Monday 19 August 2019

Ger Siggins: 'The players will find it hard to get over the notion that they let slip a glorious opportunity'

Final-day collapse amid perfect bowling conditions tells only half the tale of Ireland's valiant Lord's display

Final-day collapse amid perfect bowling conditions tells only half the tale of Ireland’s valiant Lord’s display. Photo: Matt Impey/Sportsfile
Final-day collapse amid perfect bowling conditions tells only half the tale of Ireland’s valiant Lord’s display. Photo: Matt Impey/Sportsfile

Ger Siggins

In the end Ireland were awoken from their glorious, even surreal dream to find a pair of monsters standing at the end of the bed about to deliver a fatal savaging.

Two days showing the world that Ireland is fully worthy to be playing against the best ended with a 91-minute collapse that would have their critics in the game's old guard saying: "I told you so."

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But that would be grossly unfair, as the circumstances of the fourth innings were entirely outside their control.

Cricket's gentle ecosystem relies on good weather and a true pitch, and any turn in the forecast can play havoc with a match. England got to bat on a day when record temperatures were recorded in London, making hay and piling up a challenging total. Ireland went out to bat around noon on Friday with the floodlights already on and the sky overhead gloomy and damp.

Such conditions are ideal for seam bowlers and England have two of the very best in Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes.

"They would have taken seven or eight wickets this morning against any team in the world," said Alistair Cook, former captain of England.

Ireland's Tim Murtagh. Photo: Matt Impey/Sportsfile
Ireland's Tim Murtagh. Photo: Matt Impey/Sportsfile

Ireland hadn't a chance.

Afterwards they sat stunned in the dressing room for a long time, 11 men alone with their thoughts, knowing there are sleepless nights ahead. They were interrupted by a knock on the door and the arrival of their wives, children, partners and parents. The mood lifted as they shared one of sport's special places with family, who sat out on the balcony, proud of their sons.

The players will find it hard to get over the notion that they let slip a glorious opportunity to beat England at the Home of Cricket, something no nation has ever done in its first Test there.

"The reason we're so gutted is because we put ourselves in the position to win the game," said William Porterfield.

It had all begun so well, with as fine a display of medium pace bowling as you will see. Tim Murtagh is an unlikely destroyer - he came to Test cricket at 36, when most opening bowlers have retired, and bowls at a pace that is held to be meat and drink for Test batsmen.

But Murtagh showed that speed isn't everything with a display of accurate swing bowling that had the English groping to connect with the middle of their bats. He was backed up by Boyd Rankin, who shook off some indifferent recent ODIs to rattle the batsmen with bounce and fire, and by the man who will become one of Ireland's future legends. Mark Adair was a peripheral figure in Irish cricket for several years. He spent five seasons at Warwickshire where he played just a dozen first-team games due to injury and returned home to Holywood and the Northern Knights. Some good interpro and Wolves displays earned him a call-up on the eve of the ODI against England in May and he grabbed the chance with both hands.

Ireland coach Graham Ford has dubbed him 'Beefy', the nickname also worn by Ian Botham back in the 1980s. In a recent book about that decade, fellow England all-rounder Derek Pringle writes about being burdened with the tag of being 'the new Botham', an affliction shared with dozens since but harder on him as Botham was still in the team.

But Ford is a shrewd judge of a player and presumably reckons on the name giving the youngster confidence. Adair certainly puffed his chest out and bounded in from the Pavilion End on Wednesday morning, keen to ensure Murtagh didn't take all the plaudits.

He actually struck first too, bowling Jason Roy with a no-ball, and quickly settled into his game. He showed great skill in making the ball move both ways off the seam and his six wickets - including Joe Root twice - was an excellent return and a feather in the cap of bowling guru Rob Cassell, who has been moulding the next generation of Ireland quicks.

His fellow rookie, James McCollum, also had a game to remember despite scoring just 30 runs. 'The Prince' looked the part, showing the patience and composure lacking in most batsmen of both sides.

Besides Murtagh, it was a forgettable game for the over 30s, and the selectors will be ushering some towards retirement, perhaps kicking and screaming. As has been the case all year, the batting was led by Andrew Balbirnie and Paul Stirling, who manoeuvred Ireland into a first-innings lead approaching 50 when they were both out to excellent deliveries. That set off a middle-order collapse only staved off by Kevin O'Brien.

In the long run that session was crucial. Had Ireland batted into day two, with the sun beating down, they could have stacked up the runs and set England a stiffer target to avoid an innings defeat. As it was, England got the best batting conditions of the game and set Ireland a target that was way beyond them on a murky, damp day.

Woakes and Broad are masters of their craft - just like Murtagh, but with an extra 10 miles per hour in their engines. Much was made of Murtagh's home pitch experience, but Woakes too has delighted in the conditions there and all three of his five-wicket hauls for England have come at Lord's.

It's hard to fault the Ireland batsmen on that final morning, as too many of the deliveries were unplayable. All were in uncharted territory remember, being Ireland's third foray into Test cricket against the nation who invented it and have played 1,011 of them since.

Wisden, the annual almanac that curates cricket's results and records, will forever show the result of this game as 'England won by 143 runs', but there is rarely a more brutally unfair outcome.

In the end, with the floodlights on, Ireland were caught like frightened rabbits. In those moments when sport turns up the heat and forces players to produce their greatest qualities, England's extra experience, and skill, proved decisive in a most brutal manner.

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