Monday 21 October 2019

Ger Siggins: 'Historic Test match can be the launchpad for next generation'

'One novelist compared it to classic Greek theatre, where people came from all over the kingdom to spend a week watching the drama.' Photo: Getty
'One novelist compared it to classic Greek theatre, where people came from all over the kingdom to spend a week watching the drama.' Photo: Getty

Ger Siggins

It's not easy to describe the atmosphere of Lord's and why it holds a special place among the world's great sporting arenas. That five-and-a-half acres in St John's Wood has been played upon for 200 years, and all cricket's greatest exponents have batted and bowled there.

Its architecture is stunning, with a red-bricked Victorian pavilion dominating one end while a modern media centre towers over the Nursery End on stilts. When the ground is full, there's an incessant hubbub as people discuss the game, or share prices, or what's happening on Love Island. Cricket's pacing allows plenty of time for chat, and the long day means you'll invariably be dragged into conversation with your neighbours who may share a hamper of sandwiches or a glass of wine (you can bring your own drink, but no more than one bottle of wine or two cans of beer).

A Lord's Test is a landmark in the English calendar, and spectators travel from outside London, including plenty from Ireland, where 120 members of MCC live. One novelist compared it to classic Greek theatre, where people came from all over the kingdom to spend a week watching the drama. All classes and creeds appear, and much of their time is spent enjoying the excellent eating and drinking facilities.

On Wednesday, July 24, 30,000 will pack in for the sold-out first day of the first England v Ireland Test match. It's going to be like the Ploughing Championship with Pimm's.

There's much else to savour about the ground, although the Pavilion is off-limits to non-members. Do check out the excellent museum, which was the world's first sporting collection, while the library has 170,000 items on the game. There are interesting nooks where people gather during the intervals - the Harris Garden is where Trinity's members will meet up at tea on day one - while the Nursery ground is usually choc-a-bloc with picnickers every lunchtime.

The Tavern Bar is the liveliest, although spectators are notably less raucous during a Test than a one-day game. Check out the extraordinary slope, which falls 2.5 metres from the Grandstand to the Tavern, requiring special skill from bowlers and some adjustment by batters. Happily, one of those who has mastered the slope is Middlesex and Ireland veteran Tim Murtagh, who team-mates say will likely be the first Irish name on the honours boards for those who take five wickets or score a century.

The ECB invitation to Lord's was greeted warmly by Ireland's players and administrators, providing a final cherry on the cake for a ten-year campaign to reach the game's top table.

That the invite is for a four-day match slightly tarnishes it, a bit like having dessert cancelled at a five-course slap-up, but some see this as a blessing given the gulf between the sides. "With a bit of rain, we might get this into a fourth day", said one leading official. "A fifth might have been too much."

Part of the problem is self-inflicted, with Ireland's players likely to be woefully underprepared. Just two three-day interprovincials were scheduled prior to the Test, and rain claimed four of those six days, leaving just 219 red-ball overs for Ireland's home-based players.

William Porterfield faced 56 deliveries, Kevin O'Brien seven, while Gary Wilson and James McCollum never got their pads on. Andrew Balbirnie was so concerned that he asked his old coach, Angus Fraser, could he play a three-day game for Middlesex 2nds just to get some red ball practice.

Paul Stirling was only played twice for Middlesex's championship team and although he made a century last week, the Zimbabwe series has taken him out of three county fixtures.

England have no such problems, as Stirling explains: "The players who haven't been playing in the World Cup will be so fresh, but they're back playing championship now so they'll be in good rhythm. We'll have a struggle to get up to some sort of match fitness."

Balbirnie says the team are frustrated by the lack of fixtures but says "We're putting in the work outside matches".

He's most looking forward to having his family around - "My parents and my brothers, Harry and Jack, will be there for the first time at a Test together, which will be special" - but also says he's "relishing the chance to play against Jimmy Anderson, and challenge myself against one of the best bowlers that's ever played the game. I'll be able to go out and enjoy it, even though I'll be underprepared."

It's not being spoken aloud, but it could well be the final international outing for several players. The inaugural Test at Malahide last summer heralded the end of Ed Joyce's 21-year career and, soon after, Niall O'Brien's 16 years in green.

The nature of Ireland's rise meant players who had committed a lifetime to the game were reluctant to step away before the promised land was reached. Now, the cold realisation that their days are numbered has reached some players - and those who select them - you can expect a few more retirements this summer.

The impending T20 qualifier has opened selectorial minds to a raft of aggressive youngsters who last week tasted a series victory over Zimbabwe.

A new international calendar kicks off shortly with a World Test Championship in which every match and series counts, and a 13-team ODI league which will act as a "qualification pathway" to the 2023 World Cup.

In 2020, Ireland will play a minimum of 54 days, more if they qualify for the World T20.

That includes four Tests, and visits from Bangladesh, New Zealand, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as a three-ODI series in England in September.

Cricket Ireland will want to avoid a humiliating defeat, but as one of the last games that won't count towards the ICC tables, it's a good time to experiment.

England will be trying a few things ahead of the Ashes, perhaps road-testing two new opening batsmen. Ireland's next generation has shown it has the talent, and can play exciting, effective cricket. Give youth a chance.

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