Only a handful of 20th century Irishmen could with certainty be said to have had the credentials for the top flight of cricket. Alex O’Riordan was such a one. His recent elevation to the Presidency of the Irish Cricket Union was a natural progression in the career of a man who had no need to prove his capacity in English first class county fare or in any other country for that matter. In succeeding Evans Dexter, he completes a unique family double; his late brother, Kevin, was President in 1991.
Though associated with Old Belvedere and the College, Alec, in fact, played his first senior league match in Clontarf colours. It was 1954 and a very promising fourteen-year-old got an eleventh hour call to arms. Merrion were the opposition, he clearly recalls, of what would be his only senior competitive match with Tarf. By that time, he had been six years under the guidance of the Jesuits at Belvedere College and was already wreaking havoc with bat and ball. Schoolboy contemporaries will tell you that it was not much of an afternoon outing to be moderately-talented and on the receiving end of what seemed like lOOmph deliveries coming fiendishly off 'sporting' surfaces. Similarly, when the young O’Riordan had bat in hand, and the skipper asked you to field within 20 yards range, you knew that he did not much like you, or had reasoned that your early demise would not impoverish mankind.
Old Belvedere were then a junior club, but under the captaincy of Tony Lenehan, Alec was one of the squad which clinched the Senior II League in 1956 and with it promotion to the Leinster Senior League for the following year. He would add 371 Leinster Cup and league games to the one in Clontarf trim before packing his kit away in 1988.
Examination of his Leinster statistics show 849 wickets from his trusty left hand taken at a phenomenal average of 8.88 runs. Even on today’s better pitches, he would probably have returned similar figures. He had a five-wicket haul in every sixth match. His only 10-wicket match statistics was achieved representing Ireland against Holland in The Hague in 1970. He captained his country in 28 of his 72 internationals, and he embellished excellent batting and bowling performances by securing 57 catches in the field. That is still a record, though Stephen Warke (first to 100 caps last summer) is closing fast with 51.
Irish Universities v Leprechauns 1973: Bowling to Jack Short
Though he was ‘encouraged’ to write with the right hand (as were virtually all schoolchildren at the time), his right-hand batting was born of the belief that his naturally dominant left hand should be top on the bat. Many a golfer and hurler would also subscribe to this belief. Whatever the pros and cons, his batting in the middle to high orders brought half-centuries and centuries on 74 and nine occasions, respectively, in those 372 matches. Naturally, the statistics were not as striking at international level. Suffice to note, however, that Middlesex, Kent, Leicester, Worcestershire, Somerset and Northants wanted the young O’Riordan on their books. Was he tempted? “No”. Would he have gone in today’s climate? “Yes”. I would love to have tried it for a few years. The opportunities are far greater today. With a Test cap beyond an Irishman’s boundary, frustration would have been huge. Still, it would have been nice to prove the point and then say “Goodbye”. Having graduated with a degree in chemical engineering from UCD. the reality of grinding through the romanticised English County season and being remunerated with peanuts would not have appealed to the pragmatic O’Riordan. No, Alec O'Riordan was wisely counselled, and a career with the long- established consulting engineers Delap and Waller, where he is now managing director, allowed him to enjoy his cricket more. Also, when Alec O’Riordan was an emerging talent, the days when the amateur players and professionals entered and left the playing field by separate gates were of a recent past. The residue of such a mentality would also have played on the patience.
That he would have blossomed at English county level, there is no doubt. Dixon Spence, current president of Clontarf, and, of course, a team-mate in his early days, says simply: “He was the most complete Irish player I have seen” Bobby Simpson, the current Australian coach, said during the 1961 Ashes tour, when they encountered Ireland in College Park, that they “had not met a better player on the tour”. Alec, of course, has met Simpson on numerous occasions over the years, most recently when the Australians were here two years ago. The atmosphere was carnival, but the Irish team that day were not even cavalier. They were clearly knocked out before they took the field by reputations of Alan Border and his men.
The incoming ICU president puts great store in the mental approach to the game and, while he has no intention of visiting a USA-style presidency on the coming year’s proceedings, a quiet but steely confidence will filter through. After all, he was part of the team which destroyed the West Indies (all out 25) in Sion Mills (Co Tyrone) in 1969. That prize cameo in Irish cricket history is unlikely to be re-enacted when the Windies visit Castle Avenue on July 15 next, but things are improving. Did we not fail by a mere six runs to beat New Zealand in the one-day match at Comber last year?
Dougie Goodwin and Alec O'Riordan return to the scene of their triumph at Sion Mills
Early last year, Alec O’Riordan had been in Nairobi where he saw Ireland’s first participation in the ICC Trophy World Cup qualifying event. Seventh out of 20 entrants was quite passable, but the new president is well aware that a professional type programming of the mind would have carried us more triumphantly through the fateful last three of seven matches. First, second and third in that event (United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Holland) join the nine Test-playing countries in the next World Cup finals to be played out in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The recently inaugurated Triple Crown series against England (essentially amateur), Scotland and Wales is also proving a great test of the mettle required for the new competitive era. The third match in each of the series has separated the men and boys. Before Ireland leave for the next World Cup qualifier in Malaysia in two year’s time, many weaknesses will have been addressed if Alec O’Riordan’s perception of things is put into train. In tandem with this positive thinking, Ireland captain Alan Lewis, who is also establishing himself as a rugby referee at the highest level, often noted to me last summer: “We have got to get rid of the fear of failure.” O’Riordan fully understands the physical and mental demands at the top. “I used to be drained in every way after a three-day match.” A succession of one-day matches is even more draining.
He is aware that the Northern Cricket Union’s lack of support for an All-Ireland League means that a regular proving ground must be established. There is an enormous step up from club to international level where you have to work hard for every run and wicket. Logically, an expanded inter-provincial series is required to bridge the gap. It is the route sports in the southern hemisphere take. And, haven’t they been successful. Whatever the system O'Riordan is clear on the fact that clubs may have to field on occasion without their best players to help prepare for the greater good of the Ireland team. He is optimistic about the future. As he became more and more involved in committee life, “I was amazed at the level of organisation and commitment of people involved at the various levels.”
The fact that six batsmen averaged over 30 runs during last summer’s internationals, while only one bowler averaged under 30 per wicket just about reflects O’Riordan's evaluation of current standards. “Bowling needs a lot of attention. There are quite promising bowlers about, but they lack good coaching; there is no height to their actions, for instance.” It was something of a surprise to learn that the great Frank Worrell of West Indies fame was a great influence on his bowling. “He spent two seasons of six weeks or so at Belvedere College and helped me enormously in getting the action right. And, before him, Charlie Hallows of Lancashire played a big part too.” The appointment of Mike Hendrick as the new Irish coach should help redress the worry about our bowling; the former English star took 87 wickets in 30 Tests, and 770 wickets for Derby and Nottinghamshire.
A kind of shyness in Alec O’Riordan was sometime breached by an acerbic word here and there, according to playing contemporaries. Lack of a professional attitude would, I imagine, prompt such. He would not often gladly suffer those who through their own fault remain fools. Days spent at No. 8 with the Old Belvedere rugby club (Senior Cup medal in ‘68) also helped fashion the new President. Lining out at 6’ 3” was big-time then.
So, how would he like to see Irish cricket at the turn of the century? His position is clear. “In a much stronger position to challenge the top Associate Members (20 below Test level) of the ICC. The main energies must be directed to help prepare the international squads; clubs and provincial unions must be prepared to recognise the priority. It would also be nice to challenge an English county side in the Benson & Hedges or Nat West Trophy events, as distinct from putting up a good show.”
Now that Ireland has appointed its first full-time coach, how does he view the re-introduction of professionals in Leinster? “They can be a positive influence as long as they encourage the team and individuals.” He does not want to see the ‘hired gun' who simply bats or bowls in a fashion expected and who does little for morale. Facing the better players should, he believes, bring out the best in the home-grown talent.
Pet hates? Some emotion is evident when he mentions "over exuberance (high fives, etc), constant talking on the field, overappealing, batsmen who don’t walk. They know when they have nicked the ball 99% of the time.” Have pitches improved? "Yes. though they are mostly a bit lifeless.” The square at Phoenix in his hey-day was a favourite. Always bouncy. Well, that would please any pace bowler, wouldn't it”? How about umpires? “Yes, they have improved, and their knowledge of the Laws is better.” (Often much better than in evidence during the recent Ashes series!).
Life outside cricket revolves around the family home in Dublin’s Terenure district: wife Geraldine (Hannigan) was a household name in the early days of RTE, co-presenting the popular ‘Home for Tea’ with A1 Byrne; Paul and Niall have already won inter-provincial honours, while youngest son Brian’s “world begins and ends with cricket at the moment anyway.” Daughter Fiona lends moral support. Apart from time with the family, how does Alec O’Riordan spend an ideal day? “Watching cricket, with the odd G & T to hand!”