Football: Ireland raise the conversion rate

Serious intent lay behind the Clotarf craic.
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The Independent Online
THEY ARE talkative folk, the Irish, and with 3,000 of them in attendance, plus some 500 West Indian and Bangladeshi supporters, at Castle Avenue, Clontarf, just north of Dublin city centre, Friday's World Cup match was never going to be played amid the atmosphere of a cathedral. The hubbub throughout another depressingly cold day was always sufficient to drown out the involuntary chit-chattering of teeth and conversation could be enjoined - and enjoyed - at many levels.

"Is it quite like rounders, now?" was heard early in the day from one bank of temporary seating, which had been installed Irish-style in blocks labelled A, B, C, H and F. There were clearly some cricketing virgins present, and welcome they were. Those with a firmer grasp of the essentials were apt to offer reminders, once or thrice, that Ireland, not Australia or anyone else, played the Gentlemen of England in the first cricket international, back in 1855. There was just the occasional mention too of the staggering events in County Tyrone on 2 July 1969, when West Indies, with six of the team who had just drawn the Lord's Test (including a certain C H Lloyd) made 25 all out against Ire-land's finest; a better performance in the circumstances than might immediately be apparent, as they had been 6 for 5 and 12 for 9.

The Clontarf ground, hard by the castle as its name suggests, and backing on to the local rugby pitch, was opened in 1958 with another match featuring distinguished company in Denis Compton and Bill Edrich. MCC have made regular missionary visits since 1964, once bringing a young lad of some promise named Mark Waugh, who in friendlier batting conditions than those encountered by Lloyd's team of 69, scored 239 not out and 103 not out.

Not surprisingly, he enjoyed the trip and brother Steve subsequently became one of Ireland's overseas guests. In 1997 it was Hansie Cronje, inspiring victory over Middlesex in the Benson & Hedges Cup; next month the team coached by Mike Hendrick will include Jonty Rhodes for the NatWest Trophy tie against Leicester-shire, again at Clontarf.

If there was an air of regret on Friday, it was that Ireland were hosts rather than participants. Defeat by 15 runs against Scotland in a play- off meant that they missed out and must instead look to the longer term, hoping to stage the next but one World Cup qualifying competition and, more importantly, develop the sport at every level.

The Clontarf club president Fergus Carroll, whose contribution to Friday included everything from painting the boundary fence to acting as public address announcer, says: "Let's be honest, cricket is a minority sport in this country, but it's gaining in popularity and being played in more and more schools. The Leinster Cricket Union have a full-time development officer going round the schools and at Clontarf we now have seven adult teams, seven for schoolboys and two for ladies. Friday night is designated for schoolboy coaching and you'll find every corner of the ground covered.

"TV's done wonders for the game here plus the fact that the Irish team now play regularly in the NatWest and has Test players guesting. It was thought at one stage that the next ICC Trophy would be held here, but Canada won the right, and now Ireland must have a favourite's chance of staging the one after."

The Leicestershire tie will be followed by a three-day game against South Africa A, who will be the fifth Test country to have visited Clontarf. On West Indies' last appearance, four years ago, Brian Lara was caught and bowled for nine, to the crowd's great disappointment, but after Friday's knock of 25 and a victory over Bangladesh by seven wickets, he was as generous to his hosts as the West Indies bowlers have been with their wides (48 in two matches).

"Hopefully, this sort of occasion will encourage youngsters in Ireland to play cricket and make a name for themselves," Lara said afterwards. Whatever else happens, they will continue to talk a good game.