Josh Little missing Lord's Test 'the best thing' for Ireland - Andy Balbirnie
"We are incredibly proud to play at Lord's, [but] it's not a pinnacle event," says Ireland performance director
When Ireland walk out at Lord's on Thursday to play only their seventh men's Test match, they will do so without their best bowler. Josh Little is yet to make his Test debut but has thrived in one-day and T20 cricket, and would have been among the first names on Ireland's teamsheet. But, to the frustration of many Ireland supporters, he is not available for selection.
Little has spent most of the last two months in India, becoming the first active Ireland player to feature in the IPL. His contract with Gujarat Titans is worth INR 4.4 crore (€500,000 approx.) - around six times the value of his Ireland central contract - and he played in eight of their 14 group games, missing three to play an ODI series against Bangladesh.
And while Ireland are determined to put up a good show at Lord's, they have opted to give Little the week off in order to ensure he arrives at next month's 50-over World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe - and July's T20 World Cup Qualifier in Scotland - feeling fresh after a long winter playing franchise and international cricket around the world.
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"Josh asked us initially if he could have a period of rest ahead of the World Cup Qualifier," explained Richard Holdsworth, Cricket Ireland's performance director. "Our management team and the selectors discussed that issue in detail and were amicably in agreement that actually, that was in the best interests of Josh and the team.
"We are incredibly proud to go and play against England and at Lord's. It's a special occasion," Holdsworth said. "However, it's not a pinnacle event. And where we have to put our energies and ensure we have the best team on the park is in our pinnacle events.
"Going to a World Cup Qualifier where only 10 teams [two from the Qualifier] can qualify for that World Cup, that is still the biggest prize in the game as far as we're concerned, and certainly as far as the world game is concerned."
Cricket Ireland's decision has caused some disquiet. "I'd say there are people who are not happy with that," Andy Balbirnie, Ireland's captain, told ESPNcricinfo. "There'll be a lot of people at Lord's, and there won't be a lot of people in Zimbabwe or Scotland [for the Qualifiers].
"And Lord's, for an Irish supporter, is fairytale stuff. People in Ireland, I think, got their love of cricket from listening to Test Match Special and watching cricket on Channel Four - like myself - in the nineties and early 2000s. It was always England Tests - and now we're the team playing on TMS.
"If you're an Irish cricket fan, you're like, 'This is amazing, this is dreamland stuff.' So naturally you'd be like, 'Why aren't we playing our best team when they're not injured?' But there's a bigger picture: we understand that the Qualifiers are where we need to be at our best. There's probably a few moans and groans about it but I think for us - and for Josh - it's the best thing."
Little has already missed all three of Ireland's Tests this year - one in Bangladesh, two in Sri Lanka - in order to fulfil his Titans commitments, but Balbirnie said that he had "no issue" with him missing international fixtures to play in the IPL if it had long-term benefits for Irish cricket.
"Naturally, I would love to have him next week. I'm not saying I wouldn't," Balbirnie said. "But I have no issue with him playing in the IPL; if anything, I want him to be there. I want him on that stage because it's good for Irish cricket, it's good for our players.
"In the space of a year, he's gone from not really on the IPL radar to potentially being in the winning squad. It's good for the people below him - the young players - because they can strive to be the next Josh Little. The knock-down effect it has is far more important than whether he plays the Test match at Lord's."
Holdsworth added that, without any red-ball preparation behind him, Little might struggle to manage the physical demands of Test cricket: "The majority of the cricket he has been playing is T20 and bowling four overs is not good enough to prepare any cricketer to play Test cricket, where they could be bowling 20-plus overs a day and maybe for two innings.
"We didn't feel physically he was actually going to be ready for that having had no preparation for that Test match. His preparation was literally going to be coming out of the IPL and arriving a couple of days before the Test match."
Instead, Ireland will go into the Test with a depleted seam attack - with Barry McCarthy and Conor Olphert both unavailable through injury. They are preparing with a three-day, first-class warm-up match at Chelmsford, against an Essex side which features four of their own squad members.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98