Saturday 31 May 2014 

Comment - The Format That Dares Not Speak Its Name

Ireland cricketers
Will we see Test cricket played in Ireland at some time in the future?
© REUTERS / Action Images
 

Something that can distance many modern fans from the Test game is the strange truth that most of the cricketing public have never taken part in a match lasting longer than seven or eight hours, never mind an entire working week.

In no other major sport does such a clear distinction in terms of code exist between the élite and the grassroots: playing a Premier League match at Stamford Bridge hardly compares to turning out for a pub team on Hackney Marshes, but the format is almost identical. For Irish supporters the situation is compounded by the reality that even hardened national team stalwarts have only sporadic international experience outside the limited-overs system, rendering Test cricket in the flesh an almost alien spectacle, essentially a different game to the one played in grounds up and down the island.

So it is that for an Irish fan to embrace this most languid of pursuits, a certain leap of faith is required.

As is an acknowledgement that your interest in proceedings is purely aspirational, that the difference between you and those 22 men is more than just the vast gap in talent that traditionally separates those at the top from the mere plebs who watch them.

Test cricket is, aside from being something reserved for the supremely gifted, a contest from which one is precluded by accident of birth rather than the more egalitarian rationale of being utterly devoid of skill.

Irish five-day fanatics, therefore, must accept a subjugation to the whim of geo-politics and the sport’s governing bodies, something which most do without a great deal of objection.

Granted, there is resentment in some quarters that the pinnacle of this fine game is essentially a closed shop, but for the most part Irish supporters are content enough to acknowledge that Test cricket is a special case, a Cockayne about which our earnest cricketing monks are interminably compelled to fantasise.

However, far from being the Goliards of this sporting world, Irish fans generally buy into Test cricket with a considered bias dependant on a variety of factors.

While there are those who observe Test cricket with an unvested, dispassionate eye, some adopt a team from one of the mighty 10, viewing the game through a prism of malleable, weighted neutrality.

This decision, which is often made on a match-to-match basis, can be based on nothing more than a random circumstance: the presence in a team of a demonic fast bowler, a sneaky spinner, or an agile wicket-keeper. Or perhaps the less prosaic allure of a nation’s culture, history or geography. Some, like those belonging to the suddenly emergent Manchester City fan-base in Ireland, just pick whoever happens to be the best.

Many Irish fans, however, will simply support England. Not with a passion, but more through a geographically induced sense of empathy. The English are familiar, similar in so many ways to us, a nation with whom it is easier to identify than in comparison with those impossibly glamorous specimens from far-away, sun-kissed lands you know you’ll never visit.

The English, to an Irishman, are hardly foreigners at all. Rather more like that distant uncle you don’t really talk about because of What Happened At Cousin Tommy’s Wedding, but with whom you’ll gladly sit down, share a few pints, while away an evening and happily leave unsaid what’s best left unsaid.

We understand their culture – sure it’s basically the same as ours but with an unfathomable obsession for period costume drama – and so we understand their cricket. Surprising as it may seem, there’s not much of the “Old Enemy” stuff within Irish cricket – though it would be outrageous to deny that the Kevin O’Brien-inspired 2011 World Cup victory was greeted with anything other than unrestrained, joyful glee.

The real turning point for me with regard to the selection of a Test surrogate came when I first experienced – via television, of course – the joys of an Australian tour.

Irish journalist Con Houlihan, writing about a bleak 1980s London, noted that when he first went to work in the city, “a certain aspect puzzled me for a little while. I could see lights on in many houses in the small hours. I soon discovered the reason: it was Autumn and England were playing Australia down below in the bottom of the world.”

In Ireland, for the relative few who were doing the same thing, the warm sunshine blazing out from the screen and lighting otherwise night-engulfed rooms offered a heartening contrast to the bleak Irish winter.

What we saw was a different world where people lazed on grass banks, chugged beer and absorbed some exhilarating cricket while we sat wrapped in a blanket in front of the TV, sipping tea and cursing our luck to have been born in Dublin rather than Dubbo.

Those enduring, tea-fuelled nights-cum-dawns spent in the far-off company of the tinny-toting masses in the stands at Brisbane, Melbourne or Sydney are ones I and many others recreate almost every winter, blithely huddled up in a sleepy stupor – though now in front of a laptop rather than a television screen.

One of the greatest pleasures in life is the vicarious thrill of watching a cricket match unfold in the searing Australian heat, dreaming of the inevitably disappointing Hibernian summer and pining for the months when it’s time to emerge from hibernation and step once more onto the crease.

As Cardus pointed out, “at cricket there is a chance to bask in a comprehension of the summer-time setting and spirit.” Observing from afar the brightness of the Australian sun lent us unfortunate northeners exactly that even in the heart of winter.

But for all this second-hand enjoyment there’s the lingering realisation that as an Irishman, somehow you are not part of this world. You are but a voyeur, destined to peep from afar into an unattainable utopia, grateful for the pleasure doing so brings yet envious of those for whom that utopia is normality.

Therein lies the difficulty of being an Irish fan of Test cricket: we exist in a state of self-conscious limbo, the banal equivalents of Dante’s virtuous pagans, unbaptised by the all-powerful ICC.

We are the “guiltless damned,” punished for our noble savagery by being forced to live in a deficient form of Heaven.

Looking in at what we could have, we are almost but not quite there. It is a frustrating feeling, one for which the espousal of a second team proves scant consolation.

What sometimes made it worse was the lack of sympathy on the part of the wider Irish sporting public. For so long, cricket on this particular island was very much a marginalised pursuit, the ultimate “garrison game” portrayed unfairly and inaccurately as the province of the upper middle-class private-school alumnus or that most divisive of Hibernian figures, the “West Brit.” Synonymous with elitism and imperialism, cricket was all but non-existent in mainstream media, its place in the pecking order falling somewhere between bob-sledding and tiddlywinks.

Thus, partiality to cricket in Dublin in the 1990s required an element of subterfuge. It was a topic you would never raise with friends, any mention of “googlies” or “leg-spin” normally being met with blank looks and dull perplexity. The game just didn’t enter into the national consciousness.

“Did you see how Warne tied up Butcher yesterday?”

“Sorry, pal, I don’t watch EastEnders.”

Any information gleaned from Test Match Special, Teletext or Wisden was essentially invalid in normal life, a personal memento to be stored and bottled until the rare occasion when a fellow fan was identified.

Matches were watched and stats recorded in the knowledge that this was something you were unlikely to share with the vast majority of your close friends, unless they happened to be cricketers themselves.

Until 2005 and the Ashes in England, cricket was, in the most genteel way imaginable, an underground activity in Ireland – picture a straw hat-clad Banksy furtively etching scorecards on the walls of Temple Bar – and Test cricket a mythical beast spoken of only in the vaguest, most apocryphal terms.

The exploits of that summer, however, briefly thrust cricket into the limelight. For the first time in my own living memory, the game made it onto the evening news, albeit for little more than a 10 or fifteen-second vignette, without footage, during which the announcer struggled bravely against his total lack of comprehension of what was flashing up on his Autocue.

All of a sudden, people knew about Test cricket, and were watching it – or at least the highlights packages.

Vaguely aware that I played and followed the game, friends who I’d known for years – and from whose lips nary a mention of a “quick single” had ever slipped except in reference to a hastily consumed pint of Guinness – tentatively broached the idea that Kevin Pietersen’s inclusion in the England squad had shifted the balance away from Australia, or that “Anthony” Flintoff’s bowling really was made distinctive by his “heavy balls.”

It was a glorious time, but needless to say, it didn’t last. That was the year terrestrial TV lost live Test cricket, and with it went any chance of the format taking off as a major spectator sport in Ireland.

Once more relegated to curiosity status, the long-form game has ceded without much struggle to One-Day Internationals and Twenty20s in the hearts and minds of the casual Irish cricket fan, more so since the phenomenal victories for Ireland at the World Cups in 2007 and 2011 catapulted the limited-over stuff to the forefront of cricketing awareness here.

That, of course, has its benefits, with the shorter formats enjoying a huge increase in popularity on the island, something to which the players themselves can bear witness.

As part of an interview for an Irish newspaper that was never published because of the publication’s preference for provincial GAA match reports, Ireland and Somerset’s young spinner George Dockrell told me: “The view of us as a whole is changing hugely. We notice it ourselves, when you talk to people you don’t know or when people approach you and talk about their new love of cricket, they might even be from a hurling or GAA background.

"Irish cricket may have been in the past a minority sport, but these days there are a lot of people who appreciate how well we’re doing and the success we’ve had over the last while.

"When we fly out to places and talk to people now there’s a greater awareness of us. You don’t get many people any more who are oblivious to what we’re doing."

But among the fair-weather fans – who are the ones we really need to make all-weather fans – the Test game now seems to have become an afterthought, a quaint sideshow to the more entertaining thrash-and-bash of shorter formats.

The truth is, this is entirely understandable: you can go to Tolka Park or Tallaght Stadium and watch a football match played roughly the same way as it is in Anfield or the Nou Camp – perhaps with a few added long balls and scuffed clearances – but you can’t go to Clontarf or Malahide and see a Test match.

Even in the TV age, a game doesn’t grow in popularity if people are not able to turn up at their local ground and experience it in person. One-day cricket is here to stay, but the longer form needs a lot more exposure if it is to flourish.

Maybe time, and an Irish Test setup, will change all this, but for now I and people like myself must be content with support-by-proxy through our surrogate nations.

One day it would be nice to emerge from Alighieri’s First Circle, but until then there’s always the consolation that even in limbo there are still some good times to be had.

Luke Ginnell writes about cricket and football and tweets @HeavyFirstTouch

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