Tuesday 20 August 2019

Ireland need to nurture their green shoots of potential

Current crop a long way off golden era as they face first Test match against England

Leading the way: Captain William Porterfield (left) and Paul Stirling will once again be to the fore when Ireland take on England at Lord's this week. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Leading the way: Captain William Porterfield (left) and Paul Stirling will once again be to the fore when Ireland take on England at Lord's this week. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

David Townsend

It will be a great occasion: the dark stuff will flow, great swathes of north-west London will turn green for a few days and Larry Leprechaun will be in his pomp. But will the inaugural Test match between England and Ireland at Lord's this week be anything of a contest?

Sure, Tim Murtagh will plough his productive furrow at the Nursery End, where he has taken so many wickets for Middlesex; county team-mate Paul Stirling is in the form of his life in one-day cricket and may well show his first-class credentials and, of course, there is Kevin O'Brien.

Boyd Rankin. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Boyd Rankin. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

England will never forget that famous night in 2011 when Ireland improbably chased down 327 in Bangalore, with the younger O'Brien scoring a century off 50 balls - both remain World Cup records for the highest successful chase and fastest hundred, after two more editions of the tournament.

If those sides had played a Test that following summer it would certainly have been a contest, not least because Ireland had Trent Johnston and John Mooney, two of the great warriors; men who were never beaten.

The current crop of Boys in Green do not inspire quite the same hope, never mind confidence. Not yet at least. Painful as it is to say, in anything more than a whisper, the class of 2019 may not be much better than the Scottish side who beat England in Edinburgh last year.

There are green shoots of hope, though. Pembroke pair Lorcan Tucker and Josh Little have impressed in one-day internationals this season, opener James McCollum has what it takes and all-rounder Mark Adair has been outstanding - but all four are undercooked, Little isn't in the Test squad and only two of the others are likely to play at Lord's.

So, when William Porterfield leads his team through the Long Room and out on to the famous green sward, older Ireland supporters may narrow their eyes and imagine him followed by Ed Joyce, Niall O'Brien, Johnston and Mooney, as he was in 2011, and perhaps Kyle McCallan and Andre Botha, who had retired a couple of years before.

With Boyd Rankin in his prime, that would have been some team. Instead, because the ICC moves so slowly to grant Test match status (there were only 10 Full Members before the elevation of Ireland and Afghanistan in 2017) the golden generation have slipped into their golden years and a new wave of Boys in Green are trying to fill very big boots.

It's disappointing that the ICC structure is so rigid, with prospective Full Members having to back up their on-field performances with a long checklist of management criteria and corporate governance to demonstrate a viable 'cricketing economy'.

Also, when Test status is finally bestowed, it is bestowed for ever. No matter how far Ireland's performances slip, and rivals like Scotland and the Netherlands improve, it cannot be removed.

Why is this? Why is it not possible that the best of the non-Test playing countries replace the worst on, say, a four-year cycle? If the emphasis was on meritocracy, then Ireland would have been playing Tests a decade ago in place of Zimbabwe, and may now have lost that right to Afghanistan.

Surely a more flexible system is needed; one that enables talent from anywhere in the world to rise to the very top, and rise quickly, as it can in one-day cricket.

It's wrong that the great Kenya side that reached the World Cup semi-finals in 2003 never played a Test, and a crime that McCallan, Johnston and Mooney won't be able to show their grandkids a cap.

Test cricket is the pinnacle of the sport and there should be a clear pathway to playing it for any group that are good enough, but as things stand we can only dream of a time machine delivering the recent Ireland greats to St John's Wood on Wednesday morning, in peak condition.

Chairman of selectors Andrew White would have some job on his hands if he could call on all those he has played with or against during his long career, not least whether to play himself.

If modesty prevailed, here is the line-up he might settle on, with Alan Lewis and Eoin Morgan battling it out for the final spot at No 3, and John Mooney as 12th man: Porterfield (c), Stirling, Morgan or Lewis, Joyce, Botha, Niall O'Brien (wk), Kevin O'Brien, McCallan, Johnston, Rankin, Murtagh.

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