Ian Shields is palpably excited. A painting of a game of cricket in a typical English village green in hand, he wonders: "Will they sign this?" "They" are the Indian cricketers, the painting is by Jim Cooke, an amateur painter and cricketer.
In the year that India celebrates the 150th anniversary of the 1857 War of Independence, here in Ireland, a proud North Down Cricket Club, with a history of players who fought and died in India in the years before Independence, celebrates an equal number of years of its existence. Ironically, if the Indian players do sign that painting, North Down will celebrate.
There is more to the Indian connection. Raman Lamba, the dashing India and Delhi opener who died nine years ago in Dhaka after being struck on the head by a ball while fielding, was a popular pro at the North Down CC. “He played for us for seven years and was a fantastic player and a great chap,” says Shields, who proudly informs you that they opened together. "He was a very popular man here and even married a Belfast girl, Kim."
Lamba remains the best batsman to play for North Down, and a couple other clubs as well. Barry Chambers, who played with him at Ardmore, remember him as a “fantastic player who brought in a sense of professionalism among us amateurs”.
“I remember a match where we had a crowd of 1,500 — the normal count was 50 — just because he was playing,” Chambers adds. “He was the reason cricket became so popular at my club."
Back to North Down. Lamba may have been the best to play for them, but there were others. Thomas Andrews, the man who designed the Titanic, played for them, as did a certain Major Robert Rollo Gillespie. For Indians, this is the other side of the story — there is no nationalistic monopoly on valour.
Gillespie has been immortalised with a statue at a public square here, and a plaque would inform you that the brave man "fell in battle before the force of Kalunga, 24th October 1814". Shields, writing a book on 150 years of North Down, has borrowed Gillespie’s last words as the name of his labour of love: "One shot more for the honour of Down!"
There is more to the club than history — they are rather good at cricket. They have won the Northern Union Cup, which started in 1887, 30 times, and the All-Irish League title three times. In the 2000 junior World Cup in Sri Lanka — won by India — there were four North Down boys in the Irish team, including Shields's son, Peter, and Andrew White, now of the Irish national team.
Shields says that though Lamba’s loss remains a pain that refuses to go away, in Taimur Khan of Pakistan, “we have found another Raman Lamba”. Our man Shields, though, has come back with the painting, neatly autographed by the Indian stars. It went as an amateur work of art but, with the mark of the Indians on it, has returned as a priceless commodity.