Eden Park AucklandA couple of weeks ago, a dinner took place in Royal Belfast Golf Club to celebrate the coming of age (21 years) of the Ulster Grasshoppers. I would say of Grasshoppers cricket but then the Grasshoppers are definitely not all about cricket. I was only able to go on the inaugural tour to South Africa in 1981, captained by Graham Crothers and managed by Dixon Rose, but since then many other tours have taken place - in 1987 to Zimbabwe captained by Davy Napier; 1989 saw a round the world tour taking in Fiji, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia, captained by Alan White, managed by John Elder; in 1990 and 1995 to Zimbabwe again (captains Ivan Connelly, Ian Rankin and Alan White), 1998 back to South Africa under Sam Beckett; and most recently last year to Brazil and Argentina under Chris Yeates - just in time before the Argentine economy collapsed.

The photo at right is of the match between the Grasshoppers and the Auckland CS at Eden Park, Auckland 1987.
The right hand photo below was taken during play between the Grasshoppers and a Suva XI at Albert Park, Suva in Fiji.

Suva, FijiAll the tours have had a similar theme - let's have a good time, enjoy the country and, in the case of Grasshoppers inventor and driving force Graham Crothers, sussing out the local golf. In fact I wonder which comes first - cricket or golf? Golf, of course. The only other cricket played by the Grasshoppers has been in entertaining clubs whose hospitality we have enjoyed abroad, such as the Pirates from Johannesburg and Mashonaland Country Districts from Zimbabwe. Last season a game took place at Mullingar and it would appear to me that this ought to become a regular fixture and in fact a short tour of Ireland including other matches such as fixtures against the likes of Galway, Bagnelstown and the Irish Jockeys XI at Mount Juliet should be seriously considered.

I have to say that the Grasshoppers have filled a cavernous niche in Ulster cricket - overseas tours. The first touring side was perhaps the strongest selection including as it did several international players such as Paul Jackson, Chris Harte, Simon Corlett, John Elder, Stephen Warke, Alfie Linehan, myself as well as the captain. Unfortunately since then with Ireland's expanding fixture list international players and officials could not afford the time (or expense) to join in, but Ulster and Irish cricket have been brilliantly served by a succession of locals purely of a club level and many have distinguished themselves both on and off the field. Names such as Michael Blair, the late lamented Tom McCullough, Wally Graham, Nicky Johnston and Colin Magowan. Players from Dublin and the North West have also taken part ,notably Dick and JR Forrest, Michael Halliday, Peter Dineen and John McDevitt as well as Ian Rankin, Billy Henderson and Paul Wallace.

Harare South, ZimbabweAt the 21st dinner a couple of weeks ago I was present at the quickest AGM in sporting history. Sam Beckett stood down as Chairman and his place was filled by Andy Clement by acclamation. He then told the assembled Grasshoppers what the new committee would be and that the captain would again be Chris Yeates. Graham Crothers suggested that the next tour should be to South Africa during the World Cup next year. That was it - all over in 5 minutes!

The photo above left was taken during the game between the Grasshoppers and Mashonaland Country Districts at Harare South, Zimbabwe, in 1990.
The photo lower right is from the Invitation XI v Grasshoppers game at Auckland Park, Johannesburg.

I will never forget the inaugural Grasshoppers tour to SA in 1981. Shortly after Christmas 1980 we flew via Lisbon to Johannesburg - an 8-hour flight with free wine the whole way. Our first match was against Wilfred Isaac's XI at Wanderers No. 2 ground. We were well beaten and Billy Kirk decided that he wasn't going to leave the hotel that day, even now I don't know why.

Johannesburg Country ClubThe next match was at Johannesburg Country Club (right)against an Invitation XI including former test players John Reid and Roy McLean. Several memories still are vivid - there was a huge tree at square leg at each end, regarding which there were local rules but they surprisingly never interfered with the game. At lunch there was a tropical hailstorm which covered the ground to a depth of a couple of inches in 15 minutes. The hail stopped, the sun came out and we were playing again within 30 minutes. I lost my run up a few times after that laughing at Paul Jackson, who was sliding backwards behind the stumps as I ran in.

We then played and beat the Pirates who included 8 first class cricketers, among them Kevin Skjoldhammer who had been pro at NICC. He gave us a barbecue at his house where non swimmer Alfie Linehan nearly drowned in his swimming pool. That evening manager Dixon Rose drove us back to our hotel in the nude. Pity we weren't stopped!

Next day I drove to Sun City for the golf tournament via Soweto, where discretion only took over when I entered a street where the residents were pulling up the asphalt to fuel fires in their prefabs. Sun City lay at that time in the African enclave of Bophutatswana - it is a wonderful setting, Sevvie won the golf and some of us attended a golf clinic run by Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player - for nothing. Alfie and I played Jacko and Warkie at the Wanderers Golf Club (we lost by one hole on the 18th) but unfortunately our last game in Pretoria was rained off.

The photo below is from a Grasshoppers match in Singapore.

Following along a not uneventful drive to Durban by minibus we undertook three further games. The highlights of the leg included a day at Kingsmead for Natal versus Transvaal, a game in which we were 10 for 4 with no one else on our side left at the ground to bat - half the remainder were playing golf on the adjacent course and the rest had gone sightseeing 15 miles up the coast at Shaka's Rock. Luckily, some returned in time to complete the innings.

Some strange things happened. The manager was left in the gutter in downtown Durban after falling foul of some white South Africans and the captain and Jimmy Kirk got fed up with cricket and took to playing golf for the rest of the trip. However the most exciting part of the trip was yet to come - the journey home. Flying over Kinshasa in Zaire, our jumbo ran in to a tropical thunderstorm. At one stage it dropped 1000 feet and coffee cups actually hit the roof. The wings and fuselage were completely edged in blue `flame' and the pilot decided that he had better land in Kinshasa until the storm passed. This it did in about one hour and we took off again - only to fly straight back into the storm! It didn't seem so bad the second time.

I just hope that future Grasshoppers have as good a time as the originals did.