It wasn’t the first or last St Patrick’s Day to start with a throbbing head, but this would be different to any March 17th before or since – by a long chalk.
A busman’s holiday to the 2007 Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean involved detailed planning among our travelling party: mine included doing just enough work to pay for my flights and accommodation, with some dollars left for a Red Stripe or two, and a few face fulls of jerk chicken, rice and peas. I didn’t even bring a laptop. Come to think of it, I didn’t even own a laptop.
It was a long-held dream to visit Jamaica, with a love of reggae and dub music from a young age passed down from elder brothers firstly and then passed up from my younger brother, who still possesses an A to Z of the music from the island. Add in a love of the malty flavour of the aforementioned Red Stripe beer picked up over a summer of trying to avoid work in London in the early 90s, and this was going to be the perfect trip.
And all the better if Ireland could put up some big performances, perhaps grab a win against Zimbabwe in the opening game, or put it up to Pakistan or hosts, the West Indies. And all at one of the great cricket grounds of the world, Sabina Park in Kingston, with the wonderful backdrop of Blue Mountains and the constant rhythms of Marley as the soundtrack.
Based in the cruise ship stopover of Ocho Rios on the east of the island, the plan was to commute the 90km for each of the games, which involved a 5.45am departure for a three-and-a-half hour rocky road bump-and-grind to Kingston town.
But boy was it worth it for Ireland’s opening clash with Zimbabwe as opener Jeremy Bray’s unbeaten knock of 115 stamped him in as the first of many memorable Irish entries in the Cricket World Cup scorebook.
And if the world wanted to know just what Ireland was going to bring to the party now that they had finally made it to the biggest stage of all, they learned quickly that excitement would be part of the package as Adrian Birrell’s men dragged back the African side to claim a thrilling tie, just the third in the history of the World Cup up to that point.
The holiday part of things started to recede in the rearview mirror from there on, with a relocation to Kingston required ahead of the meeting a Pakistan side who had to win the game after losing the opening game of the competition against the hosts.
The night before the game an invite arrived for the small group of Irish media to attend a drinks reception hosted by the Pakistan team. Soon after entering the room, it was obvious why the invite had been extended as Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer entertained us with yarns from his playing and coaching career, with the Pakistan media keeping their distance on the other side, leading to a surreal atmosphere.
Little did we know then that 36 hours later, the levels of surrealness – and indeed tragedy – would move to another level altogether.
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The delights of a Friday night in Kingston were fully mined, with the resulting sore head and failure to set an alarm meaning a desperate scramble to the ground. Arriving via the party stand, where the vast majority of the 1,500 Ireland fans – the original Blarney Army – were already in full voice as Trent Johnston took the wicket of Mohammad Yousuf after a partnership of 41 for the third wicket.
What? wait? Pakistan three wickets down against Ireland . . . on a green wicket . . . at Sabina Park . . . on St Patrick’s Day. Best. Dream. Ever.
Tempted to stay with my mates Derek and Arthur and enjoy the party and a few rum straighteners, I instead made my way to the outdoor press box to join my colleagues and watch on in open-jawed wonder as Ireland skittled the former world champions for 132; sub fielder John Mooney receiving a huge cheer with his football solo in front of the party stand after catching Umar Gul in the deep off Kyle McCallan to complete the deal.
The Ireland team, including a 20-year-old Eoin Morgan, were outstanding with the ball and in the field, with all six bowlers taking wickets, led by Boyd Rankin’s three for 32 and an incredible spell from Andre Botha, who took two wickets for five runs from eight overs of the most accurate and disciplined bowling I had ever witnessed.
The scoreboard was as hard to digest as the dried jerk chicken in the press canteen, but little did we know that Johnston was at that moment giving one of the great half-time team talks in Irish sporting history, as he cajoled his team-mates that victory and a place in cricketing history was within their grasp.
What was also within sight was a place in the Super Eights and an extended stay in the Caribbean, with visits to Guyana, Barbados and Grenada; Johnston brilliantly asking each of his mostly amateur players whether they wanted to go back to jobs as painters and postmen, telling them he certainly had no intention of going back to Dublin anytime soon to sell fabric.
Niall O’Brien was one of a number of Irish players who were full-time professionals in England in 2007. A fiery wicketkeeper batsman who never saw a battle he didn’t like the look of, the 25-year-old was to prove the difference between the sides with a ballsy, defiant knock of 72 against a top-quality Pakistani attack that were also licking their lips at the green-tinged pitch.
It was as tense and fraught a few hours as I had ever witnessed at a sporting event, with Pakistan taking the early wickets of Bray and Morgan before a vital third-wicket stand of 47 between Niall O’Brien and fellow left-hander William Porterfield brought the score to 62, almost halfway although it didn’t feel that way at all.
In the circumstances, every run felt like two, with every boundary came a great release of pent-up stress from the Irish supporters in the party stand as the Marley greatest hits CD got another spin.
Rock steady through it all was Niall O’Brien and when he was joined by younger brother Kevin, the second key partnership of the innings got underway as two Sandymount men brought Ireland into three figures and within sight of their target.
Niall O’Brien decided to up the tempo with the game’s only six but trying to do it again from Shaoib Malik’s next delivery, he danced down the pitch only to be stumped by Kamran Akmal, ending a 107-ball innings of brilliant defiance and no little skill.
Text messages pinged in from home informing us that packed pubs were getting over the disappointment of Ireland missing out on a first Six Nations title in a dozen years after France’s late try against Scotland by realising that a) Ireland had a cricket team playing in the World Cup; and b) that they were within touching distance of causing the biggest upset in the history of the tournament.
It wasn’t yet time for the bubbly to be ordered though, as the departure of Niall O’Brien was followed in the next over when Andrew White and McCallan went in back-to-back deliveries to leave Ireland on 113 for seven, still 20 runs short of the line.
Easing the tension
With 15 overs to get them, there was no rush and the excruciating tension rose as Kevin O’Brien and Johnston got their heads down, three runs coming off the bat in the next 23 deliveries as Gul put in a brilliant display of bowling, O’Brien easing the tension with a boundary four to get the target to six before Ireland battened down the hatches again
Having talked the talk at the interval, it would be Johnston who had the last shout as he lofted Azhar Mahmood over the long-on boundary and into the frenzied party stand, who didn’t need to see the famous bent fingers of umpire Billy Bowden reach towards the Sabina Park sky.
It set off one of the great parties in Irish sport, as team and supporters joined in convoy back over the Blue Mountains to Ocho Rios and a Paddy’s night session at the Sunset Jamaica Grande of legendary excess at the all-inclusive bars of the resort.
It didn’t end until sunrise the next day, the dawn of a new era for Irish cricket.
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