Turtle Bunbury

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Interviews - SPORTING LEGENDS OF IRELAND

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Batting Style: Right-handed Batsman.

Bowling Type: Right-arm medium pace.

Caps for Ireland: 122 (35 times as Captain).

Runs for Ireland: 3,579 (av. 28.63).

Record One Day Score: 127 not out.

Wickets for Ireland: 51.

Awards: Nat West Cup 1991 (Man of the Match);
Benson & Hedges Cup 1995 (Man of the Match).

ALAN LEWIS
CRICKETER & RUGBY UNION REFEREE

It was still seen as a garrison game in my time’, says Alan Lewis. ‘A game played by Protestants from little old England. And I suppose it was like a movement. I played against a lot of the sons of the people my father had played against a generation before. But the game has developed hugely in Ireland in the past ten years. It’s opened right up and that is fantastic for the sport’.

By “garrison game”, the former Irish captain means cricket was one of those “imported games” favoured by officers of the British Army based in Ireland during the days of the Empire. As such, the founding fathers of the Gaelic Athletic Association condemned cricket as being “calculated to injuriously affect our national pastimes” and expressly prohibited its members from playing the game.

By the time the GAA ban was lifted in 1971, seven-year-old Alan was already a regular sight on the YMCA playing fields of Sandymount. ‘I was in a pair of pads out in the back garden from when I was 3-years-old. The pads were up to my shoulders but I could hit the ball okay.’

His love for the sport is genetic. Ian Lewis, his late father, the son of a Dublin haberdasher, played for Ireland twenty times and served as President of the Irish Cricket Union.[i] He grew up in Sandymount and, just as Alan would do, went to St Andrew’s College in Booterstown and became an insurance broker. He made his debut for Ireland against the MCC at Lord's in 1955 and won the last of his 20 caps against Canada in 1973. In the early 1960s, Ian was posted to Cork City where he met and married Ida Sweetnam, the daughter of a farming couple from Glanmire, West Cork. By 1968, with young Alan and his sister Nicola in tow, the Lewis’s made their way, via Athlone, back to Dublin.

‘Life in our house was dominated by cricket on Saturdays’, recalls Alan. The family always went to watch Ian play. ‘As a 10 year old I would score and keep the book and my mother would do the teas. There’s very few wives around who would do the tea nowadays!’

As a boy, he ventured with his father to watch the games played at Mount Juliet in the former cricketing stronghold of Co. Kilkenny.[ii] He learned to play at school, heading out to the nets at King’s Hospital and Belvedere to practice his defenses with plastic and, later, real cricket balls. After school he started playing for the YMCA in Sandymount and began proving himself worthy of a place on the national team.

In June 1984, Alan made an inauspicious debut for Ireland against the West Indies when out for a duck. Over the next thirteen years, he played a remarkable 121 games for Ireland, 35 of them as captain. He is one of only ten players to have played more than 100 times for Ireland. He also held what was then the Irish record for a one-day score of 127 not out against Gibraltar.

While he enjoyed his cricketing career immensely, expectations were always limited. ‘We’d play one Nat West Cup Match against an English county team and really our modus operandi was to try and do as well as we could … realistic chances of winning were slim’. Similar odds greeted them when they played internationals against Australia, the West Indies and Zimbabwe. ‘Those teams were playing first class cricket all the time so their chances of improving were much greater than ours’.

By the time Ireland gained associate membership of the International Cricket Council in 1993, Alan was a regular member of the team. In 1994, he captained Ireland in both the ICC Trophy in Kenya and the Triple Crown Tournament. In 1997, he fulfilled a lifelong ambition to beat professional opposition when he helped Ireland to a famous victory over Middlesex in the Benson and Hedges Cup.

The last major competition in which he played was the Carlsberg ICC Trophy in Malaysia in 1997, a qualification tournament for the 1999 World Cup. Ireland’s fourth place was not good enough. Alan, then 32 years old, took this as his cue to retire which, in hindsight, he feels might have been a slight premature. ‘Even though I was still at my peak, I felt I’d achieved all I could at that point.’’[iii]

He continues to play cricket as a hobby today and marvels at the evolution of the sport in Ireland. ‘I’m absolutely delighted where the game has gone. I was there when we beat Bangladesh in the 20/20. And I watched them beat Pakistan in the World Cup. The game has opened up. We’ve Australians like Trent Johnson and South Africans like Andre Botha playing for Ireland.[iv] Eight of the Irish team are now playing professional County Cricket in England. That’s all good for us because they are going to be on a level where they can compete on the international stage. Sri Lanka got test match status in 1975 and won the World Cup in 2002. That just show’s you what can happen over a short period of time.’[v]

For a brief stint, he toyed with the idea of being a rugby player but that dream ended when he ruptured a knee ligament. Instead, he found himself rising through the ranks as a Rugby Union referee. He presently referees between 25 and 30 first class games a year, primarily the Six Nations, the Heineken Cup and the Magner’s League. ‘The only final I haven’t done yet is a World Cup final’, he says.

‘I didn’t think “Oh my God, I want to be a referee”’, he insists. ‘I hummed and hawed about it, but when I did it, I really enjoyed it. I love the interaction with the players. And it is a good way to stay fit.’

‘Refereeing can be a lonely business’, he adds. One minute you have 60,000 people roaring their heads off all around you, the next you’re driving home on your lonesome.[vi] He concedes that it is a slightly masochistic profession but enthuses that it is the search for balance that provides the challenge. ‘That’s the drug - that’s what keeps you going. It’s about establishing a foothold of control. If players are transgressing, I have to try and persuade them to think a bit differently.’[vii]

Above: For more on Ireland’s extraordinary 2008 World Cup cricket campaign, click the above link to ‘Breaking Boundaries’.

FOOTNOTES

[i] ‘He was pretty talented but, as I said at his funeral, if he had actually understood the ability he had, he’d have played a lot more.’ Alan’s grandfather worked at, a wholsale haberdashery on Clanbrassil Terrace, Dublin, and lived on Sandymount Road. His grandfather was Tom Lewis.

[ii] His hosts, the McCalmonts laid on ‘a free stand with bottles of Coca Cola and you could drink as much as you wanted.’ This is a further example of the McCalmonts bankrupting themselves by being the most generous hosts of the 20th century. ‘I have vivid memories of going to Mount Juliet when the President’s 11 would play the jockeys from the UK’, says Alan. ‘I played there once myself. Beautiful grounds. There was even talk of hosting some of the World Cup there once. It nearly happened but for practical reasons it didn’t.’

[iii] ‘When I retired, it took me a long time to go back and watch Ireland play. I was very reluctant to be one of those cranky ‘oh-you-should-have-done-this’ people … I think there’s a time when you’re in and a time when you’re out.

[iv] ‘We actually have development officers getting players from totally different necks of the wood. To play for Ireland, you need a residency. In latter days, people came here to work, found Irish girls to their liking, married them and now we have people like Trent Johnson and Andre Botha playing for Ireland. Andre has spent over half his life in Ireland now. And then there are all the Asian countries. It’s very much opened it up. Brian Cody told me one of Kilkenny’s best under 12 hurlers is a Bangladeshi. He has the cricket hand-eye coordination. I asked if there was any chance we might get a car down to Kilkenny and bring him up to play cricket at weekends!’

[vi] ‘Internationals are fine because there is such a sense of occasion. But after a normal run-of-the-mill Magner’s League game, I might go to Glasgow, referee the game, have a beer in the hotel and fly home.’

[vii] This boils down to three options - control by sanction (aka the whistle), body language (‘which is no different to dealing with a child’) and management (aka straightforward player husbandry).

 

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Click here to see a full list of persons interviewed for the Vanishing Ireland project.