The inaugural European Cricket Council (ECC) Women's Under 21 Championship was staged in Dublin from August 7th-9th. Though a strong England side ultimately emerged victorious following a one-sided encounter on the final day, there were many positives to be taken from the tournament. In all, four teams competed: Ireland, England, Scotland (debut) and Holland. Ireland opened the Championship with a resounding victory against Scotland in Leinster CC From there came a hastily re-arranged fixture in Rush CC who deserve great credit for their last minute efforts to stage what turned out to be a washout, from an unplayable Phoenix Park ground and Ireland's campaign concluded with defeat to England in Malahide CC.
The Irish women's cricket scene, predominantly in the South of the country, is expanding and training/preparation methods are improving year-by-year and season-by-season. In dark-grey, soggy, prolonged overcast (fundamentally your basic Irish summer!) conditions, Ireland opened their account with an impressive display against tournament debutants Scotland. The start was delayed by close to an hour because of damp and drizzly rainfall, but when the game finally began, Ireland set their visitors a daunting tally of 310/4 off their allotted 50 overs helped mainly by some sound forceful batting throughout the order from Emma Beamish (40), Isobel Joyce (59 from 56 balls), Nicky Coffey (59 from 58 balls). The mainstay for the deluge of runs was Merrion's Cecelia Joyce whose 84 from 105 balls included a relentless pursuit for singles allied to some powerful on and offside drives. Nicky Coffey showed great timing and power off the back foot and her partnership of 120 with Isobel Joyce was as accomplished a display by both as one is likely to witness in any manner, form or context.
The Scottish bowling attack was helpless to prevent the onslaught: best of the bowling was Charlotte Bascombe (3-0-11-1) and captain Kari Anderson (10-0-46-0). The Irish side took Alison Ramsay apart and the unfortunate right arm bowler from Clackmannan CC ended with figures of (10-0-79-0). Ramsay was later run out by sharp work in the covers by Cecelia Joyce for 4. However, Kari Anderson batted her country to some respectability with an impressive 109 from 161 balls. Marianne Herbert (8-1-22-1) and particularly Elaine Nolan (8.4-1-22-2) initially suffocated the reply and Anderson was left to single-handedly carry the Scottish defence to 176 all out from 47.4 overs. Rejuvenated Ireland captain and off-spin bowler Clare Shillington finished with impressive figures of (8-2-29-2). Second highest scorer in the Scottish innings was the extras total of 49 which tells an accurate tale of the lack of batting depth in the Scottish side.
Thursday's encounter with Holland was a washout. A hastily re-arranged fixture in Rush CC owing to damp conditions in Phoenix CC's ground on Wednesday ensured a torrid, if ultimately futile headache for Tournament Organisers Ursula Lewis and John Wright. Rush CC deserve great credit for attempting to stage the contest on such short notice, particularly with an All-Ireland semi-final fixture on the Saturday, though the match resorted to a kick around (and an impressive one at that, particularly by the Dutch!) on the muddied surface.
What had been tentatively referred to as THE final all week featured Ireland against England. Ireland, having made just one change to the side who defeated Holland with Leinster's Suzanne Kenealy coming in for Merrion's Jillian Smythe, having been put in to bat in damp but brighter conditions in Malahide CC lost openers Emma Beamish (2nd over) and Cecelia Joyce (5th over) and limped to a total of 89 all out in 47.2 overs. From 6-2 to 17-3 to 24-4 off 16 overs, Ireland never really looked assured. Isobel Joyce and Clare Shillington were out to two excellent catches in gully and cover respectively. There was a steady flow of wickets throughout the innings and the highest partnership, of 30 for the 5th wicket, was between Nicky Coffey (17) and Tracey Fleming (10). Best bowling on the English side came from Jackie Hawker (3.2-2-3-2), while Beth Morgan (10-3-19-2) and Leanne Davis (10-1-27-3) bowled with both accuracy and determination throughout. Despite losing early wickets to Elaine Nolan (7-3-15-1), Isobel Joyce (3-0-17-1) and Clare Shillington (7.5-3-21-1), England rarely looked troubled nor did the outcome look to be in doubt as Arran Thompson (36 not out) and Sarah Collyer (12 not out) steered their country to 92/3 from 24.5 overs with a partnership of 44 for the 4th wicket.
Coach Miriam Grealey, who might well feel disappointed following a positive opening in Leinster Cricket Club, maintains that greater grounds for optimism have emerged for Ireland, "Unfortunately we've now lost Elaine Nolan, Clare Shillington and Carol Maguire who are over the age now but the juniors coming through are very good. The batting, I mean scoring 310 runs (Scotland) against any side with regard to the concentration that's required was impressive. Cecelia Joyce's 84 was fantastic and I was very impressed with the hitting of Nicky Coffey, 59 runs at around a run a ball which was excellent... Isobel Joyce, who hasn't played that much because of a back injury, her 59 was excellent and then Emma Beamish, as kind of the new girl into the side, scored 40 runs opening the batting against a good opening bowler (against Scotland) who they played very well. The downside that day was the bowling, whereas coming into the tournament I would have said that the bowling was the stronger side of the Irish game. The English showed us that we'll have to learn to bowl a lot tighter in the future."
What most impressed me, from something of a novice's standpoint of the women's game, was how diligent Ireland were in the field and how sharp they were in the pursuit of singles which frustrate and put greater pressure on the fielding side, a fact often lost in the men's game. Ally that to the continuous support from the sidelines and to Clare Shillington's captaincy, which Grealey described as being "Éoutstanding, she's definitely a future captain of Ireland in my opinion. Her field placing was right while her standard of bowling, along with Elaine Nolan, throughout were two of the few bowling positives" and therein lies the platform from which Irish Women's cricket can, and must surely, advance. At present, four of the current under-21 squad are full internationals: Clare Shillington, Marianne Herbert (both of Malahide) and Isobel, and Cecelia Joyce (both of Merrion) and Miriam Grealey anticipates that more will now make the step up to the senior side. The success of this tournament will stand the Irish side in excellent stead for the future, particularly following on from the success of the Irish women's senior team at the European Championships held in England last year. " This was a good season for Irish women's cricketÉEngland sent over a very strong team and so they showed Ireland a lot of respect by doing that. We thought that we had the team to beat them but unfortunately it just didn't work out on the day."
Grealey anticipates that among the current batch and others including Laura Tierney, Eimear Richardson, Rachel Kenny, Jill Kennedy and Jillian Smythe who was on the Irish panel but who didn't really play a lot in this Championship and will be included in the development squad next year, many will emerge over the next few years to compete with the more established players. Financial backing is of paramount importance to the development of the women's game as many of the English panel are paid to train and receive great backing from Vodafone: " The top 11 or 12 don't have to worry about money and they just practice all year round, whereas the Irish girls have to go to work or college. The facilities over there are huge and though we have the North County development to look forward to, more and more players will be able to train in the winter." With the women's international chapter for this season drawing to a close, the hope for the future springs eternal.