A deferred dream, a win on the line for Afghanistan, Ireland

In the second Test for both sides, only one will win and for some, it could be the sole Test triumph of their career

Trains ran erratically in Malahide the day Ireland made their Test debut in May 2018. It was a great day in their history. It was something they had worked almost all their professional lives for. It was something in fact they had given up on. Now they were no longer "Associates", a tag their captain William Porterfield doesn't seem fond of. "It was always two innings in the backyard when I played with [my brother] Niall," says Kevin O'Brien. Oh, the hype, the build-up. The families were all there. The crowds were all excited. The pubs were filled with the talk around Test cricket.
It was nearly a year in the making, in that the announcement that Ireland were now a Test team was made in June 2017. As some of the veterans of that side will tell you, it was actually a lifetime in the making. And then when the big day arrived, it rained. It rained, and it rained, and it rained. Another night of anticipation, of sleeplessness, and cruelly four of these guys' first innings in Test cricket ended inside eight overs. And Gary Wilson injured himself during warm-up that very day.
Half the side gone in eight overs. Porterfield, who has rallied for the Associates all his career, could feel the knives were sharpening. "If we had rolled over and lost by an innings," he recounts, "a lot of people would have questioned us."
Later that month, in a totally different setting, Afghanistan, Ireland's much-more celebrated Associate cousins, prepared for their Test debut in Dehradun in India. Dehradun, about which Boyd Rankin recently and politely said: "There isn't much else to do here, but it's been nice to have a games room here with pool and table tennis to kill some time. We have been very well looked after by the hotel staff here which has been great." There really isn't. Unless you want to get lost in the nature in the outskirts, which you can't really do when playing international cricket every other day.
At the risk of offending Afghanistan, there are parallels between the town and the Test status for the team that calls it home. One fine day, the giant state of Uttar Pradesh got carved into two, and this beautiful old town found itself in a strategically perfect location to be the capital of the new state, Uttarakhand. With that came a boom that the town didn't have infrastructure for.
Afghanistan, with all the talent they had, ruled the Associate world, but didn't go through the struggle Ireland went through nor had the first-class structure, some might contend. Naturally gifted and hence deserving of Test status by virtue of being the best Associate team, but possibly unaware of what to do with it now. A bit like their home base in India.
Their approach to their Test debut was somewhat cavalier. They spent most of the time playing T20Is in a place hundreds of miles from the venue of their Test. Only Test specialists got some Test training, but how much of this two-timing can the same support staff manage with international cricket on? Add to it erratic timings because of the fasting in the month of Ramadan just before the Test. Go to sleep at 3am, Test specialists train at 8am, others in the afternoon, then fasting, and more crucially only two days or so of red-ball practice for some key players in the side.
In two days, unlike Ireland, they rolled over. "These are not excuses, but they contribute," says Mohammad Shahzad. "I still remember that Test just passed us by. We didn't even realise what was going on when the match was on. Only later did we realise that we have already played a Test match."
O'Brien says: "We knew we were Test cricketers. Nobody could take it away from us," aware not many would have shed a tear if Ireland hadn't got Test status in his cricketing lifetime. Nobody could take it away, but many would have questioned it bitterly, the way they did Afghanistan a month later if it hadn't been for O'Brien's hundred in the second innings, which not only averted an innings defeat but also gave Pakistan a scare in the final innings.
That second dig, after having been bowled out for 130 by some pretty good seam bowlers in helpful conditions, showed Ireland they could stick around in Test cricket. They had the experience of having played a lot of first-class cricket as professionals in England, but this was a notch higher.
Asked to follow on, it was during the 26 wicket-less overs on the third evening that Porterfield could say: yes this is Test cricket, and we are playing it. It was high and sustained pressure, excellent seam bowling, and it took the best out of two Ireland stalwarts, Porterfield and Ed Joyce, to thwart Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Abbas and Rahat Ali.
"Probably some of the most enjoyable personally was in the second innings when Mohammad Amir bowled a spell," Porterfield says. "That's where you really felt, 'Yes this is Test cricket.' The bowler is giving you nothing, and the wicket is doing a bit. You have to enjoy that challenge. If you don't, there is no pint being on that pitch."
It was this 29-over partnership that O'Brien later built on. "I didn't change much except look to play along the ground after my first-innings dismissal at extra cover," O'Brien says. "I just kept telling Stuart [Thompson], 'Let's get five more, 10 more, five more, make Pakistan bat again.'" And those five runs, 10 runs, came and kept coming until Pakistan were asked to chase 160, and reduced to 14 for 3 inside five overs.
Afghanistan never gave themselves the opportunity to do that. Mohammad Nabi admits as much, and says this time is different. He says their Test specialists - promising fast bowlers Yamin Ahmadzai and Wafadar Momand, batsmen like Nasir Jamal and Ikram Ali Khil - have been preparing exclusively with the red ball for a month now. They have played little first-class cricket since the Bangalore debacle - many have played none at all, but at least this is a start. And these are teams that need to look after themselves because international cricket won't. The gap between the two Tests - 10 months for Ireland and nine for Afghanistan - is part of the chicken-egg situation: how do you do well without experience, and how do you get experience if you don't play, which depends on your doing well?
At least there is a realisation you have to play fewer shots in Tests. "We have done it in Intercontinental Cup, but we need to be extra careful in Tests," says Shahzad. That you have to do things for longer in Test cricket. Afghanistan haven't seen the benefits of such persistence and resistance; Ireland have. Afghanistan are likely to finally have home conditions - they did get done in by India's ploy to lay out a seaming pitch, never mind the wickets that fell to Indian spinners too. Ireland will be in totally alien conditions against a spin attack waiting for the freshness of day one to wear out of the surface.
These are Test players, you can't take it away from them. Now it is a chance for them to add to it, a Test win that nobody can take away from them. Only one side will get it. Who knows when players from the other side will get that chance again?

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo