers would support, rather than replace, voluntary participation in ICU affairs.
The first sign that the Irish Cricket Union was serious in its efforts to keep pace with other second division cricketing nations was the appointment in 1995 of the first national coach, who was Mike Hendrick (right), the former Notts, Derby and England seam bowler. Mike introduced a much more professional approach to preparation and attitude in the national team and developed a series of promising fast bowlers. He found the amateur ethic ingrained in the Irish game quite hard to come to terms with and was frequently frustrated with unavailability and players who perhaps didn't want to make the commitment that he demanded. Winning the Triple Crown and the European Cup were the highlights of his spell in charge. In 2000 he was replaced with ex-New Zealand captain, Ken Rutherford. It is hoped that Ken, being mainly a batting coach, will mend the main weakness in the Irish team which is inconsistent and unreliable batting. It has been interesting to watch the different approach of two successful test players in dealing with a disparate group of amateurs. Management skills are vital in this job and to mould a happy and successful side is not an easy task.