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Pakistan are fitting opponents for Ireland’s inaugural Test

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Ireland_Pakistan_Test_CricketMay 11, 2018 will mark a watershed moment in Irish cricket history, with the national men's team scheduled to begin its first ever Test match, against Pakistan on home soil. Having been conferred Test status in June this year, Ireland are finally on the cusp of realising their decade-long dream of playing international cricket at the highest level and in its most revered format.

It is only apt that Pakistan are Ireland’s opponents for this historic fixture. Not for the first time, the subcontinental giants will be obliging their fellow ‘men in green’ with a trip to the Emerald Isle before hopping across to England. Significantly, Pakistan were at the receiving end of Ireland’s seminal victory on St. Patrick’s Day in the 2007 World Cup, a result that altered the landscape of Irish cricket for the better.

 

When captain Trent Johnston hit Azhar Mahmood for six to bring up Ireland’s three-wicket win at Sabina Park in Kingston, it not only propelled the amateur Irish side into the next round of the World Cup, but also ushered in a bright new era of professionalism for budding cricketers across Ireland. It provided cricket with a fresh lease of life in a country where the sport had largely been scoffed at and heavily obscured.

 

Since that reversal, Pakistan have been in the forefront among the top nations when it comes to touring Ireland for One-Day International fixtures. Their first bilateral series in Ireland was in 2011, a couple of months after the World Cup in the subcontinent, a tournament in which the Irish reaffirmed their status of giant killers with a sensational victory over England. Since then, Pakistan have made two more visits to Ireland, in 2013 and 2016.

As was largely expected, Pakistan triumphed in each of the three series, but they were stretched to the limit on more than one occasion. The most memorable duel came in 2013 when Pakistan, led by Misbah-ul-Haq, played two ODIs in Dublin to acclimatise themselves prior to the Champions Trophy in England. Both the games were cliff-hangers and laid bare before the world Ireland’s unquestionable hunger to succeed against tough opposition.

Ireland were set a rain-revised target of 276 from 47 overs in the first ODI and, thanks to Paul Stirling (103) and Kevin O’Brien (84 not out off just 47 balls), almost upstaged the Pakistanis. With his team needing five to win off the final delivery, O’Brien flicked the dangerous Saeed Ajmal for four to secure a tie. While Ireland just avoided a narrow defeat in this game, they squandered a winnable position in the next.

After Ed Joyce’s sublime 116* had pushed Ireland to 229/9 in the second ODI, seamers Tim Murtagh and Johnston reduced Pakistan to a woeful 17/4, much to the delight of the ever-enthusiastic Irish supporters. An encore of 2007 was on the cards, as the visitors further slumped to 133/7 in the 37th over. A maiden ODI series win against a Test team was well within Ireland’s grasp. However, they hadn’t reckoned with the experience of Kamran Akmal.

Akmal, who was familiar with Irish conditions thanks to a stint with Limavady in the Irish Senior League back in 2003, struck a composed 81. With able support from Wahab Riaz (47*), he helped Pakistan snatch the game away from the hosts. Their 93-run stand for the eighth wicket put paid to Ireland’s hopes, the eventual result being a frustrating two-wicket defeat. Till date, Ireland have not beaten a ‘top eight’ side in a home ODI, and this was as close as it got.

 

Besides Akmal, the hard-hitting Shahid Afridi and the wily off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq too have had their trysts with Irish cricket. The formidable duo played for Ireland in the 50-over Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy in 2006, alongside the likes of Johnston, Eoin Morgan and John Mooney. The experience of playing with these ODI veterans held the Irishmen in good stead ahead of the World Cup the following year.

 

Considering the support that they have extended to Cricket Ireland over the past decade, it was not surprising that Pakistan agreed to be Ireland’s initial opponents in Test cricket. The venue for the Test match is The Village in Malahide, Dublin, which can hold up to 11,500 people if filled to capacity. The ground was first unveiled as the ‘new home of Irish cricket’ in 2013, with the hosts playing England in a one-off ODI.

Pakistan will travel to England for two Tests after their stay in Ireland. May has always been a tricky month for sides touring the British Isles, and it remains to be seen how much Ireland can exploit their local conditions. Since Afghanistan are slated to play their first Test in February 2018 at their home ground of Sharjah, it is likely that Ireland will be the twelfth Test nation, in order of appearance.

Ireland will hence become the eighth team to play its maiden Test at home. Among those who played their first Test away is Pakistan, who first played as an independent nation on the tour of India in 1951-52. It did not take Pakistan long to register their first win – they achieved it in their second Test, at Lucknow, although they lost the five-match series 2-1. Ireland would do well to look back at history and take inspiration from their opponents’ positive start in the Test arena.

A majority of Irish cricketers, including captain William Porterfield, veteran batsman Ed Joyce, the O’Brien brothers Niall and Kevin, swashbuckling opener Paul Stirling, left-arm spinner George Dockrell and pacemen Tim Murtagh and Boyd Rankin, have honed their skills on the county circuit over the years. This collective experience augurs well for Ireland as they count down the days to their biggest ‘Test’ yet.

 

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

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