Fair play to minority who refuse to be stumped
Whether you’re into the sport or not, it burst the heart to watch the Irish cricket fraternity as they took their place among the nations of the Earth over the weekend. You weren’t required to be able to tell your silly mid-off from your short backward square to appreciate the emotions involved. All you needed was to have found yourself at some point in your life lost in something that was yours, to the bemusement of all around you.
Maybe you grew mushrooms or made your own beer or took up night fishing for a couple of years. You put in the hours and did the work and absorbed a level of nuance that would cause your friends’ eyes to glaze over as soon as you started talking about it. Whatever it was, it was your thing. Heard from Mick lately? Ah, sure you know Mick – hasn’t a spare hour since he went in on that holiday home in Strandhill with his surfing buddies.
That’s what it is to be into cricket in Ireland. There are minority sports and then there are minority sports that can take five days to play and still end in a draw. There are minority sports and then there are minority sports played by Her Majesty’s subjects and her colonies. To admit to cricket in Ireland is to mark oneself out as a subversive of some sort, or at the very least a little bit odd.
A few years ago at a lunch, this column got buttonholed by an amateur boxing coach. His complaint was the usual – newspaper coverage of his sport and the lack thereof. In vaguely apologetic tones, he was told that if newspapers thought there was an appetite for it among readers, there’d be a four-page pull-out on amateur boxing every day of the week. He wasn’t having it.
“Ah g’way,” he said. “The reason you don’t cover it is it’s a working-class sport. Simple as that.” “Okay, well, what about cricket, then?” “What about it?” “We don’t do a whole pile of cricket either and you wouldn’t call cricket a working-class sport.”
“Here, don’t be telling me cricket is a sport. That’s only for weirdos and Brit-lickers.”
Well, the weirdos and Brit-lickers had their day at last. And, of course, cricket being cricket and Ireland being Ireland, it rained throughout that day and there was no play to be had. No matter. All it meant was a full weekend of it out under an intermittently warm sun in Malahide and a guarantee that there would still be a match to be played today. A welcome guarantee, considering that by yesterday afternoon, the prospect of Pakistan making it a three-day affair wasn’t a million miles away.
That’s all part of it, too. As Emmet Riordan pointed out on our Added Time podcast last week, it took New Zealand 26 years to win a match after they’d been made a test nation. Ireland are going to have to put up with a few days like yesterday as this thing unfurls.
Yet you can be guaranteed that none of the small band of Irish cricket folk who have the game in their blood spent even a moment over the weekend thinking they should have been careful what they wished for. Arriving on the world stage is a step along the road. Having to follow on after being all out for 130 was going to be another, whether it came in the first match or later on down the line. Being there is the thing, at least at the start.
We don’t make life easy for minority sports. For all that the boxing coach mentioned above saw a class war as the problem, the truth of it is that his sport suffers from precisely the same sort of prejudice as the cricket chaps he so readily derided. They aren’t soccer, they aren’t GAA and they aren’t rugby. That’s the long and short of it.
The big three sports are the ones that draw the eyeballs, that create the stars, that don’t have to fight tooth and nail to get new blood in through the gates every year. Or if they do, those fights are strictly among themselves. Everyone else muddles through on what’s left over.
It’s no accident that Olympians are frequently the most interesting sportspeople to talk to. Every one of them has made it to within touching distance of the top of a sport that has, for as long as they’ve been alive, been a minority pursuit in Ireland. They’re boxers or swimmers or athletes or badminton players or shooters or whatever else.
Somewhere in their youth, they found something they were good at and decided to give their lives over to it despite the fact their friends were almost certainly playing something else. They stuck at it when nobody gave a damn what they were doing with their time. They did it themselves and their personality was shaped accordingly.
Irish cricket has lifted itself up in much the same way. Even when they made such a splash at World Cups in 2007 and four years later, full test status felt a long way off. They had to be their own rising tide, lifting numbers and standards and all the rest of it to an acceptable point before they could be welcomed into the international fold. That they had to do it to the indifference of the general population as well makes it all the more admirable.
A few of the cricket writers made a point during the week of name-dropping the people who had pulled their eternal stumps before getting to see this happen. People who had nurtured the game and the people playing it for no particular profile and certainly no reward. Who kept their sport alive for no good reason other than the best one – the fact that they loved it and lived it, odd though it seemed to those around them.
If you don’t have a little room in your day for people like that, you’ve got to ask yourself who the weirdo is.
Arriving on the world stage is a step along the road. Having to follow on after being all out for 130 was always going to be another