Friday, July 06, 2007

Why Beefy was the Bogside hero

Martin McGuinness has been harbouring a secret for many years. While he was fighting for the end of British rule in Northern Ireland, he was quietly but passionately following one of the most colonial sports of all - cricket.

He wasn't alone. 'I know for a fact that there are many closet cricket fans among the nationalist community,' he says at the Parliament Buildings at Stormont, Belfast, where he now serves as Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister. The Ireland team's good form at the World Cup led to his own 'outing' as a fan. 'My wife came downstairs in her dressing gown and found me in front of the television.'

At the height of the Troubles, McGuinness's imagination was captured by a particular favourite. 'We had all heard of Ian Botham and followed his career closely. He and Freddie Trueman stand out in my memory as great players,' he says. How the staunchly patriotic and newly knighted Botham would feel about the support of a former Irish dissident is open to question.

Growing up in the Catholic Bogside area of Derry, McGuinness's opportunities for playing the game were limited. 'We would play on a field above our house with stumps, a bat and a tennis ball. We never had a proper cricket ball. I was useless.'

He believes the Ireland cricket team, which shone at the World Cup and is selected from the whole island, could be a model for football. 'We're better when we're together,' he says. 'Our cricketers and rugby players have shown how powerful we can be when we are united.'