Cricket has been played in Ireland as long as hurling but is a game that has struggled to capture the hearts and minds of sportsmen and women over the last century. However, there are a core group of people who keep the game alive. THOMAS CONWAY went to a recent Nenagh Cricket Club game to find out more about this growing club.
To truly understand cricket, to truly understand the passion that exists for this most gentlemanly of games, one has to picture a setting where the sport lives in its most raw form.
One has to picture flocks of children swinging bats and flinging balls alongside a makeshift wicket, in the dusty, desiccated heat of an Indian summer. One has to imagine biblical crowds roaring ferociously at a test match in Delhi or Mumbai, living and breathing every bowl, reacting to the crack of leather on willow, going wild at the snap of the stumps when a wicket finally falls. India is the home of cricket. There is no other nation on Earth which worships one sport with such visceral emotion, such limitless devotion.
For over a decade now, the group of men at the heart of Nenagh Cricket Club have been striving to instil North Tipperary with the same sporting passion that colors life in their homeland of Kerala, in south-western India. They’re not seeking to displace or overtake any of the other games in Tipperary’s increasingly eclectic sporting landscape. They’re simply trying to add to the collection, to extend the repertoire. And so far, they’ve been succeeding.
Nenagh Cricket Club was founded in 2011 when a group of local Indian men got together and decided that this was a project which was worth pursuing. The appetite was there. Irish cricket was just beginning to flourish on the international stage – an historic World Cup victory over England marked the crescendo of a remarkable couple of years in which the national team had gone from being underrated nobody’s to serious competitors. Cricket suddenly became sexy, and the future looked bright.
Once established, the club started to progress rapidly. Jomy Joseph is the current captain of Nenagh’s Munster Division 1 outfit, but he’s been there since the very beginning. He explains that the evolution took place quickly, but it was accelerated by existing structures. The presence of the Munster League meant that Nenagh could immediately start playing on a competitive platform, which helped to both attract and retain members.
“Most of us used to play back at home in India, but there was a good group of us around Nenagh, a good Indian community, so we decided to form a team,” Joseph said.
“And since then we’ve been building year by year, getting more competitive year by year. We now have two teams, in Division 1 and Division 2, and we play every weekend. And we have all sorts of players as well – spinners, medium-pacers, batsmen, all-rounders. We’ve got them all.”
Struggle for resources
A desire to play cricket is only one of the necessary ingredients required for a club to function effectively. There is almost always a struggle for resources. Money is generally tight, and facilities do not appear overnight. Nenagh now have an impressive home venue at Ballyeighan, not far from Ballingarry, Roscrea, which they share with Slieve Bloom Cricket Club.
The setting is almost a little romantic, the pitch located in a humble enough field off one of those undulating rural roads that lead deep into the Midlands countryside. There are stone walls visible nearby, the remnants of another era, one in which cricket was probably the sport of choice in the region.
Both clubs have benefited from the generosity of a local man, who is currently leasing the field to them, but they’ve worked hard to bring the venue up to scratch. It now has a slick all-weather crease, designed to combat all types of assaults from the inclement Irish weather.
Club stalwart Tom Paul acknowledges the efforts of members in working to fund the new development, but he also praises Tipperary County Council, which made an invaluable contribution to the project. Local sponsors, such as Mini Market Nenagh and the Spice Court, have also played crucial roles in enabling the club to evolve. But Tom feels that Nenagh is now at a stage where it needs another boost, an injection of new members to further energize the club’s momentum going forward.
“We invested a lot of money this year to develop the pitch here at Ballyeighan, we put nearly fifteen grand towards it,” he said.
“Tipperary County Council helped us with a good bit of funding, and we raised a good bit ourselves as well. So, our facilities have improved, and that helps an awful lot. There’s a good future in this club, but we need fresh faces, we need new young people, Irish people, local people, to come here to the club and practice and give cricket a go.”
There is a perception, probably an understandable one, that cricket is a boring game – a long-drawn out affair in which batsmen spend hours playing safe at the crease and nothing much happens bar the odd moment of hysteria when a wicket falls or a six come here. The reality is quite different.
Cricket can be, and often is, absorbing to watch. It has a cast of characters which intrigue and compel – the speed-merchant bowler, the spin technician, the crafty batsman or batswoman, the cunning wicketkeeper. The drama can play out in the form of a five-test series, a one-day contest, or a short and snappy 20×20 spectacle. You can even strip it down to 100 balls, and create an evening’s entertainment which features stadium DJs and live player mics, as the English Cricket Board have recently discovered. The point is, cricket is miscellaneous. But so too is its skill-set.
Ginson Abraham is one of Nenagh’s most hard-hitting and proficient batsmen. A couple of weeks ago he knocked off a century against Kerry CC, finishing with 116 to secure Nenagh’s seconds a 65-run win.
The bat is his specialty, but Ginson’s knowledge of the game is as detailed as it is deep. He breaks down the essential skills with absolute clarity, noting the similarities between hurling and cricket, but also highlighting the differences.
“One of the key differences between hurling and cricket is actually the cricket ball,” Abraham explained.
“The cricket ball is made of hard leather, and it has the seam in the middle, so it will move in the air – it will swing in or swing out. And that’s often the skill of the bowler, the way they throw or spin the ball. So, it’s up to the batsman to read the ball – they have to use their eyes, position their hands, react in time. The challenge is to read the flight of the ball, and to be patient as well.”
Ginson is also a talented wordsmith. In recent years he has taken on the role of club PRO, crafting the detailed match reports which can be found regularly in the Nenagh Guardian. He loves documenting the club’s adventures, playfully suggesting that he might make a professional pivot and embark on a new career as a journalist. He knows the importance of utilizing both local and social media to spread the word and inform the public about the club’s activities, but he also knows that the profile of cricket in Ireland is growing.
The World Cups of 2007 and 2011 captured the imagination, but since then the game has undergone a dramatic expansion. Cricket is no longer confined to a few select clubs in south county Dublin. It is no longer regarded as alien or exclusive. Ginson feels that the game is now very much part of the sporting landscape across much of the country, especially in Munster, where the number of clubs has multiplied, and the standard of cricket has soared.
“Both national teams, men’s and women’s, are doing really well and we’re seeing more and more people becoming interested in the sport, more and more people getting involved,” he said.
“So, the popularity of cricket is definitely increasing, particularly in Munster, and that’s because the league is there, teams are playing every weekend, the news is going around in local newspapers.”
As a club, Nenagh is multi-dimensional. It caters for every type – the untrained novice, the lazy wicketkeeper, the serious batsman. But its players are genuinely committed, and its teams are consistently performing to a high level.
Cork County are on course to sweep to the Division 1 Munster League title, but Nenagh have produced a number of impressive showings this summer and should finish comfortably within the top-half of the table. The Division 2 side are in a similar position, having demolished Tipperary rivals Clonmel in a local derby a few weeks ago in Ballyeighan.
The aspiration of course, is to secure some silverware. A league title is certainly within their grasp, if they can maintain their upward trajectory over the coming seasons.
Cricket is unlikely to ever become the dominant strain of sport in North Tipperary, but there’s now a credible team to play with, and a slick new pitch to play on. There’s no reason why cricket bats can’t sit alongside hurleys in the cupboards of young sportsmen and women. In fact, they might just complement one another.