‘Viewpoints’ is the TFT strand in which we hand the keyboard to a new writer. Simon Begley grew up in Ulster before moving to Kent in his teens. As England appoint an Irish captain, he reflects on the overlapping emotions of his countrymen.
“The Irish play cricket?”
I get that a lot. Yeah, when people hear I’m Irish and that I love cricket, I get that a lot.
A lot of us play cricket. And a lot of us love the game.
When I was growing up in Bangor – no, not the Welsh one – I loved cricket more than anything.
My earliest memories are cricket: watching my dad bat for his club when I can’t have been more than 5 or 6; copying out the scorecards (Hilditch/Woods/Yallop – those names still bring me joy); the ’81 Ashes. Botham’s Ashes. My God!
We played at primary school, thanks entirely to a wonderful teacher who taught us how to bat, bowl, field. I was our team’s best batsman. I was out for a golden duck in our first two games. I was devastated. I scored 30* the next. It felt like a century.
We were runners up in an indoor six-a-side competition. The local newspaper report called me “accomplished”. I still remember that day. It was thirty years ago and I still remember that team: Begley, Taylor, Morrow, McCoubrey, McGoran, McIlroy. (No, not that one.)
My dad took me to see the 1985 Australians v Ireland at Downpatrick. I was eleven. Alan Border scored 90odd before lunch. He was amazing. When he was out (caught at long on, coming down the track – I can see the shot now) a hundred kids invaded the pitch to collect his autograph. I was one of them. He stopped, took off his gloves and signed for us all. The happiest day of my life. Fifteen minutes later the rain came and the match was abandoned.
Ah, the rain. In Northern Ireland, always the rain. I’m certain that’s why our games were only 20 overs. It was all we could fit in during those chaotic sodden summers.
I was school captain. I picked up tips from the greats. From Border, Gower, Viv. The need to assess the pitch, the overhead conditions, that sort of thing. One toss I asked the opposition skipper and teacher/umpire whether it had rained that morning and if the cloud was expected to clear. The two of them looked at me like I was mad. I lived ten miles down the road. It was an artificial wicket.
Me and my best friend played in our back gardens. Alternate days so as not to destroy the wicket cos our mums didn’t want us wrecking their gardens. He was Viv. I was ITB. Then we swapped. Because, we were Irish and, y’know, England.
But despite all the political shit, local and national – the punishment beatings, the killings, the bombs – on the news every single f***ing night – despite that, we played cricket and we loved England. (The cricket team mind. Not the football team. We weren’t stupid.)
We cheered them against the Aussies. Cheered the outrageous, 500/1, immortal follow-on victory at Headingley. (“What’s a follow on?” “No idea”) Cheered Ian Terence Botham – basically Irish, let’s face it – flicking the ‘v’s to the establishment.
Unless they were playing the West Indies of course. Then we roared on the Windies.
Roared as Malcolm hurled thunderbolts at the frightened little Englishmen. Roared as Viv swatted away the pathetic English bowling. Roared when Jeffrey did that thing when he caught the ball and did a massive leap where his heels hit his bum and his cap fell off. God, which ten year old wouldn’t roar?
But my love for the game grew stronger when I moved to England.
It was how I made friends. I was a spotty, ginger adolescent with a ludicrous Ulster accent. No-one understood a word I said. I didn’t want to be understood. I hated England. I hated everyone. I wanted to go home.
Then the cricket season came round. I was a batsman who bowled a bit. First ball I bowled the school’s best batsman. He’d made an unbeaten hundred the previous season. No-one I’d ever known had scored a hundred. No-one bowled this guy first ball. I did. I did him LBW second up. Everyone cheered. I smiled. I was still smiling when I got home. My mum remembers it as the first day I smiled in England. Eight months without a smile. Until cricket.
And living in Kent. Garden of England. A county team an hour away. A proper bloody county cricket team only an hour away! Players that had once just been Ceefax names were now real. Canterbury in the summer. Days of glory. Sharing a 2l bottle of cider in the back seat of a Citroen on our way to watch God (aka David Fulton). (I’ve no idea what happened that day but I’m pretty sure it was brilliant.)
Test matches. Sitting for a whole day under tarpaulin at the Oval v Sri Lanka. Waiting, praying for play when Moses himself would have poked his head out, shaken it sadly and said “Not today fellas”.
Test matches when it didn’t rain. Sitting in the Edrich. The Compton. The SW-facing one that’s just bloody amazing as the sun goes down at the Oval. Old Trafford 1993. Manchester Uni and the last day, Old Trafford 1993. We can save this. We can save this. Graham. Oh Graham…
March 2006. The only Test match I’ve been to for all five days. An Irish friend emails from Nairobi: “Anyone fancy Eng v Ind in Mumbai next week?” I say yes. I land on St Patrick’s Day.
Rob and I wore our Irish rugby shirts in the sweltering day-five heat as Shaun Udal made eejits of the locals who thought chasing 300 on a wearing pitch was easy. Hoggy was a doggy (according to the brilliantly nutty local chant), Geraint caught everything, Monty dropped a skier. Next ball, Monty pouched an even higher skier and wore an expression of disbelief that I will never again see from a professional sportsman.
We cheered as the England team did a lap of honour. We cheered harder when Freddie and KP pointed and waved at the two sunburnt ginger Irishmen wearing Irish rugby shirts in the sweltering heat. We drank with the England cricket team in the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. We got a train to Delhi and saw them fold in an ODI.
Six months earlier, the greatest day of my sporting life. The day Warney dropped the Ashes. The day KP won the Ashes. No, the day Gilo won the Ashes. The day Warney ran 70 yards from below us at third man towards the pavilion to shake KP’s hand. The day 23,000 of us rose to salute not just the single greatest innings but possibly the greatest act of friendship in sport I’ve ever seen.
And then… the Irish.
I know Maxie and James, who edit this blog. I got to know them many years ago through mutual friends, but got to know them better through a love of cricket. They know my passion for the game. They know I’m a bit of an Irish eejit sometimes. Well, a lot of the time. They know how I’ve celebrated Ireland’s victories through the years. Pakistan 2007, England 2011. Every other associate team ever.
A few years ago Maxie organised some nets at the Oval for our village side. A young Surrey 2nd XI fella gave us a few tips. I heard his accent. We got talking. He was from near me. I asked his name. Gary. Holywood. (No, not that one.) Five miles from where I grew up. Same town where I went to school. Good player. Good lad. Gave me some tips about my stance, my backlift that I still use today. Told me about his under 19s captain. Told me to look out for him. Said he was the best batsman he’d ever seen. Said he was the Irish Gower. Said he’d play for England.
Said his name was Eoin Morgan.
Gary Wilson keeps wicket for Surrey.
Oh yes. The Irish play cricket.