Ireland make flying start in historic first Test before Pakistan fight back
• Two wickets each for Murtagh, Rankin, Thompson
Soon after 10am, the Irish players gathered together 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 from pride. 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 just like this Saturday. A bright, warm May morning at the pretty little ground, hardly a cloud in the sky, and 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 first-class games between them, and the last, Kevin O’Brien, is strictly part-time. 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 “spine-tingling” 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 square-leg. 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-year-old 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. In between, 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.