Keeping on an even keel through troubled waters
Andrew Balbirnie's Test voyage didn't enjoy the smoothest launch
A pair on your Test debut. You grow up dreaming of playing Test cricket. Ireland's maiden Test, in your home city, May 2018. You're the up-and-coming star of the side, aged 27, with two one-day international centuries under your belt that year.
You're batting No 3 - the pivotal position. First innings. You're in early. Eighth ball; you've just survived a close-call for a run-out, attempting a single that wasn't there. Mohammad Abbas deceives you with an in-swinger. Rapped on the pads. Pretty plumb. Umpire's finger goes up. Out for a duck.
Second chance. Second innings, following on. This time, there's a decent platform laid - 69-1. You appear reasonably composed, negotiate your first three balls without alarm. But then Abbas nips one back off the seam. Plumb in front again. Finger up. You're a statistic: the 44th player to make a pair on Test debut. But most of your predecessors on that list of shame have been bowlers (a handful of greats in there: Alf Valentine, Allan Donald, Lasith Malinga) - men who could contribute in other ways. But your job is to score runs. And if you score no runs, how well have you done your job?
All batsmen are most vulnerable early in their innings. Even Donald Bradman made seven Test ducks. But a pair stands out. Especially on debut. It'd make you doubt whether you are good enough.
Andrew Balbirnie admits that he was haunted for 10 months. Even when he was succeeding in other forms of cricket, on the international stage, those twin zeros were at the back of his mind, a monkey on his back that could only be dislodged by a first Test run. And Ireland did not play another Test until March 2019. How do you block out that pair in the intervening 10 months?
"You don't. Well, I couldn't. I wasn't able to block it," Balbirnie concedes. "Even when we arrived in India (for a multi-format series against Afghanistan, who for security reasons do not host matches in their homeland), we had three T20s and five ODIs first, but all I could think about was, how am I going to get a single in that Test match?
"It was so hard: you dream of playing Test cricket. You're at home, in front of everyone . . . you feel you've let everyone down. I had a good chat with the team psychologist Anne Marie (Kennedy) after the Test match - I was probably high priority.
"It sat with me till the next Test. I was playing ODI cricket, doing quite well, but at the back of my head it was 'you've played one Test match, you haven't even got a run'. And for nearly a year, you couldn't redeem yourself."
Balbirnie was helped by the emotional support of his partner Kate and his father Ashley, a man with little cricket background, but who dug through the records and kept listing players who suffered a pair on debut but prospered - in among the tail-enders and long-forgottens, they include Graham Gooch, Dean Elgar, Saeed Anwar and Marvan Atapattu, who all went on to score mountains of Test runs.
"Every dinner time he would come up with a different name. I was like, 'please can we stop this?'," smiles Balbirnie. "But he's been great. Very reassuring. Wise words. You've got to surround yourself with good people, and luckily I've got great people. You get the odd comment, said tongue in cheek, and it hurts you a bit, but you get on with it."
Finally, the time came when he could do something about his Test record.
"When I got an edge that went through the slips, I nearly did my neck from turning round to make sure (it wasn't caught). That first innings, we were 90-9, it was a disaster, but there was a feeling of kind of, it's done and dusted, you've got your run, you're up and running, go out and play, crack on, you can do it."
Balbirnie knows he shouldn't have had that outlook. Edging a streaky boundary and then getting out for four should not be a source of relief. He should not have anything in his mind apart from the next ball. The best batsmen, and sportsmen in general, have generally either been ice-men who can block out the pressure, or free spirits who are oblivious to pressure. Balbirnie seems to fit neither category. But just as they say the bravest people are not those who feel no fear, but those who are affected by fear yet conquer it, there is something particularly admirable about the way the Dubliner responded to his pair.
He averaged 60 in the Inter-pro series, the only first-class (multi-day) cricket he played between the Tests - something he feels needs to change. In his seven ODI innings since the Pakistan Test - all against Afghanistan, such is Ireland's lop-sided fixture list, he has passed 50 four times, including a match-winning 145 not out in March. And then came the performance you sense matters most to him: 82 in the second innings of the Afghan Test. And in case anyone scoffs at runs scored against Afghanistan, their attack includes the number three- and number nine-ranked ODI bowlers in the world in Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman. Shane Warne has tipped them as "legitimate contenders" for the forthcoming World Cup, a (shamefully) trimmed-back tournament for which Ireland did not qualify.
"I'd shown kind of glimpses of what I can do, which is great, but I want to be consistent, I want to be the man; I'm the No 3 batsman, so I see myself as that guy who can win games for Ireland," Balbirnie says of his exploits across the various formats in India.
"It was great in that second innings to get a score, but I was disappointed I didn't get a big hundred, that was an opportunity. It's more disappointing in some ways to make 80 than zero; don't get me wrong, if I'd got another pair in that game, I don't think I would have come home, or I would have walked home. But 80 is frustrating: you've done the hard work, it becomes easier. And Afghanistan are a different team when they get a new batsman in - 'fresh meat'. It's hard coming in against their mystery spinners."
Balbirnie worked out a method of scoring against Rashid and Mujeeb, based in part on countless hours spent poring over footage of them bowling. Now after nine games across three formats on Indian dustbowls facing top-class spinners, comes the very different challenge of taking on seamers on early-season Irish wickets, firstly in Friday's one-off ODI against England at Malahide, then the tri-nations series with West Indies and Bangladesh and a series against Zimbabwe. Then there's the Test match at Lord's in July. It's an unprecedentedly busy summer of international cricket for the Irish squad, a result of their ascent to 'full member' status.
"I'd be lying if I said the Lord's Test isn't going to be a highlight, but for the moment, I'm just thinking about the Malahide game," says Balbirnie, who spent a year on the Lord's groundstaff - a renowned academy - and then a couple of seasons with Middlesex, who play at the hallowed North London ground. "It will be great playing a Test there, but we have so much cricket before that. It'll help take our minds off the World Cup, which still hurts."
Ireland will be underdogs in most of these matches, having fallen away from their pinnacle of 2007-15. Balbirnie established himself in the side at the 2015 World Cup - having had a bit of a false start as a teenager in 2010 - as Ireland won three games in the group stages. Since then, there have been few notable victories, although Ireland impressed in defeat in their maiden Test, and a tied ODI series away to Afghanistan was a laudable achievement.
Ireland have missed the retired likes of Ed Joyce, Niall O'Brien, Trent Johnston and John Mooney, and Balbirnie - who hit a match-winning hundred last week for Leinster Lightning in the inter-pro one-dayers - knows the onus is on him to step up and be the main man.
"I've always said I want to be the best batsman to have played for Ireland, and the bar is set high," he says. "I learnt a lot from Ed, about the hunger he had for scoring runs. That's your job. If you ask someone how their day at work was, and they go 'yeah, it was fine', you believe them, but you can always see how a batsman's day at work was. It's taken me a while, but I've learned that you can't get too high when you do well, and you can't get too low when you do badly."
Sunday Indo Sport