An Irish blend that smells like team spirit

Speaking to the ladies of the Irish women’s cricket team at the ICC World T20 2016 is an education – into cricket records and currency exchange rates from back in 1997, as well as Chris Brown’s party jam and the a cappella abilities of Anna Kendrick – and a challenge to preconceived notions of age and accomplishment and friendships.      

Clare Shillington, their 35-year-old opener and veteran on five world cups, tells you about about having to borrow 600 Irish punts from her father to play in India two decades ago. Kim Garth, nearly 20 and Ireland player of the year last year, had to defer her university examinations for a stint with Hobart Hurricanes in the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League. Lucy O’Reilly, 16-year-old medium pacer and seasoned campaigner of two World T20s, has a playlist of “at least 300 songs” ready to keep the team company on their India sojourn. 

There are two pairs of siblings in the squad: Gaby Lewis, who will celebrate her 15th birthday during the tournament, is one of the tallest in the side. Her elder sister, Robyn, says she’s been a big fan of Michael Clarke since she was eight, which makes sense when you remember she’s an international at 16. And the Joyces: Isobel, the captain, and Cecilia, hard-hitting batter and solicitor – 30-something twins and carrying on the family’s cricketing tradition.     

O’Reilly, Gaby and Robyn, along with Jennifer Gray are members of Dublin’s YMCA Cricket Club, where they are coached by Shillington. It’s a small, close knit cricket community this Irish women’s one – and it makes for an intriguing dynamic. Teammates here in India, family, coach-and-student back home in Ireland, and friends on and off the field. 


“We’ve all kind of grown up together. Our parents are really good friends,” says O’Reilly of the Lewis sisters.

“Lucy lives two minutes down the road from the club (YMCA CC), and we’re always in their house,” chips in Robyn. “If people were wondering where we were, we’d always be down there, from the age of about 4.” 

O’Reilly: “It’s such a great thing, when you come into an international [game] and look beside you and be like, ‘I just trust them, I respect them so much.’ And we get along so well, so there’s no doubt about anything.”

Robyn: “It’s nice on tour as well to have people – especially with the three of us being so young coming into the team – having Gaby and Lucy there, it’s a comfort zone as well and an ice breaker with the elder girls. Obviously we’re fine now with everyone, but it was really nice to have them there at the start.”

The start for the girls happened early. O’Reilly was 13 years and 241 days when she played her first T20I against Pakistan on July 8, 2013 and a One-Day International two days later. Gaby, who plays as a batter, became the first player born in the new millennium to represent a national team when at 13 years and 166 days she took the field against South Africa in September 2014. (“I don’t remember much, I looked up to Lucy hugely because she was in my place a year before.”) Robyn’s time on the sidelines came to use when the left-arm spinner played her first international in Thailand during their successful World T20 Qualifier last December.    

The early days, though, were an indicator of the pressures to come. “[The first game] was away from home,” remembers O’Reilly. “My parents couldn’t make it over, because my dad (a rugby journalist) was away in Australia. I just felt extremely weird, but I had been on training camps with the girls before … I had [Elena Tice] who was 15 at the time, so it was perfect. But definitely playing in England was a bit – I wanted my family there, but at the same time it was a great experience.”

As a World T20 veteran among the trio, she has warned her friends of the challenges to come – and tipped them of the fun to be had. 

“She said you just feel like you’re a star over here, everyone looks up to you so much. And you can see it already. When you tell people you play cricket, they’re like, ‘Oh cricket!’ We don’t get that at home at all!” says Robyn, her excitement untempered.  

“I was a little too innocent to take it all in [in Bangladesh],” remembers O’Reilly, a go to bowler for her captain when they need to put the brakes on scoring. “But I definitely found there was a step up with everything, crowds wise. When we play games [in Ireland] there’s only around 30-40 people there. We have no big crowds. To hear people screaming your name, you get distracted easily. And normally the first game is against a higher-ranked team and you immediately see a step up. And you’re in panic mode. But once that kind of settles in, it’s fine…it’s well worth it.”


The average age of the Ireland team is 25, but that number hides the fact that there are four teenagers in the squad along with five people over the age of 30. Bridging that gap is something the team has had to work on.

“[The mood] is great! We’ve got so many age levels, so many different skills sets, [there’s] experience and younger guys, but there’s a really good feeling in the camp,” attests Ciara Metcalfe, 36-year-old legspinner.

“We’re a really open team, there’s discussions between anyone,” says Shillington. “No one’s precious about being told, there’s no age ranking. [It’s] taken time to get there. It was hard for some of the older adults in the team when a 14-year-old comes in, to curtail conversations, [change] how you react and remember they are still children effectively.”

“As a team, we’re close,” explains O’Reilly. “Obviously it’s weird to say I’m friends with a 30-year-old – but everyone is extremely close. We had a psychologist come to us in La Manga (in Spain, where the team trained). He definitely helped us figure each other out personality wise. Now people are understanding that and coming to each other or not coming to each other with different things. It’s made a huge difference to the team atmosphere. That was a huge step up.” 

Shillington, who has seen the side transition from having to practise in school halls and raise money for clothes and travel, to enjoying a professional set-up with a strong back-room staff, agrees. Her proudest moment of a long career was winning in Thailand with this team. “I’m 35, I’m not going to be hanging out, being best mates with a 14-year-old, but I would still class Gaby as a friend and a team-mate and I’m sure it’ll last forever. I hope one day to go to her wedding!”

The youngsters, though, understandably, have the final say on the music. Which is why you’d see the team grooving to Five More Hours or the (censored) Riff-off from Pitch Perfect

“I love controlling the music and Gabs has her speaker so we kind of sit in the middle of the bus and choose the songs,” says O’Reilly. (Robyn: “It creates a good atmosphere before the game, gets us all in a good mood.”) “Some of the older girls kind of turn back and say ‘Change the song!’ But as I said earlier, some people don’t like that sort of thing, so they sit in the back, they put their earphones in. Everyone respects that. But definitely there are a good few that like to pump the fists!”


The top five youngest T20I players on debut are all from Ireland. Four of the top six in ODIs are as well. Apart from the YMCA girls, among the present squad, Garth became an international at 14 (“I batted No. 7, I scored 7, I hit a 4 which I was delighted about, I took a catch and didn’t bowl. I remember absolutely loving it.”), while Shillington herself was 16 and Isobel 15 when she played India in 1999.

The captain credits the youngsters with bringing a certain “fearlessness” to the squad. That the teenagers are deemed ready to take on the rigours of international cricket is credit to the youth system, especially at the YMCA CC where the emphasis is on coaching, but also a telling comment on the challenges for women’s cricket in Ireland.

“We don’t have a lot of people [playing the game],” explains Shillington, who began playing with her brothers in the school boys team. “The numbers still aren’t that big. When someone good comes along, they get pushed in quite quickly into the international set-up. I’d rather it wasn’t like that. I think 14 is pretty young to come into an environment that’s very adult. It’s quite pressurised. There’s repercussions for not being brilliant all the time. But [the girls on the teams] have adapted brilliantly.”

She credits Aaron Hamilton, the new coach, with putting in place pathways for age-group cricket, to check the drop-off at around the age when the girls finish school and move into university. Even as the team travelled to India, the juniors were training back home. 

“We have a new Super 3s competition. That’s the best 45 players in Ireland put into three different teams, and it’s been branded really well. It’s T20s and one-dayers, but the T20s are rolled out with colours and music. It’s baby steps.

Unlike their opponents at the World T20, the Irish ladies aren’t contracted, balancing the sport with school, university or full-time jobs. Shillington would like to see them move to at least semi-professional status, with more money being put into development activities. From this year, the team will no longer spend weekends travelling to England for the domestic competition there; the focus is instead on international games, with teams like South Africa slated to visit. It will be experience they desperately need as they aim to compete at the highest level and address their disappointing run of T20I losses.      

“With us getting into world cups, there’s more on offer as a cricketer. Whereas before it would have taken a backseat to – hockey is really big, women’s rugby is starting to really grow in Ireland, [there’s] Gaelic football and camogie (traditional sports) – so it’s battling against some other sports that offer quite a lot. But now with us coming to world cups, and maybe down the line actually becoming professional athletes, you’d hope there are enough reasons to stay in the sport.”

Shillington’s is a shared hope. And if talented, enthusiastic youngsters do stay on, as they should, not only will it be an important marker of the health of the women’s sport in Ireland, but a more varied playlist will be a happy side-effect. 

This article first appeared in Wisden India.

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