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'We know England are going to come at us. They're changing the way Test cricket is played'

Andy Balbirnie will captain Ireland at Lord's this week and opens up on the challenges of his role

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Andy Balbirnie will captain Ireland at Lord's this week, England vs Ireland, Only Men's Test, Lord's, May 30, 2023

Andy Balbirnie will captain Ireland at Lord's this week  •  PA Images/Getty

The magnitude of leading Ireland out in a Test match at Lord's hit home for Andy Balbirnie when his dad picked his captain's blazer up from the dry cleaner's. "I was going away and asked him to leave it at the dry cleaner's, because it was a bit dirty from Sri Lanka," Balbirnie explains.
"When he gave it back to me, he was like, 'It's kind of hard to believe you're going to be leading Ireland out at Lord's.' I hadn't really thought about it - it hasn't sunk in really. It's something which I'll look back at and think, 'Wow, that was a pretty special moment.'"
When Balbirnie was appointed captain in November 2019, Ireland had a sporadic red-ball fixture list confirmed for the following four years. But the pandemic meant it took until April 2023 for him to lead them in a Test match. "I was genuinely concerned that I wouldn't get the chance to," he reflects. "Covid put it on the back-burner and it went on for so long."
The opportunity finally came in Bangladesh last month, with two further Tests following soon after in Sri Lanka. "I'm a well-hardened Test cricketer now," Balbirnie jokes, when I bring up the fact he is the only man to have featured in each of their six Tests to date. "It's not a lot - but they are six Test caps that I didn't think I'd get at the start of my career."
"If we get bowled out for 30 in both innings against England but qualify for both World Cups, that's a win; that's our most successful summer ever."
Ireland's record in those games makes for grim reading: played six, lost six. The most recent three have been particularly tough, with eight players winning their first caps; in the case of spinners Matthew Humphreys and Ben White, their Test debuts were also their maiden first-class appearances.
Since the pandemic, Ireland have not staged any domestic first-class cricket, instead focusing their energy and funds on the white-ball formats. "My overwhelming feeling is it's not fair on the players," Balbirnie says. "You're asking guys who have no first-class or red-ball experience to go out and play in the toughest pressure situation you can imagine.
"I know we have our constraints back home - and hopefully in the next couple of years, first-class cricket will start to filter back - but if we're going to start playing more Tests, we have to have something in place. We need to look after our players a bit more and make sure that we don't just completely throw them into the hot pot of Test cricket.
"Even if it's three games a season: North against South. It doesn't have to be seven or eight games - just so you can pick a team and know what they're like with a red ball in their hand. We were picking teams for the Tests in Asia based on what we'd seen in the nets and how guys went in the one-dayers."
As a result, this week's Test at Lord's does not represent - as the board's performance director, Richard Holdsworth, put it - a "pinnacle event" for Ireland. Instead, their main targets for this summer are the upcoming qualifying tournaments for the 2023 ODI World Cup (in Zimbabwe in June) and the 2024 T20 World Cup (Scotland, July).
"We're going to be playing a qualifier in Scotland in front of maybe 30 people against Italy, and it's going to be far more important than the Test match," Balbirnie concedes. "I don't want that to sound disrespectful to England or the ECB because we're going to do our absolute best to try to get a result, and it's an honour to play at Lord's against England - but it's a one-off Test in the middle of the summer.
"The Ashes is their most important thing. I'd imagine they'll be looking at this as a glorified warm-up. If we get bowled out for 30 in both innings against England but qualify for both World Cups, that's a win; that's our most successful summer ever. I hope that doesn't happen, but World Cups are where we get our most publicity on the world stage and back home - particularly for a tournament in India and what that brings."
Despite Ireland's rise over the last 20 years, cricket remains a relatively niche sport back home. "We're getting there," Balbirnie says. "There's a lot more club teams in the country now. I still don't think we'll challenge rugby, football and GAA [Gaelic football and hurling] for a long time, if we ever do. But if we can be that fourth or fifth-biggest sport, that would be good.
"I was away in West Cork last weekend with Kate, my wife, and I had two people come up to me and say, 'You're Andy Balbirnie!' They were saying they were going to Lord's; Kate couldn't believe it. That's cool - it's a small step. I think there's a lot of closet cricket fans in Ireland, who are too afraid to say they're cricket fans because their mate from the GAA club will give them a slagging. But we are getting there."
The sticking point, as ever, is funding. Cricket Ireland are among the beneficiaries of the ICC's proposed revenue distribution model for 2024-27, with their share of annual earnings projected to rise from around 2% to just over 3%; the ICC has also provided a $5 million loan to the board for 2023 "to ensure it can meet its current financial needs".
"We're getting a fair bit more than we usually get. When the money comes through, there will be change for the better, I hope," Balbirnie says. "The problem we have is that we don't get a whole lot of money through sponsorship, which naturally the big countries get. They can live without the ICC money, potentially, whereas we rely on it so much; that's our main income.
"We see the numbers that India get and it's just staggering. I do understand that they do a lot for the game; the IPL is huge and really important for the game. I get that. But take Ireland out of it: there are countries where we were 20 years ago, scrapping for their lives to keep an organisation afloat and to keep a team afloat. And they're not even in the picture.
"They get a tiny, tiny cut. I'm not sitting around the table but I think there needs to be a bit more of a share for the countries below the top teams, because it's a world game. It's a world sport - and I've been to places where it's a small sport and they're fighting for their lives. They need all the support they can get."
Chief among Ireland's long-held ambitions is the desire to play home games at a new, purpose-built stadium in Abbotstown, on the outskirts of Dublin. Temporary infrastructure costs mean they lose money almost every time they play at Malahide, their main home venue, and the board hope that the new ground will be completed in time to stage fixtures during the 2030 men's T20 World Cup, which they will co-host with England and Scotland. "I'm not sure it'll happen in my career," Balbirnie says, "but I'd love to sit in the stands one day with Stirlo [Paul Stirling] and watch the young lads go at it against some of the best teams in the world."
Those "young lads" include wicketkeeper Lorcan Tucker, an unused squad members on Ireland's last visit to Lord's, and Harry Tector, their brightest batting prospect who will be carded at No. 4 this week. Josh Little is a high-profile absentee, resting after playing in Monday's IPL final, but Balbirnie believes his team can thrive on low expectations.
"They potentially have a few players playing for places for the Ashes," he says. "Their batters will be expected to get runs against us: that's just the pressure that England cricketers are under from the media, the pressure that we don't get. We have three or four journalists who follow cricket, and we don't have a whole heap of players coming through the system.
"It's an amazing challenge: they're changing the way Test cricket is being played, and we get a chance to play against them. It's pretty cool. We know they're going to come at us but as long as we can throw a punch back at that, that's all we can really ask. No-one's going to expect us to win whatsoever. We just want the guys to go out and play the game that we grew up loving."
Ireland's last visit to Lord's four years ago ranks as a career highlight for Balbirnie. "It was surreal," he recalls. "I remember having lunch on that first day, putting the pads on and pinching myself: we'd just bowled England out for 80-odd - and their tail wagged." Tim Murtagh took 5 for 13, and Balbirnie made a punchy 55 off 69 balls after lunch.
"Looking back, it was probably a big opportunity spurned. It was a great time to get them because there was still that hype and buzz straight after the World Cup final, and they were playing a few shots. It was all doom and gloom for them after that first day but it's a slightly different situation this time around."
For Balbirnie, the venue holds added significance. In his early 20s, he spent countless summer days at Lord's, first as an MCC Young Cricketer, then as a Middlesex player: "I wasn't necessarily playing - more running the drinks up and down from the changing rooms, and taking lads' jumpers on and off in April and May.
"I didn't think I'd ever play a Test match at Lord's and I'm about to play my second. I was chatting to a couple of the Bangladesh guys recently: Tamim Iqbal has played 70 Tests and has only played one of them at Lord's, so we're very fortunate to get the opportunity. It's probably the best sporting arena in the world that I've been to."
In Galle last month, Balbirnie was dismissed five runs short of a maiden Test hundred. "Everyone has said to me, 'Ah, just save it for Lord's,'" he says with a smile. "I'm like, 'OK lads, I'll just go and get a hundred at Lord's…'" It will be easier said than done, but Ireland and their captain are dreaming big.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98