Tim Murtagh (Middlesex and Ireland) is Test cricket’s oldest current player.
There is a tradition in British politics that the oldest member of parliament goes by the title of Father of the House. Similarly, the oldest Test cricketer still playing has the term ‘Granddad’ bestowed upon him, a sobriquet that can be used as evidence against him as much as a respectful compliment. Actually, that is a lie. There is no such tag. I bet few of us could name the oldest Test cricketer currently playing. No, neither could I until Iceland Cricket informed us in one of their tweets, congratulating Tim Murtagh (Ireland) on assuming the position of Father of the Game, now that Rangana Herath (Sri Lanka) and Mohammed Hameez (Pakistan) have retired. I rang my nephew to congratulate him on this distinction. Cricket Iceland, Tim? Are you their president or something? He laughed. “I’m not even sure they’re genuine. But their tweets are amusing and I follow them. Are you a tweeter, Uncle Andy?” he enquired mischievously. I did not copy David Cameron’s slightly rude comment on tweets, merely confining to a description of myself as a ‘twit’ not a….. well, I’m sure you can remember.
Having this distinguished servant of the game at my disposal (he was eager to chat as it got him out of bathing duties with his two young children), I ventured forth on a line of questioning that had long intrigued me. Tim Murtagh comes from a cricket mad family. His father Dominic and I used to play timeless Tests in the back garden as kids so it was inevitable that my brother’s two sons, Timothy and Christopher, would follow suit, except their matches took place in the family hallway, as the peeling wallpaper readily testified. Chris had an in-and-out career at Surrey before leaving the professional game, which was a pity, I always thought, a talent unfulfilled. Tim’s first-class career, much to his surprise, went from strength to strength. “I never really thought about it,” he admitted, “I just loved playing and the higher up I got, the more I realised I could cut the mustard at that level.” Just think of it, Tim, Granddad of the Game and a fast bowler to boot! “Well, not that fast.” But an opening bowler nonetheless. Your predecessors…..
Herath was a left-arm spinner and Hameez was more of a batsman than a bowler. How do you account for your longevity? “The thing is, I didn’t play first-class full time until I was 21. I went to uni and was on a summer contract until I’d finished my studies.” Too busy with your head buried in your books then? He did laugh. “Exactly. But it meant I wasn’t over-bowled when I was still growing. Which probably accounts for the fact I have been relatively injury-free during my career.”
What prompted the move across to the north of the river, I wondered, from the Brown Caps to the Daggers, as Surrey and Middlesex were known back in the day. “The wicket!” was the uncompromising reply. Eh? “The wicket at the Oval didn’t really suit the seamers. We used to play two spinners and only two seamers with an all-rounder filling in when required. So I was competing with several others for just two spots and consequently my opportunities in the four day game were limited.” The move therefore to Middlesex, to play at Lord’s with its attendant history, aura, prestige, to say nothing of its pitches, was an obvious one. There was no animosity on either side and Tim flourished, developing into one of most skilful – and crucially the most durable – opening bowlers in the country, an integral cog in the Middlesex machine that won the county championship in 2016 (remember that gripping finale at Lord’s against Yorkshire on the last day of the season?).
Mike Selvey wrote a fascinating and complimentary article on your use of the slope at Lord’s bowling from the Nursery End, the one which he favoured during his playing days. Most seamers prefer bowling from the Pavilion End. How come you prefer the other end? “Funnily enough, I seem to have lost the ability to swing the ball, something I’m working on to recover. Fortunately I have the knack of nipping the ball back into the right-hander. That’s why most of my wickets are either bowled or LBW. At Lord’s from that end, with the slope to the off side, I only have to straighten it a bit up the hill, making it basically a straight ball rather than the one which tends to move away down the slope, to catch the batsman unawares.” How do you get the ball to nip around? “Wobbly seam, Uncle.” What on earth would your grandfather have thought about that? My father, his grandfather, who was to play a significant role in Tim’s career, even from the grave, knew nothing of cricket and never played. We both cogitated what he, a man of fierce morals, would have made of a grandchild who indulged in wobbly seaming.
You see, our father was Irish, born in Dublin. Our mother, a Cassidy, hailed from Cork, so Irish blood flowed through the Murtagh veins. How did the invitation to play for Ireland come about? “It was Ed Joyce who set the ball rolling. He asked me about my Irish name and once he heard that Granddad had been born in Dublin, he suggested that I could qualify for Ireland and asked whether I would be interested. Next day I had a call from Cricket Ireland and…” Bob’s your uncle!
“No, you are, Andy.” First he had to get himself a passport, which involved much paperwork. “Auntie Judith provided the birth, marriage, death certificates and all the necessary documentation.” Indeed. Our sister Judith is the family archivist. If I wanted take up Tahitian citizenship, she could arrange it, probably gladly. “I was 30 by then and had given up any realistic hope of playing for England,” Tim continued, “so it seemed a good thing to do.” And you have never regretted it? “I’ve absolutely loved it. Everybody made me feel so welcome and it reinvigorated my enthusiasm for the one-day game, which was sort of slipping through my fingers at Middlesex.” You learnt the Irish national anthem, I hear. “Well, I sing all the right notes….but not necessarily in the right order.”
Let me take you back to last summer, Ireland’s inaugural Test match against Pakistan in Dublin. Were you nervous? “I tend not to stress.” I can vouchsafe for that. Tim’s nonchalant attitude to life has been known to us since he was a baby.
“We won the toss and elected to field. So I knew I would be bowling the first ball in Ireland’s Test history and I must admit that, at that point, I was pretty tense. After one over, I was fine.” Do you remember the national anthems? It was an amusing moment. The Murtagh clan was present in force at the match. We were asked by the announcer to stand for the national anthem of Pakistan. Silence. Nothing happened. The wait became irritating, then embarrassing, then funny. “Send someone to fetch the CD!” shouted one wag. “Whaddye expect? Dis is Oirland!” concluded another. Eventually the CD was located, the anthems sung and the game got underway. “I enjoyed the whole occasion,” said Tim. I should say so. He bowled well, doing what he is good at, relying on the eternal verities of line and length learned in a lifetime in county cricket, all the while nibbling the ball around just enough, taking 4-45 in the first innings with a further two wickets in the second. Ireland lost the match by 5 wickets but had acquitted themselves honourably.
One swallow does not make a summer. How do you see the future of Irish cricket unfolding? “Well, we have the Test against England at Lord’s next summer.” Indeed. That will be proud moment for his family, providing he’s fit and raring to go. He wondered aloud if he might mistakenly head towards the home dressing room and give Jimmy Anderson a piece of his mind for pinching his locker. As for the long-term future of his adopted country, he was guardedly optimistic. “No use sitting on our laurels, satisfied that we have now achieved what we all wanted, Test status. We need to kick on. Truthfully, the facilities remain Spartan. There’s only one indoor net in the whole country and, as you know, it often rains over there. So money needs to be ploughed into the game. It’s up to the youngsters now. Maybe, our example can inspire them….”
What about life after cricket? “Is there life after cricket, Uncle Andy?” An interesting metaphysical question, Tim. I tend to think not. The trick is to find something to do that is satisfying and rewarding but still keeps you in touch with the game you love. “I’ve been on a few courses run by the PCA (Professional Cricketers Association) and I’m getting my coaching badges.” He then dropped a hint as to his future plans, which came as a surprise. But then, perhaps not. “I might consider something similar to what you did, director of cricket at a school.” Director of Cricket! Never heard of the expression. I was known as Master-in-charge of Cricket. But I could see the way his mind was working. Why was it not a complete surprise? His grandfather was a teacher. His father and two uncles were teachers. His sister is a teacher. It’s in Murtagh blood. Good holidays, rubbish pay. “Don’t need the money, Uncle Andy. Do it for the love of the game.” I laughed. You never know with Tim whether he’s being entirely serious.