Saturday 17 August 2019

Ireland must look to future as they reach promised land

Tim Murtagh is looking forward to what promises to be a special week for Irish cricket at Lord’s. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Tim Murtagh is looking forward to what promises to be a special week for Irish cricket at Lord’s. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Ger Siggins

Ireland's ascent to Test cricket was a lot like one of those mountaineering challenges. Some of the slips could have proved disastrous, even fatal, but on they trudged towards their target.

And for all the delight at playing Pakistan at Malahide, or Afghanistan in Dehradun, those milestones seemed like false summits - once reached you looked up and saw there was still a distance to climb.

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That feeling will be finally dispelled on Wednesday morning at about 10.55am when a distinguished former Ireland international will ring the bell just outside the Bowlers' Bar in the Lord's Pavilion to signal the teams to take the field.

There's no need for a banner announcing 'This is Lord's' as the players walk out, they will all be fully aware that they are at the Home of Cricket. And that's as good as it gets. They've reached the summit.

Advance ticket sales are brisk and a large travelling contingent will enhance the occasion, making Cricket Ireland wistfully wonder just how to get them to travel to Malahide.

Supporters and players alike will broil in temperatures expected to reach the mid-30s during the week, but the coolest man on the ground will be taking the new ball.

"It's a ground that I know well and it's a special place to play whether you're playing a Championship game for your county or a Test match," said Tim Murtagh. "The week's going to be really special for everyone, but especially for me I guess."

The Middlesex man took the 800th first-class wicket of his career last week, and his local knowledge will be vital on a ground with an alarming 2.5 metre slope from the Grandstand down to the Tavern.

Ireland's first two Tests have seen similar uphill struggles, mainly down to a failure to make 200 in the first innings - meaning they have given up first innings leads of 180 and 142.

"In Test cricket first innings runs are crucial," notes Murtagh. "They're massive no matter where in the world you are. You're always going to be chasing the game if you don't get a good first innings score."

A score over 250 would represent success for Ireland, and their hopes of doing so were improved by the news that James Anderson has still not recovered from a calf injury. The former World No 1 bowler is in England's squad and may play on the understanding he bowls fewer overs than usual.

He teams up with Stuart Broad again, and the pair have a combined 274 caps in Tests, compared to 17 between the whole Irish squad. That gulf is understandable of course, although several of Graham Ford's squad have plenty of experience of English conditions.

In the middle of this decade Ireland had eight or nine players playing county cricket week in, week out. Now, just Paul Stirling and Murtagh get any sort of quality four-day cricket. Just two three-day games were scheduled before the Test in the Inter-Provincial Championship, but weather wiped out almost four days of that.

That left the players scrambling around for red-ball practice, which was provided this week by the Middlesex 2nd XI. The fixture was also cut short by rain, although there may be some significance that Craig Young bowled more overs, with more success, than anyone else.

The big Bready bowler has had a difficult career, with injury ruining his four years with Sussex and his Ireland career appearing to fade. Eyebrows were even raised in the north-west when he received a central contract this year but his action has been remodelled and he bowled with renewed fire against Scotland A and took 4-29 on Thursday.

It would be a huge call to give him his debut this week, but Ford has shown a willingness to make changes. Whether he makes changes in a batting unit that over-relies on Stirling and Andrew Balbirnie is less likely. The others are seriously under-prepared in red-ball games, with William Porterfield facing 56 balls, Kevin O'Brien seven, and Gary Wilson and James McCollum not even one.

After over a decade with English counties, Porterfield, Wilson and bowler Boyd Rankin clearly miss playing and practising on high-class pitches every day and it shows in their 2019 performances. Porterfield's captaincy is secure for the moment but he shows great loyalty to those he came up with through thick and thin - to the increasing detriment of the side.

It really is hard to understand his insistence on keeping Wilson in the team, given his declining form from a not-very-high base. For a specialist batsman to have scored just one century in 276 caps beggars belief, but his recent record shows why Ireland need to look to the future as soon as possible. The CSNI man has batted 36 times since he made a 50 in any class of cricket, while it is five years since he made a first-class century.

Lorcan Tucker will take his gloves in time but may have to wait a little longer.

England are more inclined to experiment, with the following Ashes series far higher priority for coach Trevor Bayliss and captain Joe Root. They are expected to give debuts to World Cup hero Jason Roy and all-rounder Lewis Gregory, with another uncapped seamer, Olly Stone, cover for Anderson.

The bookies are offering 25-1, but real success for Ireland would be a first innings score over 275 and being competitive enough to take the game into the final day.

TEAMS FOR LORD’S TEST MATCH

IRELAND (test caps in brackets): William Porterfield (capt, 2), Mark Adair (0), Andrew Balbirnie (2), Andy McBrine (1), James McCollum (1), Tim Murtagh (2), Kevin O'Brien (2), Boyd Rankin (1, plus 1 for England), Paul Stirling (2), Simi Singh (0), Stuart Thompson (2), Lorcan Tucker (0), Gary Wilson (1), Craig Young (0).

ENGLAND: Joe Root (capt, 80), Moeen Ali (58), James Anderson (148), Jonny Bairstow (63), Stuart Broad (126), Rory Burns (6), Sam Curran (9), Joe Denly (2), Lewis Gregory (0), Jack Leach (4), Jason Roy (0), Olly Stone (0), Chris Woakes (26).

Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak), Ruchira Palliyaguruge (SL)

TV: Sky Sports Cricket and Main Event

Radio: BBC 5Live Extra, BBC 4LW

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