02 December 2015
Family comes first for Ireland, Scotland
Parents, friends fly down to lend support in unfamiliar environs
When Ireland and Scotland meet in the high-stakes second semi-final at the TCG on Thursday, it is going to be a battle of the supporters too.
That somewhere, the best cricketers will tell you, is quite often in the backyard, wrestling siblings for a turn at the bat, chasing balls and dogs into bushes, and having mum and dad cheer them on when they aren't the ones trying to get them out.
Ireland and Scotland might well have brought a bit of their backyard with them to the international level at the ICC Women's World T20 Qualifier in Bangkok, Thailand, for they seemed rather at home in their wins so far.
Ireland has been unbeaten in the group stage, while Scotland has won two of its three games to finish second in Group A.
When the tournament began on November 28, the conditions, several plane rides from home, were only as familiar as a few days of practice would allow. For Ireland, its first opposition, the Netherlands, whom it had narrowly defeated in the 2013 qualifier to earn a place in Bangladesh, was slightly more so; Scotland, playing Papua New Guinea, didn't quite have that luxury either. But cheering the European teams on were the most familiar faces of friends and family who had flown down for the games.
“There are a few parents who have just arrived. Some of the girls are happy to see them after a week, especially the younger girls,” said Isobel Joyce, the Ireland captain, after the eight-wicket win over the Netherlands. “It was a nice little surprise for them. And it was lovely to have some support.”
Ireland went on to win its second match of the tournament as well, against China, by 28 runs, and overcame Zimbabwe by seven wickets in a match on Tuesday (December 1) that decided the group leader. Scotland conceded its second game to Bangladesh by eight wickets, but bounced back to keep Thailand Women down to 74 for 7 and win by six wickets.
“Friends and family being here means a lot to the girls,” said Abbi Aitken, the Scotland captain, who received her 100th cap on Tuesday. “Them showing us some support from the boundary does keep us going, under this baking sunshine. It's fantastic.”
The Irish team, of course, would have family support on the field even if there wasn't a spectator on the ground: The 14-member squad has two pairs of siblings in its ranks.
On Saturday, Isobel nipped in the bud any daring Dutch attempt at hitting out at the death, ending with three wickets for 18 runs in her four overs. Her twin, Cecilia – their brothers Ed and Dom are also Ireland internationals – found the boundary five times in her 30-ball 39, and her 74-run opening stand with Clare Shillington ensured there would be no stumbles in their chase of a target of 91.
Cecilia went on to get her 100th cap the following day against China, where Isobel's all-round heroics – a 36-ball 41 to rescue the team and 2 for 11 in its defence of a target of 105 – guaranteed Ireland its second win and a spot in the semi-final from Group B.
Against Zimbabwe, the Joyces combined again: Isobel took her total wickets tally to nine, her 4 for 20 putting her at the top of the bowling charts after the group stage, after which Cecilia's 37-ball 36 (which included three fours and a six) set up the win.
Gaby and her sister Robyn Lewis haven't been called on to do too much yet, but they have been marked as ones to watch. Gaby became the first player born in the 21st century to play for a national side, when, at 13, she made her Ireland debut against South Africa in September 2014, following in the footsteps of her father and grandfather. Robyn has picked up three wickets with her left-arm spin, including a 2 for 9 in the big match against Zimbabwe.
“All they do is watch cricket!” said their mother, Sharon Lewis, who too played the game, of the dynamics at home. And when they're with their friend and team-mate Lucy O'Reilly (“my adopted daughter”, says Sharon; “a very old head on very young shoulders”, according to her captain), “You drop them to the club and they don't want to come home!”
Lending volume to that contingent of support were members of the extended family: The “Tartan Army” dusted off some chants, Scotland's Stirling County Cricket Club were there to back one of their own in Kari Anderson, while a group of men and women who're helping the very Irish sport of Gaelic football take root in Bangkok got their Irish green out. So, when the two teams meet in the high-stakes second semi-final at the TCG on Thursday, it is going to be a battle of the supporters too.
“They've flown hours to come out here and play, we can drive 40 minutes to come support them,” said Shane O'Mahony, a member of Thailand Gaelic Football in the middle of exchanging notes about the two games.
Graeme Smith, the former South African captain, was a leader to whom his team's identity and purpose was integral to the sport they played, and how they played it. “Who do we play for?” he was known to ask, looking at the bigger picture for the Proteas. The women who have travelled far to play the sport are playing for themselves, for their families who are supporting them, and for their country. But they know that they are also at the Qualifier as ambassadors of the game, to form new bonds and inspire the future generations of players – and just maybe, the next cricket story will have started in November 2015 in Thailand.