Greg Thompson: The Big Read
Ian Callender (Belfast Telegraph)
HE is still the youngest cricketer to represent Ireland but on Monday Greg Thompson could come close to breaking another record if he is recalled to the team for the Twenty20 international against Hong Kong at Bready.
It will be eight years and 27 days since Thompson last pulled on the Irish sweater but his outstanding club form for Waringstown this summer could not be ignored by the international selectors and, 12 days shy of his 29th birthday, a second career could be just beginning.
His upturn in form could hardly be better timed. Ireland have just come off the back of their worst ever performance at a global tournament – knocked out of the World Twenty20 tournament last March in the group stages without winning a game – so some fresh faces were demanded and, along with three uncapped players, Thompson gets the chance to resurrect an international career cruelly cut short while still in his teens. He remembers the day as if it was yesterday.
“It was a four-day game against Canada in Malahide, which was actually washed out after two days, but I had been told I would be playing in the one-dayers, which followed that game, only to be put on a bus and told ‘you’re not required’. That was a hard pill to swallow and at the time I found it hard to cope with the disappointment.
“I was 20 years-old and looking back now, success had probably come too quickly. It was the first real negative of my career and I didn’t have the character to bounce back,” admits Thompson. “I didn’t want it enough.”
Eight years older and wiser, and with a new permanent post this week as PE teacher at Royal School Armagh, he has a much different attitude.
“Anytime is a nice time to be called into the international set-up and with potentially more T20s and ODIs (one-day internationals) on the way for Ireland, and if that is what I am being viewed as (a one-day player), I am delighted to get the opportunity.
“But if these are my only two games next week I will enjoy the ride. I am not going to get caught up or worried about anything. This is the attitude I have taken into this season and probably last year in terms of club form. I enjoy playing, enjoy training, enjoy putting in the hard yards and now enjoying the relative success that has brought.”
Among the possible debutants next week is Josh Little, a fast bowler from the Pembroke club in Dublin who will be 16 years and 309 days old on Monday but Thompson will hang on to the youngest player record – which he took over from current England one-captain Eoin Morgan - by 24 days!
“It will be nice to talk to Josh and I’ll be trying to help him make sure he doesn’t have the same experience as I did. I’ll tell him that if you do get dropped, say ‘that I have enjoyed it, I want more and how can I improve my game to ensure I don’t become a one-cap wonder’ - although I’m sure Josh won’t be – or discarded at the age of 20 which is what happened to me.”
The new soul-mate in his life, wife Stephanie Quinn, who still plays top level hockey for Pegasus, the most successful women’s team in Ulster, suffered a similar experience in her international career - selected for Ireland at 17 and dropped at 21. They met in Edinburgh six years ago, playing hockey for Northern Ireland Universities and were able to compare notes. Can success come too early and easily?
“Nearly all my early caps came under (coach) Adi Birrell,” says Thompson. “I was his pick, a fellow leg spinner and someone who a lot of the guys warmed to. He was a fantastic motivator and leader of men, or boys as I was. But when he left, in 2007, Phil Simmons came in and I was no longer flavour of the month.
That first Irish cap, against the MCC at Limavady, in June 2004, included a visit to hospital after an experience which has put him off fielding close to the batsman for good.
“My memory of the first international was not getting a bowl on the first day and spending the night - well, a few hours of it - in Altnagelvin Hospital,” recalls Thompson. “As the youngest member of the team, I was thrown the helmet and told to field at short leg. Kyle McCallan (ironically, now a team-mate at Waringstown), bowled a dirty long hop which was pulled into my back. I was fairly badly winded and spitting up blood but after a few hours in hospital was sent back to the hotel with a few painkillers and was playing again next morning.
“I was told to go back “under the helmet”, spent two balls there and then said ‘this is not for me’. But I did get a bowl on the second day and took three wickets and one in the second innings and thought I bowled well enough and retained my slot in the multi-day team for most games in the next two-three years.”
His early success as a leg spin bowler won Thompson a contract at Lancashire where, as a teenager, he spent two years, playing mainly 2nd XI cricket.
“My only game for the Firsts was against Bangladesh A, and our team was mainly made up of 2nd XI players, but although it didn’t work out at least I can say I played for Lancashire,” he says.
Either side of his stay his Manchester, when he also got the chance to watch his favourite football team at the other Old Trafford, Thompson was playing his club cricket with Lisburn, but away from the international arena, his sporting success was coming on the hockey field, where he was a member of the all-conquering Lisnagarvey side.
“We won leagues, we won Kirk Cups, we won All-Ireland leagues and that is where I get my hunger for trophies.
In 2013, it also made up his mind to join Waringstown, one of the most successful cricket teams in Northern Ireland. Indeed, it was either that or actually giving up cricket.
“The decision to leave Lisburn was in one way difficult, but in another way easy,” says Thompson. “I’m never going to speak ill of Lisburn, it’s a club I hold in very high esteem, then and now, and while I did enjoy many years at Lisburn, I was quite close to not continuing with cricket.
“I sat down with my parents, who are obviously a very big influence in my sporting career – his father, Ian, was a cup winning captain with Lisburn - and I thought If I’m not enjoying it here, then perhaps a change of scenery is required, and I figure I haven’t looked back since joining Waringstown.
“In my first season at The Lawn we won the Challenge Cup and shared the league title with Instonians and have won trophies every year and if we haven’t been winning trophies, like last Saturday (when they lost in the final of the Irish Cup) we have been at the top end for most if not everything which is what, as a sportsman, I want to do. Just as I did it at Lisnagarvey.
Thompson, who plays golf off a handicap “not worth printing”, still plays hockey at Garvey, but now one level down.
“I stopped playing for the Firsts in December 2014 because of my call-up to the EPP (Emerging Players Programme) set-up in cricket and, balancing work, I’d just got married, something had to give, and I think I made the right decision. If truth be told, Lisnagarvey were bringing in younger, hungrier players plus others to boost a squad which was already full of internationals and I would have had to be fully committed to hold my place. So it was the obvious choice to focus on cricket.
And on Monday he will find out if his commitment to cricket has been rewarded with a long-overdue 15th cap for Ireland.