The green pitch of Lord’s

The heat at Lord’s meant the Members could take their blazers off for day one. This is a members’ ground, and a members’ sport. To play…

The heat at Lord’s meant the Members could take their blazers off for day one. This is a members’ ground, and a members’ sport. To play Test cricket you don’t need to find the best eleven players from your nation, but you need to pass the special membership requirements (that often never even existed). And once you get that status, it’s almost impossible to lose. Test cricket is like a puppy, it’s not for Christmas, it’s for life. That is how cricket sets up, as a member’s club you only need to wait a long time to get into, with rules that you often have to overcome that real members don’t, but once you learn the secret handshake and have your arse paddled, that’s it. You’re one of us.

Ireland are now in. If it wasn’t official when they played at their club ground in Malahide, or when they were beaten by Afghanistan in Dehra Dun, it was made clear when the members gave them polite applause at cricket’s symbolic home. Lord’s may not be the first Test venue — or even the first venue in England — but it’s been cricket’s centrepiece for almost two hundred years.

Irish cricket predates Lord’s, while it might be an outsider because of anti-English sentiment and their own nationalism changing their sporting landscape. Ireland has always been a cricket nation, whether or not Lord’s knew it. That’s the problem with new members, they disrupt things.

Tim Murtagh wasn’t supposed to play for Ireland, or get his name on the away honours board. But right now the jacketless bacon and egg brigade rise as one to honour his five wickets as he walks over the green Lord’s outfield.

It looks greener today.

Tim Murtagh was not born and bred in Ireland, and that is the slight given to associate teams. That they have to rely on foreign players. It forgets that at the beginning of Test cricket, Albert Trott and the two Billys, Midwinter and Murdoch played for Australia and England. There are quite a few players to have played for over one nation. And the list who have represented a country they haven’t been born in is enormous, including Douglas Jardine (India) and Clarrie Grimmett (New Zealand).

Cricket is an incestuous Commonwealth sport, even before you look at the English cricket team.

Newer teams to the top level struggle to compete with other teams who have generations of cricket in their blood. It’s not talent the new teams struggle with, its cricket knowledge and facilities they can’t match. Someone with a cricket background will have an advantage over the locals.

Irish cricket has had quite a few, Andre Botha was from Johannesburg and their talismanic captain Trent Johnston was from New South Wales. Their coaches have been South African and West Indian.

Tim Murtagh is just another import, another of cricket’s dual heritage players, and one that is a Lord’s specialist with 295 wickets at 22.

And he’s not the only one. Paul Stirling and Andy Balbirnie are specialists here too. Had Ed Joyce not been 103 years old, he’d probably be opening the batting just after lunch. Dermott Monteith represented Middlesex in the 1970s. This team has more Lord’s appearances than the English team.

Joyce, Balbirnie and Stirling were born and bred who were brought into English systems. That doesn’t even include William Porterfield, Gary Wilson, Kevin O’Brien and Mark Adair who’ve all played county cricket, nor Boyd Rankin who’s played Tests for England. And ofcourse that other bloke who captains England in ODI cricket.

Murtagh might be a Londoner with Irish grandparents, but Ireland has produced a staggering amount of home-born talent considering they were amateur when most of us found out they existed (St Patrick’s Day, 2007). Not that long ago that Irish cricketers didn’t even dare try their luck in county cricket, Alec O’Riordan, Michael Halliday and Alan Lewis are just stories of what might have been. Where now players don’t try get a county deal, they play for and lead England.

There is a club cricket vibe to Irish cricket, and it’s not just their cable-knit sweaters. They have a few players who don’t fit the athletic cricketer jelly mould. Boyd Rankin left the field minutes after play for what we can only hope was because he forgot to put his wallet in the valuables bag or he hadn’t gone to the toilet. Mark Adair was fielding at third slip and then opening the bowling. Stuart Thompson pretty much a club cricketer before his Test debut. Tim Murtagh’s batting, which was mostly done from square leg.

And before they came out to bowl Tim Murtagh was bowling on his own in front of the members, like a clubbie opener waiting impatiently for the rest of the eleven to turn up.

And Murtagh’s bowling also feels that way. He’s fast medium by club standards, by medium by international. Quicker than Sourav Ganguly, slower than Scott Styris. When you are up high, the slips look weirdly close; it makes the entire square look shrunken, like its kids cricket. He has this lean when he comes in, and this terry Test match technique that makes him look like a wind up cricketer. And then the ball is delivered and it’s so slow. The slips honestly feel too far back.

And Murtagh might be a wonderfully talented bowler, able to land the ball pretty much where he wants with good swing and decent seam movement, but he looks as deadly as a door snake.

The fact is — as brilliant as Irish cricket has been for the last decade and a half — most of their cricketers are average first class players or well beneath that. And many of their best players are now either past their best or retired.

So there will be games where they get sat on, like say, getting bowled out for 85.

One moan from cricket fans at the thought of new nations coming into Test status is what it will do to statistics. When the Mali women scored only six runs in their match against Rwanda, you heard the same thing. New nations are supposed to struggle, do you know two cricketers who smashed developing countries, George Lohmann and Donald Bradman. Lohman averaged 5.8 against South Africa, Bradman 140 against India, West Indies and South Africa (New Zealand did well to avoid him).

But in three Tests Ireland’s held their own. They fought back well against Pakistan after a disastrous start and made a game of it, improved in their second innings against Afghanistan and then took the best of the conditions against England. What if they hadn’t though, what if the predictable happened, and Pakistan rolled them cheaply twice, Rashid Khan spun them out in India and Jimmy Anderson had been bowling to them on the first morning here at Lord’s.

They’d be more or less the same side, some club players, some first class and a bunch of fans suggesting they should have never got Test status. Days like today make that moaning tougher.

Malahide is not a professional sporting stadium, it is not even an amateur stadium. It is a club ground on the edge of town, and when Ireland played their first Test there, Malahide were second division. That is ofcourse how sport is suppose to work, you should be judged on your performance constantly, not once in 1930, or 1878, and never again.

To get membership to Lord’s you either need to something special to jump the queue, or you need to wait for 29 years. It means that by the time you get your membership, you’re no longer the young passionate cricket fan who first applied, but now another jaded adult with all the complications and scars that brings.

The Irish team is not at its best right now. A few years ago when Joyce, Porterfield, Wilson and the O’Briens were in their prime, Irish cricket had a dependable top order. When Rankin requalified, they had a near Test quality fast man, and George Dockrell looked a future international spinner.

Now they have an aging county pro bowler, a bunch of bits and pieces all rounders, and a few guys holding on for as many Tests as they can play. They probably deserved their Test status back in 2011, they got it in 2018, and now they’re doing the best they can.

They are going to be lesser than any opponent in talent in every match they go out in, they’re going to be fighting for a long time. When they rolled West Indies for 25 in Sion Mills, they did it with unknown players. When they beat Pakistan in 2007 they did it with postmen and fabric buyers. When they rolled England at Lord’s today, it was with what they had.

Today it was Murtagh’s canny swing, Balbirnie and Stirling’s solid partnership and Kevin O’Brien standing upright again. And while that rarely looks enough, somehow Irish cricket always make it work. They wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for days like today. I don’t know how Ireland made themselves into a Test team so fast; I don’t know how they produce so many quality players from a near amateur system. And I don’t know how they bowled England out for 85. But I love every part of it. Today it was hot at Lord’s, especially for England. But the pitch was green, in fact, today Lord’s was green.

(Apologies for errors, no subs for my medium posts)