Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

White hot on Ireland cricket revival

Andrew White admits the Ireland set-up is unrecognisable compared to the team he joined

When former Ireland captain Stephen Warke scored his 3,778th run for Ireland to become his country's leading run-scorer at Comber in 1994, at least one 14 year-old-boy was watching, impressed, on the boundary.

"I just thought, what an amazing achievement. I always had a lot of respect for Stephen and how he played his cricket and to think of surpassing him, well, it wasn't in my thoughts or plans, of course," recalls Andrew White who next Monday will play his 223rd international with more than 4,300 runs already beside his name.

A win against the Netherlands in Deventer will book Ireland's place in their fourth Intercontinental Cup final and the following week, back to back victories against the Dutch will confirm a third successive ICC World Cup finals. It is a journey which White, now a school teacher at Grosvenor Grammar, could not have dreamed of when he was called into the Ireland squad 13 years ago. The set-up, on and off the field, are just poles apart.

"Back then, Ken Rutherford (the former New Zealand Test batsman) was in charge and there didn't seem an awful lot of long-term planning," says White. "We didn't have the major tournaments and outside the ICC Trophy there wasn't much we were aiming for. It was all about the next game. Even when we won the European Championships, well, it didn't mean anything in the greater scheme of things

"It was a totally amateur game, with boys taking time off work and having to get earlier flights than the rest of the squad just to get back to work the next day.

"That had a huge effect on the amount of preparation time for games, re fitness and training, so when you came up against a county side, in the NatWest Trophy, you were on a hiding to nothing."

The first ICC Trophy which White attended, in Canada in 2001, only highlighted the lack of preparation.

"We took experienced players to Toronto who were not 100 per cent fit and we went there thinking we should qualify but not having done the hard work to ensure we were best prepared," said White.

The catalyst of change was the appointment of South African Adi Birrell. White noticed an instant improvement.

"There was an immediate change in the attitude, commitment, preparation and, therefore, change of results. Adi was all about getting the best out of his players. He made you feel important, he made you feel you were as good as the men in the opposition and it was always the small things that mattered most in his game management.

"The game against Surrey in 2004 was the best example of that. We were playing against a Test-studded line-up, players like Martin Bicknell, Mark Ramprakash, Ian Salisbury and Azhar Mahmood. We scored 260 and when the game carried into the next day there was no doubt in Adi's mind that we could go on and win that game. We not only won it but a couple of weeks later we went out and beat the West Indies.

"Until then, among the players, myself included, there was a lack of belief we could beat the top sides. But that was the season it all changed. Without those two wins, we wouldn't be where we are today," insists White.

By then, Birrell had brought in Trent Johnston, Andre Botha and Jeremy Bray with Aussie opening bowler Dave Langford-Smith next on his radar, all now Irish residents and qualified to play for Ireland.

Along with now established home-bred stars such as Ed Joyce, Kyle McCallan, Peter Gillespie and White, it was a squad which went into the 2005 ICC Trophy with the belief they could qualify for their first World Cup finals where, famously, they beat Pakistan in Jamaica on St Patrick's Day 2007.

This time there could be no turning back but Ireland were forced into a change at the top when Birrell stepped down, to be replaced by West Indian Phil Simmons (pictured). The seamless transition ensured Birrell's work of the last five years continued apace.

"As players we always wondered how Simmo would step into Adi's shoes but they are similar characters with their will to win, never happy with second best.

"Simmo, for example, has already signalled his intention to finish this World Cup qualification period with four wins, to win by a distance rather than one or two points.

"The players know where we stand in relation to the rest of Associate cricket and between 2000 and 2013 it has always been a results-based business with the commitment to preparation the major difference between us and the other Associate countries. But no doubt it has been down to the two guys and when Simmo finishes his successor will have even bigger shoes to fill."

He sure will because that man will be dealing with a squad employed by Cricket Ireland on full-time contracts with a goal of playing Test cricket by 2020. By then, even beating England in the World Cup should not be Irish cricket's greatest day.

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