Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

Stumped why Ireland's gone all out for cricket?

It's the fastest-growing sport in Ireland – north and south – and is now played at Seamus Heaney's alma mater. Michael Wolsey reflects on our new-found love for cricket

Howzat!: a victorious Irish cricket team
Howzat!: a victorious Irish cricket team

An Irish international team is preparing to meet the Old Enemy, buoyed by good results and urged on by enthusiastic and knowledgeable supporters.

No, it's not an early start to the rugby season. The code is cricket, a game whose standing has improved beyond measure in recent years.

It was once so very different. I think back to 1969 and a pleasant day in July.

I was meeting a friend in a bar on Belfast's Fountain Street. The place was surprisingly busy for early afternoon and everyone was glued to the television.

They were watching live sport, which was unusual at the time. More unusual still, the event they were watching was from Northern Ireland. And most unusual of all, it was a cricket match.

The sport was not without followers here. There were clubs dotted around Belfast and a few at outposts such as Lisburn and Banbridge, where there had once been linen mills with factory teams.

But, in general, interest in the game was very low. In summer, nationalist Belfast switched its sporting loyalties to hurling and Gaelic football; unionists watched tennis. Mention of cricket was likely to elicit blank looks, or poor jokes told in mock-English accents.

But, on July 2, 1969, Ireland were playing the West Indies at Sion Mills and there seemed every possibility they might pull off an amazing victory against a team rated the world's best.

Everyone in the Fountain Tavern had suddenly become a cricket fan. They were wildly enthusiastic for a home win and cheered every Irish advance, or West Indian setback.

But they might have been watching polo, or sumo wrestling, for all they knew about the game, or its terminology.

I don't think anyone shouted "goal", or "offside", but they came close, referring to the umpire as the referee and yelling "good hit", or "good throw" when they approved of the bowling, or batting.

The fielders' change of position at the end of each over baffled everyone and there was concern that it might be some fiendish Caribbean tactic to rob Ireland of victory.

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. I had played a little bit of cricket at school and, on the strength of that flimsy CV, became the prime pundit of Fountain Street, dispensing wit and wisdom as I guided the tavern's punters through an historic Irish triumph.

In truth, I was a very occasional and pretty awful cricketer. They played me at longstop, a position so far behind the wicket-keeper that it was almost impossible to follow the game, much less influence it.

My level of interest wasn't much greater than my skill, but I have since gained a little more knowledge and a lot more respect for this gentle, but passionate, game.

I find, however, that my friends and neighbours are way ahead of me. There would be no need for my ill-informed commentary on any match shown nowadays in a Belfast pub.

The world and his wife is playing cricket – the wife lining out for one of the many excellent women's teams, since cricket is a game that comfortably crosses gender barriers.

It is also an all-Ireland game and in recent years has been the fastest-growing sport in the country.

The number of young people playing the game for registered clubs has more than doubled, from 11,900 in 2011 to some 25,000 this year.

A survey conducted for the International Cricket Council puts the total for registered players of all ages at 40,414, up from 25,170 in 2011.

This huge increase in interest has been driven by the success of the Irish cricket team, which last month qualified for their third successive World Cup.

While victory over the West Indies would still be something to savour, it would not seem quite so amazing as it did in 1969. In recent years, Ireland have defeated Pakistan, Bangladesh and England.

In the Republic, cricket is flourishing in places with no tradition of the sport. There's a successful club at Kilcormac, deep in Offaly hurling country, and another in the Connemara Gaeltacht, associated with Ballynahinch Castle, a hotel once owned by a wealthy Indian cricketer.

The influx of immigrants from India and Pakistan has done a lot to boost Irish cricket and, as well as breaking down older prejudices about 'English' sports and 'foreign' games, has helped the process of racial integration.

A look at the Kilcormac team-sheet shows VJ Shahzad, Imtiaz Kayler and Dinesh de Silva lining out with Paul Maloney, Cormac Myers and Aaron Fox.

In Northern Ireland, the game has impressive cross-community credentials. St Columb's College, Derry, which lists Seamus Heaney, Brian Friel and John Hume among its past pupils, recently entered the Schools' Cup for the first time. Holy Cross, Strabane is affiliated along with Limavady Grammar. St Patrick's, Claudy along with Larne High.

There are flourishing clubs at Maghera and Enniskillen and, because so many players are new to cricket, the club game carries no sectarian baggage.

It's not always a gentleman's game, though.

Competition can be tough and, although I've never heard of a cricket hooligan, the crowds can get enthusiastic.

If you want proof, book a ticket for Ireland's next home match – against England in September.

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