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When Irish eyes were smiling……. for two days anyway

Tim Murtagh (5-13) puts England to the sword.

It’s not every day of the week that your nephew plays in a Test match at Lord’s (it’s never happened). It’s not every day of the week that he takes 5 wickets before lunch on the first day of a Test match (it’s never happened). It’s not every day of the week that England are dismissed before lunch on the first day of a Lord’s Test (it’s never happened). Well it has now. Last week, Ireland bowled out England for 85 in 23 overs, with Tim Murtagh taking 5-13, all ten wickets falling before the tables were fully laid for one of those fabled Lord’s lunches in the Players’ Dining Room. Truly it was one of those ‘I was there’ moments.

Except I wasn’t. The Edrich Stand was packed with the Murtagh clan but two seats were empty. The previous evening my wife had been involved in a nasty car accident. A Dutchman, plainly disenchanted with the possibility of a no deal Brexit, had ploughed into her….on the wrong side of the road. Thankfully, she was unhurt but the subsequent formalities and delays meant that we arrived at Lord’s as Ireland were batting. The son-in-law brought us up to speed: “You haven’t missed much.”

I shut my eyes, ostensibly to hide my frustration and disappointment. It didn’t really matter, for in my mind’s eye I could picture Tim as he ran in to bowl from the Nursery End. I had seen him bowl countless overs over the years, stiffly upright in his approach, his left arm flapping alongside, as he gathers himself at the moment of delivery, an action simple and uncomplicated, one that had changed very little since he was a child bowling to his brother and cousins on French beaches during our holidays. “Ooh la la!” exclaimed intrigued sunbathers, “Quelle future etoile!”

In point of fact, none of us shared the unbridled optimism of our bronzed continental hosts. A more than useful county seamer quite possibly – a prediction fulfilled in a distinguished career for Surrey and Middlesex – but the name on everybody’s lips following an extraordinary spell of bowling in a Test match? No, we did not foresee that. Perhaps we should have done. Some time ago, Mike Selvey, at the time cricket correspondent of The Guardian, wrote him a letter, fulsome in its praise for the way he had mastered the difficult art of bowling at Lord’s, with its tricky slope. And recently, Simon Hughes, editor of The Cricketer, named his personal choice of opening bowlers at Lord’s – Glenn McGrath from the Pavilion End and Tim Murtagh from the Nursery End. Both Selvey and Hughes, Middlesex stalwarts, could be said to know a thing or two about bowling at Lord’s.

It was Middlesex that gave Tim his bread and butter but it was Ireland that presented him with his chance to shine on the big stage. A son of south London, he can thank his Irish grandfather and grandmother for that. They would have been proud of him and smiled, if a little perplexed, at the wholehearted manner in which the gathered hordes of Irish supporters had taken him to their hearts on that unforgettable morning at Lord’s.

Ah yes, the Irish. As at all major sporting encounters involving them, their supporters were cheerful of disposition, generous of spirit and entertaining of comment. The match was without doubt greatly enlivened by their presence – in considerable numbers I noted. The recent World Cup was a success not least for the colourful and enthusiastic following of each team, bringing its own distinctive character to the venues. The Irish would have brought their own brand of passionate patriotism, to say nothing of their committed players, and it was a crying shame they were not invited to the party. And they won’t be there in 2023 either. The ICC should hang their heads in shame.

In the meantime, Ireland gave England the shock of their lives and so nearly brought off one of the great giant-slaying feats, fit to rank with USA defeating England (in 1950, not 1781). How the boys in green would have celebrated. St John’s Wood would have run out of Guinness. As it was, they cheerfully drank down their sorrows as they normally do. No country more fervently espouses Kipling’s famous exhortation to “meet triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same”. I suppose in their long and turbulent history, they have had plenty of practice.

Brexit and the dreaded backstop came up in conversation in the Edrich Stand as Ireland strove with every sinew to bowl out England for the second time. “Don’t know what all de fuss is about,” offered a man sporting an Irish shirt, “We got rid of de backstop when we stopped playin’ for de Onder 11s.” On our way out of the ground via the Grace Gates, two MCC members, dressed in the full bacon-and-egg regalia, were having their photo taken in front of a giant replica of the World Cup. Cue this comment from a passing wag: “I tort de MCC banned fancy dress!”

Whither the adopted son of Ireland now? There cannot be many more inspired spells left in that 38 year old body. It is a little known fact – though it shouldn’t be – that he is the Granddad of Test cricket, the oldest player currently representing his country. This is remarkable for a quick (well, truthfully, more of a fast-medium) bowler; Tim has always managed to keep himself fit and for the most part injury-free. However, Old Father Time, looking on approvingly from his perch alongside the Mound Stand at Lord’s, will sooner or later wave his scythe at the Middlesex man and that will be that. It happens eventually to all of us. What then? He’s playing his cards close to his chest as usual but in the meantime, let us leave him to his pizza and beer, reflecting on his day in the (very hot) sun.

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