Cricket has been part of the Commonwealth Games only once, i.e in 1998 in Kuala Lampur, the Malaysian capital. Sixteen countries took part in the event, consisting of 50-over-a-side List A matches. Among the teams was Northern Ireland, who qualified by virtue of being a Commonwealth nation.
The Ireland cricket team has always been an all-Ireland outfit as in rugby, but since the Republic of Ireland is not a Commonwealth nation, Northern Ireland played as a separate team. Led by Bready wicket-keeper Alan Rutherford, the Northern Irishmen were clubbed in Group C along with eventual gold medallists South Africa, Barbados and Bangladesh.
The team was coached by M.V ‘Bobby’ Narasimha Rao, an all-rounder who played four Tests for India in the late seventies and later also represented Ireland in domestic cricket. The squad included two future Irish internationals, namely Kyle McCallan and Peter Gillespie. First up for Northern Ireland were the South Africans.
Northern Ireland had crawled to 89/5 in 38.1 overs when rain intervened. Neil Carson and Derek Heasley had stitched an unbeaten sixth-wicket stand of 41 runs after a top-order collapse. The Duckworth/Lewis target for South Africa was 131 in 38 overs.
Northern Ireland would have fancied their chances when fast bowlers Ryan Eagleson (who once played for Derbyshire) and Gordon Cooke stunned the South African top-order to reduce them to 23/4. It became 57/5 when Paul McCrum removed Jacques Kallis.
However, Dale Benkenstein scored an unbeaten 44 and his partnership of 58 with Shaun Pollock for the sixth wicket made the difference. Eagleson (3/28) came back to dismiss Pollock, but South Africa reached 133/6 to win by four wickets with 38 balls to spare.
In their second match, Northern Ireland were completely outclassed by Barbados. After electing to field, the Northern Irishmen watched helplessly as West Indian international opener and Barbadian captain Philo Wallace (92) put on 144 for the first wicket with fellow international opener Sherwin Campbell (60).
Number three Adrian Griffith continued the domination by scoring 66 and shared a 73-run stand for the fourth wicket with Mark Lavine (44*). Barbados piled up a hefty total of 296/5. Off-break bowler John ‘Dekker’ Curry – who is an uncle of the current Ireland ‘A’ batsman Chris Dougherty – was the pick of the bowlers with 2/42.
Northern Ireland crashed to 17/3 in reply, and from that point onwards, lost interest in the chase. They scrapped to a measly 120/7 in 50 overs to go down by 176 runs. Stephen Smyth made a fighting 58 from number three.
Fast bowler Gordon Cooke returned figures of 5/35 to help Northern Ireland trounce Bangladesh in the 1998 Commonwealth Games (source – espncricinfo.com)
The third and final game was against Bangladesh at the Royal Selangor Club. Like Northern Ireland, Bangladesh too were beaten in their first two games and hence this match was all about avoiding the bottom place in the group. After being put in to bat, Northern Ireland lost wickets at regular intervals and were struggling at 67/5 when McCallan came to the crease.
A 41-run stand for the sixth wicket between McCallan and Andrew Patterson revived the innings. A further 39 runs were added for the eighth wicket between McCallan – who scored an unbeaten 53 – and Cooke. The final total was 177 in 49.3 overs.
Even though Bangladesh were at full strength and were to become a Test nation in two years, their brittle batting gave Northern Ireland a good chance to bow out on a high. The Northern Irish bowlers grabbed that chance with both hands as Bangladesh began their chase in an utterly disastrous manner.
Cooke and Eagleson bowled splendidly to reduce Bangladesh from 3/0 to 4/4 and then 13/5. Only Khaled Mahmud, with 27 from number eight, showed any resistance as wickets fell in a heap. The entire innings lasted just 21 overs as Bangladesh were bundled out for a woeful 63.
Cooke was the star of the show with a haul of 5/35 – the second-best figures of the event – while Eagleson took 3/15. McCallan added one wicket to his crucial 53 before Curry snapped up the final wicket to ensure a convincing victory by 114 runs.
Of this squad, McCallan and Gillespie were part of the Ireland team that created history in the 2007 World Cup, with McCallan taking two wickets each in the tie against Zimbabwe as also the wins against Pakistan and Bangladesh. Cooke played his last game for Ireland in the 2005 ICC Trophy final, while Eagleson called it quits the year before that.
Earlier in 1998, a few members of this squad were part of the Ireland side which played the touring South Africans in two 50-over matches, Cooke taking 4/60 in the first of them.
These happen to be the only matches against international opposition that Northern Ireland have played as a separate team.