Ireland in the World Cup? It's Just Not Cricket

Sam McBride explains how Ireland find themselves preparing for the West Indies in 2007

The game of cricket is hardly a traditional Irish pastime – it's as foreign as any of the hundreds of games which have found their way here over the past couple of hundred years.

And, unlike most of those games, it has long been shackled by a political association with Britishness which hampered its spread to vast swathes of Ireland.

During the years between the Potato Famine and the 1880s, Land War cricket was Ireland's most popular sport, played across the religious and social spectrum. Several factors contributed to the game's decline, not least the GAA's ban on 'foreign' sports, which remained in place until 1970.

In recent years the sound of leather on willow has been heard with increasing regularity throughout Ireland, both North and South of the border, and the old political stereotypes are beginning to break down.

Like rugby, cricket has an all-island international team and in recent years the side has tasted unprecedented success. Ireland are ranked 11th in the world and all six men's teams from the under 13's to the senior side are reigning European champions.

An estimated 12,000 regularly play cricket throughout the island, two-thirds of these in Northern Ireland.

England cricketers at StormontIt was the English who introduced cricket to Ireland and the earliest recorded match is between a Garrison XI and an all-Ireland side at Dublin's Phoenix Park in 1792.

An Ireland team toured North America in 1888 and their first-class debut was against WG Grace's London County side in 1902. An annual game against Scotland was played for most of the twentieth century, right up until 1999.

Statesmen Charles Stewart Parnell, Eamon de Valera, John Hume and Nobel literary laureate Samuel Beckett all shared a love of cricket, but the game struggled to expand beyond the confines of universities and exclusive clubs.

Ireland were only elected to the International Cricket Council in 1993 due to political obstacles, but since then have made huge strides on the world stage. A more professional administrative set-up, full-time coach and a succession of talented players has brought a plethora of notable victories.

The addition of several talented Australian and South African players now living in Ireland, coupled with South African coach Adrian Birrell rejuvenated the side and brought a winning mentality.

The most famous day in the history of Irish cricket was Wednesday July 2, 1969 when an amateur Irish team demolished one of the world's great cricketing nations.

The West Indies had arranged to play a friendly match with Ireland as part of their tour of England. Ireland won the toss and the West Indies were put in to bat at Sion Mills, Co Tyrone. From the outset the Caribbean batsmen found it impossible to produce their typically dashing strokeplay on a wet wicket. One by one they walked out to the crease to face a few deliveries before getting out. They were all out for 25 runs on an incredible day.

Despite such notable successes, their scarcity meant cricket rarely made it onto the back pages of Irish newspapers until more recent years.

In 2005 Ireland successfully hosted the ICC Trophy, a mini World Cup for non-Test-playing nations. Matches were divided between Northern Ireland and the Republic, the first time the ICC allowed the tournament to be hosted by two countries.

While Ireland lost to Scotland in the sun-drenched Dublin final, by that point the all important World Cup qualification had been secured.

Ireland cricketers at StormontThe publicity and opportunity to watch a month's international cricket was a powerful boost for the game in Ireland. Four memorably elegant innings from talisman Ed Joyce brought down the curtain on his distinguished Ireland career. The Clontarf crowd, aware that Joyce had now qualified to play Test cricket for England, gave the stylish batsman a rousing reception when he was out in the final.

June 2006 saw Ireland play a match fans and players alike had long waited for - the first official one-day international against England in Belfast. More than 6,000 filled the Stormont ground to see Ireland lose by a mere 38 runs to their lofty neighbours.

The fact that Ireland could compete in an international match with some of the world's greatest cricketers would have been unimaginable a few years earlier and was a visual marker of how far the team had come.

The West Indies awaits and with it a significant financial windfall for the game in Ireland. As a mostly amateur team, Ireland's cricketers are severely handicapped when they line up against some of the world's most talented professional sportsmen. Despite this, in the last three years they have recorded stunning victories over Zimbabwe, the West Indies and top English county sides Surrey and Gloucestershire.

All Ireland's World Cup opponents are ranked significantly above them, but despite being understandably written off by most pundits the team is quietly focussed on the task ahead.

Having beaten a relatively strong Zimbabwe team in 2003, Ireland will be disappointed if they do not put in a strong performance against a side which has been decimated by cynical political manoeuvres in that troubled part of Africa.

To salvage anything from games against hosts West Indies, and Pakistan will require Herculean efforts, but, given Ireland's stunning victories of late, who would bet against another on the biggest stage of all?