The idyllic Sion Mills CC Ground. Photo courtesy: Sion Mills CC Facebook page.
The idyllic Sion Mills CC Ground. Photo courtesy: Sion Mills CC Facebook page.

July 2, 1969. Ireland pulled off one of the biggest upsets of 20th century cricket by bowling out a strong West Indian side for just 25 runs. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the day that continues to be the toast of Irish cricket.

Keeping up with the Joneses

The papers of England in early July 1969 were abuzz with sensational reports. Brian Jones, the 27-year-old bandleader of the Rolling Stones, had been found dead in mysterious circumstances. Around midnight of July 2, he was discovered motionless at the bottom of his swimming pool at the Cotchford Farm.

Alongside this morbid tiding was the happy splash created by another Jones. In that summer’s Wimbledon, British girl Anne Haydon-Jones had reached the final. A couple of days later she would go on to lift the title. The Beatles would pause their dubbing session for ‘Golden Slumbers’ to listen live on radio as she would beat Billie Jean-King 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the final. This former table tennis champion would add on to the feat by combining with Fred Stolle to win the mixed doubles crown as well.

Yet, the obscure village of Sion Mills in Northern Ireland pushed past all these huge headlines and emerged as the biggest news item of all. In the modern day reports, sinister speculations would have floated around, hinting about the ugly hand of match-fixing and bookies.  But, 44 years ago, it was reported simply as a huge disaster and upset of gigantic proportions. And most of the newspapermen had no clue where Sion Mills was.

Not quite in the ‘Guinness’ Book of Irish Records

A tree-lined industrial village near Belfast, Sion Mills hosted the touring West Indian side on July 2. And seldom has a visiting team been humiliated in the way the men from the Caribbean islands bit the squelchy dust on that fateful Wednesday.

A number of West Indian stars did not turn out in this minor match at Holm Field, but 25 all out in just 90 minutes defied all limits of reason and fantasy. On paper it was just an unofficial one-day match played over two innings per side, a way for the West Indians to relax between gruelling Test matches. However, for the Irish it was a game played for pride, passion and prestige.

The tourists themselves had intended a light hearted game to delight onlookers with their skills and strokeplay. It soon became a desperate tussle to retain their reputation. As their innings folded at that abysmal score, LD Roberts, a correspondent of Jamaica’s Gleaner, noted that the West Indies flag was flying upside down in the ground. “Half-mast might have been more appropriate,” he wrote.

There is an urban legend that has grown around the game. The setting being Ireland, the story predictably involves gallons of Guinness. It is often conjectured that the Irishmen had lavished the guests with the local dry stout till all of them were sloshed and pickled enough the following morning to throw their wickets away. The truth, though, is less spiked.

The previous day, the West Indians had been locked in a hard-fought battle at Lord’s, in a frantic bid to draw parity the series, most of their energies focussed on dislodging Geoff Boycott. They had set a target of 332 and had bowled 106 overs on the final day, Lance Gibbs sending down 41 of them. England had ended on 295 for 7, Boycott sticking around for 261 minutes for 106.

Having ended the second Test, the team had made a dash from St John’s Wood to Heathrow to catch a late flight to Belfast. The drive to the Inter Counties Hotel in Lifford had been long. The restaurant at the hotel had already closed by the time they arrived after midnight. The team ate at a nearby late night restaurant and stretched out their tired bodies in their hotel rooms. The only drinking that had taken place that evening had involved the Irish.

How green was my wicket?

The West Indians woke up to a wonderful day, the sun shining brightly and not one of them suffering from hangover. By the time they reached the ground, the seats had almost filled up. It was a big event for the townsfolk. The Herdmans mill, where almost everyone in the village worked, had given all their 700 employees a day off for the game. Enthusiasts had come in from neighbouring villages as well, eager to watch the international stars in action.

Garry Sobers had unfortunately stayed back in London to recover from an injury. Roy Fredericks, Lance Gibbs, Vanburn Holder and Charlie Davis were rested. The team was led by Basil Butcher. As a delightful treat for the spectators, manager Clyde Walcott stepped in as a player, almost a decade after his retirement.

The match was officially arranged as a one-day affair with two innings per side, but by mutual agreement it was decided that the team with the first innings lead would be declared winner.

The sight of the wicket alarmed the West Indian opening batsmen Joey Carew and Steve Camacho. There had been overnight rain and the glistening green pitch had not been covered. The sun was now busy drying the turf and a balmy rising mist greeted the players as they looked at the ground. It was a day when the opposition were to be inserted without hesitation. However, captain Butcher was not bothered about the conditions. He did not even inspect the wicket.

Going out to toss in a formal suit, Butcher asked Ireland captain Douglas Goodwin whether the West Indian team was expected to bat fast. When Goodwin nodded, the toss was reduced to a formality. Butcher’s shoes sunk in the heavy outfield as he returned to the pavilion, but he asked Carew and Camacho to go in. With more than 2000 people having assembled, the team was supposed to put on a show with the bat.

Carew was livid. He asked Butcher to get out of his suit fast quickly because he was going to be out there soon. Camacho agreed. On walking in, both the openers inserted a finger in the pitch. Both their fingers went in all the way. Batting was going to be a nightmare.

The bald left-arm fast medium bowler Alec O’Riordan opened the bowling with captain Goodwin. And the only show put up on that morning was by the bowlers and fielders. Carew skied a ball in the air high enough to run three before he was caught off O’Riordan. Camacho was dismissed off an equally irresponsible stroke.

Butcher was indeed in early, with the score at 1 for 2. His shoes and even pads were splattered with mud as he hastily made his way to the wicket. O’Riordan struck him a nasty blow on the arm. In all this commotion, runs almost non-existent, Maurice Foster tried to scramble a single and was run out. Three wickets were down by the time the television crew from BBC had managed to set up their cameras. And as soon as the transmission commenced Butcher was caught in the gully off O’Riordan. West Indies had slumped to 6 for 4.

Clive Lloyd was out to a casual drive straight into the hands of mid-on to make it 6 for 5. The challenge now seemed to keep the runs abreast with the number of wickets. Clyde Walcott was at the wicket and not at all happy at the way come of the batsmen had perished.

It was later recounted by O’Riordan that he had lashed out at a departing West Indian batsman in language to make hardened men squirm. Now the great man scratched around for 6, highest till then, as the rest of the batsmen continued to flash their way to dismissals. And finally Walcott himself opened the face of the bat and lofted O’Riordan high into cover.

Soon Pascall Roberts struck one straight up in the air, without the slightest displacement along the horizontal plane. Wicketkeeper Ossie Colhoun waited an eternity to hold the catch, and the West Indies were left at 12 for 9. The crowd were being treated to a spectacle all right, but of a completely different kind from the one originally intended by the West Indian captain.

Left-handed Grayson Shillingford now swung one to the leg-side to bring off the first boundary of the innings. He top scored with an unbeaten nine as the total runs were more than doubled by the last wicket stand. As if alarmed by his partner’s rapid progress towards double figures, an attempt to ruin the one dimensional beauty of the scorecard, Philbert Blair went for an almighty swing off Goodwin and ended with his stumps disarranged.

In 25 overs and 3 balls, West Indies were bowled out for 25. Only two bowlers were used. O’Riordan finished with 13-8-18-4. Captain Goodwin’s figures were bordered even more on the brink of the miraculous with 12.3-8-6-5. There had been one bye. Eight men had been caught, one bowled and one run out.

The ‘ire’ of the West Indians

By lunch, Ireland had reached 19 for 1. With just 7 more to win, the captains agreed to give the crowd full value for their money by playing till the end of the day. The pitch was steadily drying out and becoming easier to bat on.

The West Indian bowling attack consisting of Blair, Shillingford, John Shepherd and Pascall Roberts was not really the most threatening. Opener David Pigot Jr, hailing from the Pigot family so prolific in Irish cricket, top-scored with 37. O’Riordan continued to have an excellent match as he struck 35. Ireland had taken a lead of exactly 100 with 2 wickets still remaining when Goodwin declared, leaving West Indies an hour and 25 minutes to bat.

Soon, the Ireland captain ran in again and got rid of Camacho and Foster with just two runs on the board. Once again Butcher came in at an atrocious score — 2 for 2. However, this time his boots did not sink into the ground as much as he made his way out. He did play some strokes and notched up a fifty. To a great extent he was helped by Goodwin going off with an injury to his Achilles tendon, his figures reading 2-1-1-2.

Goodwin ended the day with match figures of 14.3-9-7-7. With lesser bowlers running in, Carew and Butcher at long last managed to provide an exhibition of strokeplay before both of them fell within 5 runs of each other. The game ended with West Indies on 78 for 4 in the second innings.

There was jubilation among the Irish players and supporters, and understandably Guinness provided considerable fuel for the festivities. The West Indian dressing room, however, witnessed scenes that were diametrically different. Maurice Foster called Butcher a submarine captain because he preferred to bat under water. Carew disagreed, saying Butcher was not fit to captain a submarine.

The West Indians took on Ireland again on the following morning at Belfast, this time in a two-day encounter. Vanburn Holder was brought in for Blair, and he returned with figures of 5 for 40 as Ireland were reduced to 126. West Indies raced to 157 for 1 by the end of the first day. However, as Roberts wrote: “Nothing that the West Indians may do in this two-day match against Ireland can eradicate the awful memory of their frightening nightmare performance in the first match.”

In the end, Ireland stoutly held out for a draw on the second day with the West Indies bowlers struggling to remove the last pair.

It would be 34 years before Ireland would defeat another visiting side — no other such triumph would recur until the tour of the obliging Zimbabweans in 2003. In 2004, they upset West Indies once again, at Belfast, comprehensively chasing down a big total in a limited-overs match. Down the years, in the World Cup encounters, they have upset teams like Pakistan in 2007 and England in 2011. However, none of those splendid achievements have sparked with the electrifying delights of the unexpected as the decimation of the West Indian batting on that July morning of 1969.

Brief scores:

West Indies 25 (Alec O’Riordan 4 for 18, Doug Goodwin 5 for 6) and 78 for 4 (Basil Butcher 50) lost to Ireland 125 for 8 decl. (David Pigot 37, Alec O’Riordan 35; John Shepherd 3 for 20) on first innings.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at