Ireland were ready for two retirements at the end of their ICC Women’s World T20 2018 campaign. Then they were hit with four. Karunya Keshav writes about the hugs, tears, and the passing of the baton.
Coming into the World T20, Clare Shillington had thought she had already “taken the plaster off”. A few months before, she had taken the big call of deciding to retire after the tournament. She had done herself a favour by stepping back in two stages, having first retired from one-day internationals. She had hoped, perhaps wistfully, that it would make the exit from the national side easier.
“I’d play forever if I could, but your body doesn’t let you do that,” she had said. “It’ll be sad, but I think it’s the right time.”
Ciara Metcalfe, ‘Brains’ to Shillington’s ‘Hairy’ in their ‘Hairy and Brains’ video series documenting their life in cricket, planned to join her. Metcalfe had flirted with retirement before; this time it would be permanent.
They had their post-playing careers chalked out, with both having already stepped into coaching. The silver linings of not playing international cricket anymore: no more aching bodies; maybe nobody would append their ages – both in their late 30s – to everything they did; they won’t get called on to floss and dance with girls half their age on media days.
But when the moment came, despite all the mental preparation, there were tears. Walking out on Saturday, 17 November, at Guyana National Stadium, to a guard of honour from their teammates, Metcalfe wiped the tears. There were hugs. And then they got on with it.
It was a tough match for Ireland in a tough tournament. Sophie Devine hammered the bowlers around, bringing up the second-quickest T20I fifty (joint) of all time. But when it was time for the duo to walk off the pitch in the Ireland green one final time, the New Zealanders gave them another guard of honour.
That wasn’t the end of the tears for the evening, though, not by far. In the team huddle, the Joyce twins, Cecilia and Isobel, broke the surprise news that it was their last match too.
And just like that, Ireland cricket lost four stalwarts with 76 years worth of experience between them. Of the four, only Cecelia didn’t debut in the previous millennium.
The Ireland team, more than most, are like a family. This is literal, in the case of the Joyces, of course, but when a teenaged Gaby Lewis or Lucy O’Reilly describes someone like Shillington as a mother or aunt-like figure to them, it’s because they’ve grown up with her. In the Ireland green, they’re team-mates, back home they’ve been coach and student. The teenager and the 30-plus-year-old may not be 'friends' but they're extremely fond of one another.
In Kim Garth’s words, “basically everyone knows everyone" in Irish cricket.
“The [senior] girls have been mentors to all of us … and it's not like we just see them in an Irish jersey. We see them day in, day out. We play against them in our club. And we play against them in our domestic competition. We see them all the time. They're always there all the time whenever we need them. It's really like a family situation.”
If Ireland, a group of amateurs aiming to think and play like professionals, against professional sides, have constantly impressed and won support at the highest levels, it’s because of the culture and ethic that the quartet of Shillington, Metcalfe and the Joyces have carried forward and instilled in the youngsters.
“[They] have been four incredible servants of Irish cricket. I don't think Irish women's cricket will be anywhere near it is today without them,” said Garth. “It's going to be a different dynamic without them. It's going to be – definitely big boots to fill.”
“You won’t find four better individuals with their work ethic,” said coach Aaron Hamilton. “They’ve all got to work during the day and cricket is their passion. They turn up every training session, 6 o’clock gym sessions three times a week. You can’t ask more of these players.”
When she was just starting out, Shillington had to borrow “600 Irish punts” from her father to play in India. Since then, the team has come a long way, with players like captain Laura Delany, Garth, O’Reilly, Lewis and Shauna Kavanagh getting development opportunities abroad.
However, what this tournament has starkly driven home is that Ireland, as the only fully amateur side in the top 10, have a way to go to challenge the top eight teams. Delany spoke with great passion and frustration after a disappointing Pakistan game, and it’s something the seniors have constantly raised.
Shillington was hopeful. “We’re as professional as we can be for an amateur side, and with regards to contracts I think that is going to happen,” she said. “I think it will only benefit cricket – both men’s and women's cricket – it'd be a good investment.
“I think you'll see we're only a few runs short of competing with these top teams. The men aren't going to jump up to No.6 on the rankings anytime soon, but the women could it and that would have a great knock-on effect for both.”
Their final game, unfortunately, was no swansong for the quartet. Shillington, who has a T20 century against Japan, made 12; the other three a combined one run. It was a good sign that top-scoring was 17-year-old Lewis. With the four retirements, rather than two, maybe it was Irish cricket that was ripping off the plaster. The baton was passed.