The residing image of Ireland’s World T20 campaign is surely their captain Laura Delany emotionally but eloquently outlining her frustration at her team’s lack of professional status after their loss against Pakistan, writes Ben Gardner.
“It’s so incredibly frustrating,” said Delany. “Because if we were professional, I wonder what the score would've been out there today. To lose by 40 runs [when] we genuinely believed we could win, it's very disappointing.”
The hurt was only made worse by the fact that this group might be the most talented that Ireland have ever had, and that, for four of them, this would be their last ever chance to make a mark in a green jersey, with Clare Shillington, Ciara Metcalfe, and Isobel and Cecelia Joyce all retiring at the tournament’s conclusion.
However, while that quartet stood out during the competition, the world also saw the emergence of a young new crop of Irish cricketers who will carry them forward in their absence. Diminuitive 19-year-old seamer Lucy O’Reilly was described by ICC commentator Alan Wilkins as having “the best bowling action of any player in women’s cricket”, and while 17-year-old Gaby Lewis didn’t do her talent justice in her first three outings, totalling just 19 runs, her final knock – a sparkling 39 against New Zealand – underlined why she is considered one of the best young batters in the world.
For as long as Ireland’s dream of professionalism remains just that, the importance of doing everything possible to help those countries below the top level experience what it is like being professional will be paramount, and to that end, the first Women’s Global Development Squad tour, held in July of this year, was vital.
Both O’Reilly and Lewis were part of the 13-strong squad, which also included cricketers from the Netherlands, Scotland, Papua New Guinea, and the United Arab Emirates, that took on three ECB Super League teams – Surrey Stars, Loughborough Lightning, and Western Storm – and performed creditably, winning three games and losing two. O’Reilly felt the extra game time against high-quality opposition was invaluable.
“It was an excellent idea,” she said. “A lot of us, we get to play cricket but we don’t get to play that many games that are at a high level. So to play together first of all, and against some top-quality teams was a great experience.
“To take from it: one, just being able to work as a team with people you haven’t met before – that as a general life skill. And two, cricket wise, just some knowledge against the better players. We got to play some top-quality players and learn things about them.”
Lewis, though only a teenager, led the side, a chance for her to get some leadership experience and prepare for if she ever steps into the role for Ireland.
“It was brilliant, especially captaining the squad, I learnt a lot,” Lewis said. “I enjoyed leading the team. We gelled really well as a team even though we were from so many different nations. It was really good how people went about their game.
“We did really well against the better teams and better players. We gained more confidence as individuals and as a team; it just shows how you can test yourself on that level.”
It is encouraging then that the Women’s Global Development Squad will get a second outing this December, with 11 cricketers heading to Australia to compete in five matches against Women’s Big Bash League sides. No cricketers from Ireland will be included this time, with players from outside the top 10 nations instead being given a chance.
Six countries – Netherlands, PNG, Scotland, Thailand, Zimbabwe, and Vanuatu – will be represented in the squad, which will train under the watchful eye of former Australia captain Alex Blackwell.
“I am passionate about providing equal opportunities for cricketers from all around the world to fulfill their potential,” said Blackwell. “This development squad provides a wonderful opportunity for female cricketers from developing cricket nations to experience top level cricket and take back what they learn to share with their national teammates.”
Blackwell was even hopeful that it might not be too long until we see a member of a Women’s Global Development Squad graduate to playing for an ECB Super League or WBBL side.
“Cricket for women has continued to go from strength to strength and it would be fantastic to see players from the Global Development Squad being selected in the Rebel Women’s Big Bash or ECB Super League in the not too distant future.”
If they do, they will be following in the footsteps of another Irish player, Kim Garth, who represented Sydney Sixers as part of the ICC’s WBBL Rookie Placement programme. The enterprise paired promising cricketers from below the top level with WBBL teams, allowing them to train with and learn from the best in the world, and maybe even get on the playing field, in front of vociferous Aussie crowds.
“I wasn’t used to it all,” Garth said. “Once you play one or two games you don’t really take notice, but obviously coming from Ireland you don’t get a whole lot of people at games, so that was really exciting!"
Garth’s WBBL exploits make her the poster child for the ICC development programme. She became a Sixers regular in their back-to-back title wins, returning figures of 2/27 across six overs in both finals, dismissing Southern Stars opener Nicole Bolton on both occasions.
As well as helping win trophies, her efforts proved that she and cricketers like her are talented enough to mix it with the best, if only they get the opportunity. The Women’s Global Development Squad is the next step in narrowing the gap between the best and the rest.