Minnow are small fish – Ireland now swim with the sharks
Undercut at every opportunity this band of highly skilled cricketers just keep knocking down the door
Ireland batsman Ed Joyce plays a pull shot during the World Cup Pool B game against West Indies at Saxton Oval in Nelson, New Zealand. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
First, the world referred to them by a word that describes a featureless, small fish that is used mostly as bait: minnow. Then, those in positions of strength told them they needed to jump through hoops to qualify to be part of an elite club.
When, eventually, they did all that was asked, the rules changed, making it ever harder for them to show just what they were made of. At every step of the way, the Irish who just wanted to play cricket have been undercut, and yet, without so much as a moan of discontent, they have batted on regardless.
On a sun-soaked summer day of the kind you associate more with Barbados than Belfast, Dominica rather than Dublin, a band of highly skilled, committed, determined Irish cricketers put the West Indies in the shade. This was no fluke, no freak occurrence where one man ran away with the show. John Mooney asked more questions than the average toddler, Max Sorensen held a line like an infantryman who hadn’t heard the sounding of the retreat and George Dockrell was as dependable as an All Blacks frontrow.
Ireland brought West Indies to their knees, but the Test nation dug deep, its resources coming to the rescue to put 304 on the board. Lesser teams would have wilted in the face of such a resurgence, but Ireland would not be denied on the day.
Ed Joyce, so slight of build that you might reasonably mistake him for a gymnast, showed that his heart was as stout as the old oak of Belvoir Forest. William Porterfield marshalled and marshalled his troops, Paul Stirling graduated from being fearless to putting the fear of God in the hearts of opposition bowlers and Niall O’Brien blossomed from nudger-nurdler to executioner.
Ireland are not strangers to winning games they shouldn’t. This is a country that bowled out a mighty West Indies that included Clive Lloyd and Clyde Walcott, for only 25 in Holm Field, Sion Mills, back in 1969. But, this was not a shock of any kind. Rather, it was affirmation that there was so much that was right about Ireland cricket that the world must sit up and take notice.
“In the long run, if the game has to go worldwide, then we have to get away from talking about associates and affiliates and full members,” said Joyce, having fully earned the right to do so.
“We don’t want to differentiate ourselves from the Scotlands and Afghanistans. We want them to come with us. We want the game to grow and everyone to compete on a level-playing field. That’s why we don’t like words such as upsets and minnows. We know we are underdogs; that’s different and it’s fine. We need to get away from that minnows tag.”
In 2007, when Ireland beat Pakistan in Jamaica, the celebrations were wild; in 2011 Porterfield’s Bangalore hotel room was turned into a party hall after England were disposed off; in 2015, there was a chilling calm about Ireland’s win. It was the upset everyone predicted, if such a thing is even possible.
“We’ll have a few beers,” Joyce said, but he sounded eerily like he had seen this coming. “In 2007 that was a shock win, today, we’re more professional. There won’t be any TVs flying out the window at the celebrations, let me put it that way.”
Even moments after it happened, Joyce knew exactly how crucial the result was. “We have to win. No doubt about that. We are very aware of that. The World Cup is our only opportunity to play few games in a row,” said Joyce.
“We don’t play in the IPL, we don’t have players like Chris Gayle, we don’t have guys who bowl 90mph or doosras. But, I know the teams never used to do video analysis of us before, but now they do.”
This respect has been hard earned, and even a pensive Joyce can scarcely hide his satisfaction at Ireland having reached where they have.
Phil Simmons, the once fun-loving Trinidadian, has spent eight years coaching Ireland, and he echoes the views of his players. “They don’t like it now. I never liked it. I hate it,” says Simmons of this associate nation tag. “Because to me this is the World Cup and we are all international teams.”
Simmons smiles plenty, but it was clear he wanted to puncture a few myths about how Ireland were being treated. “It’s hard to understand what we get from getting promoted. Do we get more games than earlier? In the last two years, we played 9 ODIs against top teams. From next year will we get 15 ODIs a year? If you want us to improve, then you need to give us more games. That’s why we keep making lots of noise.”
The time has come for the cricket world at large to stop looking at Ireland merely as a merry band of cricketers who turn up and try and compete. There is an urge to play this great game in Ireland, and although it may not be as primal as in other parts of the world, there is no doubt that it is worth cherishing.
It’s not so much about taking cricket to Ireland, it’s about recognising that the time has come to welcome Ireland into the cricket fold.
Anand Vasu is the managing editor of Wisden India and former chief cricket writer of The Hindustan Times.