Irish Cricket's Best XI (2)
Ger Siggins (Sunday Independent)
March 2007: Caribbean Raiders
Ireland's World Cup debut in Kingston, Jamaica ended in a thrilling tie with Zimbabwe after Jeremy Bray made a battling century. Two days later, Pakistan came a cropper on a St Patrick's Green pitch and a strong team display brought a stunning victory. Ireland qualified for the Super Eights where they hammered another full member, Bangladesh, thus elevating their status with ICC so subsequent games would be included on the ODI ranking table.
Their performances entranced the nation for three weeks and later earned them the RTÉ Team of the Year award. It also saw the end of Birrell, who had decided long before that the tournament would be his valete.
"I've probably taken it as far as I can take it," he told me at the time. "I think they're capable of better and bigger things. With (Phil's) experience he's better placed than me to take them forward. The team of Warren Deutrom and Phil Simmons will continue the momentum forward. The guys are in good hands." Birrell is now assistant coach of South Africa. "Adi was the catalyst," says Trent Johnston, "he's the father of Irish cricket."
May 2008: Warren peace
Post-Caribbean, not all was rosy. The players felt they had been short-changed on win bonuses and took industrial action for a time, refusing to talk to the media. It came to a head with a confrontation between Deutrom and a near-naked Johnston in a dressing room just after an ODI at Stormont. "As an organisation we probably didn't take the players seriously enough, and didn't treat them well enough," says Deutrom. "I met a group of them later and promised I would look after them."
The CEO had taken over a tiny office with one part-time secretary -- the national coach was the only other member of staff -- but following the Stormont fiasco a member of the women's squad, Suzanne Kenealy, was appointed international teams' administrator. "That was probably the most important appointment we've made," Deutrom said. "It freed me of a lot of work and was a signal to the players that we would look after them."
June 2008: Sponsors on board
Bank of Ireland had sponsored the Irish team up to the World Cup but by late 2007 they were shedding such deals. A cricket-mad chief executive at RSA pitched in to sponsor a couple of the senior men's side's games early in 2008 and saw in the thrusting sports organisation a good fit for his firm. The sponsorship deal was crucial for the newly-renamed Cricket Ireland, enabling it to invest and expand just as many other sports were tightening their belts.
"The crucial moment in the past ten years was when Cricket Ireland introduced central contracts for the players," says Trent Johnston. "That allowed us to train full-time without worrying about work the next day. None of the progress would have been possible without that professionalism." And contracts would never have been possible without Philip Smith and RSA. The troubles in the group have cast a shadow over the run-up to the World Cup but the insurance firm insists it is business as usual after Smith's resignation and its contract runs to the end of 2015.
March 2011: Kevin's Gate
Ireland had opened the World Cup by getting into a winning position against Bangladesh but ended up losing, and now they faced a cocky England side in Bangalore. Andrew Strauss's side set Ireland a target of 328 to win -- more than any side had ever made in a successful chase in the competition -- and at 111-5 it looked futile. But Kevin O'Brien made the fastest World Cup century ever, in 50 balls, and had great back-up from Alex Cusack and John Mooney as Ireland won with five balls to spare. It was then that Deutrom realised the Test dream could happen. "That was the moment when it all crystallised," he said.
India went wild, Ireland had a billion new supporters overnight, and O'Brien became a star. He has since launched a career as a peripatetic T20 player, lining out for teams in England, Bangladesh and West Indies on short-term deals while dreaming of the ultimate Indian Premier League contract.
The kudos Ireland earned in the competition helped overturn an ICC plan to shut out associates from the 2015 event.
December 2013: Mine's a treble
The global tournaments have proved to be the best opportunity to make waves, given the reluctance of the full members to give Ireland games. In the past three years only England (twice, two ODIs), Pakistan (twice, four ODIs), Australia (one ODI) and Bangladesh (once, three T20s) have visited Ireland -- and no-one has invited Simmons' men to tour. So instead they go about their business, hoping their overwhelming dominance of their scene will catch someone's eye. They finished 2013 by collecting the last two elements of the Associates' treble, world champions in all formats outside the Test world. "This is not a flash in the pan, it's consistency of performance. We are bringing on new players all the time, and we're dominant at all formats," says Deutrom.
The appointment of the former West Indies all-rounder as coach brought hard-edged experience of the very top of the sport, and Simmons has continued the job by introducing young talents such as Paul Stirling, George Dockrell and Max Sorensen.
Ireland also ended the year with a new home, a mightily impressive venue to which 10,000 people came to watch them tussle with England. The attendance at the last rites of the Inter-Continental Cup final in Dubai last month was less than one per cent of that at Malahide, but as it took place just outside the HQ of the ICC it may have had even more impact on the sport's decision-makers.
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