On June 13, 2006, eleven Irishmen heralded a new epoch in Irish cricket by becoming the first team from the country to play an ODI in front of 7,500 odd spectators at the Civil Service Cricket Club, Stormont against England. It was a giant leap forward for ‘the new kid on the block’, considering the fact that they were an all-amateur side in 2001 to the point that they had to ask a journalist reporting on the game to act as a substitute fielder!
The Irish roller-coaster has been soaring ever since then. The embers of Irish hope were fanned into a red hot flame when on 17th March, 2007 Trent Johnston’s side pulled off a massive upset by defeating a star-studded Pakistani team in a Group-D game of the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup at Kingston. It was a true defining moment for Irish cricket, whose history can be traced back to 1855 when it toured Canada and the USA. In the last decade or so, they have further strengthened their reputation as giant-killers, recording wins against the game’s traditional elite England at the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup and later against the West Indies at the 2015 Cricket World. With Cricket Ireland inching closer to achieving its dream of gaining Test status, former Irish all-rounder John Francis Mooney lifts the lid on his time spent playing with the Irish cricket team in this exclusive conversation with cricfit correspondent Ritam Basu.
Better known as the ironman of Irish cricket, Mooney amassed 963 runs @ 23.48 and claimed 48 wickets in 64 ODIs, plus another 231 runs and 10 wickets in 27 T20Is for Ireland. A member of Ireland’s inaugural ODI team, the seam-bowling all-rounder’s official international career spanned nearly nine seasons before he hung up his boots in December, 2015. One of the only four Irish cricketers to feature in four World Cups, the electrician-turned cricketer is perhaps best remembered for his finishing act which took Ireland past the finish line against England in Bangalore during the 2011 World Cup. His wild celebrations in front of TV cameras after hitting the winning runs have attained cult status among the cricket frenzied public, transcending all geographical boundaries and cultures.
He reprised his role as the finisher and played an instrumental part in Ireland’s four-wicket victory over the West Indies at Nelson during the 2015 World Cup. Even though Ireland failed to make it past the group stage in both these editions, Mooney was instantly revered by the Irish population for his relentless fortitude and never say-die attitude on the pitch. He also gained fashion icon status in the realms of Irish cricket; thanks to his myriad tattoos, his beard and the green sweatband which became an instant hit among the youth during the course of the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup.
But behind the veneer of this apparent machismo, lies the story of a man’s long-fought mental struggle with life; a struggle which began as soon as a father dropped dead in front of his eleven year-old sontwenty four years ago.
Excerpts from the interview:-
Q: Where is the bright green sweatband which became an overnight symbol of the Irish working class during the ICC Cricket World Cup a couple of years ago?
Mooney: I gave it away to a kid in Adelaide after our last match of the tournament against Pakistan.
Q: Did you expect the sweatband to become such a big hit among the masses when you sported it for the first time?
Mooney: No, I was just wearing it to prevent sweat from dripping into my eyes. I never expected it to become so popular!
Q: How difficult was it for a child belonging to a working-class upbringing and GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) background to play cricket in the streets of Fingal in the 1980s and early 1990s? It is kn own that you never told anybody in your neighbourhood that you played cricket.
Mooney: It was difficult. Gaelic football has traditionally had a huge following in Ireland and playing any other sport would have raised a lot of eyebrows. As a child, I was keen on playing multiple sports but people in my neighbourhood always urged me to play in the Gaelic team. Back then, people would scorn at cricket and rebuke you for playing the ‘Englishman’s Game’. So in that sense it was difficult at times, but I have always loved playing cricket.
Q: How did you get into cricket? As a budding cricketer, did you receive enough support from your family?
Mooney: Cricket was relatively more popular in Fingal than some other parts of Ireland as I grew up. We had good grounds and the people of Fingal had a passion for the game. Naturally, I took a liking to cricket as everything fell into place. I got all the support I ever wanted from my family.
Q: Did you look up to anybody as a role-model?
Mooney: My dad and my brother were the two people I looked up to as role-models. I used to spend my weekends playing cricket with them.
Q: Life dealt you a lethal blow when you saw your father drop dead in front of you at the tender age of eleven. What had actually happened?
Mooney: We were at our cricket training and he had just finished batting in the nets. He was the opening batsman for our team and I was only eleven years old at that time. I was up there in the clubhouse. When he finished batting, he came up and suffered a massive heart attack and just died in front of my eyes.
Q: Do you attribute your on-field aggression to the hardships you have had to endure in life?
Mooney: Yeah, I suppose I am a bit angrierthan the average individual and the hardships as you mentioned, certainly played their part.
Q: You have often talked about how the untimely demise of your father pushed you towards depression and made you a victim of the stigma of alcoholism. Now that you look back, do you regret for falling into the trap laid by the circumstances prevailing at that point in time? You reckon you could have done better to avoid falling into the trap?
Mooney: Not really.
Q: Tomorrow if you come across a youngster with a similar issue, what will you do to help him out?
Mooney: I recently did some media work around depression and came in touch with several youngsters who have experienced the same thing as me. All I ask of them is that they should think of their families and try to create a more positive attitude about life. In turn, it will help them make a positive impact on the world.
Q: You were a part of the Irish side which took to the field for the first time in ODIs in June 2006. You made your debut alongside your older brother Paul in that game. What was the talk between the two brothers before the match got underway?
Mooney: It had been our lifelong ambition to play for Ireland together- on the same team, on the same pitch and all through childhood, we played together in the backyard as you often do as brothers. As children, we always dreamt of beating England on the world stage and pretended as if we were playing against England all the time and to be able to convert that into reality felt surreal! We walked out on the field together that day and also left the field together. We enjoyed ourselves throughout the game and more importantly, didn’t lose our wickets. That was a special feeling indeed!
Q: Who handed you out your ODI cap?
Mooney: I don’t exactly remember.
Q: You made a memorable ODI debut in which you picked up three prized scalps of Marcus Trescothick, Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell and followedit up by scoring 30* off 26 balls after coming in at no. 10 in front of a jam-packed crowd at Stormont. What else do you remember from that game?
Mooney: I remember it being an interesting game for the reason that Dominick Joyce was playing for Ireland, whereas, his brother Edmund was representing England and it was also Edmund’s first game for England….so, it was a strange kind of game for a lot of reasons. It was Ed’s first ODI and it happened to be for England (guffaws)! Interestingly, it was he (Ed) who had helped us gain ODI status. We played well as a unit on that day and put up a good fight. There are so many good memories from that match- it was our first ODI, I and my brother fulfilled our childhood dream of representing Ireland in the international arena, two brothers whom I knew so well were all of a sudden, up against each other and the sun shone brightly while we were at Belfast which was remarkable in itself. It was simply a great day!
Q: The global cricketing fraternity recognises John Mooney as a staunch Irish nationalist who, along with his brother held up a game against Italy in Belfast in 2002 for an hour until the Union Jack Flag came down. Do you consider yourself more Irish than British?
Mooney: I am just an Irishman. That’s all I consider myself to be.
Q: Very recently in an interview, Rory Mcllroy admitted that he didn’t want to ‘choose between two flags’ in the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and as a result decided to skip the grand event. What’s your stand on the issue?
Mooney: We have a ‘Cricket Ireland’ flag which is only designated to cricket. It bears a cricket ball with a green shamrock in the middle. I can’t really comment on what Rory has said.
Q: The comments you made on Twitter after Margaret Thatcher’s death drew you a lot of flak. Do you rue that?
Mooney: I regret that I had a Twitter account. I don’t use the app anymore. It was a difficult time in my life.
Q: Unlike in soccer, cricket in Ireland is governed by a single parent body. Has that helped in bringing about a united Ireland as far as the ‘Gentleman’s Game’ is concerned?
Mooney: Sports itself is brilliant in bringing people together and that is what cricket is going to be known for by the subsequent generations.
Q: After years of perseverance in the World Cricket League, Irish cricket made its big breakthrough in the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup with wins over Pakistan and Bangladesh and a tie against Zimbabwe. What was the build-up to the Pakistan game like?
Mooney: The Pakistan game was obviously a big game in the context of Irish cricket. I was disappointed to miss out (on the match). It was preceded by a tie against Zimbabwe just two before and it was incredible! That really got us going, knowing fully well that a good result against Pakistan would leave us in good stead. The build-up was quite normal. We had the usual net sessions, listened to some Bob Marley and just relaxed during leisure times. That was it! The fact that the game was played on St. Patrick’s Day and watched by thousands of Irish supporters live at Kingston inspired us to go that extra yard. I knew I was going to be benched for the game but it didn’t make much of a difference since I had a fantastic time off the field.
Q: The Irish side received a heroes’ welcome in Dublin after taking everyone by surprise in that tournament. Talk us through that.
Mooney: It was nothing major. A few people had gathered at the airport but overall it wasn’t anything spectacular. We didn’t celebrate with any open top bus parade around the streets of Dublin.
Q: How has the perception towards cricket in your country changed over the years?
Mooney: The public opinion about cricket has changed massively over the years here in Ireland. Today, I am proud to call myself a cricketer whereas when I was younger, I would hardly dare tell anyone that I played cricket. This is a big thing for me! Even my kids take pride in playing cricket. Above all, people in general are more accepting of cricket and are more willing to watch cricket than ever before.
Q: You got the first taste of Irish captaincy during the 2008 European Championships in which you led Ireland to the title triumph. How was your role as captain different from that as a player?
Mooney: I have always relished leading teams. I turn up on any given day and just stick to my basics. Whether I am captain or just a player, I always look to contribute to the team’s cause by leaving a positive impact on the game, even if it requires me to deliver a pep talk. That’s the type of person I am. Some days, I am the captain, some days I am not, but I will always be the same John boy.
Q: Whendid you choose to spend more time working on your batting?
Mooney: I have always accorded importance to my batting. It was perhaps after the 2009 ICC world T20 that I decided to further accentuate it.
Q: Do you consider yourself a batting all-rounder or a bowling all-rounder?
Mooney: The days I bowled really well, I looked at myself as a bowling all-rounder and vice-versa. I never focussed more on any particular department. I enjoyed both my suits and wanted to win as many games for Ireland as possible with my all-round prowess. I trained equally hard in all the departments.
Q: Who according to you is the best seam-bowling all-rounder in the world at the moment?
Mooney: Ben Stokes.
Q: Prior to the Intercontinental Cup in 2009, you travelled to Perth in order to play club cricket and get back to full fitness. Did it help you improve as a cricketer?
Mooney: Yes, I loved travelling down to Perth and everything about the place. I was roped in by a club called Wanneroo which is famous for producing the two Hussey brothers- Mike (Michael) and Dave (David). It’s a wonderful club and it holds a pivotal position in my heart. When I returned to Ireland, I was given a full-time contract and that made me a better player.
Q: Did the full-time contract come as a morale-booster in the wake of the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup?
Mooney: Yes, definitely. It (the contract) helped me concentrate fully on cricket. While I was in Perth, I was still working as an electrician and would be on duty from Monday to Friday. I went to my training sessions on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and played on Saturday mornings or afternoons. So, it was only after I received the full-time contract that I started to kick on as a cricketer.
Q: That same year, you were conferred with the Irish ‘Player of the Year’ award. Who did you dedicate the honour to?
Mooney: I didn’t dedicate the award to anybody.
Q: John, let’s talk about the game which has become a part of cricketing folklore- the tie against England at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bangalore during the 2011 World Cup. Our sources tell us that you wanted to take the match to the last over when you came out to join Kevin O’Brien in the middle.What went through your mind as you stepped out to bat?
Mooney: I just remember saying to myself that I cannot wait to win the game for Ireland. It was an issue of national pride after all!
Q: Did playing against England always give you an adrenaline rush?
Mooney: Yes, always.
Q: You finished the 2011 World Cup as the highest wicket-taker for Ireland with 10 scalps from six games. Being an effective exponent of the slower ball, did the Indian conditions suit your bowling style?
Mooney: The Indian conditions were very favourable for me as a bowler. I requested Niall O’Brien to stand up to the wickets and he did a remarkable job in that regard. The partnership continued to bear fruit throughout the tournament, so it was great to bowl in those Indian conditions.
Q: Did you have any special preparation before heading to the sub-continent for the tournament?
Mooney: We attended several training camps around the subcontinent (prior to the 2011 World Cup). We had training camps in Pune, Nagpur and Sri Lanka. We also had a training stint at the Global Cricket Academy in Dubai. In brief, we had a full-on schedule before we headed to India and Bangladesh for the World Cup.
Q: In an interview with RTE IN 2014, you opened up about your struggle with mental depression and the very next day, you scored a brilliant 96 against Scotland in Dublin. Was John Mooney a relieved man as he walked out to bat after venting all his emotions before public the previous night?
Mooney: I wasn’t a relieved man but actually a worried man because I was gripped by fear that I might not do well on that particular day. The then Irish coach Phil Simmons was disappointed with me for having gone on the radio a day before an international game. I just wanted to make sure I was at the top of my game in the final ODI (of the three-match series) against Scotland. So, I put the previous day behind me and walked out to bat with a clearer frame of mind.
Q: It was again you who assumed the role of a finisher against West Indies in the 2015 World Cup. Did the Irish team management assign the finisher’s role to you and did you relish shouldering that responsibility?
Mooney: Well, it was a conscious decision made by Symmo (Phil Simmons) and me. I had been playing that role since the 2009 ICC World T20 in England, where I, often as a no. 7/8/9 batsman, was entrusted with the task of finishing games off when chasing down totals. As a result I was granted the license to go after the bowling. It was a thing I really enjoyed doing.
Q: You played against Mahendra Singh Dhoni three times in your career. Did you seek any advice from him regarding the art of finishing?
Mooney: Unfortunately, I never got to speak to him in my career.
Q: We are all aware of the infamous Zimbabwe Herald story which labelled you an alcoholic and questioned your honesty and the debatable catch you took against Zimbabwe in the 2015 World Cup. You shunned the entire fiasco by calling it ‘baseless’. Was it that easy to ignore such a vicious personal attack, especially when you are in the process of recovery?
Mooney: Look, I never actually read the article. I was in Hamilton when it came out. Again, we were just out there to play cricket. I have had some issues in the past and the article hardly made any difference. At the end of the day, everybody has a right to voice their opinion and it was their opinion. I wasn’t really much perturbed after Phil Simmons broke the news in the changing room. To be honest, I was more concerned about our own form in the tournament, especially after we received a severe drubbing at the hands of India. It was the worst cricket we had played up until then.
Q: In 2015, you hogged the limelight by designing the Gorget helmet which comes with an extended grille for the back of the head. With the danger of batsmen getting hit on the head looming large, how far is it from hitting the market?
Mooney: So far we haven’t thought of launching the product.
Q: How inspirational has William Porterfield been as a leader?
Mooney: Will’s been an outstanding leader to say the least.
Q: Warren Deutrom [CEO of Cricket Ireland] is hailed by many as the twelfth man of the Irish side for the work he has put on behind the scenes over the years. How significant has his role been in helping Cricket Ireland grow as an organisation?
Mooney: Warren’s been an ever-present figure in Cricket Ireland since the 2007 Cricket World Cup. It’s no fluke or coincidence that Cricket Ireland is at its best today with Warren at the helm. He’s a classy operator who works relentlessly until he gets what he wants.All he wants is to see Ireland play Test cricket one day and hopefully it’s going to happen soon.
Q: How was the experience of being a part of the inaugural Masters’ Champions League and playing alongside all the big names?
Mooney: The Masters’ Champions League was a fantastic opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in world cricket and to share the team-bus with the likes of Brett Lee, Graeme Smith and Jonty Rhodes was a true honour. Unfortunately, I still haven’t been paid for my participation in that tournament. I hope everything gets sorted out as soon as possible. The Grand Midwest Group, the company which ran the tournament will hopefully make payments to all the players at some stage. The fact that we didn’t receive the money we were promised at the beginning of the tournament left a sour taste in my mouth. I am sure a lot of other players feel the same as me.
Q: You were roped in by the Danish cricket team as its fielding coach last year. How’s the progress coming along? Has Jeremy Bray’s presence as the head coach made the job any easier?
Mooney: It was Jeremy who first invited me to come and work with the Danish side. I was delighted to help him out and the Danish guys. My main job is to go there every two or three months and spend some time with the players on weekends. The growth has been satisfactory and it’s still a work in progress. It’s somewhat difficult for the Danish guys to adapt to the demands of modern-day cricket, plus the substandard ground conditions in Denmark haven’t made the task any easier. Even on match days, the situation remains the same. So, it’s difficult for them to become good fielders before they graduate to the next level. I am optimistic though. Hopefully, the administrators will be able to get the work done behind the scenes and build a better infrastructure.
Q: Is coaching Ireland part of your future plans?
Mooney: My ultimate goal is to become the Irish coach and it might take a few years to realize the dream, but I will continue to work hard towards it.
Q: Are you disappointed with the way Ireland got drubbed at the hands of Afghanistan in the final of the Desert T20 challenge? Has the performance of the middle order been a cause of concern for the Irish think tank of late?
Mooney: The last eighteen months or so have been a real concern for the Irish team. We are in a form slump and Afghanistan in my opinion is clearly a better white-ball team at the moment. That said; Ireland holds the upper hand in the red-ball format of the game.
Q: Which youngster from the current generation could go on to become the future flag bearer of Irish cricket?
Mooney: There’s a crop of talented youngsters waiting in the wings. You may not have heard the names of Jamie Grassi and Andrew Sheridan. These two cricketers have great potential to become long term prospects for Ireland and it’s now up to the selectors to test them out at the international level.
Q: England will be hosting the next two major ICC tournaments. When can we expect to see a Cricket World Cup being staged in Ireland?
Mooney: Frankly speaking, Ireland at this juncture is a long way from hosting a Cricket World Cup or any other ICC major tournament for that matter.
Q: Ireland is not far away from attaining Test status though. How will you celebrate when the highly coveted moment comes?
Mooney: I will celebrate by ringing the Director of Cricket Ireland and asking for more money..