IT was a Christmas like no other for Clare Shillington.
The poverty on the streets of Delhi made it different. So too did the fact that she was about to make her ICC World Cup debut, aged 16. Belfast-born Shillington had been playing schools’ cricket since the age of eight. Her brother pushed that she make the boys’ team, and here she was, wearing green in front of 10,000 fans at the Nehru Stadium in Gurgaon.
Boarding school transformed Shillington into a self-sufficient teen, and home sickness wasn’t an issue. Playing Pakistan, the Indians in the crowd were cheering on the Irish, as captain Mary Grealey took Shillington aside.
‘Clare, the Khan sisters will hit the ball for a country mile, always straight down the ground. Go stand out on the boundary. They’re going to hit it up, and you’re going to catch it,’ she said.
Shillington nodded, and headed for the white line in the distance. Khan struck the ball, and as the drums reverberated around the stand behind Shillington, she judged the flight of the leather-cased ball of cork. Her right arm rose into the air, and as the ball landed into the palm of her hand, the home crowd erupted.
“It felt like I was out there for a day, but it’s hard to match that moment,” Shillington recalls with a smile ahead of her fifth World Cup in India later this month.
Now the most capped female international (143), the YMCA player is in India for the second time in her 19-year international career. Winning the T20 World Cup qualifying campaign in Thailand last December secured a place for Aaron Hamilton’s side, and that final win against Bangladesh comes close to that magical moment in Nehru Stadium.
“It took us 18 years to get there, but winning our first global tournament was a massive achievement. I think it was the most complete performance in a tournament I’ve been involved in and probably the best balanced team. We’ve match winners across the board in ever facet – batting, bowling, fielding – and it’s a different Irish team.”
But, women’s cricket in Ireland could be in a much better place. Financial constraints means a full-time development officer for the women’s game isn’t possible at present, but you get the feeling Shillington would be the best placed person for the job.
For a start, the 35-year-old has got the coaching credentials. She’s full-time at it – in schools, as well as with the YMCA women’s team in Sandymount, and the club’s U17 academy for boys and girls. More recently she’s become head coach of the Irish U17 girls’ team. Credentials aside, she’s also played alongside some of the best players in the world. England’s Charlotte Edwards has taught her a thing or two, while a stint playing in Australia with Gordon CC in Sydney, and Grafton CC in Auckland, New Zealand, opened her eyes to the possibilities of the women’s game in Ireland.
“Even at that stage it was a lot more professional than our leagues and we got to train with some of the Australian team and Kiwis. They were miles ahead of us, so it was a real eye opener. I think it kept me in the sport in a way.
“We’re growing at a snail’s pace here, but cricket has so much to offer.
“We’re qualifying and competing at World Cups, and down the line you’d like to think there’ll be fully contracted female players, but it’s always going to be behind the GAA, probably hockey, and rugby. It’s not a traditional female sport so it’s trying to break down those perceptions, but so much of it comes down to finances to promote it.”
The following fact reiterates Shillington’s thoughts. Of the 10 teams competing at the T20 World Cup in India, Ireland are the only side that are not professional. They’re ranked 10th, so qualifying tells you just how much work has gone into getting there. A full-time coach, a strength and conditioning expert and nutritionist have overseen what’s almost a six-day week training regime.
It’s difficult. Solicitors, students and school girls (16-year-old Lucy Reilly), make up the squad, but it’s a good time to be involved.
Having departed Ireland on March 1, Ireland will have a 10-day training camp ahead of warm-up games against India and Bangladesh. Their World Cup campaign commences the day after Patrick’s Day, March 18, against New Zealand at the PCA Stadium in Mohali. Two days later they’ll face Sri Lanka, before South Africa – who recently beat world number two, England – and then the world number one side, Australia.
“It’ll take a special day to beat any of those teams, but I have a feeling that if we beat New Zealand in the first game, then who knows what’ll happen,” admits the Dublin-based, right-handed bats woman.
“After Thailand there’s a bit more belief in the team that we can compete at this level. I always felt we needed that collectively. In the shorter format of the game, one brilliant day for one person can win you a game.”
After performing in three one-day World Cups – India (1997), South Africa (2005) and New Zealand (2000) – and two T20s – Bangladesh (2014) and India (2016) – Shillington is making history. Irish rugby stars Paul O’Connell and Lynne Cantwell have both played in four World Cups, but Shillington will bypass those records when she walks out at PCA Stadium on March 18.
She admits this will be her last World Cup, but India is all that’s on her mind for now.
IRELAND’S ICC CRICKET WORLD CUP FIXTURES
March 18: Ireland V New Zealand, PCA Stadium, Mohali
March 20: Ireland V Sri Lanka, PCA Stadium, Mohali
March 23: Ireland V South Africa, MA Chidambaram Stadium, Chennai
March 26: Ireland V Australia, Ferozeshah Kolta, DelhiIreland v Australia
IRELAND SQUAD: Amy Kenealy (Leinster CC), Ceclia Joyce (Merrion CC), Ciara Metcalfe (Pembroke CC), Clare Shillington (YMCA), Elena Tice (Merrion CC), Gaby Lewis (YMCA), Isobel Joyce (Merrion CC), Jennifer Gra (YMCA), Kate McKenna (Merrion CC), Kim Garth (Pembroke CC), Laura Delaney (Leinster CC), Louise McCarthy (Pembroke CC), Lucy O’Reilly (YMCA), Mary Waldron (Malahide CC), Robyn Lewis (YMCA), Shauna Kavanagh (Pembroke CC)