Ireland Cricket Captain, Andrew Balbirnie talks cricket culture, meeting his childhood hero, Brian Lara, taking on the best in the world and his hopes for the future of Irish cricket.

Cricket is a huge sport globally. I’ve played in massive stadia in front of a full house crowd in New Zealand and Australia. It’s refreshing because when you’re committed to your sport, you want to see recognition for your sport. Sometimes that’s not there at home. You might not even get a line in the newspaper in Ireland and that can be frustrating.

But it can also be a nice escape.

You can spend four or five weeks in a hotel on tour worrying about your performance and then you come home, and no one gives a shit. You can almost be a different person because you can get away from cricket for a while. That’s healthy.

I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be playing for a team like India and the pressure they have to experience. They have no hiding place, they’re under constant scrutiny and as soon as they get home and shut the door, it’s on television.

When we played India in Ireland in 2018, the Indian players loved the fact that they could walk from their hotel to the cricket ground in Malahide without any bother. It was during a heatwave which helped too. They absolutely loved it. They simply couldn’t do that in India. There’s nowhere in the world where they can do that when they’re on tour. These guys are superstars.

Once word got out that they were staying in Malahide, there were hundreds of people there trying to get in. The Gardai were called but they just didn’t really get what the fuss was about. It’s hard to explain to them. The hotel just wasn’t prepared either. It was crazy. They tried putting up one of those rope barriers, but I was just laughing thinking, that isn’t going to stop two or three hundred cricket fans.

We’d travel to India a lot to play Afghanistan, as currently Afghanistan cannot play home games. Half of the Afghanistan team play in the Indian Premier League so you can’t leave the hotel when you’re there, it’s madness. There’s no other country that I’ve been to that is that obsessed with its sport. Brazilian people’s relationship with soccer is probably the closest thing.

150 up for Ireland's Andrew Balbirnie during the Ireland vs The Netherlands, ICC InterContinental Cup, Malahide Cricket Club, Dublin 16/8/2017 ©INPHO/PressEye/Rowland White

150 up for Ireland’s Andrew Balbirnie during the Ireland vs The Netherlands, ICC InterContinental Cup, Malahide Cricket Club, Dublin 16/8/2017 ©INPHO/PressEye/Rowland White

I’m fortunate that I can see the world through my sport. I went to the Caribbean for the first time at the start of this year. We were in Barbados, Grenada and St. Kitts which are three lovely spots. It was completely different to any other cricket culture I’d experienced. It is just so chilled, and they have party stands in every ground. As captain, I probably shouldn’t have placed myself over at the party stand boundary. There was plenty of “banter” let’s say. But to be 29 years old and still discovering different cultures and experiences in and around cricket is so eye opening and unique.

The West Indies has such a rich history in cricket, so many superstars of the game over the years. Test cricket was all I grew up watching on TV. You would see the likes of Brian Lara and you just want to be like him.

When I was 17, I was selected for the MCC Young Cricketers programme in the UK, a development scheme for young cricketers where you spend the summer working among the ground staff at the world famous Lord’s Cricket Ground. You also get to play in the county seconds league. Part of our jobs was to bowl to the MCC members. Some of the MCC members wanted to have a net and they’d set a time and place. One of us would go and bowl to him for an hour. The Rest of the World were playing a game against the MCC and the head coach came over and said, ‘Lads, Brian Lara wants to net on Tuesday at half ten in the morning’. So, I jumped at the opportunity with two of the other lads. This was in 2010 so he was at the end of his career, but it was still surreal. We bowled away for about an hour and half. We ended up sitting in a circle then chatting to him about cricket and asking him every question under the sun. He asked if any of us were hungry and he brought us for a curry.

We jumped in a taxi to a place in central London and when we got there and knocked on the door the guy comes and says, “Sorry we’re closed”. Then they saw Brian and it was all, “Mr. Lara, in you come!” So, the four of us were in this curry house in the middle of London, with the place all to ourselves and we had six or seven beers with Brian Lara. He was the nicest guy. So down to earth. We were all living in a hostel in Hampstead and when we were leaving, he paid for our taxi home and I haven’t seen him since. It was really bizarre but a great memory. My day on the beer with Brian Lara.

The great Brian Lara celebrates after breaking the world record test score at 400 not out during the 4th test West Indies V England at the Recreation Ground, Antigua. 12/4/2004 ©David Ashdown/Getty Images

The great Brian Lara celebrates after breaking the world record test score at 400 not out during the 4th test England V West Indies at the Recreation Ground, Antigua. 12/4/2004 ©David Ashdown/Getty Images

For a long time, the only way to get to play Test cricket was to be good enough to be picked for England which really didn’t make sense to me. I really wanted to play for Ireland, but we had to wait to be granted Test nation status. Until we actually played the first test in Malahide, in May 2018, I still didn’t actually believe that it would happen. I still have a signed jersey from that first test which I never washed. When I’m older and retired with grandkids, I think that’ll be a cool thing to have. It’s not that I had the best game that day or anything. But to be a part of that historic first test and to see all the past players there after everything they’ve done for Irish cricket over the year was brilliant. It was probably the biggest moment of my career.

When people ask, “What exactly is so special about Test cricket?”, the answer is that it’s exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a test. You go through the full range of emotions.

A Test match ebbs and flows. You have to be so resilient. Last year at Lords against England was a good example. We had a brilliant first day. Then in two days we were bowled out. That’s the highs and lows of it. I remember seeing a commentator in Australia describing how Test cricket is like life, you will inevitably have really tough times, but you have to try and get through it. When you battle through, you’ll reap the rewards. That was quite poignant, and it sat with me. We don’t get to play a lot of test cricket, but when we do, it is certainly the pinnacle for me.

Ireland's Andrew Balbernie and William Porterfield celebrate Paul Stirling catching Babar Azam during Ireland's first everTest Match, Malahide Cricket Club, Dublin 12/5/2018 ©INPHO/Oisin Keniry

Ireland’s Andrew Balbirnie and William Porterfield celebrate Paul Stirling catching Babar Azam during Ireland’s first ever Test Match, Pakistan V Ireland, Malahide Cricket Club, Dublin 12/5/2018 ©INPHO/Oisin Keniry

Whenever you play England its special. They are the current World Champions. You know you’re up against it and you know you’re going to have to be at your best to beat them.

It’s not the same rivalry that exists in rugby and soccer, where the teams have played each other regularly over the last 100 years. Coming up against England in cricket is a relatively new thing for us. For that to become a true rivalry we’d need to play them more regularly and more importantly, beat them more regularly. When we beat them, as we did earlier this year, its presented as a surprise result in the media. “Luck of the Irish” type of thing. I’m a bit over that to be honest. We’re better than that. This team can earn the wins, luck has nothing to do with it.

I’m optimistic that we can get to a place where we can find that consistency and beat the big teams on a regular basis. Just this year, we beat the West Indies and England in their own back yard. We beat Afghanistan in India for the first time. The signs are there that we can compete, and we need to kick on from that.

We don’t have a conveyor belt of talent, but with the players we do have we need to keep hold of them, develop them and give them the best chance to compete at the very top level.

We grow up with GAA, soccer and rugby. I’d love to see more boys and girls get the chance to play cricket. I think it’s the best sport in the world. I’ve learned so much from the game. I’ve travelled the world. Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma that cricket isn’t a sport that belongs to us as Irish people. There are so many different cultures and backgrounds represented in our team. We’re an all-Ireland team. We need to find ways to break the stigma.

The best way I know how to change that mindset is to be as successful as possible for Ireland and pass on some knowledge to the next generation.

Andrew,

December 2020.

If you enjoyed Andrew’s piece you might like to read Ed Joyce’s – “The Promised Land.

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