Porterfield believes his troops can upset odds
Most international sportsmen spent their formative years dominating their less talented peers, but William Porterfield had it a bit tougher when he was starting out: his first games of competitive cricket were played as a nine-year-old, against adults.
Killyclooney CC, the local cricket club in Tyrone that his father and grandfather helped set up in the mid-1980s, didn't have an underage section, so he had to try his luck with the grown-ups.
"I would go along every Saturday with my dad and if somebody didn't turn up, I'd get a game," recalls the Ireland captain. "That's how I started. I just rocked up in my whites, hoping someone had to work and couldn't play. I was nine or 10; I had to wear keeping pads (instead of proper batting pads), and I was still tripping over them. Opponents probably took it a bit easy on me."
Despite the challenging circumstances, Porterfield must have impressed, because he was soon involved with the North West under 11s, then the Ireland under 13s, a year early. By then, he had switched to Donemana, who had an underage set-up, although he continued playing against men as well. The farm where he was raised is in the cricketing heartland around the Tyrone-Derry border, an area that also produced fast bowler Boyd Rankin.
"I started pretty much as soon as I can remember," the 33-year-old recalls of his early days. "Very much the summer sport for ourselves was cricket - there are a lot of clubs in the catchment area. Every night of the week you'd be down the cricket club, playing away and running around. Then on a Saturday evening when the (men's) game finished, there'd be 20-30 kids waiting to go onto the pitch and play afterwards. That's what it was like growing up in the north-west."
It's mostly the Protestant community that plays, although Porterfield says that when he was at Strabane Grammar School, they played a couple of fixtures against St Colman's, the neighbouring Catholic school (now amalgamated into Holy Cross).
The demographics of the game were not a major concern for the teenage Porterfield, who had already set his sights on a career in cricket, having played annual international tournaments with the Ireland underage sides.
"It was a dream, although I probably wouldn't have felt it was tangible," he says. "I went to a net session when I was 16 and Ed Joyce was there, back from Middlesex. I remember thinking he was unbelievable, that's where you want to be, 'I want to play county cricket, want to be a professional'. But I didn't really have the self-belief then."
Still, "within a week" of finishing school, Porterfield moved to England to take up a place on the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club) Young Cricketers academy, based at Lord's, and continued with them through his PE degree at Leeds Met University. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Ian Botham sounds impressive, but Porterfield's career across the water was a bit of a slow-burner, with a couple of county second XI matches yielding little reward. Still, in 2006 he broke into an Ireland team that was making huge strides, and a match-winning 85 against Bangladesh at the 2007 World Cup was one of a number of high scores that earned him a contract with Gloucestershire. At that time, though, Test cricket seemed a long way away.
"It was always something you wanted to play, but at the time it was all one-day cricket," says Porterfield. "We'd just got ODI status around the time I started playing; I remember we played England (in 2006), and that was a big thing then. I was 12th man. It's come on a long way since. Test cricket was always talked about, and a lot of things have gone on, on and off the pitch, to make that happen."
People with a casual interest in the sport might wonder what it is about Test cricket that makes aficionados consider it so special. After all, with no tangible prize at stake, is the match against Pakistan any more than a particularly long-winded friendly? Test cricket, though, is the arena in which the best cricketers have been judged for well over a century; Twenty20 franchises inflate bank balances, but Test matches make reputations. To millions of cricket lovers, and players, every Test, regardless of context, is sacrosanct, another sliver of the history of the game being created.
"A bit of it is in the name," says Porterfield. "It's the ultimate test of everything, the mental side, your technique, your ability as a cricketer - that's why it's still classed as the pinnacle of the game, as much as T20 has taken over."
Across the water, Porterfield, though, was increasingly seen as a white-ball specialist; having moved from Gloucestershire to Warwickshire in 2010 after three promising seasons in Bristol, his red-ball form fell away to the extent that he was dropped from the county championship side, before being released last year. His overall first-class average is a modest 30.67 - Joyce's, by contrast, is 48.28 (anything over 45 is regarded as top-drawer).
All the while, though, he has kept delivering for Ireland, in all forms of the game. Captain for a decade, he is the leading scorer in Irish history in ODI and T20 cricket, and has hit four ODI centuries since the start of last year. In the past, he has hit hundreds against England and Pakistan; most of his Ireland team-mates have also delivered against the world's best sides at one time or another; few have been able to do it on a consistent basis, and not many of them have played much red-ball cricket at all in recent years, but there is enough there to give their skipper encouragement that Ireland can upset the odds this week.
"It's in Ireland, it's in May, so it's in our own conditions . . . historically, when sub-continental teams come to conditions like those, it has taken them a bit of time to adjust," he says. "We have a lot of experience in the squad of county cricket; we've played a lot of four-day cricket. We've all played with and against a lot of Test cricketers. Now, instead of being up against maybe two Test cricketers, you've got six batters that are all of that standard, and four or five bowlers. That means you've got to be on your game all the time.
"You face Test bowlers in championship games in England, and in white-ball cricket. The biggest difference I found is that they are just a bit more relentless, they don't give you as many bad balls. Scoring opportunities are few and far between; you've got to be ready to capitalise when they miss that length. It's the same when you're bowling against top players: they put you under a lot of pressure; you don't have any margin for error. But all our batsmen have scored runs against those attacks, and all our bowlers have taken wickets against those batters."
After a busy winter of ODI cricket, including an unsuccessful World Cup qualifying campaign, Ireland's players have to adjust to a much longer format, with minimal match practice: only Paul Stirling, Tim Murtagh and Gary Wilson have been playing county cricket; the rest, including Porterfield, who was dismissed for two, played an inter-pro warm-up at the start of last week.
"Focus has shifted to the red ball since we've been back after the winter," says the skipper. "It's a matter of changing your mindset, knowing what areas you want to score in."
Since leaving Warwickshire, Porterfield has moved to Widnes, to live with his partner. He has joined Formby CC, possibly with a view to a player-coach role - it is not uncommon for internationals to play league cricket in the north of England - and will commute back and forth to Ireland for inter-pros and training. He hasn't been back to the north-west much in recent years. Both his parents and two of his sisters have moved to Scotland so he is looking forward to going home for some inter-pros. And he has sensed some other parts of the island catching up with his home place in terms of interest in cricket.
"Over the years, it's grown a hell of a lot," he says. "Taxi drivers in Dublin want to talk about games. When I started, they wouldn't have known much about the sport. A lot of people know a hell of a lot more about cricket than they used to."
And that interest will mushroom if Porterfield and his men can shock the world by becoming the first team since Australia in 1877 to win their maiden Test.
Sunday Indo Sport