When Ireland attempt to make it three wins from three Cricket World Cup games against South Africa in the early hours of tomorrow morning (3.30am Irish time), they will come across a man who did much to lift Ireland to their position today.
Now South Africa’s assistant coach, Adi Birrell is preparing the Proteas for an Ireland side unrecognisable from the one he took over in 2002.
On his first day as Ireland coach, Birrell was handed the keys to a car, and given a glimpse of the challenge he faced: “I fast realised that there wasn’t an office. My office was my lounge and the store room was the boot of the car,” he reflects.
“It was very sobering and somewhat disappointing that there was nothing. I was the only full-time employed person. I literally just didn’t have a clue of where to start or how to start.”
A year earlier, Ireland had come eighth in the ICC Trophy, finishing below Denmark and the USA. The ragtag state of Irish cricket was embodied by the enlisting of journalist James Fitzgerald as substitute fielder in two games.
“There was perennial underachieving,” Birrell says. “They did have very, very good players in those years. It wasn’t a lack of ambition but maybe a lack of direction.”
Birrell’s first game as Ireland coach was against Nottinghamshire, who won by six wickets. “The guys were pretty happy and laughed a lot,” he reflects. “I was quite put back that they were so happy to lose. They were quite pleased that they weren’t getting annihilated.” It was not a mindset Birrell was prepared to tolerate after leaving his job as coach of Eastern Province.
He intended to make history by leading Ireland to their first World Cup. In a more enlightened age of global outreach, the 2007 World Cup was expanded to 16 teams.
With England selectors already eyeing him up, Ed Joyce’s batting underpinned Ireland qualification as tournament runners-up to Scotland. “He forged a way for the others,” Birrell purrs. “There is always one trailblazer that shows it can be done — that an Irish player can be a successful county player — and he was the first.”
A year later, Joyce was poached, so Ireland went into the 2007 World Cup shorn of their best batsman. But Birrell had an understated confidence in his side. “I pretty much had a professional team for six months — a team that was able to prepare as well as any other team in the world. So there was a hidden force and a belief that we were better prepared than anyone thought we were. There was a belief that we could create an upset,” he reflects.
“The whole team was a fantastic fielding side. We could really compete with anyone in the world in the field.”
After a frenetic tie with Zimbabwe, Ireland toppled Pakistan on St Patrick’s Day. “Maybe they underestimated us and they certainly didn’t realise how well we’d prepared,” Birrell says. “Everything worked in our favour on that day — it was a green wicket that you never see in the World Cup, then we won the toss and got them under pressure.”
It had always been Birrell’s intention to return to South Africa when the World Cup was over, but he had made an indelible mark on Irish cricket. “He had big, big brains and a vision for Irish cricket and he sold it to the players and we all bought into it,” former Ireland offspinner Kyle McCallan reflects.
The victory in Jamaica, soon followed by one over Bangladesh in Barbados, created an opportunity to transform Irish cricket. It was one that Warren Deutrom has taken, and it is Birrell’s “only regret” that he only worked alongside him for four months. “He was the one guy who could move them all into a professional era. I needed him at the time.”
As coach, Birrell pushed for the creation of an inter-provincial competition but “clubs looked too much inward at their own futures.”
While Birrell will be plotting with AB de Villers tonight, his affection for Ireland remains. “There should be a bigger vision to grow the game globally,” he says. “I’m always a champion of Ireland wherever I go. I’m an Irish citizen and it was very special to me.”
Tim Wigmore is the author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts, which is out now.
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