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The most famous living Irish cricketer will be a spectator only when Ireland play their third Test match and the first against England at Lord’s today. Eoin Morgan is still basking in the glory of captaining England to their World Cup triumph. Somehow Morgan’s story is characteristic of Ireland’s cricket history. When he transferred his loyalty to England, there seemed little likelihood that Ireland would ever play Test cricket, but then, though he has made two Test hundreds for England, it is in the One-Day game that he has excelled and it is success in limited-overs cricket which has elevated Ireland to Test match status. In cricketing terms Ireland has hitherto been a poor relation. Nevertheless, an Irishman is the only person to have played first-class cricket and won a Nobel Prize – Samuel Beckett of course.
Morgan may be a spectator at Lord’s today, but two of his Middlesex team-mates, Paul Stirling and Tim Murtagh will be playing for Ireland. Stirling is an audacious hitter, notably in white ball cricket; you might call him Ireland’s Jason Roy. Murtagh has taken 800 first-class wickets which, in the absence of Jimmy Anderson, is more than anyone in the England team. Nobody is more familiar with the vagaries of the Lord’s slope than Murtagh, and nobody in English cricket, except Anderson, has had more success at the home of cricket than he has. The Ireland team also includes the lofty fast bowler Boyd Rankin who played one Test for England in the last-but one disastrous Ashes tour of Australia, and Kevin O’Brien, famous for a century made off a mere 50 balls in Ireland’s defeat of England in the 2011 World Cup. This is not a team to be taken lightly.
Cricket has a long history in Ireland. Introduced there, as in Scotland, by Army regiments, it flourished in the nineteenth century. The growth of Irish Nationalism saw it condemned as “a foreign game” like both Rugby and Association football. The Gaelic Athletics Association (GAA) not only prohibited the use of its grounds and sports facilities by “foreign” or “garrison” games, but also Rule 27 of its constitution forbade members of the GAA from taking part in such games either as players or spectators. Naturally this rule, which was not rescinded till 1971, had a damaging impact on Irish cricket which could only be a minority sport.
Irish Cricket, like Rugby Union and, for more than twenty years football, took no heed of the 1922 Partition of Ireland and remained an All-Ireland sport. Nevertheless, opportunities were limited and the only regular first-class match was the annual three-day international against Scotland. This being the case it’s probable that the majority of both Irish and Scottish cricket fans identified with England and supported England in Test cricket. This may have changed, or be changing, now that Ireland has been granted Test-match status by the ICC, a promotion that Scotland is some way short of attaining. Even so, today’s is only Ireland’s third Test and it may be some time yet before Ireland is accorded a proper 3-match Test series against anyone.
Perhaps the most famous, certainly most remarkable, match in Ireland’s earlier cricket history, was played against the West Indies at Sion Hills in County Tyrone on July 2, 1969. This was a one-day match, but not a limited-overs one, played under the usually disregarded Law which declares that cricket is a two-innings game but that the decision in a one-day match will be made on the first innings unless both second innings are completed. Anyway, the West Indies, captained by that great batsman Basil Butcher and including the tour manager, the even greater Clyde Walcott, long retired from the first-class game, batted first and were all out for 25, Walcott being top-scorer with 6. The Irish bowling figures are worth recording: A J O’Riordan 13-8-18-4, D E Goodwin 12.2-8-6-5; there was also one run-out. Ireland then made 125/8 declared and the West Indies 78/4 in their second innings, Butcher saving a bit of face with a 0. So, victory for Ireland. It was afterwards said that the previous evening the West Indies had been royally entertained at a local distillery, and may have been suffering severe hangovers.
There have been great Irish cricketers, two of whom should be following today’s Lord’s Test from whatever viewing platform Heaven provides. The first was C S (“Father”) Marriott. Strictly speaking he may not have been Irish, for he was born in Lancashire and I think his parents may have been English. But he learned his cricket at St Columba’s School in Dublin. He then went on to win Blues at Cambridge University in 1920 and 21, and then, becoming a schoolmaster at Dulwich, played regularly for Kent in the school holidays for some fifteen years. A wrist-spinner, bowling in partnership with the great Tich Freeman, he took 711 first-class wickets, considerably more than the runs he scored. In his only Test, against the West Indies at The Oval in 1933 he took 11 wickets, 5/37 and 6/59. His first victim was George Headley who was so good he was known as “the Black Bradman”, out stumped Ames, bowled Marriott. In his old age Marriott wrote “The Complete Leg-Break Bowler” a wonderful book which should be read by every boy or girl aspiring to bowl wrist-spin.
The second was J C (Jimmy) Boucher. An off-spinner who bowled at near-medium-pace, rather like Yorkshire and England’s Bob Appleyard, he played for Ireland for twenty-five years and with limited opportunities took 168 first-class wickets at an average of 14.4. He was surely good enough to have played Test cricket. After he retired in the mid-1950s he became Hon Secretary of the Irish Cricket Union and the development of the game in Ireland owes much to him. His obituary recorded that “he didn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all”. He also detested limited-overs cricket, doubtless offended by a regulation that would restrict him to a measly ten overs in an innings.
The third, still happily with us and still (I hope) playing club cricket is that most elegant of batsmen, Ed Joyce, who played in World Cups for both England and Ireland and made his one Test appearance in his fortieth year for Ireland against Pakistan. For first Middlesex and then Sussex he made more than 18,000 first-class runs with 47 centuries, each of them, I would wager, a delight to the eye. He was – is indeed – one of a family fanatically devoted to cricket, two brothers and two sisters having also played for Ireland.
Of course, over the years, Irish cricket fans might reasonably have supported Australia rather than England – and I suppose many did – for if you look at a list of Australian Test cricketers it’s full of Irish names. In my time there has been no Australian batsman better, or more exhilarating to watch, than Norman O’Neill, and, if Shane Warne is commonly called the greatest of all wrist-spinners, I have always suspected that Bill O’Reilly may have been even greater. In his 27 Tests he took 144 wickets at 22.59, and ten of these wickets were England’s greatest batsman of his generation, Wally Hammond who mastered every Australian bowler except O’Reilly. Don Bradman called O’Reilly the greatest bowler he had faced or watched. This was generous of The Don for he and O’Reilly never got on well, Bradman a Protestant of English extraction being at odds with the Irish Catholic O’Reilly. Indeed, when The Don was out for a duck in his last Test innings at The Oval in 1948, O’Reilly and his fellow Irish-Australian Jack Fingleton were said to have been so overcome with laughter that they fell off their seats in the Press Box.
So Irish cricketers have a rich inheritance and there’s a lot for them to live up to over the next four days at Lord’s.