Ireland's 'special' bond with Sydney club side

Andrew Balbirnie, Ireland's captain and hero of their upset win over England, is one of several T20 World Cup squad members to spend a season honing their craft with Randwick-Petersham

When Randwick-Petersham's eager young chief executive, John Stewart, told the club's president, Mike Whitney, about his plan to host Ireland before the 2015 World Cup, the former Test paceman told him what he thought in no uncertain terms.

"He told us to f**k off," Stewart tells cricket.com.au about how the idea he had cooked up with teammate John McLoughlin was initially received.

Whitney, a life-long member of the club based in Sydney's eastern suburbs where a year living abroad is a rite of passage for many Irish, lets out a deep, long laugh when he confirms the story.

"Yeah, that's true," admits Whitney, laughing as he clarifies how he elongated the profanity to underscore exactly how far-fetched he thought it was.

Image Id: 531BF88A09EF4130BA8C13F19C87E92F Image Caption: Whitney (left) with Ireland captain Andrew Balbirnie before a clash with Randwick-Petersham during a return visit ahead of this year's T20 World Cup. Also pictured is Marjorie O'Neill MP and Randwick-Peterhsam captain Daya Singh and CEO John Stewart // Randwick-Petersham CC

He recalls telling Stewart: "Do you understand what you're talking about? I've been away with international teams, I know what was required in my day - and it's much more professional now. It's not only the team, but 15 other dudes who travel with the team!"

Through hard work from volunteers, Whitney's practical concerns over how a club cricket team could take on such a task – arranging catering and accommodation, and ensuring nets and centre-wicket facilities were suitable for an international cricket team among them – were overcome and the bold plan paid off.

Ireland spent a week in Coogee in 2015, training at the club and hosting community clinics. The only way Randwick-Petersham did not extend their hospitality was on the pitch, fielding a strong side featuring two future internationals in Daniel Sams and Nathan Ellis for a warm-up match and winning. 

But the long-term link with one of the game's most promising emerging nations, signified by the club welcoming Ireland again for a similar preparatory period before this year's World Cup with a series of games unfortunately marred by rain, goes even deeper.

It is a connection that has been integral in the careers of nearly a third of Ireland's World Cup squad, most notably the hero of Ireland's upset win over England at the MCG earlier this week – captain Andrew Balbirnie.

Despite having a breakthrough 2015 World Cup, scoring half-centuries against South Africa and Zimbabwe as Ireland narrowly missed out on a quarter-final berth, Balbirnie found himself at a low point in his career when he suffered the double blow of undergoing serious hip surgery and then being released from his contract with English county side, Middlesex.

Then-Ireland coach John Bracewell suggested a stint with Randwick-Petersham, who had so impressed Ireland that they sent bowler Barry McCarthy out to play for them the following summer, could help him find his feet again.

"It was a no-brainer for me," Balbirnie tells cricket.com.au on the eve of Ireland's World Cup clash with Australia, their first game against them in six years. "It was exactly what I needed.

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"I needed to get away from Ireland, I needed to just play cricket again and almost fall in love with it again. I'd had a really tough time with doing the rehab and missing out on so much cricket. It ignited me back into the Irish team, if you like."

Balbirnie, who lived with Stewart in an apartment in Randwick, played just one game for the club's first XI (dismissing future South Australia opener Henry Hunt) but found playing in the seconds was precisely what he needed given the months he had spent on the sidelines.

"I had to go out of my comfort zone, start afresh and play on club grounds, play in the seconds, go out and cop a bit of abuse for wearing an Irish helmet," says Balbirnie, smiling wryly at the recollection of the sledging he copped.

"I had a big patch on my helmet covering up the Ireland badge, which probably wasn't the best idea.

Image Id: BF248B4584D04C2A8481F1D3CEDC894C Image Caption: Balbirnie batting during his season for Randwick-Petersham // Peter Bannigan

"But I loved it. It was almost learning how to score runs again, because it was such a big operation. By the end of it I got a couple of scores for Randy-Petes and went home with a smile on my face."

After McCarthy and Balbirnie, Randwick-Petersham welcomed Harry Tector (2018-19) and Stephen Doheny (in 2019-20). All four are in the World Cup squad, with Balbirnie, McCarthy and Tector all likely to take on Australia at the Gabba.

Tector's equally prodigious brothers Jack (2017-18) and Tim (who is at the club this season along with fellow Irish national Scott MacBeth) have also played at Coogee Oval, while there is hope their younger sister Alice, who good judges think might end up being the best of the dynastic Dublin cricket family, might one day play for a soon-to-be-formed Randwick-Petersham women's team.

Image Id: 49311CAAF13F4374BEC17777C48D9F60 Image Caption: Stephen Doheny in action for Randwick-Petersham in 2019-20 // Peter Bannigan

"It's almost like a second club for a lot of us now," says Balbirnie. "It certainly holds a special place in a lot of our hearts."

When Balbirnie was appointed national captain in 2019, Whitney sent him an email of congratulations. Balbirnie replied thanking Whitney profusely for getting his career back on track, identifying his four-month stint with the club as a turning point. 

"You only have to play one game for our club and you're considered part of our brotherhood," says Whitney. "To hear that from someone like Balbo, who I have enormous respect for … says to me we're going about it the right way."

Balbirnie's career-shaping experience has led him to a date with the reigning world T20 champions at the Gabba, a traditional stronghold of Australian cricket. His match-winning 47-ball 62 against highly-fancied England on a tricky MCG surface on Wednesday underlined that Ireland will not be easily overawed.

"It's something really special," says the Irish skipper. "It's probably a position at the start of the tournament we didn't really think we'd be in. But now we're here.

"We're going to try our best to keep up with these top-class cricketers and play our best game. If that happens and a few things go our way, you never really know in this game."

They may even have a few local supporters.

Image Id: 7C6CA21440494C3886F0D793AA36F446 Image Caption: Randwick-Petersham beat the touring Ireland side in 2015 // Supplied

"It will be the first time I've cheered against Australia," admits Stewart. "It would be great to see them do well. I'm sure there will be others. We've always said, since the 2015 World Cup, that Ireland is our second team. I'm sure people will be divided on Monday night."

For Randwick-Petersham, though, it is bigger than that.

"If we can play a part in seeing cricket improve on a world stage, what a beautiful thing," says Whitney. "I mean, what a beautiful thing to be involved in."