It had to be Pakistan, really. Eleven years and counting have elapsed since the single most transformative moment in the history of Irish cricket – the legendary World Cup victory at Sabina Park, on St Patrick’s Day 2007, that propelled a team of part-timers into the big-time and made feasible the scenes that will unfold at Malahide in the coming five days. Ireland are about to become cricket’s 11th Test nation, and what a journey it has been.
Extraordinarily, four of the men who held their nerve in that Group D thriller those years ago will be back on parade for Ireland tomorrow. The current captain Will Porterfield, the fast bowler Boyd Rankin – whose own journey has taken him to England Test colours and back again – and the O’Brien brothers: Niall, whose dogged 72 set up that thrilling three-wicket win, and Kevin, whose unbeaten 16 guided his side over the line on that occasion, but whose own crowning glory would come against England at Bangalore in the subsequent World Cup.
Throw in Ed Joyce, who had qualified to play for England during that same tournament but would be back in emerald green by 2011 (not to mention a promising youngster called Eoin Morgan wonder what became of him?) it’s clear that Irish cricket remains suffused with the spirit of 2007. The same, quite understandably, cannot be said of their Pakistan opponents, although it is a measure of the march of time that there is once again likely to be an ul-Haq in their ranks Imam-ul-Haq, the nephew of the then-captain, Inzamam, is slated to make his Test debut.
But the danger for Ireland is that, in the circumstances, this momentous occasion will feel as much like an ending as a beginning. Joyce is now 39; Niall O’Brien and Tim Murtagh, their senior seamer, are 36. Kevin O’Brien is 34, the same age Porterfield and Rankin will be by the end of the summer.
The band has been kept together in defiance of the creep of time, with this glorious week of fulfilment winking at them throughout from the distant horizon. And though, for the most part, the senior pros are still unquestionably worthy of their places, that is in itself an indictment of Ireland’s next generation, which has not yet surged through the breach that was made in the sport’s established hierarchies by the golden generation.
In the course of the past decade, Ireland have chivvied and chased the recognition that they deserve – certainly, they’ve punched above their weight in an administrative sense as well, with Cricket Ireland setting standards for good governance that many more established boards would do very well to heed. But the team’s recent failure to qualify for the 2019 World Cup was a portent of tough times to come – not least because that tournament was shrunk to ten teams as a direct consequence of the events of March 17, 2007, when Bangladesh’s elimination of India – a result that was sealed only minutes before Trent Johnston’s winning six in Jamaica – completed the most shocking double knockout in recent sports history.
In the current climate, it wouldn’t be a Test match without such existential questions swirling around the game. But all such issues will be put on the back burner on a joyous day for Irish sport. Malahide promises a festival occasion (albeit a slightly soggy one for the first two days of action), and Pakistan promise to be the perfectly unknowable guests – a side with the skills to rattle any team on earth, but with an inherent vulnerability that a team of pumped-up veterans can surely hope to exploit.
Pakistan arrive with eyes on bigger prizes too – their two-Test series against England gets underway at Lord’s on May 24, and after a rain-wrecked opening warm-up game against Kent and a solid win over Northants, there’s still a danger that they are still a couple of middle sessions short of full battle-readiness, not least Azhar Ali, whose top score in three innings to date is 15. That said, when Mohammad Amir and company hit their rhythm, as they did to mighty effect in the Champions Trophy victory last summer, few teams can hope to live with them.
Ireland go into the contest as overwhelming underdogs based on their recent form in the Intercontinental Cup, the ICC’s first-class competition for Associates. Despite Ireland’s overall dominance, including three straight titles from 2005 to 2008 and four total championships in the seven editions completed, they finished second to Afghanistan in the most recent tournament that concluded in December after being walloped by an innings and 172 runs last year at Greater Noida. Ireland’s bowling looked toothless without a then-injured Boyd Rankin as Afghanistan piled up 537 for 8 over the first two days before their batting unit, for so long the envy of the Associate world, succumbed meekly to the spin duo of Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi.
No side has won their inaugural Test since Australia beat England in the very first such encounter at Melbourne in 1877. But Ireland have also played every moment of their international careers as underdogs – it’s a state of being that has delivered some of the most rousing performances that the game has had to offer in the past decade. Why shouldn’t they believe that another such “I was there” moment is just around the corner?
Ireland: we shall see
On the eve of their Test debut, Ireland’s head coach Graham Ford and high performance director Richard Holdsworth deconstruct the team’s journey to making it as a Test nation
In the spotlight
He won’t be the first Joyce to play Test cricket for Ireland – his sister Isobel scooped that honour almost two decades ago – but Ed Joyce’s career epitomises the drive and durability that his country has needed to display to reach this epochal moment. He’s been a pioneer for Irish cricket at different stages of their development, first showing the way for his fellow countrymen in seeking out a county berth with Middlesex and qualifying to play for England – the identical route that his team-mate Eoin Morgan would later follow – and then, more recently, quitting his Sussex contract to commit his later years to Irish provincial cricket. Joyce may not endure at the top level for many more years, but he’s about to glimpse the promised land.
Pakistan are a much-changed team from the band of world-beaters who briefly claimed the No.1 Test ranking in the wake of their last visit to the British Isles in 2016. They’ve lost Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan from their batting ranks since then and, devastatingly, Yasir Shah, their world-beating legspinner, to a hip injury. But the nation’s regenerative qualities are second to none, and in the emergence of Shadab Khan, they’ve found themselves another big-ripping leggie who promises to rattle Ireland’s resolve. At the age of 19, Shadab has made just one Test appearance to date, against West Indies in Bridgetown last year, but he comes into this match with confidence soaring after a ten-wicket haul against Northants.
Imam-ul-Haq is a strong contender to make his Test debut, and likeliest to do so as opener. Pakistan are thought to be keen to play the same XI as did against Northamptonshire which means a move back up to opening for Azhar Ali – Pakistan’s senior batsman moved himself back to No.3 for last year’s series against Sri Lanka. Faheem Ashraf, the bustling allrounder who debuted in the Champions Trophy last year, is also in line for a Test debut, adding depth to a seam attack that looks as potent as any in the world. Shadab is a like-for-like replacement for the absent Yasir.
Pakistan (likely XI): 1 Imam-ul-Haq, 2 Azhar Ali, 3 Haris Sohail, 4 Asad Shafiq, 5 Babar Azam, 6 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt, wk), 7 Shadab Khan, 8 Faheem Ashraf, 9 Mohammad Amir, 10 Rahat Ali, 11 Mohammad Abbas
Sentiment is likely to hold sway where Ireland’s selection is concerned, with their contingent of veterans set to be rewarded for long service with first dibs at history. The key question may revolve around the identity of their third seamer, with Nathan Smith, their uncapped 22-year-old quick, ruled out of contention with a side strain. Craig Young has been drafted in as a replacement, but depending on the conditions, the medium pace of Stuart Thompson may get the spare slot.
Ireland (likely XI): 1 Will Porterfield (capt), 2 Paul Stirling, 3 Ed Joyce, 4 Niall O’Brien (wk), 5 Andy Balbirnie, 6 Gary Wilson, 7 Kevin O’Brien, 8 Stuart Thompson, 9 Andy McBrine, 10 Boyd Rankin, 11 Tim Murtagh.
Pitch and conditions
If English early-season Tests are anything to go by, we can expect changeable conditions, lateral movement and plenty of nibble for the seamers.
Rain is forecast for the first two days of the match.
Stats and trivia
As omens go, Ireland’s women offer a tantalising glimpse of what could be possible in the coming days – having themselves played Pakistan in their maiden Test in August 2000, and crushed the visitors by an innings and 54 runs in the space of two days.
What is more, the Player of the Match on that auspicious occasion was none other than Isobel Joyce, sister of Ed, who claimed match-winning figures of 6 for 21 in 11.1 overs.
Boyd Rankin is set to become only the 15th player in history to represent two countries in Test cricket.
The last man to do so was the former Australia batsman Kepler Wessels, who played for his native South Africa on their return from sporting isolation in 1992. John Traicos, the Zimbabwe spinner, was the last to do so in his country’s maiden Test, also in 1992. His appearance came 22 years after his previous Test for South Africa in 1970.
“Test matches for Ireland wasn’t really something anyone thought about. It wasn’t even a pipedream, to be honest.”
Ed Joyce on Ireland’s improbable dream.
“On the same day, India lost as well against Bangladesh, so we were happy. Jokes apart, it was a sad day for Pakistan as a nation, so hopefully we’ll get our own back by winning the Test.”
Imam-ul-Haq on his memories of Ireland’s World Cup win in 2007.