Proud Ir­ish crick­eters in dream­land

Bowlers get off to fly­ing start in his­toric first Test be­fore Pak­istan mount re­cov­ery

The Observer - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - Andy Bull

The Ir­ish cricket com­mu­nity is small but also proud and en­thu­si­as­tic

Soon after 10am, the Ir­ish play­ers gath­ered on the out­field while the chair of se­lec­tors, An­drew White, set down a scruffy card­board box full of hand­some new caps. He handed them out one by one, the first to cap­tain Wil­liam Porter­field, then the rest in al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der, Andy Bal­birnie, Ed Joyce, Ty­rone Kane, Tim Murtagh, Kevin and Niall O’Brien, Boyd Rankin, Paul Stir­ling, Stu­art Thomp­son and Gary Wil­son. The first Ir­ish Test XI. At least a cou­ple of them started to cry, some who were play­ing from pride, some who were not from sor­row. Then, their coach, Gra­ham Ford, cut them short. “Let’s get mov­ing.”

The Ir­ish cricket com­mu­nity is small, but proud and en­thu­si­as­tic. Over the years a lot of boys and men who love or loved the game have en­ter­tained day­dreams of play­ing in a Test match for Ire­land. In their minds, it might have looked some­thing just like this Satur­day. A bright, warm May morn­ing at the pretty lit­tle ground, not a cloud in the sky, but 5,000 fans in the grand­stands, fam­ily and friends and team-mates all around and the op­po­si­tion reel­ing. This after Porter­field, fol­low­ing Fri­day’s washout, had won the toss, and be­came the first cap­tain to choose to bowl in his coun­try’s first Test.

Porter­field’s side were stacked with right-arm medium-fast bowlers, his two open­ers, Murtagh and Rankin, much the best and most ex­pe­ri­enced of them. The next, Thomp­son and Kane, have played a hand­ful of first­class games be­tween them, and the last, Kevin O’Brien, is strictly part­time. But Pak­istan’s bat­ting line-up was cal­low, too. They had given a de­but to Imam-ul-Haq and Fa­heem Ashraf, their No3, Haris So­hail has played two Tests be­fore this, and their No5, Babar Azam, 11. The pitch was damp and grassy and Porter­field reck­oned Pak­istan’s bats­men might be vul­ner­a­ble.

Porter­field was right. They looked ner­vous from the first ball, which was a slap­stick bit of busi­ness. Murtagh, ever so tense after the “spinet­in­gling” cap cer­e­mony, over-pitched so the de­liv­ery landed right up by Azhar Ali’s feet.

“That first ball is some­thing I’ve been think­ing about for a while,” Murtagh said. He’d been telling him­self to “bowl a magic ball, bowl a magic ball” and in­stead “I missed my length by about a yard” so it came out as a floaty yorker. Azhar pat­ted the ball down to the ground, stared at it for a split sec­ond, then set off on a quick sin­gle.

Imam came har­ing up from the non-striker’s end and as he dived for the line he col­lided with both the keeper, Niall O’Brien and Kane, who was sprint­ing in from square­leg. Imam was knocked flat and for a mo­ment it looked like he might be se­ri­ously in­jured. He passed his con­cus­sion test though and was back on his feet and bat­ting again five min­utes later. As Murtagh said: “The first ball in Test cricket’s prob­a­bly never taken so long.”

In the stands, ev­ery­one seemed to know each other, but not what to ex­pect from this Test. The Ir­ish crowd know the game, and love it, so were quick and keen to ap­plaud Imam when he hit the first four, through cover. They were quicker and keener, mind, when Rankin got Azhar out soon after, caught at sec­ond slip, and then Murtagh dis­missed Imam lbw with the next ball. Murtagh was bowl­ing bril­liantly and al­most had Asad Shafiq caught at slip later in the over.

Porter­field chose this as the mo­ment to make his first change and brought on Kane. A group of his club-mates were watch­ing, un­able to be­lieve that their pal, a 23-yearold who has not played so much as a county match, was now a Test crick­eter. They seemed ev­ery bit as ner­vous for him as he must have felt him­self. Kane started with a no-ball but after that he set­tled into it well, his sec­ond over a maiden. As Porter­field said, he bowled bet­ter than his fi­nal fig­ures, 18-2-84-0, sug­gested.

As the morn­ing wore on, Pak­istan ral­lied, and Shafiq and So­hail bat­ted through to lunch.

The af­ter­noon ebbed and flowed. Thomp­son found that Test cricket was as easy as whang­ing the ball down and wait­ing for the bats­men to play a bad shot. He had So­hail caught in the gully and Sar­fraz in the slips. In­be­tween, Murtagh got Azam and Rankin did for Shafiq, who was the only man in the top or­der who set­tled. Shafiq put to­gether a care­ful 62 be­fore Rankin switched to bowl­ing short and had him caught at square-leg.

At that point Pak­istan were 159 for six. But they fin­ished well. Fa­heem and Shadab Khan rat­tled their way to half-cen­turies so by the close they were 268 for six, as Ire­land’s field­ers flapped at a cou­ple of catches. It had been a long day, the first of many.


Sun­shine and blue skies on day two of Ire­land’s his­toric first Test against Pak­istan after the open­ing day was washed out by rain

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