Scrambling and squeezing our way into cricket’s world elite

Graham Ford and his Ireland squad had long left these shores for warmer climes by the time the current chill descended, but the cold and wet of an already bleak Irish winter had long since reached his bones over the opening weeks of the New Year.

Scrambling and squeezing our way into cricket’s world elite

“It is a bit of a challenge but that’s a mindset,” he said before the squad’s departure for his native South Africa where they prepared for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers in Harare, Zimbabwe. “You have to get on with it.”

A native of Pietermaritzburg, Ford has amassed a bulging body of work as a highly-respected cricket coach on three different continents but the Irish weather wasn’t the only reason to wonder why he has made Dublin his latest base at the age of 57.

Ireland’s men’s team will make its debut as a first-class Test nation this May when Pakistan visit Malahide but most of the players who made such a strong case for that recognition with their exploits over the last decade and more have long since hung up bat and pad.

Ford took charge late last year of an ageing side coming off the back of a woeful two-year run of form under his predecessor John Bracewell and they face a task of imposing proportions in qualifying for a fourth straight Cricket World Cup this month.

With the ICC squeezing the competition from 14 to 10 teams, Ireland will have to scramble for one of only two places on offer when the ten-team qualifying tournament begins in Zimbabwe and West Indies and Afghanistan are the bookies’ favourites.

So, why Ireland? And why now?

“Character and attitude is key. When you look for an opportunity and you see evidence of that good character and attitude, and the kind of challenges that the team has ahead of itself, it’s something you want to get involved in and hopefully make a bit of an impact.

“That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.”

Ford has admired Irish players from near and afar for a long time now. Niall O’Brien played under him at Kent for two years and his brother Kevin had a trial during which he played for the county seconds and bowled in the nets. Adrian Birrell, another South African, was Irish coach at the time and would drop by to keep tabs.

“Adi is a really good man so I got to chatting to him about Irish cricket and then I followed their progress in beating Pakistan (in the 2007 World Cup) and all of that. A couple of years later I coached at Surrey and had Gary Wilson who captained the team for a while.

“Gary did a fantastic job and showed the type of qualities that I am searching for.” Ford’s impressions were augmented time and again when his Kent or Surrey teams faced counties with an Irish player, which was often in the scene at the time, and he would invariably take the time to chat with them when he could.

Little seeds were even then being sown.

The idea that these players could at some stage be a central part of his daily brief germinated further when he brought his Sri Lanka team to Dublin in 2016 and saw how professionally the collective went about their business as players, too.

That appreciation is mutual.

Ford’s CV would stretch far beyond the recommended two A4 pages which most employers recommend. An elevator pitch would be a nightmare. This is a man who has been there, done that and then moved on with ne’er a backward glance.

“I’m not one to live in the past a great deal.”

He started out in 1992 with his native Natal, for whom he had already played first-class cricket, and he rose up the ranks with South Africa ‘A’ and then the senior national side before spreading his wings and talking his gospel on the road.

Kent and Surrey aside, he has put in two stints with Sri Lanka but more interesting than the jobs he accepted are those he opted against pursuing - decisions that cast Cricket Ireland’s ability to sign him up for three years in an even better light.

Ford pulled out of races to coach Gloucestershire, England and New Zealand at one point or another. Sri Lanka were rejected long before his first spell there and he said no to India in 2007 after he had already been announced as their new man.

Issues with control over team affairs seem to have been regular tipping points, not just in the interview process but in his endings with South Africa and Sri Lanka. It has made for a timeline of memorable highs and wish-you-could-forget lows. He won eight of eleven Test series with his native country between 1999 and 2002, not least on the subcontinent against India, but was sacked the same day as disgraced former national captain Hansie Cronje passed away.

His time with Sri Lanka delivered an astonishing 3-0 series win in Australia in 2016 and, four years earlier, “the worst Test match I’ve ever been involved” when the same opposition did for them by an innings and 201 runs in Melbourne.

That Test was done inside three of the five days.

You could argue that he was harshly done by when South Africa dispensed with him and he was hardly unique in severing ties early with a Sri Lankan board that had gone through seven coaches since 2011 by the time they hired him again in 2016.

He does better with players than administrators.

Ford has worked with some of the finest cricketers of the modern era. A full list would be as exhausting as exhaustive. Let’s just say it includes the likes of Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara, Malcolm Marshall, Shaun Pollock, Jonty Rhodes, and Kevin Pietersen.

‘KP’ had a reputation as someone who could fall out with a talking clock but he wrote in his autobiography ‘Beyond the Boundary’ of his admiration and respect for Ford under whom he played with Natal as a teenager before throwing his lot in with England.

That ability to manage young players has been a feature of Ford’s work.

When he returned to Sri Lanka two years ago he took over a side deep in transition after the retirement of a clutch of older players who had been key to previous successes. That will sound familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of the Irish scene.

Ireland still depends on more than a fair few grey hairs. Ed Joyce captains the side in Zimbabwe this month and will be 40 later this year. Leading the bowling effort will be Boyd Rankin who turns 34 in July. Eight of the 15 have over a hundred caps to their name.

“The older guys have been very good at helping the younger lads and that is going to be crucial. These guys have put Irish cricket on the map. They don’t want to see it all just disintegrate. So, we can use them along the way to bring on the younger guys.

“They are well aware of the importance of helping their replacements. It’s not an easy thing to do and young players need exposure at a competitive level. You can’t expect them to jump from U19 to winning matches at Test level.”

Ford and Ireland need quick learners.

For years the English county scene was a breeding ground that hardened and wisened our best cricketers but Ireland’s players are designated as ‘overseas’ now with the country’s new Test status and that will all but eliminate the game there as an option for future generations.

It’s a worry, particularly given the lack of strength and depth at the top end of the pool here and the fact that Ford will be relying on the same faces time and again as the men’s team chases success in Twenty20, one-day and Test versions of the game.

“It is difficult to swap hats and change between the different disciplines and what is required for white ball and red ball cricket. That is an issue. The lack of depth is a major issue and we have to try and find ways of creating that.

“There are probably two or three guys who are unlucky not to be part of the (World Cup) squad but if you look at the bigger countries they are probably talking about 15-20 guys who really unlucky. We are way off that so we have to find ways of developing that.

“The problem with such a small squad ready to play at that level is that of you have a few injuries you are in serious trouble.

“So, while it is great to have Test match cricket and more opportunities to play on bigger stages it is going to take more of a toll on bodies.” His tenure has begun promisingly.

The team’s form has rebounded since coming from behind to beat Afghanistan in a three-match series in December. A successful tri-series with UAE and Scotland followed in Dubai and recent practise games against the Netherlands and the Scots in Pretoria went well.

The World Cup qualifiers will be another ask entirely. Finishing in the top three of Group A grants only a place in a Super Six series and another three more games before the top two emerge to claim places in the tournament proper in England next year.

A long and winding road, then. Ford is well accustomed to that.

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