Monday 10 December 2018

Momentous Test match must be approached with dose of realism on historic day in Malahide

Ed Joyce at the launch of Ireland’s first Test match. Photo: Sportsfile
Ed Joyce at the launch of Ireland’s first Test match. Photo: Sportsfile

Sam Wheeler

Ireland's first Test cricket match, which begins against Pakistan today, is a cause for celebration, but expectations should be tempered. History and logic are stacked against the Boys in Green (who will, of course, be wearing white, as all teams do in Test cricket).

Stepping up to Test cricket – a status Ireland effectively earned through being the 'best of the rest' over a period of more than a decade, plus a handful of high-profile World Cup scalps – is a daunting task. For a comparison imagine, say, Belgium's rugby team being thrown into the Six Nations. Bangladesh, the last nation to be admitted to the exclusive club before Ireland and Afghanistan were let in last year, took 35 matches to record their first victory. And Bangladesh is a cricket-mad nation of 160 million people.

New Zealand's wait was even longer: 45 games, stretched over 26 years. It took India 24 games to win, Sri Lanka 13.

In fact, only one team has ever won its maiden Test match, and that was Australia, when they beat England in the inaugural official international back in 1877.

Bookies are offering 12/1 on an Ireland victory. That's 12/1 in a two-horse race, when they are playing at home, in a sport where home advantage is a particularly big deal. And Ireland are facing a team missing perhaps its best player (Yasir Shah); this is considered the most workaday Pakistan team in several generations, following the retirements of a host of greats over the last decade or so.

Put simply, though, Pakistan (a country of nearly 200 million, where nearly every sporty kid wants to be a cricketer) still have far better players than Ireland, and they have far more experience of Test cricket – the Ireland squad have one Test cap between them, Boyd Rankin's inglorious appearance for England in the 2013-'14 Ashes.

The home players will be stepping up from either English County Championship Second Division cricket or a lone inter-pro game to a situation they have never encountered before, with unrelenting international quality in the visitors' bowling and batting.

Of the Ireland side, only Rankin, Ed Joyce, Tim Murtagh and maybe Niall O'Brien have career stats in four-day cricket that would put them in serious consideration for a call-up by any other Test side, and all four are in the twilight of their careers.

Optimists will point to Ireland's famous victory over Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup, or the tie at Clontarf in 2013. But those were one-day internationals. In limited-overs cricket, Ireland can beat the big boys if several of their players play out of their skin, they get a bit of luck and the opposition have an off-day.

And even then, taking Bangladesh and Afghanistan out of the equation, Ireland have never beaten a major nation at home since they gained official ODI status in 2006. The last time today's sides met, Pakistan won by 255 runs; that's the equivalent of about 15-0 in soccer.

In Tests, you need to catch the opposition on the hop twice. Test cricket provides a remorseless examination of your technique and your mental strength; it shines an unforgiving spotlight on any discrepancy in ability.

In Test cricket, you can't put 15 men behind the ball and hope to nick it on the counter.

Although five-day cricket used to be derided for the frequency of draws, the proliferation of one-day cricket has altered techniques and mindsets to the point where turgid stalemates are a rarity.

Rain could play a part by removing enough overs to give Ireland a chance of a draw, but equally, damp May conditions tip the balance further in favour of the bowlers: basically, the ball swings more.

Ireland's best hope of a victory is a low-scoring bowlers' shoot-out where Murtagh and Rankin wreak havoc with a boomeranging ball, and a couple of the home batsmen muster fifties amid the carnage – Joyce or the buccaneering Paul Stirling being the most probable candidates, in contrasting styles.

But even then, Pakistan's players have proven their ability in similar conditions in England, and their attack will fancy their chances of running through a brittle Irish battling line-up that has repeatedly failed to post competitive totals against the top sides in recent years.

Ireland's batsmen have all scored runs against the elite teams, just not consistently enough. And not in this particular format of the game, where patience is such a virtue, where interminably slow hundreds win matches, not breezy 30s.

And this is where it counts. There is no trophy on offer, but the stakes are high.

Between World Cups, most limited-overs international cricket is essentially glorified friendlies. No Test match is ever a friendly. If Pakistan lose this, they will be pariahs back home.

In golfing terms, Test cricket is the Majors; it's just that the public prefers to watch the equivalent of crazy golf.

History judges players – and players judge themselves – on what they did in the Majors/Tests.

Most of the Ireland players have been waiting for more than a decade to prove themselves on this stage, and for many, this could be their only chance.

But the likelihood is that for this Ireland side – all but one born on this island, with not a ‘project player' in sight – that has dragged cricket into the public consciousness, there will be no glorious victory, no stirring centuries – just the cold, hard reality of Test cricket.

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