Strabane's Peter Gillespie thrilled by Cricket Ireland Hall of Fame honour
There won’t be many North West cricketers asked to stay on at international level by a legendary West Indian all rounder but, then again, Peter Gillespie is not your average cricketer.
Strabane legend Gillespie had planned to retire following a memorable display in Ireland’s unforgettable 2007 World Cup campaign in the West Indies but delayed it until later that summer when even the interjection of a certain Phil Simmons couldn’t convince him to prolong a glittering career.
The 46-year-old won every honour in Irish cricket with his beloved Red Caps and still holds the Irish record for the fastest century after smashing a six off the his final ball to finish on 102 not out against the MCC at Upritchard Park, Bangor back in 2005.
While today marks the 10th anniversary of Ireland’s win over England at the World Cup of 2011, where Kevin O'Brien scored the quickest century in World Cup history, the Strabane man still holds the record of scoring the fastest ton for his country. His 102 remains the quickest hundred made for Ireland both in terms of balls faced (47) and minutes batted (50).
“I was part of so many firsts and that was brilliant,” reflects the former Irish International after being inducted into the Cricket Writers’ of Ireland Hall of Fame at Friday’s ITW Sports Irish Cricket Awards.
“Being able to defeat our first county team in Middlesex and then backing that up by beating Surrey before defeating a full West Indies team at Stormont. Defeating Zimbabwe, playing in Ireland’s first one day international against England at Stormont, being the first North West player to reach 100 caps and that fastest hundred - there are so many fantastic moments I can look back on thanks to cricket.
“In fact I remember when I passed Ossie Colhoun’s record which he had held for years as the most capped cricketer from the North West. Ossie had retired a long time before I even started playing cricket but when I passed his tally he sent me a lovely card to congratulation me and said he was glad somebody from the North West had eventually passed him. He said to make sure that I kept going. It was a lovely touch.”
An ardent Liverpool FC fan, Gillespie admits he feared a similar fate to legendary Reds skipper, Steven Gerrard, as his own club career drew to a close without that Premier League title for Strabane. He need not have worried though as titles proved like buses, once one arrived more soon followed as Strabane claimed the top flight honour in 2009 (tied winners with Limavady) and again in 2010 and 2014.
“It was nice to win everything. There was a bit of sweat towards the end as to whether I was going to do a ‘Stevey G’ but thankfully I avoided that banana skin,” he laughs.
“The All Ireland success was special because of the group of players we had at that time and then to win the league towards the back end of my career and end up with three league titles, that’s special but I was very fortunate.”
Modest Gillespie claims he was simply in the right place at the right time as regards his international career and praised former Ireland coaches, Mike Hendrick and Adi Birrell, whom he credits for much of the success.
“People often ask if playing at the World Cup was the pinnacle of my career and while the World Cup was amazing, and in a way has to a pinnacle for that generation of players, it’s hard to say it was for me because it wasn’t the end and we have done so much,” he explains.
“I only played one World Cup match so the World Cup was the pinnacle for that group but it’s hard to say it was my pinnacle because it came at the end of 120 odd caps and that was a journey in itself.
“My first cap was amazing. Back in those days if you wanted to play your annual two day match at Lord’s, you started by playing the Duchess of Norfolk XI at Arundel Castle so I rocked up at Arundel Castle, one of the most picturesque grounds in England, to make my debut and the next day I’m at Lord’s running to bowl at the Nursery End. It was mind blowing.
“My father (Paddy), mother (Mary) and brothers, Michael and Mark, all came over to watch and to see them up the stands in Lord’s was surreal.
“Irish cricket was moving in a new direction and they were looking for youth so for me to put in a few performances at the right time was great. I got in at the start of a journey when Ireland were looking to change things.
“Alan Lewis was captain and they were building towards the next World Cup qualifying tournament in Kuala Lumpur, around 1997. They were looking to go in a new direction so on the day I made my debut, Jason Molins and Ryan Eagleson also made theirs. Ireland had three new caps on one day and I was the oldest at 21. Mike (Hendrick) was setting out his stall and putting his faith in youth to make the team a bit more dynamic and more professional and that’s not any disrespect to some great players who had played before then.
“There were some great Ireland teams before the ‘90s but Mike had his own ideas and I was there at the right time when he was looking to change things. I was a main beneficiary of that, especially under his regime, because I got in as all rounder.
“I almost had two international careers because toward the end of Mike’s stint as manager, I was starting to have some issues with my back and was unable to sustain bowling at international level. I lost my place around 2000/01 when the team went to Toronto for the World Cup qualifying campaign because I wasn’t bowling anymore.
“That was a bit of a disaster of a tournament and benefitted me by not being there because Ken Rutherford was sacked and the team had to change again so I got back in, this time as a batsman. For that ‘second half’ of my career Adi Birrell came in and identified a role for me as a middle order batsman.
“He had a plan and saw where I could fit into that plan. That meant I was able to almost reinvent myself.”
Birrell took Ireland to new levels and his appointment also saw Gillespie rekindle his international form.
“We have been very, very lucky from Hendrick, Rutherford, Birrell and Simmo (Phil Simmons), three out of the first four full time coaches kept taking Ireland on an upward curve and that coincided with fantastic youth policies which the unions had,” he said.
“Each team kept getting better than the one before. It was amazing to be apart of because I was apart of two eras with Hendrick and Birrell and to see that right through from 1995 to 2007 was such an amazing journey.
“I had grown up watching English cricket but West Indian cricket had such an appeal on TV. It was fantastic, exciting, dynamic. They played big shots, they had big fast bowlers and they were athletic in the field. I had been to Barbados before and already had a love for the Caribbean so for the 2007 World Cup to be in the West Indies was the icing on the cake.
“We started in Trinidad, moved to Jamaica and then once we qualified for the Super 8s it was Guyana, back to Barbados and then Grenada. It rolls off the tongue now, but it really was an unreal experience. Being able to play in front of the West Indian support in Jamaica was amazing, the tie game against Zimbabwe, the St Paddy’s Day win over Pakistan, they were all fantastic. The one everyone remembers is beating Pakistan but beating Bangladesh in Barbados, and playing Australia in Barbados, those games were unbelievable.
“The Bangladesh match in Barbados was supposed to be India versus Pakistan so there were still a lot of India and Pakistan fans in Barbados and they were a phenomenal crowd. The atmosphere was fantastic and we got a hell of a lot of the local support. That game sometimes goes under the radar but that was a phenomenal game.
“We actually went into that game knowing we were going to beat Bangladesh, there was such a belief in the team. There was no more ‘We can give them a game’, we all went into that game fully confident of winning. The atmosphere in the dressing room made you feel 10 feet tall.
“Once the tournament was over, it was the most satisfying victory because we had the belief from the get go and we executed all our plans. It wasn’t a surprise victory. We carried on from beating the West Indies in Stormont, from beating Zimbabwe by 10 wickets - that was us saying, ‘This is where we are and this is what we can do’.
“By the time we got to Grenada to play Sri Lanka we were absolutely wrecked as it was alien to a lot of players to be away on tour that long. It was Adi's last match and it was supposed to be my last match. Me and Paul Mooney was supposed to retire but I had lost my place in the middle order and only played one World Cup game so I started to have second thoughts as it wasn’t the way I wanted to retire so I hung in there.
“Simmo was the coach then and he put me straight into the middle order again but I knew I wasn’t going to play the whole summer. I knew there were important qualifiers coming up in the next year so it was probably best to give someone else a chance.
“I actually retired before the series against South African and India, two teams I had never played before. The chance to play India in Belfast, not a lot of people would pass that up but while ‘Simmo’ had asked me to consider staying, it was nice to go out with such a great coach still wanting you there.”
Looking ahead, Gillespie, who is now coaching at U15 level, believes the future for both North West and Irish cricket is in safe hands.
“I definitely believe the talent in the North West is there and we now have a path way into the Irish senior ranks so the future is bright,” he adds.
“The North West have always had a good reputation in terms of players playing for Ireland with the likes of Decker (Curry), Gordon Cooke, Nigel Thompson, Junior McBrine and Stephen Smyth and there is a new generation coming to take on the mantle. With every generation you hope they can go on to bigger and better things than what you did.”
Gillespie says he’s enjoying his retirement and spending more time with his family after finally hanging up his whites last season.
“I have enjoyed being able to spend more time with the family as Ciara and the kids, Abaigh and Ruairi, have a made a lot of sacrifices to watch me play club cricket, Ciara even more so when I was playing international cricket.”
The Strabane all rounder was honoured to become the third North West man to go into the Cricket Writers’ of Ireland Hall of Fame, joining Ossie Colhoun and the late great Roy Torrens.
"I was honoured and flabbergasted and it's a huge honour," he admitted.
"You never think if you are 46 years of age you are a hall of famer, as you always associate it with maybe somebody a wee bit older should get it, so to get it this young is an absolute honour and while I know it was part of the Cricket Ireland awards, but to come from the cricket writers is very special as well because I have always felt that we had a good relationship with the press.
"Back when I played international cricket access to players was a lot freer than what it maybe is nowadays, so you got to build up fantastic relationships with the likes of Eamonn McLaughlin (Highland Radio), Barry Chambers (Cricket Ireland) and Lawrence Moore (Derry Journal & NWCU) locally and then the likes of Ger Siggins and Ian Callender, who fair play to them, they followed you all around the world sometimes to watch cricket matches and you were able to build up great relationships with all the guys.
"They were always trying to promote Irish cricket and write positives stories, even if you did have a bad day, yes they reported what they had to report on, but they were still very kind and you appreciated that, even the likes of Robin Walsh and David Townsend were a fantastic vehicle for what we were trying to do at the time and you seen that, so to get the award from the cricket writers is very special I have to say."