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Ireland look to 'Pak' a punch as historic Test beckons

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Ireland_Pakistan_Test_CricketThe Village in Malahide, around 16 kilometres north of Dublin, is all set to be the stage for one of the most significant events in Irish sport, as it plays host to Ireland’s much-awaited inaugural Test match against Pakistan, commencing from May 11. This will be the Irishmen’s maiden appearance in the most revered format of the game, 18 years after the women’s team played – and won by an innings – their first and only Test, which was incidentally also against Pakistan.

Multi-day cricket in the month of May has seldom been an easy proposition for teams visiting the United Kingdom. Hence, the Pakistanis would do well to take Ireland seriously instead of considering the fixture as a warm-up for the ensuing two-Test series against England. Nearly all of the eleven players who are expected to start for Ireland have cut their teeth on the English county circuit over the years, making them well-versed with conditions in this part of the world.

William Porterfield, who will have the honour of leading Ireland at Malahide, has played first-class cricket in England for nearly a decade, first with Gloucestershire and later with Warwickshire. His opening partner, the swashbuckling Paul Stirling, has represented Middlesex since his formative years in international cricket. Veteran Ed Joyce, ready to make his Test debut at 39, has contributed immensely to Middlesex and Sussex during his glittering first-class career.

Further down, Andrew Balbirnie, arguably the brightest talent to emerge out of Ireland in the last five years, will look to make use the experience he garnered in a four-year stint with Middlesex. The tough-as-nails Niall O’Brien has turned out for Kent, Northamptonshire and Leicestershire in a ten-year span, while his fellow wicketkeeper Gary Wilson spent six years at Surrey, before moving to Derbyshire last season. On paper, the Irish top six looks as solid as any in Test cricket.

In all likelihood, the talismanic Kevin O’Brien will occupy the number seven spot at Malahide. While he has not played as much first-class cricket as his contemporaries who precede him in the batting order, the all-rounder remains Ireland’s biggest game-changer. One would imagine him playing a role similar to that of Ben Stokes for England, and Pakistan ought to be wary of his ability to produce a stirring counterattack with the bat, as well as his habit of breaking well-set partnerships.

Off-spinner Andy McBrine is the primary candidate to shoulder the spin responsibilities, having been selected ahead of left-armer George Dockrell. He will support a pace attack capable enough of troubling the best in business. In Tim Murtagh and Boyd Rankin, Ireland possess a duo who can pose a lot of questions to the Pakistani batsmen. They will be backed up by Stuart Thompson, Tyrone Kane or Nathan Smith, not to mention Kevin O’Brien’s crafty medium pace.

It would not be an overstatement to say that Murtagh knows conditions in the U.K. like the back of his hand. The Middlesex seamer is into his 18th year of the County Championship (he played for Surrey till 2006), and is currently the third highest wicket-taker in the 2018 Division Two competition, with 14 wickets at 11.35. Bowling in tandem with him will be Boyd Rankin, who will turn out in whites for Ireland more than four years after playing his only Test for England.

Rankin’s decade-long service to Warwickshire will hold him in good stead at Malahide, and moreover, he has happy memories of his first international outing against Pakistan. Back at the 2007 World Cup, Rankin’s 3/32 hastened Pakistan’s collapse in Kingston, paving the way for a seminal victory that heralded a new beginning for Ireland. The visiting batsmen will be put to the test by Murtagh’s swing and Rankin’s bounce, especially if the conditions favour the bowlers.

Thompson sparkled with the bat in the first round of the Irish first-class InterPros, and will look to continue in the same vein, should he be selected as a second all-rounder. Kane and Smith (the only uncapped member of the squad), along with Barry McCarthy, whose omission from the squad is quite baffling, are the future hopes to spearhead the bowling attack, once the old guard calls it a day. Rounding off the 14-man squad is James Shannon, a promising top-order batsman.

It has only been a year since the retirements of Pakistan’s batting bulwarks, Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq, which has resulted in an undoubtable void in the middle order. The Sarfraz Ahmed-led squad named for the Tests in Ireland and England includes as many as five players who are uncapped at the Test level. This is something the Irish bowlers could capitalize upon, given that the U.K. in May is not exactly a welcoming place for a touring batsman to make his Test debut.

This is not to say that the Pakistani batting is not in safe hands. Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq are worthy enough to make good the loss of Younis and Misbah, while Babar Azam and Sami Aslam are youngsters who can only get better. Ireland might be relieved to know that ace leg-spinner Yasir Shah has been ruled out due to a hip injury, but at the same time, the pace attack, comprising of Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali and Rahat Ali is the biggest threat to the home side.

The Irish batsmen’s collective first-class experience notwithstanding, it is in their best interests to give Pakistan’s fast bowlers the respect they deserve. The three aforementioned left-armers are all known to swing it both ways while bowling at a lively speed, and the hosts would certainly not want a situation where they play right into their opponents’ hands. It might just boil down to which team bats better at Malahide - patience against the new ball will be the key to success.

It can be said that Ireland’s journey towards being the eleventh Test nation began with that upset win over Pakistan at the 2007 World Cup, and it is perhaps only fitting that the subcontinental giants are their first Test opponents. Come May 11, The Village will undoubtedly be graced by a jubilant bevy of Irish fans, who have waited for this day for the best part of the last decade. One can expect a fair amount of libation flowing in the stands, as they soak in the glorious occasion.

If the Irishmen can display the same grit and gumption that has defined their brand of cricket thus far, there is no reason why they cannot emulate their female counterparts’ feat of winning their first ever Test match. Here’s hoping that there is plenty of sunshine on offer at Malahide, and that a bright new era of Irish cricket sees its dawn. Indeed, it has been a long time coming.

 

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Rustom Deboo is a cricket aficionado and freelance writer from Mumbai. He is an ardent devotee of T...

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