Irish cricket moves up the batting order

Irish cricketers

On 2 March 2011 something remarkable happened in the Indian city of Bangalore. Ireland, joyously, gloriously and improbably beat England at their own game - cricket.

It was the first time the Irish team had defeated their better-paid and better-known English counterparts. But it was not just another piece of sporting giant-killing.

You may remember how the Norwegian broadcaster Bjorge Lillelien greeted Norway's victory over England in a World Cup football qualifier 30 years before.

"Maggie Thatcher," he crowed exultantly, "your boys took a hell of a beating."

You can get some sense of the delight (and let's be honest, surprise) with which Ireland reacted to the cricket result from the way Fergal Keane, a correspondent with the national broadcaster RTE (not to be confused with the BBC correspondent of the same name), broke off from a contemplation of the national economic crisis to offer an updated version of that victory speech.

He told his audience: "I'm minded to say 'Are you watching Jeffrey Archer, Mick Jagger, Will Carling, Ian Botham, Geoff Boycott... Are you watching William Gladstone, Oliver Cromwell?"

Fergal's selection of English icons may be a little eccentric, but his exuberance captured the excitement of that far away victory over the nearest of neighbours. Imagine David Dimbleby or Dan Rather breaking off from a meditation on some national emergency to revel in the results from a minority sport and you have the incongruity of the moment.

In part of course, it was the delight that any small and independent nation feels when it defeats the old imperial masters in a sporting fixture - a feeling identified by the masterly West Indian cricket writer CLR James.

But there was something more to it - a feeling that Irish cricket had been brought in from the cold by the heroic efforts of Kevin O'Brien and the rest of the team.

For many years the sport was squashed under the heavy roller of history.

It was considered a "garrison game" - a symptom and a symbol of the British presence.

To play cricket was to risk being banned from games like hurling and Gaelic football, which are under the control of the the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). Those games generate the deepest sporting passions in Ireland and such a ban would have been a heavy punishment.

But somehow cricket survived and plenty of people appear to have carried on playing under assumed names so they keep playing Gaelic games too. The ban, I should say, is no more.

No-one should assume that a love of cricket is some sort of sporting version of unionism either. Rather surprisingly, Martin McGuinness, the IRA commander turned politician, who now serves as Northern Ireland's deputy first minister, loves the game and talks entertainingly about playing it with his children on the beaches of Donegal.

And there were always enthusiasts whose love of the game kept it going - burning like a bright little pilot light, even in the darkest of times.

In Sion Mills - a village in County Tyrone which lies on the northern side of the Irish border - I met the brothers Pat and Tony Gallagher, whose family helped to keep the game alive.

The local landowners - keepers of the Big House in Irish terms - were the Herdman family and the village cricket ground lies in the shadow of the imposing mill buildings which turned out the fine linen with which their name was once synonymous.

The years of globalisation have not been kind to Northern Ireland's textile industry but the neatly-kept little ground is still in beautiful condition. In Sion Mills the game flourishes.

Image caption In 2007, Irish left-handed batsman Eoin Morgan started playing for England

The Gallaghers showed me wonderful newspaper cuttings evoking a vanished world in which the factory hooter was sounded triumphantly to celebrate the village team's victory in a competition in Belfast. There are moving descriptions of villagers thronging the little railway station to welcome the champions home. And a faithful account of the speech of congratulations from the head of the Herdman family from the Big House.

But Sion Mills does not owe its place in Irish cricket history to that victory. It is famous because it was the place where, in 1969, Ireland defeated - routed - the West Indies.

Until the victory over England, it was the biggest day in Irish cricketing history. It was a magnificent achievement, but somehow Ireland failed to build on it.

The Gallaghers would argue that is because Irish players - like Eoin Morgan in the present day - tend to be poached by England with the promise of test match cricket at the highest level... and the money and recognition that go with it.

Will the Irish cricketing authorities be more successful at capitalising on that World Cup triumph over England? National coach Phil Simmons believes that it can be done.

Even in the immediate, delirious aftermath of that win over the English, Phil was already calculating how to build on victory. "We went there to get ourselves on to the next rung and see where that takes us," he says.

But we leave the last word with Fergal Keane - the man from RTE who gave his on-air celebrations that stylish touch of history.

His sons love the game - proof that the national team's exploits can inspire young people at the grass roots.

"The first time cricket came into my consciousness was a few years ago, when Ireland beat Pakistan," Fergal says. "Coincidentally, my boys became obsessed with cricket from that day on. So when it came to Ireland beating England I at least knew something about it. Before then I could have written what I knew about it on the back of a postage stamp."

There is still a long way to go for cricket in Ireland but the sport these days is well-run and ambitious.

The work of building on that famous win over England is already under way. And if, as a result, cricket continues to attract more and more Irish boys and girls from all sorts of different backgrounds, then that would be the sweetest victory of all.