By Damian Dolan
Alan Lewis recalls seeing Irishmen shedding a tear or two the last time Ireland’s cricketers played at Lord’s Cricket Ground. And that was ‘just’ for a one-day international against England two years ago.
Those scenes are likely to be repeated this week as Ireland’s cricket team return to St John’s Wood to play the country’s first-ever Test match with England (24-27 July).
It will be Ireland’s third Test match since gaining full Test status in June 2017. The end, and beginning, of a long road.
“I remember two years ago there was a number of Irish people with tears in their eyes watching the team, and the team itself,” former Ireland cricketer Lewis told the Irish World.
“To think, here they were in a recognised ODI against their closest neighbours with all the associations between Ireland and England.”
He added: “The goal of obtaining Test match status, which was only a dream 15 years ago….it’s now a reality. A Test match against England was always at the back or our minds.”
The last 10-15 years have seen Irish cricket take great strides on the world stage. World Cup ODI wins over Pakistan (2007), England in 2011 and Kevin O’Brien’s century and the West Indies (2015).
Those successes helped fast-track Ireland’s quest for Test status, which was realised against Pakistan at Malahide last year. A special occasion aluminated by another Kevin O’Brien ton.
Lord’s this week is another important step in the extraordinary journey that is Ireland Cricket, which has taken it from an obscure sport in the public’s consciousness, to a mainstream one.
But for the purists of the game, this week’s first-ever Test match between Ireland and England at the ‘home’ of cricket will be the pinnacle of that journey.
And not just for those 11 lucky men who get to walk through the Long Room and out on to the hallowed Lord’s pitch, but for the likes of Lewis, who made his debut for Ireland in 1984 and enjoyed a 13-year career.
“There are so many tentacles of Irish society in the UK that it’s just going to be a marvellous occasion for everyone. I can’t wait to be there for the first ball to be bowled,” said Lewis.
“There are so many people coming over from Ireland – the interest in the game is massive.”
Following his retirement from the game at the age of 32, Lewis went on to find fame as a rugby international referee.
An extra dimension has been added by Eoin Morgan’s World Cup winning exploits for England – having previously wielded a bat for Ireland on the world stage.
Irish cricket fans have shared in the Dubliner’s success says Lewis.
“It certainly made everyone in Ireland pretty proud of everything he’s achieved,” he said.
“The fact that Eoin is captain gives the whole thing a complete and utter lift. They sense they’re a part of it.”
There is no better time, therefore, for Will Porterfield’s Ireland to be playing England – sandwiched between a fabulous World Cup final and the start of an Ashes series between England and Australia.
Ireland’s captain, 34, made his debut in 2006 and along with Kevin O’Brien was in the Ireland team that famously beat Pakistan in Jamaica on St Patrick’s Day a year later. It was the moment most Irish people discovered cricket.
<center><blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>🎙 TWO MINUTES WITH: We catch up with Chair of National Men’s Selectors <a href=”https://twitter.com/Whitey631?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@Whitey631</a> at the <a href=”https://twitter.com/HomeOfCricket?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@HomeOfCricket</a>.<a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/BackingGreen?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#BackingGreen</a> ☘️🏏 <a href=”https://t.co/cEr0pGqHWg”>pic.twitter.com/cEr0pGqHWg</a></p>— Cricket Ireland (@Irelandcricket) <a href=”https://twitter.com/Irelandcricket/status/1153598358847741953?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>July 23, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js” charset=”utf-8″></script><center>
Ireland and Middlesex bowler Tim Murtagh has taken 800 first class wickets and Lewis says the paceman will be chomping at the bit on his home ground of Lord’s.
Played two, lost two is Ireland’s Test match record – that inaugural loss to Pakistan (by five wickets) followed by defeat to Afghanistan.
“They’ve just got to go out and do the best that they can, no different to Pakistan when they gave themselves a glimmer of hope of actually winning it,” said Lewis.
“I’m sure they’ll have it in their minds that they can do something similar again.”
Lewis added: “We’re very much at a watershed in our development now as a lot of the main players have since retired, the likes of Niall O’Brien.
“But there are exciting new young players coming through and a few of them will be on display at Lord’s.”
Irish cricket has the potential to make a real mark on the world stage and Lewis believes they should look no further than New Zealand, who reached the World Cup final on a budget “less than Surrey County Cricket Club”. £5 million less to be precise.
Since 1999, when they made sweeping changes to their cricketing infrastructures, New Zealand has enjoyed consistent performances in all forms of the game.
They were recently described by journalist Tim Wigmore in The Telegraph as “pound-for-pound, the most impressive international cricket team in the world”. A nation punching above its weight on the world stage.
The population of New Zealand is 4.7 million. Ireland’s is 6.5 million. Lewis says Ireland should be “aspiring to be the next New Zealand”.
“We’ve done remarkably well in terms of the growth of the sport, but you have to be realistic,” said Lewis.
“We will continue to be behind [soccer, GAA, rugby], but it doesn’t sap the enthusiasm and energy of a new band of cricketers who’ve come to the table.”
He added: “Irish cricket has successfully done that over the last 15 years, and the hope is we can drive that on. But in any transitional period, or in any investment, the great conundrum is that everyone wants everything ‘now’.
— Cricket Ireland (@Irelandcricket) July 23, 2019
“But if you’re going to invest in your future you’ve got to be thinking five, eight, ten years ahead.”
The immediate future is a Lord’s Test match starting on Wednesday.
Andrew White, Chair of Ireland’s National Men’s Selectors, recently called on Irish cricket fans – “home-based and ex-pat alike” to come out and support the boys and “turn Lord’s green”.
Lord’s isn’t too far from Kilburn, Cricklewood, Neasden and the like. Ireland’s cricketers won’t be lacking in support, that’s for sure.
Ireland Test squad vs England: William Porterfield (Captain), Mark Adair, Andrew Balbirnie, Andrew McBrine, James McCollum, Tim Murtagh, Kevin O’Brien, Boyd Rankin, Simi Singh, Paul Stirling, Stuart Thompson, Lorcan Tucker, Gary Wilson, Craig Young.