Nowhere to hide in searching test of mind and body
MICHAEL ATHERTON captained England through one of their lowest periods, but was widely admired for his steely determination as a batsman. He also was at the centre of one of the most gripping passages of play ever seen. In Nottingham in 1998, in a rearguard action against the fastest bowler in the world, South Africa’s Allan Donald, Atherton was given ‘not out’ when he gloved the ball to the keeper.
He described his reactions in his autobiography, Opening Up: “Donald can’t believe his misfortune and he stands in the middle of the pitch glowering at me, and screaming: ‘You f ***** g cheat!’
“Don’t take a backward step here, body language is important. Keep staring at him, he’s got to turn away first. The moment passes although there’s plenty of abuse flying from behind the stumps. Stay calm now, got to stay composed; there will be plenty of short stuff coming and plenty of abuse too. Don’t react. Stay in your own bubble, this is why they call it Test cricket.”
One of cricket’s many quirks is that it comes in several formats — 20- and 50-over games pack in the crowds and TV audiences but ask any player to name his favourite and he’ll almost certainly answer ‘Test’.
The label is no coincidence. It’s long, can be gruelling and tests the mind and body over five, six, even ten days. Unlike limited-overs games, there are few restrictions on bowlers and patience can be a priceless virtue for batsmen who may go half-an-hour or longer without scoring a run.
Spectators cannot expect a rush of sixes or an exciting finish, but they will see a game intensely fought. There’s nowhere to hide in Tests, and every single player will find his technique and mental strength put under pressure and scrutiny over the five days. And at the end, almost always, the best team wins.
Pakistan have brought a young side — five uncapped players, of whom four are batsmen — but senior players Azhar Ali, Sarfraz Ahmed and Asad Shafiq are hardened Test cricketers. There will also be much interest in Mohammed Amir, the brilliant quick bowler whose career was blighted with a five-year ban for his involvement in a match-fixing scandal.
The dismal weather of the last month means both sides will be undercooked, although Andrew Balbirnie and Niall O’Brien have both made centuries in the past week.
Ireland will certainly score over the visitors on experience — six of the 14man squad will be over 34 by summer’s end — and there has been plenty of talk that Test cricket has arrived too late for the golden generation. The prospect of playing the ultimate format has driven on the likes of Ed Joyce when his body was screaming at him to retire, but no-one will begrudge him a glorious farewell.
He will make another slice of history by joining his younger sister Isobel, who played a Test 18 years ago. They become only the second sister-brother pair to do so, after Australians Terry Alderman and Denise Emerson in the 1980s.
After the failure to qualify for the World Cup it is apparent coach Graham Ford has some rebuilding to do, and although next weekend’s Test is an opportunity for some of those who brought Ireland here to bow out at the pinnacle, Ford is already looking to the future.
His first squad was greeted with incredulity, with one pick from outside the 27 players contracted to Ireland. Tyrone Kane had a good winter in Australia but appears to have been picked for his 2-96 in the interpro and dismissing William Porterfield and Joyce twice in the trial.
The 14 smacks of old-style Big Five selection — leaving aside Niall O’Brien and Tim Murtagh there are four from each union, a poor reflection on the interpros where Leinster have been unchallenged for years. The new selection set-up allows one vote for each provincial coach, plus the chairman, ex-Ireland all-rounder Andrew White of Instonians.
Sadly, it appears provincialism has reared its head with all the toss-up calls going against Leinster players Peter Chase, Barry McCarthy, George Dockrell, Simi Singh and Jack Tector, while the NCU double vote has allowed Instonians James Shannon and Nathan Smith to slip in.
So Irish supporters may need to have their expectations managed. Here’s a few stats showing how new teams cope with Test cricket: South Africa lost their first eight Tests, while India didn’t win one until their 24th. New Zealand didn’t win any of their first 44 Tests, waiting 26 years for that elusive victory. And the most recently-elevated side, Bangladesh, drew three and lost 28 before they won one.
Which means talk of a famous Miracle at Malahide needs to be banished. It will be a great occasion, but victory will not be part of the memories. The weather may be needed to help, but a draw would be a magnificent result, as would a respectable defeat.
Tests can run away from you though — since last summer three have been won by margins of an innings and more than 200 runs, West Indies, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka on the wrong end of thumpings. Even the giants get hammered too — England (by 352 runs) and Australia (495) were both taken apart by South Africa in the past year.
If, after those five long days, Ireland have suffered a similar pounding, the players will be despondent, but they will move on.
Half the team were in the Caribbean in 2007 when Ireland first woke up the world to their potential and began convincing officialdom at home and abroad that they should be given this chance. The 11 men in white can take heart from the fact that it was their own efforts that earned Ireland the chance to be there, joining just 2,913 other men since 1877 who can be called Test cricketers.