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IRISH BAPTISM

Ireland is a bewitching place. The rugged beauty of the island is a given but it is the inhabitants that fascinate me. They are uniformly friendly, cheerful, good-natured…..and funny. Their humour is usually of the mordant and self-deprecating type, which is not altogether surprising if you consider what they’ve had to put up with over the centuries. No matter what goes wrong – and let’s face it, that happens quite a lot – these mishaps are met with a resigned shrug and a droll comment. “Well, what do you expect? Dis is Oirland”.

The last time I visited the Emerald Isle, in our hotel dining room the pepper came out of the salt cellar and yes, you’ve guessed it, the salt was to be found in the pepper pot. On this occasion, I was visiting Dublin to watch my nephew, Tim Murtagh, make his Test debut against Pakistan. Amongst other things, I was intrigued to discover whether the salt and pepper conundrum had been resolved. You will be pleased to hear it had not. The first day of Ireland’s inaugural Test match was littered with similar organisational and administrative accidents but somehow, it didn’t matter. “Never mind,” everybody said, “It was a grand day.”

Malahide Cricket Club (MCC – a quip in itself) looked a picture in the bright morning sunshine. The first day wash-out had been forgotten and it was clear that the club and the Irish cricket authorities had gone to a lot of trouble to make the place look as welcoming and as spruced up as possible. The size of the crowd was a little disappointing but you had to take into account the recent dismal weather and the fact that the local rugby team Leinster were taking on Racing 92 in the European Champions Cup Final on the same day. “And don’t forget the Eurovision Song Contest,” added my companion. As if. The scene, with marquees and temporary stands, resembled a county match during Festival Week and was no less enchanting for that.

The catalogue of woe had a similar bumbling feel to a Festival game. First, the announcer or MC. He caused palpitations in the assembled ranks of the Murtagh family by omitting Tim’s name from the communicated Irish team. The fact that he had only called out 10 names had escaped us. The inaugural cap presentation to the Irish team was something and nothing. It was something because it was very special for the team members but it was nothing because there was no accompanying announcement or ceremony. There was a huddle in front of the dressing room, as if someone was imparting a piece of advice or formulating a last-minute tactic – and that was it. Definitely a PR trick missed. Then we were asked to stand for the National Anthems. We dutifully hauled ourselves to our feet and waited….and waited….and waited. The pregnant pause became embarrassing. A wag behind us shouted, “Put a shilling in the meter!” Someone else added, “Go and fetch the CD!” At last, the Pakistani anthem crackled into life. “Told you it was the Eurovision Song Contest,” quipped another. Ireland, Ireland! was sung with gusto, especially by the English contingent.

Of the cricket, more later. Sadly there was more of the MC. His announcements were without exception banal, uninformative and unconsciously funny. “Great day…great cricket,” he spoke as if at a funeral. I counted a full sixteen times he warned us not to encroach on the playing area “or punitive measures will be taken against such personages.” Honestly, a less likely crowd to riot in front of the pavilion can I imagine; possibly the spectators at the finals of the Tunbridge Wells Bowls Club but that’s about it. In the absence of any information one way or the other, we wondered whether the Decision Review System was in operation, as it is throughout the Test playing nations. The answer was not long in coming. A smart piece of fielding by Ireland prompted a loud appeal for a run out. The umpire gave the time-honoured signal for a decision from the third umpire in the review studio. Except there wasn’t one. Well there may well have been a third umpire but he certainly had no technology at his disposal. “Och, never moind,” said our wag – by turning round, we discovered he was nattily attired in an emerald green suit, emblazoned with shamrocks - “Dis is Oirland! What do you expect?” Indeed. The umpires shrugged, the players got on with the game and we resumed drinking. Perhaps it was the Guinness, perhaps it was my eyesight, perhaps it was a number of things but the two scoreboards were rarely in agreement. Never mind. Most of the time they were both nearly right. It really didn’t seem to matter. Everybody was just enjoying the occasion.

The cricket was absorbing as only two-innings matches can be, allowing the game to develop at its own distinctive pace. The strength of the two sides was difficult to gauge. The Pakistanis were young, inexperienced and at the outset of their tour; the Irish were not young, inexperienced (at this level) but reasonably battle-hardened in the one-day arena. The lack of Test match involvement for the Irish betrayed itself in four ways. First, they selected a conservative team, packed with all-rounders – a sure sign that they did not trust their batsmen – and no spinner, something they later came to regret. Then they elected to bowl first. Perhaps local knowledge of the Malahide pitch prompted this thinking; to the outsider, it smacked once more of a lack of confidence in their batters. The Pakistanis by contrast were in no doubt about the correct balance of the team. During the interviews immediately following the toss, their captain, Sarfraz, brought the house down with his response to the question, what team had he picked. “Five batsmen and five bowlers,” he said before adding, “Oh, and a wicket-keeper.” Ireland were not the most mobile in the field either, showing their age. Finally, and crucially, they couldn’t catch. I lost count of the catches that went down but the game turned on these lapses. “What dis boy needs is a turd’s lip,” announced our critic in the green suit. Once again we looked behind for elucidation of this extraordinary observation but sure enough, a few balls later, the ball did indeed go through the gap, at a catchable height, of the missing ‘turd’s lip’.

The first ball of Ireland’s historic first Test match will go down in folklore as the most bizarre, chaotic, mad, bonkers and amusing incident of any cricket game anywhere. My nephew bowled it. The batsman dropped his bat on it and the ball bounced harmlessly a few feet away on the leg side. There being no short-leg – although someone had the shin pads on but he was fielding at mid-off – a quick run was, not unreasonably, pondered. Among Pakistan’s many attributes, running between the wickets has never been one of them (it was lamentable throughout). Unsurprisingly, no decision was swiftly arrived at. However, both openers at length decided to go for it. But by then, the wicket-keeper and square leg were in a race to reach the ball first. The resulting collision between two fielders and one batsman was as predictable as it was spectacular. It resembled a pile-up at Becher’s Brook. For several seconds, bodies were haphazardly stacked on top of each other before the two Irishman, clearly made of sterner stuff, extricated themselves from the heap, climbed to their feet, shook their heads and made as if to carry on, in the best traditions of an altercation outside a Dublin pub. The Pakistani, now unencumbered by bodies, did a few melodramatic rolls, the way footballers do to attract the attention of the referee. ”De only question,” announced Green Suit loudly, “is whether dat’s a yellow or red card.” Or maybe two yellows and a red, added his companion. It took an unconscionable time for the batsman to recover. I think it was Imam ul–Haq. His father, Inzamam ul-Haq would have snorted his derision. He famously eschewed the quick single. In fact, he eschewed any single, quick or long.

Timothy Murtagh bowled well. 4-45 off 25 overs (plus a couple of more wickets in the second innings) represented a satisfying and deserved return for a Test debut. He would have had more wickets too had his slip cordon clung onto their catches. He and his opening partner, Boyd Rankin, underlined the eternal verities of the bowling craft, learnt from their long years in county cricket, of line and length. I can only remember one ball on that first day when Tim strayed down the leg side, punished by a clip off the legs for four. Rankin too attacked the off stump and was rewarded, on account of his great height (6’ 8”), with the occasional lifting, snorting delivery. But he too suffered from butter fingers behind the wicket. The second-string attack were contrastingly not so disciplined, too often allowing the batsmen to wave goodbye at wide balls. The Pakistani middle-order made hay and Ireland’s grip on the game was loosened.

That Ireland were able to make a decent fist of the contest owed a lot to another player who has been schooled in the disciplined environment of county cricket. Kevin O’Brien scored 118 (thus becoming the country’s first Test centurion) in Ireland’s second innings, having been forced to follow on, out of a total of 339. Pakistan were set a total of 159 to win, which they achieved, not without a few alarums and excursions, for the loss of 5 wickets.

My impressions? It is a shame that Ireland have been elevated to Test status at arguably the wrong time. A few years ago, they were a force to be reckoned with; as it stands, they are on the wrong side of the curve. What strength in depth they possess, how many good, young players they have coming through the system, remains to be seen. A moot point seems to be the widely held view. On current form, they look like a half-decent county side. Which begs the question, why don’t they join the county championship? That would grant them the competition and experience they badly need. What they must not do is sit back and rest on their laurels. They have achieved much that is admirable. They must not go the way of Zimbabwe, who now scarcely deserve to be called a Test playing nation. But whatever happens they must not lose that delightful idiosyncratic charm that characterised our time at MCC. As a parting shot, how about this enjoyable gaffe on the scorecard? The match referee was named as Brian Broad. He looked very much like Chris Broad to me. Never moind. Dis is Oirland.

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