Right place, right time: how New Zealand-born Arlene Kelly earned such a fast Ireland call-up

Experienced bowling all-rounder explains her Irish roots after being drafted into an injury-ravaged squad

Arlene Kelly bowling for the Auckland Hearts.

New Zealand-born Arlene Kelly arrived in Dublin just under a month ago but is already on the cusp of an international debut for Ireland. Irish sport, let alone cricket, is no stranger to those born overseas plying their trade in green, but her journey from touching down at Dublin airport to the international arena is up there with the fastest.

That wasn’t the plan, either for Kelly or the Irish coaching staff. She was only supposed to be here for a summer playing club cricket in Malahide while also lining out for the Dragons in the elite domestic game. Being closer to the home towns of all four of her grandparents for an extended period was an added bonus; Kelly has roots in Cork, Kildare and most of all Cavan where she still regularly visits.

Yet on the eve of Ireland’s series at home to South Africa (starting on Friday at 4.30pm), injuries have led to desperate times. Rebecca Stokell and Hannah Little have been ruled out, while captain Laura Delany may well be looking at playing club cricket up north in a search for game time after being injured since last November. Add to this the fact that the South Africa series was scheduled for peak school and college exam season, with the young age profile of this Ireland squad absentees were always a given. Amy Hunter is among those that fall into this bracket.

Even with the advanced knowledge of these issues, it wasn’t until Orla Prendergast - who is out for four weeks with a foot injury - went down last weekend that head coach Ed Joyce picked up the phone to reach out to Kelly. As a bowling all-rounder who has played to a high standard for the Auckland Hearts in New Zealand, she and her T20 economy of just 5.51 were more than a good fit for a break glass in case of emergency replacement. She had also impressed in her Dragons debut with an innings of 60.

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Kelly freely admits the chance to play international cricket with an Irish passport was in the back of her mind when deciding to come here, just not on this accelerated timeline.

“Sport has taught me never to have any expectations,” she says just before linking up with the Ireland camp. “While I knew I was eligible, there was never any pressure or expectation to play for Ireland. I genuinely just wanted to come out here and enjoy playing. I guess Malahide is quite a young side, so if I was able to bring in some of what I’d learned back in New Zealand and share that here, that was the aim for me.”

The fast nature of the situation means the logistics have not been worked out. Kelly has not yet been offered one of the newly minted central contracts by Cricket Ireland, but it has been made clear by Ed Joyce that if players want to come from abroad and play in green, they need to move permanently.

It has been a sticking point for unnamed foreign players with Irish passports who have reached out, as well as for Ireland’s own Eimear Richardson who has opted to stay working in New Zealand and play for Ireland on a casual basis.

Yet were Kelly to either not be offered a contract or decide not to accept one, it is theoretically possible that she could return to Auckland since other overseas players, Richardson being a case in point, do also get domestic contracts in New Zealand.

Kelly maintains that it is too early for such logistical decisions, particularly on the eve of a first series for Ireland since some of the side went professional. “Full transparency is always super important,” explains Kelly. “Those initial conversations were around just making sure I realise that if I do say ‘yes, I’m available for the upcoming series,’ what that might look like. And obviously that means I would no longer be eligible to play for New Zealand.

“I understand that. I think the opportunity to play international cricket, not many people get it. I did have to think about it. I never intended on sign for longer, but that might be changing now.

“So I have to think about it from the logistical point of view, but I’m getting the chance to play international cricket for a country which really does feel like home. I know that sounds clichéd, but even coming back and seeing family here, it feels like nothing changes.

“I don’t think it’s really an opportunity that you can say no to. As long as the body’s still working, I’m going to absolutely make the most of it.

“I haven’t experienced any negativity. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but I genuinely mean that when I say the connection here that I have with the family, that’s legit.”

The unusual circumstances around Kelly’s inclusion should not detract from the fact that she has played at a very high level in New Zealand and will bring valuable insight to a squad that was inexperienced enough as it is before the raft of absences. Does her time in well-known competitions such as the Super Smash bring an added pressure to deliver for the country of her grandparents’ birth?

“I don’t like to use the word expectation,” says Kelly. “But if I’ve got knowledge, there’s no point in me just holding it to myself. It’s worth sharing. I’ve had different experiences to what some of these girls might have had, stuff I’m able to pull from this and share that knowledge to help them grow as players and grow as a team.

“That is absolutely something that I’d want I would like to do. I’m able to contribute to the growth of those girls both on and off the field, and I think that’s massive.”

Nathan Johns

Nathan Johns is an Irish Times journalist