by Ed Joyce.
I’m a one Test wonder. And very proud to say so.
Warning: Pakistani faster bowler Mohammad Amir on a green seamer. My nerves are jangling as Ireland’s opening batsman in Malahide last summer. Crouched at the crease, almost stooped over, knee ligaments eroding by my stance alone.
The pinnacle and end of my career in one fell swoop.
Amir’s left arm bowl is dangerous. He’s their “spearhead,” the “controlled leader of Pakistan’s bowling attack”. Amir can land a bouncer anywhere he wants. Always fast, but he would be 140km/h fast and it could catch my pad; humiliation and ruin in this momentous moment.
Christ, don’t be bowled for a golden duck.
Not now. Not as the first ever Irish batsman in Test cricket.
Shouldn’t be out here…too old, too sore!
The Ireland coaches, Graham and Rob, blocked my planned retirement the previous Christmas. Knee surgery meant I could walk properly not play Test cricket. When you’re no longer able to do what used to come so naturally there comes feeling of deep frustration. Negative thoughts inevitably invade the mind.
”When you start contemplating the end it usually means it has already arrived.
It’s over, accept it, and so I did. There were World Cup qualifiers in February and March, with Ireland’s first ever Test match looming in May but I couldn’t contribute like before.
I’d already retired from county cricket in England for this very reason. The body wasn’t doing what I commanded. At the start of the innings, the crucial moment, I’d feel sharp pain without pills. Nothing particularly strong, over the counter pain killers, but you don’t want to keep putting them into your body.
It was time to stop. The team was moving into the future without me. This was the moment to bring in new blood and take up my role in the regeneration process. Get out of the way so we can give someone else the only experience that can mould an opening batsman: stare into the whites of Amir’s eyes.
Instead, it was me. One last time for the very first time.
Here comes Amir…
Malahide is an experience I’ll always cherish mainly because it so nearly passed me by. Thankfully, Graham Ford and Rob Cassell persuaded me to battle on to the 231st day of my 40th year. Christmas doubts were a wobble. I’m glad I ignored my old competitive instincts, glad I made it, just to be able to say I played test match cricket for Ireland.
But also because of how I performed.
Amir – this high quality bowler with a dark past – missiles the first ever ball to an Irish batsman in Test cricket. I connect, someone misfields, so we are off the mark. That’s always a warm feeling for a batsman. Runs. To walk for nothing would have been horrendous. Hence the nerves.
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I do also hold the honour of being the first Irish batsman dismissed in test cricket. LBW – Leg Before Wicket – bowled by Mohammad Abbas. It was the wrong call. There was no review on the day, I would have 100 percent reviewed it, I felt it pitch just outside leg, but given out you turn and immediately walk off. Very disappointed despite facing such tough bowlers on a green wicket.
That’s the way it goes.
The life of an opening batsman is an unforgiving existence.
I know this, I competed in and around the highest level for 19 years.
It’s been a long journey.
For 99 percent of my career I firmly believed that moment would never happen. The idea of Ireland gaining full membership to the International Cricket Council (ICC) when I started playing was pie in the sky.
”I never would have declared for England if there was a remote possibility of Ireland being welcomed into the Test arena.
But of course I did declare for England, to further my career, to pit myself against the best in the world. To me, that only ever meant Test cricket.
Again, long journey.
It began when I went over to play for Middlesex in 1999.
Actually, it goes all the way back to growing up in a sports mad family in Bray where North Wicklow was our club. There’s nine of us, five boys and four girls, and besides my two oldest sisters we played every sport going with cricket dominating our summers.
Our school friends always wondered where we disappeared to from June until September. Into our special little cricket world was where we’d go.
James Joyce loves cricket. That’s also Dad’s name. It’s a strange fascination for a man from the Liberties in Dublin’s inner city, but he used to listen to Test matches on the radio as a kid. We moved out to Bray for the space, for the big back garden that proved ideal for the formative years of an opening batsman. Eventually we grew out of North Wicklow and joined Merrion CC in Anglesea Road in Ballsbridge. Another special world to inhabit.
I’m the fourth boy so myself and Dom (the fifth boy) became the best of the cricketers – mainly because of all the coaching we got from our older siblings.
I never had any aspirations to turn professional. Honestly, never so much as contemplated it, not until it was happening. Even when after making my debut, age 18 in 1997, for Ireland. Middlesex noticed and invited me over. I didn’t like the old school feel to that first experience of some big-name cricketers still playing in this second string game. That was that. I turned down an offer to return, instead studying for an economics and geography degree in Trinity (a waste of time to be honest). Kept playing cricket for the joy of it.
Middlesex came calling again. I went back, it went well, and they offered a contract. Suddenly, there I was at Lords, my new home ground, playing alongside Mark Ramprakash, Phil Tufnell and Angus Fraser. Mike Gatting was still about. It was an incredible rise, surrounded by genuine heroes from a childhood when we pretended to be these giants – when epic Test matches unfolded in our back garden.
It still wasn’t a career. Not in my eyes. I did everything correctly, I was professional, but this was just another summer of disappearing into a hidden world.
Gradually it dawned on me that I could hold my own among these men.
Angus Fraser was captain of the club. One day after training, while sitting in a jacuzzi, as you do, he asked me to consider declaring for England.
You don’t actually do anything. You simply live in the country for the period of time that covers the county season and eventually you are eligible. By 2005 that had happened. I wasn’t really playing for Ireland as I had professional club commitments in England.
Eventually I involved myself in Ireland’s World Cup 2007 qualifiers while selection for England A was also unfolding.
I knew by seeking to play Test cricket for England I’d have to sacrifice playing for Ireland at the World Cup in the West Indies.
Test match cricket is what I grew up on. It’s the form of the game I see as the actual sport. Playing for Ireland closed that avenue for me.
I made my decision.
Of course, as fate decreed in 2006, my first game for England was a One Day International against Ireland, against my little brother. I’m different from Eoin Morgan (who followed me down this path). He’d be fine with that scenario, while I pretended to be fine, and said so at the time. I was professional about it, but I wasn’t fine. It bothered me.
I would have preferred to never play against Ireland, but it happened again the next year at the World Cup. Your loyalties are tested. Obviously, we have a unique history with England. I found it hard, but the ultimate goal of test match cricket meant I could sleep at night. It still annoyed me during the day! Not while I was playing. That was never going to be a problem.
Anyway, I got over it.
Nobody in England had a problem. They didn’t see it as strange. It was normal to have people who play county cricket from all over the globe – Australians, South Africans, Indians – seeking to play for England. There were a few comments from Irish people in Australia, with a few beers on board in the crowd, but you ignore them.
That decision meant I missed St Patrick’s Day 2007 when Ireland beat Pakistan in Kingston, Jamaica. I’d just come out of an English team meeting on another island, St Lucia. I was trying to find the game on television. Somebody pulled up a stream. The score: Pakistan were eight down for 100. There’s a chance here. The English boys were very interested. Pakistan were one of the best sides in the world. It was an incredibly proud moment and in the same breath desperately disappointing not to be involved, having helped them qualify, and just to be watching Irish cricket’s flag planting day in English gear in the England team hotel surrounded by my teammates, the England cricket team.
Such was my career choice. I slept soundly. Test cricket remained the ultimate goal.
The timing allowed Irish cricket to splash into the national consciousness. Anyone interested in rugby had a screen in front of them – as Ireland were chasing the Six Nations title in Rome – so when that ended the cricket was on. Hundreds of thousands of Irish people who’d have no interest were suddenly staring – probably bleary eyed – at big screens all around the country as it became apparent we were about to shock the world.
Ireland beating Pakistan by three wickets was the biggest upset cricket has ever known, it was a massive story that was about to go way beyond sport. Pakistan were effectively knocked out of the tournament. Their coach was, Englishman, Bob Woolmer. Within hours later Woolmer was found dead in his hotel room in Kingston, Jamaica, where the Irish team were also staying. The autopsy was inconclusive but two days later the police declared, via the pathologist’s findings, a murder investigation. Three months later this was altered to natural causes.
We were on a different island but the Ireland lads have some interesting stories. Everyone in the Pegasus Hotel had to finger printed. It became a media circus.
There is a dark side to sport in general – with cricket that’s the betting side, namely spot fixing and match fixing. Any young cricketer entering the game now must sit through the anti-corruption education to understand what can and can’t be done because cricket is one of these unique games where you spend months away from home, living in hotels. It’s an unusual existence. For instance, there is an Ireland A trip to Sri Lanka in January for six weeks. You could be a 17 year-old in a country you know nothing about. That’s where it can be tricky. People in hotel lobbies asking you something seemingly innocent could drag you into criminal activity. There is a dark side, for sure.
Spot fixing is a serious problem. For instance, Amir and Salman Butt made an agreement with bookies in 2010 that there would be a “no ball” at a specific over in a test match against England at Lords. After a News of the World sting operation, three players—Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Amir— were subsequently banned for several years.
The Hansie Cronje match fixing stuff is more obvious, and therefore more difficult to carry out, as several members of a team need to be involved to throw an entire game.
The ICC is more vigilant now but with so much money involved I’m not sure the threat can be fully weeded out.
My Test match career with England never happened. Following the Ashes victory in 2005, there began an era of great English batsmen. Come the return series in Australia in 2007 I knew I was close to the team but selection went another way. I was living in Clapham with my girlfriend Francesa, now my wife, when I popped down to the shop for bread and milk. Jeff Miller called to say Marcus Trescothick was coming home and I was replacing him. Get on a flight the next day.
Marcus suffered the same illness many people and far too many professional sports people face – anxiety and depression. It gets brought to light quicker in highly stressful environments. An Ashes series Down Under is a highly stressful environment. Marcus was already a English cricketing legend so for him to fall foul of that showed how serious the illness can be.
I was the back-up. Alastair Cook and Andy Strauss had cemented their place as opening batsmen so I never featured in the test series. The chance passed me by but playing the ODI’s was some compensation.
The promised land was always Test cricket. My reputation, along with a few others, was damaged by England’s performance at the ’07 World Cup. Twenty20 cricket never fully suited my technique and temperament and, while I proved myself a good player in 50-over cricket, Test cricket was always what I was moulded to do.
In 2009 I moved to Sussex to get my mojo back. That worked out and I had another eight seasons at the top level but the chance to play Test cricket for England, while I came close, never came around.
Here’s the sliding doors moment: say I’d become a established middle order English batsman during that Ashes series, would Malahide have happened?
I’m good with how it all played out. Being part of the Ireland team at the 2011 World Cup felt right. Being part of the growth of the game back home and living here now, which probably wouldn’t have happened if I played Test cricket for England, makes me happy.
”I'm not a believer in things happening for a reason. You make decisions and see how they go.
Looks like my situation can never be repeated. That’s the price of success, for Ireland now sitting at the top table of the ICC, the onus is now on us to grow the game. We have four domestic semi-professional teams. There are 18 fully professional counties in England. Irish players who go over must declare for England or be classed as foreigners (and that’s not going to happen as room is only made for the best in the world) and declaring for England rules them out of playing Test cricket for Ireland.
There is a young Northern Ireland cricketer called Jack Carson facing this dilemma – I feel slightly guilty as I helped get Jack into the Sussex academy and now, he must make a decision – a professional career in Ireland or England? He’s only 17 but already on the road to being established over there. The alternative is to become one of the 20 centrally contracted players in Ireland.
There could be a restraint of trade case to be made – especially for Northern Ireland players.
For Ireland to become truly competitive we need indoor schools, outdoor grass facilities and a ground where we can work 24/7 – like any county squad in England.
We need facilities.
The national head coach Graham Ford talks about a factory churning out players. We have an artificial surface in Abbotstown and there will be a grass area unveiled in 2019 but none of it is covered.
It rains in Ireland. We need a roof or Ireland simply cannot expect to remain competitive. Harsh reality. Currently, we work in the indoor centre in Balbriggan but it’s a sharing arrangement.
My role now in the Irish cricket high performance unit is batting coach – throwing balls, ruining the shoulder – with a leadership aspect as well. William Porterfield has been Ireland captain for 10 years. An incredible leader, he recently passed the T20 captaincy to Gary Wilson, who is also in his thirties.
”The next generation of leaders must be unearthed. That only comes with experience. Without a good cricket team there is no point in being where we are.
It’s about uncovering mental fortitude: finding the guy who improves with the rising standard of cricket he’s exposed to. I know what to look for – I struggled with each step-up. I learned, eventually.
The most talented aren’t always going to survive. Your batting average isn’t the be all and end all in cricket. The numbers don’t always tell the whole truth. It’s about coping under enormous strain, about making the right tactical decision when it really matters. It’s about people. Trescothick and Michael Vaughan didn’t have the greatest county records, statistically speaking, but Duncan Fletcher consistently picked them for England because he identified the steeliness required to win test matches.
Andy Strauss is a good friend. A mentor of Andy’s, and mine, was the current Australia coach Justin Langer – he was all guts, with a resilience and desire to bat all day. “Over my dead body” was his attitude at the crease.
Ireland have been invited to the top table so, like the provincial rugby teams in Ireland, we have to build our own professional sides. The Netherlands and Scotland can become allies by providing regular opposition.
We haven’t yet developed many high quality cricketers through the systems on this island – John Mooney is an obvious exception.
We are on the road now but there is a long way to travel. I know something about that as well.
If you enjoyed Ed’s story, you might like to read up and coming Irish sprinter Leon Reid’s English Heart, Irish Blood.
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