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Ireland set for multiple debuts as they return to Test cricket after four-year gap

Their XI is likely to include PJ Moor and James McCollum, who went to Mumbai to prepare to face Bangladesh's spinners

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
Andy Balbirnie will be captaining Ireland for the first time in Test cricket  •  Getty Images

Andy Balbirnie will be captaining Ireland for the first time in Test cricket  •  Getty Images

There is excitement in the Ireland camp ahead of their return to Test cricket after more than three years. Captain Andy Balbirnie, himself about to lead the Test team for the first time, set the scene by talking about how they could have several Test debutants, one of whom could also be cutting his teeth in first-class cricket. Ireland have been so out of loop from Test cricket that they stopped playing the longer-version game at home.
But it won't just be the novelty factor of playing a Test match. The excitement has translated to couple of them, PJ Moor and James McCollum, taking the extra step. The pair were in Mumbai couple of weeks ago to have a few sessions of specifically playing spin in the Global Cricket School. It is a cricket programme, founded by Sachin Bajaj in 2007, quite popular with county and European cricketers.
Moor and McCollum worked under Vinayak Mane, the former Mumbai batter, at the Parsi Gymkhana ground. Mane said that their focus was obviously on spin as they were preparing for the Tests in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka this month.
"They were mainly playing spin," Mane told ESPNcricinfo. "They will be facing that in the Tests in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. They were mainly facing different kind of spinners. Our role was to arrange lots of spinners, and give them a feedback how they approach. I think they are pretty well equipped. They have decent techniques. They are very aware of what they will encounter in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. They will be facing couple of left-arm spinners and offspinners. Nowadays professionals do have a lot of information about their opposition."
Mane said that he impressed upon Moor and McCollum the general playing style of encountering spin in the sub-continent.
"Being an Indian batsman, I always think of it as a game of cat and mouse, more so against spinners," Mane said. "In a Test match, you set a spinner up. You can hang back and get him to come towards you and move out. There are times you move out and then hang back. It is a tactical game, which you can keep playing in a Test match."
Moor has played in this region previously. In fact his last Test was for Zimbabwe at the Shere Bangla National Stadium in 2018. Ireland captain Balbirnie said that Moor's experience is invaluable to a team that comes up short in that aspect.
"[Moor] brings experience, he has played eight Tests. More than double of any of our players," Balbirnie said. "He has played a number of first-class matches too. I think he played a Test here with Zimbabwe so he has knowledge of the ground. He is really good with the younger guys. He will be crucial for us for the next two or three weeks."
Ireland's big challenge in the one-off Test in Dhaka will be to stretch themselves in all departments. Balbirnie said their players have to bat, bowl and field for longer periods than they are used to in white-ball cricket.
"I think [the challenge will be] the longevity. A lot of our guys don't have a huge amount of first-class experience," Balbirnie said. "Five-day Tests are very different. A lot of our guys have been brought up on white-ball cricket. A batter has to set himself to bat for as long as possible. Bowlers have to be as disciplined as possible. That's going to be the biggest challenge. Conditions will play a part in terms of the heat. These guys need to learn on the job."
He called the occasion so unique that one of their players, Matthew Humphreys most likely, could be making his first-class debut in this Test match. "It is not many times in recent history that there's going to be a lot of Test debuts," Balbirnie said. "It only happens to the new nations. It would have happened to Bangladesh in the early 2000s. We are going to have a bit of a get-together tonight to do some presentations. I think if we do it in the morning, it will take too long.
"It is certainly unique. We have potentially someone making his first-class debut tomorrow. I can't think of a cricketer who has done that before."
In fact, the last time so many cricketers made their Test debut for reasons other than inaugural Tests, South Africa's readmission or West Indies' 2009 players' boycott, was a South Africa-New Zealand Test in 1961.
Balbirnie said Ireland are up against a Bangladesh side that is known to do well at home, so the message to the team has been to simply play without any trepidation.
"A lot has happened." he said. "We have been through a pandemic. There's been so much changes. Players have gone. Players have come in. It was a memorable occasion in 2019 for a lot of Irish cricket people. This is memorable as well.
"This is a big cricketing nation, playing against a top team. A lot of good teams have come here and got unstuck. The message is to go out and play, not hold too many fears. There's not a lot to lose in a one-off Test. So we want to enjoy it."
Balbirnie himself is leading the Test side for the first time. He said he may have to lean on his team-mates for help from time to time. "It will be nice. I was fortunate to play under William Porterfield for a long time. I know how much it meant for him to captain the Test team. It is certainly different for me.
"I don't think I have captained in first-class cricket so it brings its own challenges as well. It is exciting. There will be times I will have to think on my feet, and look for help from the other players. It is part of the challenge of being a Test cricketer."
Ireland's return to Test cricket is already a memorable moment for them. The excitement will start from the eve of the Test when they will hold a special cap ceremony.
They will also have a keen follower from Mumbai. "Couple of guys who did the sessions with me will play for Ireland tomorrow," Mane said. "In any case I love Test cricket, so I will definitely be eager to follow the game tomorrow."

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84