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Trent Johnston: The pioneer of Irish cricket

Trent Johnston © Getty Images
Trent Johnston © Getty Images

Born in Australia on April 29, 1974, Trent Johnston became the first person to lead Ireland in international cricket. A quality all-rounder who led by example, Johnston remains one of the biggest names in the history of the sport in Ireland. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at the man who helped take Irish cricket to the next level.

Sabina Park was not really buzzing with excitement that day. The tickets were overpriced, but more importantly, nobody in Kingston cared much for a bout between Zimbabwe and Ireland anyway. Though Jeremy Bray’s unbeaten 115 had taken the Irish to 221 for nine, Zimbabwe seemed to be cruising along thanks to a brisk start from Vusimuzi Sibanda and a partnership between Stuart Matsikenyeri and Brendan Taylor.

Even after Taylor’s departure Matsikenyeri seemed to take Zimbabwe easily to victory: they required a mere 15 from six overs with four wickets in hand. Anything but a Zimbabwe victory seemed improbable as David Trent Johnston decided to replace Kevin O’Brien with himself.

Brent blocked the first two deliveries, was beaten off the third, and defended the fourth as well. He pitched the fifth one as well, to which Brent responded with a heave: he missed. The last ball fell just short of point, and the batsmen changed ends. Johnston had conceded a solitary run.

Andre Botha responded brilliantly from the other end, allowing a couple of singles. This time Johnston was up against Matsikenyeri: the first two balls were hit straight to the fielder, and when a desperate Matsikenyeri tried to steal a single off the fifth he was almost run out, had Kevin O’Brien hit the stumps.

A ball and a single later Brent was back on strike: two yorkers, no run. Johnston’s spell read 2-0-3-0. Some confusion, tight bowling, and terrible hara-kiri saw the match finish in a nail-biting tie.

The next match at Sabina Park really saw Johnson at his best: he first got Mohammad Yousuf, caught by William Porterfield at backward point; and then, after Pakistan set a mere 133, two late blows from Iftikhar Anjum reduced the Irish to 113 for seven as Johnston walked out to join Kevin O’Brien.

Inzamam-ul-Haq pounced on the pair with all his power, rotating skilfully between Mohammad Sami, Umar Gul, and Anjum. Runs came in a trickle, but with six to go, Johnston had an almighty heave over Azhar Mahmood’s head, straight over the long-on fence into the crowd. Pakistan had been knocked out, and the Grand Old Man of Irish cricket had come to the party on St Patrick’s Day.

It was not over for Johnston, though: he wanted to win another one before his return to Ireland. He picked out the easiest prey; he promoted himself at six to go after the bowling against Bangladesh at Kensington Oval, scoring 30 off 23; then he clean bowled Tamim Iqbal, and finished things off by running through the defence of Habibul Bashar.

Johnston’s dream had come true: three Test teams, two wins, one tie; what more could an associate ask from his debut World Cup?

The player

Few people have moulded Irish cricket the way Johnston had. Before the 2007 World Cup news related Irish cricket had mostly been restricted to Alec O’Riordan Dougie Goodwin had routed West Indies for 25 at Sion Mills in 1969. The banner “IRELAND: WATCH OUT FOR US IN 2003” during the Bangladesh-West Indies encounter in the 1999 World Cup at Dublin was probably more out of desperation than anything else.

A group of Irishmen had decided to turn the tables around at the turn of the millennium; and Trent Johnston was among the foremost of them.

He bowled at a brisk pace off an easy run-up, and could generate more pace and bounce off the track than his apparently innocuous action suggested. He was more accurate than devastating, but had the knack of breaking partnerships at crucial junctures, following which he almost always broke into the chicken dance that fans have associated with him over the years.

A lower-order batsman who could accelerate if he wanted to, Johnston can easily be classified as a bowling all-rounder. He could hit them big — an ability that fetched him an excellent career strike-rate. Despite playing most of his international cricket in the mid-30s, he was also an outstanding fielder.

From 67 ODIs Johnston had scored 743 runs at 19.55, but here comes the astonishing statistic — he scored them at an average of 94.7. He also finished with a tally of 66 wickets at 32.04 and an excellent economy rate of 4.33. Barring Shaun Pollock, Johnston is the only player in the 21st century to have done the 500 runs-50 wickets double with a batting strike-rate over 90 and an economy rate below 4.50.

His T20I numbers were a notch better: he scored 249 runs at a strike rate of 135.32 and 32 wickets at an economy rate of 6.42. The numbers suggest that he would probably have become one of the finest limited-overs all-rounders of the millennium. In First-Class cricket, too — a season of which had come in the Sheffield Shield for New South Wales (NSW) — Johnston had finished with 703 runs at 21.30 and 103 wickets at 20.19 from 35 matches.

These are outstanding numbers, but they hardly tell the true Trent Johnston story. Johnston was a leader who led from the front and believed in positive cricket, and ensured that the strength of the team he led was significantly more than the sum of its parts. His inspiring leadership was one of the major reasons behind the rise of Irish cricket in the new millennium.

Early days

Born in Wollongong, Johnston always wanted to be a cricketer. The vow had become stronger when, as a teenager, he had seen Australia play in the 1992 World Cup. He began to play for Railway Union Cricket Club in Ireland in 1995 (which was also where he had met his wife Vanessa). He also continued in Australia, where he had been a part of the NSW youth system that also included the likes of Nathan Bracken and Michael Clarke.

However, he found it difficult to break through to the NSW side thanks to an attack that consisted of Glenn McGrath, Bracken, Stuart Clark, Brett Lee, Stuart MacGill, and Gavin Robertson (along with batsmen of the pedigree of Mark Taylor, Michael Slater, Michael Bevan, the Waugh twins, Shane Lee, and Phil Emery — in other words, an ensemble cast in every sense of the phrase).

Trent Johnston and his famous chicken dance © Getty Images
Trent Johnston and his famous chicken dance © Getty Images

He eventually made his First-Class debut at 25 for a Taylor-led NSW against Tasmania at Hobart. Opening bowling with Brett Lee, Johnston removed Michael di Venuto and Andrew Dykes. NSW terminated his contract after that season, but did not bother to inform him officially.

He moved to Ireland after that season. “We were chasing up an Irish passport and the carrot was dangled of playing in a World Cup. That came through, we packed up and moved in 2004 and I’ve been in Ireland ever since,” Johnston later said in an interview with Martin Gough for BBC.

Johnston made an impact on his ICC Inter-Continental Cup debut against Netherlands at Deventer. He picked up four for 34 and one for 29, and smashed a 61-ball 60 as Ireland won by an innings.

Making it to the World Cup

Meanwhile, the march towards ICC World Cup was on: after having an ordinary outing against Bermuda at Belfast, Johnston scored a 27-ball 31 and removed two top-order batsmen for 18 as Uganda were thrashed easily at Comber. Then came the cliff-hanger against UAE at Belfast, where Johnston opened bowling and picked up three for 45; then, walking out at 23 for four, he smashed a 68-ball 67 as Ireland reached home with two wickets in hand and one ball to spare.

With the match against USA washed out, Ireland’s final group match was against Denmark at Bangor, and once again they won comfortably as Johnston finished with three for 39; they finished at the top of Group A, thus qualifying for the World Cup. The journey was far from over, though.

Johnston’s two for 54 and 56-ball 44 were instrumental in the victory over Canada in the semifinal at Dublin, but in the final at the same ground, Scotland scored 324 (once again, Johnston finished with two for 66). Despite a 137-run partnership between Bray and Ed Joyce for the third wicket (Johnston scored a 19-ball 23) Ireland finished on 277 for nine. The gallant effort went in vain.

Johnston finished the tournament with 183 runs (next to only Joyce among the Irish) at 30.50 and a strike rate of 99.5; with the ball he came second on the Ireland charts with 12 wickets at 21.08. Ireland would probably not have made it to the main stage without his performance.

Meanwhile…

In the Inter-Continental Cup semifinal against UAE at Windhoek Johnston finished with five for 39 and two for 73. He did not contribute significantly with the bat or the ball in the final against Kenya at Windhoek, but it was a bold declaration that decided the match in Ireland’s favour.

After Steve Tikolo had declared on 401 for four the Irish paced at a rapid rate, and a 165-run partnership between Niall O’Brien and Andrew Botha took the Irish to 313. Johnston declared the moment Botha got out, still 88 behind Kenya; he wanted a result from the match. Kyle McCallan and Andrew White then routed the Kenyans for 156, and Ireland romped to a six-wicket victory.

He started the next season with six for 23 and two for 24 (along with 71) against Namibia at Dublin as the team prepared themselves for the World Cup. A month later they played their first ever ODI — a one-off match against England at Belfast, where Joyce played for England.

International debut

It was supposed to be a one-way show after Marcus Trescothick and Ian Bell thrashed the Irish to post 301 for seven and the hosts were reduced to 135 for six, but some brutal batting from White, Kevin O’Brien, and John Mooney helped Ireland reach 263 for nine. It was as spirited a chase as the hosts could have imagined.

Ireland beat Scotland comfortably at Ayr and had Netherlands on the ropes when they were down to 125 for five after 19 overs chasing 275 when rain intervened. They put up a fight in the ICC World Cricket League Division One ODI tournament, which ended just before the World Cup.

What followed in the tournament has been mentioned above. Johnston later co-authored Raiders of the Caribbean with Gerard Siggins. The book helps “trace the long and difficult journey Irish cricket had to make to reach the World Cup, as well as the story of Ireland’s amazing victories over two of the world’s best teams.”

A hat-trick, T20Is, and all that

By this time Ireland had been inducted into the Friends Provident Trophy, where they played for South Division. Playing against Gloucestershire at Dublin in 2007 Johnston removed Kadeer Ali, Chris Taylor, and Alex Gidman to claim a hat-trick (he finished with 10-4-13-4). This was the first hat-trick by an Irish representative team since Daniel Neill’s feat against I Zingari way back in 1877.

Just after he turned 34 Johnston had announced that he would be taking an indefinite sabbatical from international cricket to spend time with his family. He also missed the Friends Provident Cup, though he played for Railway Union Cricket Club. However, later that year he played in Ireland’s first T20I, against Scotland at Belfast; Ireland won the bout by four wickets.

Johnston eventually returned for the ICC World Cup (2011) qualifiers next year; by then Porterfield had taken charge of the side. In the final at Centurion, Johnston strangled Canada single-handedly, ripping the heart out of their batting-order with figures of 10-4-14-5. Porterfield himself scored a hundred and Ireland won by nine wickets.

Later that year he also returned figures of four for 26 against England at Belfast as the tourists were restricted to 203 for nine; Duckworth-Lewis set the Ireland target to 116 in 20 overs, chasing which they finished on 112 for nine: Johnston remained unbeaten on a 15-ball 20.

Ireland players pounce on Trent Johnston after the team shocked England in the ICC World Cup 2011 © Getty Images
Ireland players pounce on Trent Johnston after the team shocked England in the ICC World Cup 2011 © Getty Images

The World Cup again, and thereafter

Ireland had their quota of their World Cup glory in 2011. England had set them 328 to win at Chinnaswamy. Johnston conceded 58 but bowled Matt Prior and Michael Yardy; the second wicket made Johnston the first Irishman to 50 ODI wickets.

Then Kevin O’Brien, with some assistance from Alex Cusack and John Mooney, they came to the brink of victory. Then, with O’Brien falling and 12 to score from 11, Johnston walked out and drove Stuart Broad for four, first ball. That eased the pressure, and a boundary from Mooney took them home with five balls to spare.

Johnston played ODIs till September 2013, and made sure Ireland qualified for the ICC World Twenty 2014. In the final of the qualifier at Abu Dhabi in November, he smashed a 32-ball 62 (his only international fifty) as Ireland posted 225 for seven; he also finished with three for 34 as Afghanistan collapsed to 157. He was named Man of the Match as he quit from international cricket thereafter on a high.

Coaching and legacy

Shortly after retirement Johnston has taken up two roles — as the full-time coach of Ireland Women as well the fast-bowling coach at the National Academy. Few people could have been more fitting: he has, after all, been the Irish spearhead in their days of obscurity, and had led them into prominence.

During the ascent of Ireland in the mid-2000s it was impossible for the fans to have moved on without Johnston. He has executed his job to perfection as the pivotal character to have converted Ireland into an opposition that can hardly be classified as pushover.

If Ireland is a strong contender for the much-coveted Test status, a lot of that can be credited to Johnston. If anyone can be called the pioneer of Irish cricket, it has to be him.

(Abhishek Mukherjee is the Deputy Editor and Cricket Historian at CricketCountry. He blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in and can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)

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