“In the soft grey silence he could hear the bump of the balls: and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck; like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.”— A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce © Getty Images
“In the soft grey silence he could hear the bump of the balls: and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck; like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.”— A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce © Getty Images

The Ireland side has dazzled one and all through their impressive showing in ICC Cricket World Cup 2015. Arunabha Sengupta charts the long history of the game in the land and discusses if the time is ripe for them to move to the next level.

In the early 1970s, Alec Reid, a former drama critic of the Irish Times, was less than sanguine about his country and its prospects in the noble game.

“With cricket the Irishman finds himself in a peculiar position,” he wrote. “Speaking the native tongue of Grace and Graveney, of Cardus and Arlott, he takes the terms like ‘silly point’ or ‘backward short leg’ in his stride; sharing the same climatic context he can appreciate the problems of a green wicket on the first morning, or a crumbling pitch on the last afternoon; yet the mystique of the game remains a closed book to him.”

With cricket the Irishman finds himself in a peculiar position — Alec Reid

It is curious to note his pessimism, because not many seasons ago the Irish cricketers had trapped a less-than-full-strength yet intimidating West Indian side on a damp wicket and had humiliated them. Reid’s bleak view of cricket in Ireland was ostensibly due to the Irish apathy for the sport — a trait that he linked to Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, “A primrose by a river brim/ A yellow primrose was to him/ And it was nothing more.” As far as cricket was concerned, to the Irish it was just a silly game. London in spirit, it seemed, was far closer to Sydney than Dublin.

It was sad, really, to note the lack of enthusiasm. There is evidence enough that the game was extremely popular in the land in the 17th century. Indeed, in 1656 Oliver Cromwell ordered the destruction of all bats and balls in Dublin, and a large number of such equipment was burnt by the Common Hangman.

Cricket did make a comeback in the land in 1792. The first recorded match was played at the Phoenix Park, Dublin in the month of August. The contest was for a wager of 500 guineas a side, and had been born out of ‘an expression thrown out a few nights previously at a convivial party by Lieutenant Colonel Lennox of the 35th and immediately taken up by the Right Honourable Robert Hobart, Secretary at War.’ The Dublin Garrison defeated All Ireland by an innings. Freeman’s Journal reported that it was more of a social occasion than sport, that the Viceroy’s lady lost 10 guineas by betting on All Ireland, and that the game of cricket is, in England, what hurling is in Ireland.

Those were interesting times for globalisation of the game. A year later in 1793, Mr Hope, a Dutch merchant based out of Amsterdam, was witnessed playing cricket in Rome.

However, to return to Ireland, the game developed for the next century or so. Spreading first to garrison towns Kilkenny to Ballinasloe, it made its way to the houses of the gentry, especially around Dublin.

Of course, it never became widely popular. Even before the potato famine, there were no village greens to speak of. Unlike their English counterparts, the landed gentry of Ireland faced off against the peasants in confrontations way more serious and lacking in fellow-feeling than cricket matches. However, the sport did flourish to a great extent, and there was also a decent cricket annual — John Lawrence’s Handbook of Cricket in Ireland — which ran from 1865-6 to 1880-1.

However, after this, the stage was left to Charles Stewart Parnell and his land agitation. Although Parnell was himself a cricket lover, his movement brought about the curious thought process that cricket was an alien game, a sport for the English or the Anglo-Irish but not for the true Irishman.

An Irish side toured USA and Canada in 1879. Around the same time, WG Grace himself spoke as President in a conference of the Filed Sports Section of the British Association held in Dublin, and paid handsome compliments to the standards attained by the Gentlemen of Ireland.  However, due to the nationalist movement, the growth of the game was killed in the 1880s.

Samuel Beckett remains the only Nobel Laureate to play First-Class cricket © Getty Images
Samuel Beckett remains the only Nobel Laureate to play First-Class cricket © Getty Images

Cricket, however, did find a way into the culture of the land. “In the soft grey silence he could hear the bump of the balls: and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck; like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl,” wrote James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In Finnegan’s Wake, he went further, conjuring up spectacular puns on the names of several cricketers. And the other great Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, remains the only Nobel Prize winner to have played First-Class cricket.

But the growth of the game itself remained stunted.

Yes, some persevering Irishmen did keep the flame burning. Tours took place once in a while, and annual matches were held against the Scots. Grace’s London County was thrashed by 238 runs. The All Ireland League was kicked off in 1966, under the sponsorship of spirit itself in the form of Guinness. The West Indians were crushed after being bowled out for 25 at Sion Mills in 1969. But, as Reid maintained, cricket seldom rose above the status of just a silly game.

The resurgence

The Associate Membership was obtained in 1993. Hansie Cronje played in the land in 1997, and Pakistan was defeated in the 2007 World Cup, England in the 2011 edition, and Bangladesh and Zimbabwe were outplayed in the interim.

Come the championship in 2015, West Indies were beaten at Nelson and Zimbabwe at Hobart. The green brigade could not get to the next round, but came close. The two victories over Test playing nations were two more than the number achieved by their illustrious neighbours England. They would have perhaps done better, and England worse, if men like the England captain Eoin Morgan had not crossed the border in order to play international cricket.

In 2012, Cricket Ireland chief executive Warren Deutrom declared that Ireland intended to play Test cricket by 2020. Men like Jason Gillespie thought it more than possible. And when the side defeated the West Indians in the World Cup, Michael Holding voiced that one need not wait that long.

By now, it does seem the nation is throbbing with potential and not a little desire. There are more than 50,000 registered cricketers in the land, a number that has doubled in the last four years. Alec Reid’s apprehension about the apathy towards the game may be a thing of the past. Ireland has shown that they can stand shoulder to shoulder with and even taller than some of the more accomplished Test sides. There have, after all, been stalwarts like the O’Brien brothers — Kevin and Niall, Ed Joyce, and William Porterfield, and of course, the man who had started it all in the modern era — Trent Johnston.

Perhaps results in the shorter version of the game can be misleading. After all, Ireland has not played any First-Class game since December 2013, and even before that every season has seen them turn out in just a paltry handful of matches. We have also seen how dangerous it can be to grant Test status based on one or two high-profile victories against Test playing nations — especially if there is no structured domestic First-Class framework in the land.

It will probably be the best for the new cricketing nation to leverage this momentum and enthusiasm and make their wait for the Test status worthwhile by planning a proper First-Class calendar and playing as many full games in the longer version as possible.

If the signs and symptoms displayed in the World Cup are anything to go by, with a well designed plan the team will soon develop into a finely tuned weapon even in the longest format. The fans around the cricket world are more than eager to welcome them into the fold.

(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 http://twitter.com/senantix)