Soft-spoken but hard-nosed, Ireland’s Ed Joyce is giving up county cricket to put all his efforts into his first love, Ireland. We found out how he viewed his time on these shores, what prompted his dual switches of allegiance, and what he thinks about the prospect of a long-awaited Test debut.
‘Ed Joyce: The best county cricketer never to have played a Test match’. Some such summary seemed destined to be the epitaph to the career of Ireland’s greatest cricketer, a career that would be looked back on as commendable, full of highlights, but, for someone of his talent, somewhat unfulfilled.
There are, of course, worse ways to be viewed, and Joyce himself recognises this. “It’s an old cliché,” says Joyce. “But if someone had offered me that career at the start I would have bitten their hand off, for sure. Still I would have loved to have played a Test match.”
With the ICC still mulling over changes to the structure of international cricket which could well see Ireland granted Test status, the 38-year-old Dubliner may yet get his chance. Joyce came close during his days as an England-qualified player – you don’t score 1,000 first-class runs seven seasons in a row without turning heads – and from his career’s earliest stages, it was clear that he had a talent given to very few.
Ian Gould, then Middlesex coach, told Angus Fraser: “This fella is as talented a batsman as I’ve seen since David Gower”, while Fraser himself, along with Mike Gatting, strongly encouraged Joyce to earn residency so he could play for England. Joyce was happy enough to oblige, although at the time he thought it “a bit a ridiculous because I’d only played 10 first-class games”.
To watch him bat at county level was to witness someone of Test calibre. But until now all his prolificacy has been translated into is a handful of limited-overs games for England, quite a few more for Ireland, and a place in the squad for the 2006/07 Ashes. In 2012, Fraser commented that were he still England-qualified Joyce may have been selected as Alastair Cook’s opening partner following Andrew Strauss’ retirement.
Joyce is one of two Irishmen to have represented their country of birth either side of playing for England but he doesn’t view either switch as a mistake, or even remember them as particularly hard choices. “Back in the late 90s and early 2000s Ireland had a lot of talented players but we didn’t play the amount of fixtures or have a good enough domestic structure or enough players playing in England to really have a competitive team,” says Joyce. “There was no future there, nowhere I could go.”
His decision to switch back to Ireland ahead of the 2011 World Cup was similarly pragmatic. “I was still playing well, and Ireland were an emerging team. We’d played well at the 2007 World Cup and looked like having a good team in 2011 and I knew I would make it stronger. When I was asked it was an easy decision for me.”
Niall O’Brien, Joyce’s Ireland teammate and close friend, says there was “never a problem” after Joyce reversed his switch of allegiance and all he had to contend with was standard dressing-room fare. “We take the piss out of him a bit,” O’Brien admits. “We remind him every now and then that he is playing for Ireland and not England, but in a team dressing room you’ve got to take a bit of stick every now and again, whether you’re Ed Joyce or it’s your first game.”
For Joyce the move was made much simpler because he wasn’t exactly returning cap-in- hand; he had already contributed to one of Ireland’s greatest moments, without actually being present at the time. “What made it easiest was being a fairly integral part of the team in 2005 which qualified for that first World Cup,” he says. “And then of course Ireland did so well in that tournament. I already felt part of the whole process.”
By the late Noughties, Joyce had dropped out of the England reckoning, prompting his move from Middlesex to Sussex. “After being left out [by England] a lot of players would say it’s quite a difficult switch back to county cricket when you feel like you’re not really in with a shout of getting back into the England team. I felt stale at Middlesex, like I needed a new challenge.”
While Joyce is happy with his time at Sussex – “It worked out, we had a really good team for a few years down there” – and has a better stocked trophy cabinet than most , he admits that seeing Middlesex win last year’s Championship was a bittersweet moment.
“They deserved it and having played there I know how much it means to the fans,” he says. “The Championship was always the one I wanted, that’s my favourite form of the game and the one I’ve always been best at. Missing out was tough.”
No Championship title, and no Test cap. Two blots on an otherwise stellar career. But the second may not be a blot for much longer.
At an ICC board meeting in February, radical changes to the structure of international cricket were agreed in principle that would see Ireland and Afghanistan gain Test status, bringing the Irish closer than they have ever been to what has become their holy grail.
“It’s hugely encouraging,” says Warren Deutrom, CEO of Cricket Ireland. “But we are not taking anything as read, and we certainly don’t want to take for granted approval by all of the ICC full members at conference.”
Joyce describes a potential Test debut as “the dream”, but has learned through experience to be sceptical, worrying that “the politics of the ICC might get in the way”. This is, after all, the same ICC that restricted Ireland to playing just nine ODIs against full members between the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, and which then decided to limit the number of teams in the 2019 World Cup to 10, making it likely that no associate nations will take part.
In fact, it was Joyce who coordinated Ireland’s media offensive during that 2015 tournament, as the players made efforts to mention these injustices at every press conference. This campaign reached a head with captain William Porterfield’s tweet, in response to the ICC calling Ireland’s efforts “memorable and inspiring”, which read: “So memorable and inspiring that you have decided to cut the next WC to 10 teams. What is your vision for the game of cricket?” Porterfield’s retort received nearly 2,000 retweets.
In some respects the changes Ireland and Joyce wanted to see have already started to take place. This summer they have seven ODIs scheduled against full members, including their first-ever fixtures on these shores against England. And while this boom in Ireland’s off-field fortunes has coincided with a lull in their on-field displays, their long-term pedigree, and sterling work done behind the scenes by administrators, means that there is little panic that any decline would be terminal. When deciding whether a country should be given Test status, less important than how they do in their first Test is how they might do in their hundredth.
Joyce remains as important to Ireland as ever – in last July’s ODI series against Afghanistan, which ended 2-2, Joyce made centuries in both Ireland’s wins. “Like a good bottle of Malbec, he gets better with age,” says O’Brien.
Of course, Joyce can’t carry on forever. He is the oldest player in Ireland’s team, and one of four members of their regular top six aged over 30. But with increased efforts to organise and promote the game domestically in Ireland, and with clear pathways to identify and develop young talent, the future looks promising, particularly with Joyce keen to stay involved with the coaching set-up. “There will be enough opportunities within Irish cricket that his skills are not going to be lost to us,” says Deutrom.
The progress Ireland have made in terms of the quality of their domestic cricket has seen their provincial competition assigned first-class status – the first time a non-Test nation has received that designation. Joyce will be playing in the competition this season to help give it a kick-start, having moved back to Ireland full-time after giving up his county contract with Sussex. It feels like a significant turning point.
The relationship between Irish cricket and the English domestic game is an intriguing one. Clearly the experience of county cricket has been beneficial for the development of Ireland’s best players and helped the national team reach unprecedented heights, but on several occasions they have been forced to field depleted sides due to county commitments. Ireland coach John Bracewell sees this as a barrier between Ireland and the best teams. “We need to stop being a team that prepares for one-off matches and ICC events,” he says. “We need to become a team that plays at home together and tours the way that professional international teams do.”
“For us to become a self-reliant full member and Test nation that’s a reliance that gradually over time needs to diminish,” adds Deutrom. “That will be by increasing from a three- to a four-day competition, should we become a Test member, and increasing the number of teams as well.”
Such a system is a long way away from what Joyce experienced growing up in Ireland. Then, cricket was a family game, something you could play at home but was best kept secret elsewhere. If you brought kit to school, “you would have your bat nicked… you’d be hiding your cricket gear on the train into town”.
To some extent cricket in Ireland is still defined by that history. “If you go around the clubs and you look at the boards with captains and notable players it’s heavily biased towards lots of the same names,” says Joyce. The Joyces are one of the most established of all the Irish cricketing families and Ed wouldn’t have had it any differently.
“It was a great way to grow up,” Joyce recalls. “The three older brothers are good cricketers and a decent bit older than me. They were good coaches, so I got a good grounding, and with games of cricket in the backyard I got a handle on the old technique early on.”
Clearly it worked wonders for Joyce. But what might end up as his greatest legacy are those Irish cricketers who don’t have to depend on their family, who are coming up through a system he helped establish, with a raft of heroes to look up to. Ed Joyce being chief among them.