Cricket in their DNA: The grassroots of Irish cricket

By Geoff Maskell

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Johnny Thompson bowling
Image caption,
North West Warriors toil in the field against the Leinster Lightning on the second day of a three-day Interprovincial match at Bready

If you are looking for the grassroots of Irish cricket, Creevedonnell Cricket Club is a good place to start.

The small ground is carved from a farmer's field, high on a hill at the corner of counties Londonderry, Tyrone and Donegal.

Hit a six and you'll be looking for the ball in the surrounding potato fields, but in the sunshine, views of the broad sweep of the Foyle Valley are spectacular.

And in this valley the roots of cricket go very deep.

"It goes through your very DNA," says club secretary Brian Dougherty.

"This club has been here just over 60 years now. The ground was originally given by a cousin of my dad's.

"The Dougherty name has been part of that whole process in those full 60 years."

Image caption,
"North West Cricket is renowned for its team spirit," said Brian Dougherty

The views from the ground may be world class, but the facilities at Creevedonnell are basic.

An elderly lawn mower sits parked under the veranda of a whitewashed changing room and a simple scoreboard, scuffed and empty today, with bare hooks where the white painted numbers of runs and overs should hang.

Changing ecosystem

Today the air is warm, but on a hillside exposed to the prevailing north-westerly breeze, playing isn't for the faint-hearted.

Hail and even snow are not unheard of, especially in the early days of a new season.

Image caption,
Views of the broad sweep of the Foyle Valley from Crevedonnell Cricket Club

Many of the "family" clubs that sprang up in the north west during the 1950s have faded away, closed or merged out of existence.

Clubs, like the population, moved off the land to the bigger villages and towns. But the people at Crevedonnell are proud of the place the club has in the ecosystem of Irish cricket.

"We have had two Irish internationals who started playing youth cricket here and wouldn't have been introduced to cricket had it not been for a club like our own.

"It's a crucial element of the network in terms of progressing Irish cricket at an elite level."

But that ecosystem is changing.

Image caption,
Creevedonnell Cricket Club was established in the 1950s

In June, the International Cricket Council announced that both Ireland and Afghanistan were to be granted Test match status.

Ireland was due to take on the West Indies in a one-day international at Stormont on Wednesday, the first time that the national side would take on top-tier opposition, since the announcement was made.

Both countries already had international status in the one-day and Twenty20 formats of the game and each has enjoyed notable successes against Test-playing nations in global competitions in recent years.

For Irish cricket in particular, the step up to playing five-day cricket is a huge challenge.

However, after two days of heavy rain on Tuesday and Wednesday, the match was abandoned before play began.

The key to touring

Tucked behind a housing estate just off the Derry to Strabane road, the home of Bready Cricket Club is three miles from Creevedonnell.

But in terms of facilities it is a world away, with its electronic scoreboard, indoor nets, gym and well appointed bar and changing facilities.

At Bready, the North West Warriors are toiling in the field against the Leinster Lightning on the second day of a three-day interprovincial match.

This first-class competition - on a par with the county championship in England - is a key building block in the strategy to take Irish cricket from a club game to a Test playing nation.

Image caption,
Ireland cricket coach John Bracewell says "learning to play tired is one of the keys of touring"

Watching from the stands is Ireland cricket coach John Bracewell.

"Just playing three days of cricket in a row from playing club cricket once a week is a big and significant change," he said.

"Learning to play tired is one of the keys of touring to be honest.

"They've got to understand that tired is not necessarily injured and tired doesn't necessarily mean you're going to get an injury.

"Basically it's like learning to run a marathon. If you're going to run a marathon you've got to keep running."

'Big, big future'

At the age of 34, first-class cricket in Ireland and the chance to play in a Test match have come too late for Warriors' bowler Johnny Thompson.

But he can see the potential opportunities waiting for the next generation.

"There's a big, big future for the younger kids coming through," he said.

"I wish I was 19 again, knowing now what's coming in the next five to 10 years for Irish cricket.

"My son is 10. He plays for the junior Warriors. I would be so proud to see him walk out in a Test match for Ireland."

For many of the clubs in the north west, this season has come to an abrupt end. The torrential rain that hit the area in August put many pitches out of commission.

Image caption,
At Donemana Cricket Club, the Portacabin used as a changing room was floated 50 metres from the boundary edge to middle of the square

At Donemana Cricket Club, where the Burn Dennett divides the two pitches, the rising river water flooded one and devastated the other.

The portable hut used as a changing room floated 50m from the boundary edge to middle of the square, coming to rest next to the artificial wicket.

Team spirit

Professionalism might be coming to the top level of Irish cricket, but the repairs there and at other grassroots clubs will be arranged and carried out by volunteers, in what is still very definitely an amateur sport.

"What Cricket Ireland have achieved in the last 10 or 15 years has been phenomenal," said Brian Dougherty.

"But there is a bit of a disconnect there. It has been to the detriment of local clubs like ourselves."

And that is the challenge for the administrators of cricket in Ireland; how to grow a successful international team that can compete on the world stage while also sustaining the grassroots of a game built on family traditions and local clubs like Creevedonnell.

But for Brian, the two ambitions are not mutually exclusive.

"North West Cricket is renowned for its team spirit, its community spirit," he said.

"The fact that it is family based, it's a very competitive league that we compete in and that does make its way to the international standard as well."