Ireland v Pakistan, only Test, Malahide May 15, 2018

Ireland's maiden Test: An occasion that even made the trains stop at Malahide

A community club hosted a community sport, as Ireland rose above the emotion of their overdue arrival at cricket's highest level

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From Joyce to Jedward

"I used to play cricket, you know, when I was a boy, we'd go out, and we'd put the pegs down, then lay on the whatsitcalled on top, we'd get a tennis ball, or some kinda rubber one, and we'd go whack, ball'd go for miles, you know. I never understood cricket, I have tried, it's very complicated, you know." Joe, Malahide resident.

"This is big for us, you think you know, but you can't know, you can only know if you are one of us, because this for us, we did this on our own, we never thought this would happen, and now, you know, those are my friends out there, right, I never thought… you know, how could you." Unknown Malahide Cricket Club drinker.

"My heart was beating a little bit faster than what it normally does when I was taking guard." Will Porterfield, Ireland Test captain.

***

Ed Joyce walks like a man trying to get somewhere; there's no strut, not an extravagant stride, he's on his way to a clear destination, a hurried pragmatic gait. This time it is off the ground, having just tried to steal a run after hitting the ball towards the right hand of midwicket. In the first innings, after a lifetime of cricket, he got to the middle and received a questionable lbw. That's cricket, that's Test cricket when you don't have DRS.

Now he's walking while the decision is still being made, because he is a realist, and he thinks he's out, so he doesn't want to waste his time. It is only within the last few steps of the rope that he stops, wondering why he's not yet been given. He asks the fourth umpire and Andrew Balbirnie, both on the other wide of the rope, what is going on. The delay keeps going. Mostly he just stands there, waiting.

If any man knows how to wait, it's an Irish cricketer.

Outside the ground there are flashing traffic signs that say, "IRL V PAK TEST MATCH, 11-15 MAY, EXPECT DELAYS". Joyce receives the bad news; he leaves the ground. For most of his life Joyce has been waiting, Irish cricket has been waiting even longer. Joyce himself may be out, but the wait is over.

***

A scoreline of 159 for 6. It's not definitive, but it's something. And it's led by Stuart Thompson. There were raised eyebrows when Thompson was picked - even he was surprised at his selection. He hasn't played for Ireland for a long time. And had there not been grey skies forecast, Andy McBrine - the offspinner - might have played instead.

Recently Thompson made a big hundred in the inter-provincial championship, and he made another for his club side Eglinton last week. But he's been picked in this side to bat at No.8 so his main job is bowling. There's no speedo at this ground, but he's solidly medium-pace, often coming on second change for his team North West Warriors. In his first game for Ireland, he didn't bowl in the first innings, and came on fifth change in the second. In 12 first-class games he had taken 19 wickets at 39.

Kevin O'Brien and Stuart Thompson built a big stand for the seventh wicket © Sportsfile/Getty Images

Thompson runs in like a club bowler, the player you see play and think, 'maybe I could face that'. The wicketkeeper is not that far back; he wobbles the ball around in the way you can when you don't have a lot of pace. One of his balls nipped, and Babar Azam played a weak shot, and he was out. And a little while later there was another similar edge from another ball with sideways movement, and captain Sarfraz Ahmed was out. 159 for 6.

In a nation's first Test, there is a time when you believe in miracles. That somehow this sport will allow the plucky upstart a special day, despite knowing full well that countries such as South Africa and New Zealand took decades to master the game. The non-believers will always claim you should only play Tests once you have mastered them.

And that's before you factor in the economy, kids' attention spans, the ever-increasing demands of modern life, plus - in Ireland's case - the fact that large parts of the country (or countries) just don't care about cricket at all.

As an Irish government official once told Cricket Ireland: "Why would we help you when the governing body of your sport doesn't even seem to want you?"

This was Ireland's chance to prove that they belonged, that the ICC's pathetic ten-team World Cup was a joke, that they deserved everything that was due to them.

But after getting on top, Ireland lost their edge. What had worked for them early in the match let them down when Pakistan played more sensibly. The Pakistan lower-order took away Ireland's opportunity, and by the time Ireland batted, all hope had gone. Their only chance at some redemption was to avoid losing by an innings. From 159 to 6 to nothing.

***

"Are you going to the cricket tomorrow. No. I'm going Friday because it starts that day."

"What time. 11am."

"7am?"

"You, you deaf idiot, 11."

"Have you been to the dentist?"

"No, that's next week."

Two patrons of Gibney's Pub.

***

Mohammad Amir sent Niall O'Brien's stumps flying © Sportsfile/Getty Images

"They've got that quick fella no, the one that got in trouble, he's back, no, he'll give our boys some trouble, no?"

Malahide is not a hotbed of cricket fans, most know little to nothing of the Pakistan players. The only player they mentioned at all was Mohammad Amir, if not always by name, then by reputation.

Within Irish cricket, people knew Amir's name, they knew his reputation, and it was him that they feared. Not that they thought the other bowlers were mediocre, it's just that Amir was the one who featured in their nightmares, running through their team.

Amir never quite did that, mostly because he's been too good for the Irish team. According to CricViz, 14% of his first spell beat the bat. He went for less than a run an over in the first innings, and his spell on the morning of day four was breath-taking, and all done with a limp.

It was his spell against Porterfield that revealed the main difference between the teams. Porterfield is a decent white-ball player, but he has a first-class average of 30, and he was trying to dig in for a big knock.

Other than Joyce, no player was more likely to stay around for as long. But not against Amir. In the first innings, Porterfield was just trying to hang on to lunch. Amir went wide of the crease, straightened the ball, uprooted his stump. In the second innings, Amir started by moving the ball away, and Porterfield struggled to lay bat on it. Amir then moved the ball in, which resulted in a few lbw shouts. And then - after a brief delay when Niall O'Brien lost two of his stumps - Amir nipped the ball away from Porterfield and found his edge. It was never a case of if, just when, and how.

And perhaps the most significant difference between the two teams wasn't even Amir, nor even Mohammad Abbas who took nine wickets, or the constant threat of Shadab Khan. It was that Hasan Ali wasn't even playing, and had he been allowed to play as a ringer for the opposition, he would have been Ireland's best bowler by a distance. This Pakistan team might not be the No.1 side of a few years ago, but they have real quality. And Ireland are still relying on their ageing skipper and his average of 30.

***

Two men, foreigners, stood on the outfield watching Ireland train on the Tuesday before the match. Trent Johnston, the former captain of Ireland, and Warren Deutrom, the current CEO. An Australian and an Englishman had been so crucial in delivering the country to their first Test.

In the innings break of their seminal World Cup win over Pakistan in 2007, Johnston had screamed at the Irish players about how they could play out of their skins in pursuit of 133, or just go back to their day jobs. He himself then hit the winning six to cap one of cricket's greatest displays of captaincy. This grumpy - his words - Aussie simply dragged Ireland through thick and thin, until there was almost nothing left in his legs.

When Deutrom took over the job as CEO of Cricket Ireland, there were only two other employees: coach Adrian Birrell (a South African whose role was transformative) and Marie, a part-time office administrator. That was eleven years ago, and look at what he created. He took the passion of the Irish for cricket, and he made an amateur team into a Test team in the space of 11 years.

Mick Jagger enjoys the Test at Malahide © Sportsfile/Getty Images

But if you give these imports credit, what of Irish cricket itself? What an incredible thing it is - a family, literally. When past players look out on the current teams, they see their sons and daughters, or those of their team-mates. It is that family, from the weather-beaten villages of the North West, to the posh hearts of Dublin and Belfast, who have kept this game going. And that wasn't easy. Nationalism, the lack of any real administration, and the GAA have all done their best to end cricket in Ireland. But those who loved it kept it going. Even in the lean years between 1969 and 2007, cricket never tired.

Last week there was a story in The Sunday Times by former Irish player Peter O'Reilly, recalling the last days of fellow player Robin Waters. At one point Waters turned to O'Reilly and said: "We're all Test cricketers now".

But it's not just about the players. Every time you talk to a player from Ireland they mention the thousands of scorers, officials, coaches and volunteers who kept Irish cricket going. This is a family - some adopted, most local. From the under-13 scorers to the great Alec O'Riordan, they kept cricket alive against all the odds. It's because of everyone in Irish cricket that they are now a Test nation. In some ways, all the family are Test cricketers now.

***

There are two grounds at Malahide, the main ground, and an oval out the back with a synthetic pitch for the thirds and fourths to play on. On that ground, on Saturday and Sunday, there were kids playing their own games. And inside the ground, at the back of the Malahide stands, there were just as many kids playing. As Porterfield said, "there's going to be hundreds of little kids aspiring to be Kevin O'Brien in backstreet cricket".

If you lined up the entire Irish team in full kit, and then stood Kevin O'Brien beside them in jeans and a Bob Marley T-shirt, he'd still look more Irish than the rest of them combined.

No one gets more out of himself for Ireland; he's Captain Ireland, the superhero of all their biggest days. A player of talent, but not immense talents, it's his performances that are immense. Because of when they come, and how they come. When Ireland needed one player to stand up, they had arguably six better batsmen to do it, but of course it was O'Brien who did so. Some of those kids playing in and around the ground were doing so because of 2007, some because of 2011, and the next crop will be because of this Test. Kevin O'Brien was instrumental to them all. He puts Irish cricket on his back, and because of that, they're on the map.

And what he has done is important, because while cricket in Ireland was always improving, large parts of Ireland don't care about cricket at all. O'Brien grabs attention with his shot and his shock of hair. By day five, Ireland's newspapers had him on the back page; on day one, some hadn't even mentioned the cricket there at all.

O'Brien also matters to the small parts of Ireland that care. They know they've had talent before, they've seen Dekker Curry hit a six off the first ball; they've heard the stories about Jimmy Boucher and know Dermott Monteith averaged 25 for Middlesex with the ball. Their passion is incredible. They care like any hardcore fan from anywhere in the world does; they are immersed in it. For them, this isn't just a game; it's their family. It's their everything. Every ICC decision that causes most cricket fans to sigh, or simply ignore, is deeply personal to them; they love cricket, they play it with all their hearts, they are better than their abilities suggest. They want a shot.

Irish cricket fights because Irish cricket has to fight. On day four, that is what O'Brien does, because that is what Irish cricket does.

***

Ireland line up for their anthem © Sportsfile/Getty Images

"Malahide Cricket Club, founded 1861," the sign says.

From the outside the clubrooms look uninspiring: tacky rendered walls, uninspiring late 20th-century architecture. But once you're in there, you realise how strong cricket is in Ireland. This is a cricket club. If you've ever walked into one, you've walked into this one. It feels like home to a cricketer, and if the surroundings themselves don't do the trick, then the people certainly do.

On day one, in the Malahide Cricket Club, a guy plays a guitar set. A local leans over to me and says: "That's Eoin Morgan's best man, least I think it is, I think, maybe, I don't know for sure", he leaves to go check.

Doug Goodwin stops by to talk about his bowling at Sion Mills, and reaffirm his belief that Alec O'Riordan didn't swing it as much as him. Graham Ford's son, who has made back-to-back hundreds for Malahide, is greeted by teammates.

You meet a new person, and they tell you how they played age-group cricket for Ireland, or their brother did, or their sister, their father too. They all know each other, stories are exaggerated, tales are told, jokes are made about shots played in front of a handful of fans.

In the big countries, we often ignore the clubs. Cricket is about Tests and some first-class. In Ireland you can't ignore it, this is their first men's Test, and it's in a club ground. Malahide aren't even in the first division of the Leinster League; they're a division two team.

The thing is, other than Malahide Cricket Club itself, there is no permanent structure at the ground. Everything else here has been erected for the occasion, at the cost of roughly Euro 1 million. There is nothing else here, just love for cricket, and a community who live for the game.

Right now Cricket Ireland is making a new facility, in Abbotstown. On the site of the National Sports Campus which, according to their website, "is providing state-of-the-art sports facilities to elite athletes in Ireland while offering valuable amenities and sport programmes to all of the community". This is what Irish cricket needs, a stadium they need not erect each time a big opponent pops over to visit. A professional sports structure and a home.

But Abbotstown - which is near to the historic Phoenix Park where cricket has been played since 1731 - is not like Malahide. It's not a beautiful little village with a cricket club and Gibney's pub down the road. Abbotstown is a purpose-built sporting complex for Irish sport, paid for by the government. Removed from club cricket, and villages, like a shopping centre erected on an empty lot in the part of town where no one used to go.

Ireland cricket desperately needs a proper home, but when they get to Abbotstown, maybe they could put up a club bar, with photos of local legends, with a broken bat that won a third XI game, and on Wednesday and Thursday nights, bring old timers together to complain about the overseas pro. Because that is Irish cricket; they are the club team that takes on the world.

It will be Abbotstown that turns Irish cricket from club to pro.

***

After yeas of hard work, Test cricket comes to Ireland © PA Photos

The train from Belfast hasn't stopped at Malahide for years. Twenty years, some locals say, 10 say others. It goes through Malahide station, but there has been no reason for it to stop. This week it did. For Ireland's maiden Test match.

Ireland lost, which is what everyone expected, but they did it in a manner that proved that they belong. When Ireland play, they play for their families, their community, their team, their friends, and for the other associates. They play so the train stops in Malahide.

Around him, there are producers, officials, and the various people needed to put on an end-of-play interview. Many lanyards and headsets, cameras of all kinds. But William Porterfield stares blankly, looking at no one, not moving at all. There are probably 50 people around him, not one goes up to him, no one says anything. Then he reaches his hand up to his eye, he rubs at it, he rubs it for a while, and he looks away from all the producers. Maybe something flew into his eye. It's possible, but it looked like something moved him.

Sri Lanka's first Test was talked about as if an excitable newborn baby had been delivered. Bangladesh's first Test was acclaimed as the second coming of their nation. Ireland's is so different; it's more like two old best friends catching up after years, seeing something they've wanted to witness their whole life, and quietly having a moment across a crowded room. It's not as dramatic, but every bit as touching.

This week at Malahide, a lot of people seemed to have something in their eyes.

Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber

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