DUBLIN, Ireland — The game of cricket is one of the things that distinguishes England from Ireland. The English play it, the Irish don’t, at least not much. The English are the professional giants of the game, the Irish are amateurs, struggling in a country where many associate cricket with the days of British occupation. So the chances of Ireland beating England at cricket are said to be as remote as — well, Ireland beating England at cricket. That all changed last week.
In Bangalore, India, at the 2011 Cricket World Cup, the unthinkable happened. Ireland thrashed the English team. Until this shocking news was reported, most people here didn’t even know that Ireland was playing in the competition. But by beating England at their own game, the country experienced a moment of collective joy that has lifted the depression over its crushing financial situation.
And it did even more than that. Irish cricketers were instantly transformed from “West Brits” — as some dismissed them — into national heroes. Aubrey Fennell of Carlow put it eloquently in a letter to the Irish Times. “I have suffered jeers and sneers for my love that dares not speak its name,” he wrote. “After Wednesday’s historic victory I can finally come out and say I am an Irishman who loves cricket.”
The hero of the game, Kevin O’Brien, is one of a small band of Irish players passionate about “the gentleman’s game.” He stunned and bewildered the English team in India by hitting the fastest century in Cricket World Cup history, his hair dyed pink to promote a cancer charity.
“I suppose beating the old enemy was probably sweeter than anybody else,” said his father Brendan O’Brien of Sandymount in Dublin, who once captained the Irish cricket team.
The story was splashed all over the national newspapers and Irish President Mary McAleese called the team in Bangalore to congratulate the players. The incoming Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, said the unimaginable victory demonstrated that “with self-belief the apparently impossible can be made possible.” This is a sentiment that voters who supported his successful Fine Gael party in the Feb. 25 election trust he will employ to solve the national debt crisis.
On that point, international rugby referee and former Irish national cricketer, Alan Lewis, agreed. “Ireland Inc should come and mirror everything that these 15 guys have done,” said Lewis, who admitted on the BBC to shedding tears of joy at seeing the underdog beat an arrogant English side. “They’ve shown what fighting spirit is, how they went about winning and using their skills to the maximum as a small country.”
Cricket has been played in Ireland for centuries but was marginalized during the 20th century, partly because of a ban on “foreign games” imposed by the Gaelic Athletic Association, administrators of the popular national games of Gaelic Football and hurling, until 1971. Other countries colonized by Britain, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan and India, have made cricket a national game, but Ireland opted to develop its own sports as an expression of national identity.
With relations between the two countries now on an even keel for the first time since the 1919-1921 War of Independence, the ancient stigma against cricket is fast disappearing and with this week’s upset the prospect of Ireland becoming a world cricket power is no longer remote.
“If you could bottle the spirit within the [Irish] camp,” observed Dileep Premachandran, associate editor of the world’s largest cricket web site, ESPNcricinfo, “it might sell as well as Guinness or Bushmills.” With plucky Ghana’s delightful display in last year’s soccer World Cup in mind, he suggested that the Irish victory was the wake-up call that international cricket needed: “Embrace, don’t alienate. Nurture, don’t destroy.”
For the uninitiated, cricket is played by two teams of 11 each who take turns defending a wicket against a bowler while trying to score runs. England had batted first in Bangalore and run up a formidable score of 327. When they had dismissed five of the Irish players for a mere 111 runs it looked like a walk-over for the English team, which recently triumphed over the other international cricket giant, Australia. O’Brien’s record-breaking 113 from 63 balls changed all that.
When he comes home after the tournament he can be assured of a mob scene at Dublin airport — Ireland’s equivalent of a ticker-tape parade down Fifth Avenue. And if there were an honors system in Ireland he would undoubtedly be given a knighthood.