FOR many in Ireland, cricket is a sport that happens elsewhere, way down the list when it comes to other team sports like rugby, soccer or GAA. In truth, Ireland has a long and proud cricketing history.
The Cork County Cricket Club at the Mardyke has been the home of cricket in Munster since 1874, and with Ireland’s recent elevation to Full Membership of the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2017, Irish cricket is now recognised on the world stage.
This old tradition is matched by the sport’s forward-looking ambition: to make cricket more popular, and more specifically, to make women’s cricket the fastest growing sport in Irish society. This is all part of a three-year Action Plan specifically targeting girls and women and first introduced in 2021.
Elaine Nolan, Participation Director for Cricket Ireland, says; “We have seen the women’s game be sustained and grow at the grassroots level due to the hard work and dedication of many across Ireland.”
I sat down with two women who are front and centre of this grassroots effort to get girls in front of the wicket. Sukhi Byrne, the Independent Director on Munster Cricket Union Executive Board, and Chair of the Youth Committee at Cork County Cricket Club; and the Children’s Officer in Cork Harlequins Cricket Club, Adre Vosloo.
I’m quick to bring up the issue of the weather. Does cricket not rely on long hours of sunshine?
Sukhi agrees that it is a very different sport with a totally different pace. Matches can take three hours to play and test matches can run over five days. However, she is originally from Birmingham and assures me the weather is similar there, and though it can pose challenges, it’s not a mark against the sport.
A lot can be done, in terms of training indoors. The problems can be overcome with the right level of investment and creative thinking.
Adre is aware of cricket’s minority status in Ireland, and that it is predominately played by migrant communities who grow up with the tradition. In fact, her son was the only person in his school of 300 to play it.
She feels there can be a cultural resistance to cricket in Ireland.
“When my son got a friend to fill in for a game, his father jokingly mentioned to me that his grandfather would turn in his grave if he knew. But a great deal of that is down to not having been exposed to it.”
Sukhi feels there is less resistance to the sport these days as parents are mostly interested in anything that will encourage their children away from screens.
“As long as their children are outdoors getting exercise, I don’t think parents mind what the sport is. You are still learning basic ball skills.
“Cricket is also an intellectual game with a lot of strategising. There are so many different aspects to it.”
Female Leaders for Female Players
Both women recently completed ‘On the Front Foot’ training, championing female leaders within Cricket Ireland. The belief is that female leaders are best placed to promote the sport for girls specifically. If clubs continue to be male-dominated, they will continue to attract only boys and men.
Even in other countries where the sport is far more popular, Adre shares that it’s often seen as a male sport.
Even though I grew up with it and grew up watching it, there was a sense that it was for the boys and the men.
Sukhi feels there’s a particular advantage to girls joining the sport in comparison to other more established sports in the country.
“Numbers are low. This makes it very inclusive because we have time to respond to the children’s individual needs.
“It is also not as competitive as other games. We really focus on core skills over time, moving from soft balls and then to the hard cricket balls.”
There are only 16 girls in her club and she says that allows for them to form really close bonds and strong relationships. It’s about building communities and heavily relies on parental feedback too.
“We are really committed to the girls’ personal development. We are always looking for feedback. We also want girls to try out lots of sport. It’s about raising awareness and giving girls choice. The Mardyke is great for raising awareness as people walk by; they see cricket being played and that’s important.”
The training iis mixed. Both sexes encourage and appreciate the other. Every Friday evening, the girls at the Mardyke train alone to build their bonds. These friendships are seen as integral to keeping the girls in sport.
Adre says there are 19 female players in her club. There are two teams – one for under 10s and one for over 10s. She is excited to welcome more girls along.
One of their fellow participants in the ‘On The Front Foot’ programme works with CARA - a national sport organisation providing a collaborative and partnership platform to increase sport and physical activity opportunities for people with disabilities across Ireland).
This new personal link with CARA will enable them to develop an inclusive environment.
“‘It’s Wicket’ will offer girls a 4-6 week taster programme,” adds Adre.
“That will happen a couple of times this year. We have MCU (Munster Cricket Union) representatives who will visit primary schools too and Ted Williamson, a coach at Cork Harlequins, is working with MTU on training future coaches.
We’re conscious that we need opportunities to extend beyond primary and secondary school to ensure lifetime enjoyment of the sport.
Plans are also afoot to bring young girls up to Dublin to meet members of the Irish team.
“ If you see it, you can be it,” beams Adre.
“Ireland did very well to get to the Women’s T20 World Cup in South Africa in February. The truth is that our players are not yet all full professionals like those in some of the other international teams. But we are keen to catch the wave of change sweeping through cricket internationally.
“This year, millions of viewers worldwide saw women performing at the highest level in this tournament.
There is a fundamental shift happening with girls in cricket. We would like girls in Ireland to be a part of that.
Cricket is slowly getting more exposure in general, suggests Sukhi.
“It is great to see Irishman Josh Little playing in the world’s most watched cricket league, the IPL (Indian Premier League) on the international stage. It’s all about building a culture and exposing people to cricket as a possibility.”
One final thing both women agree on is the need for parent buy-in.
“All sports are competing for parental involvement. You can’t have the same people doing all the jobs. There are courses available through the Munster Cricket Union for scoring, umpiring and for coaching 5-11 year olds; there are a few technicalities to learn but beyond that it’s very manageable.”
Sukhi Byrne and Adre Vosloo are excellent spokespeople for the sport and embody the vision captured by Warren Deutrom, Chief Executive of Cricket Ireland, who hopes Irish clubs “can grow and nurture a sustainable sport, and become one of the most diverse, welcoming and responsive sports for women and girls in Ireland.”