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Comment

Ireland's call goes unanswered as Lord's prepares to underwhelm

Under-strength, under-prepared tourists arrive in London with dice grossly loaded against them

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
30-May-2023
For all the grandeur that Lord's offers up whenever you step through its doors, there's something about its early-season Test that has never quite felt right, ever since the 'tradition' of two matches per summer first came into being nearly a quarter-of-a-century ago.
First it was a series of turkey-shoots, with outclassed opponents such as Zimbabwe (2000 and 2003) and Bangladesh (2005) finding the occasion, the mid-May conditions and the opposition all too much to process.
Then came the advent of the IPL, and the first rumblings of discontent from the players involved - with visiting teams arriving with increasing reluctance, in some cases only hours before the toss, until Kevin Pietersen's bitter stand-off with the ECB in the early 2010s exploded the myth that the honour and glory of Test cricket would forever trump T20's more lucrative tractor-beam.
On West Indies' tour in 2009, Chris Gayle caused the first of his many stirs by declaring he would "not be so sad" if Test cricket died out.
But one year before that, New Zealand had been the early-season visitors, a certain Brendon McCullum among them. His startling 158 for Kolkata Knight Riders on the IPL's opening night in April 2008 remains arguably the tournament's definitive performance, but less well remembered is how brief his stay that year was.
Four matches and barely two weeks after lighting up that opening night at the Chinnaswamy, McCullum was playing in a three-day warm-up match for New Zealand against Essex at Chelmsford (making 4 and 35 in a 92-run win) and no doubt getting his first inklings of a mounting existential crisis within cricket that has now led him to embark on his Test-match rescue mission with England.
But, with apologies to the myriad mismatches that Lord's has hosted in the English early season - all of which have played an underacknowledged role in hollowing out the very sanctity of Test cricket - Thursday's encounter with Ireland is already shaping up as the most grotesque of the lot.
And quite frankly, even if Andy Balbirnie's men achieve the unthinkable and avoid an awful and unfair thrashing over the coming four days, in terms of input rather than outcome, there may never have been a more unequal struggle in the history of English cricket.
"Hopefully that inspires the next generation as well, seeing a Josh Little at the IPL. Maybe we can find another Josh Little playing in the middle of Malahide."
Ireland coach Heinrich Malan defends the absence of his side's star fast bowler
It's quite the claim to make, when you consider the weakness of many early touring teams - the South Africans of the early 1900s, or India's first forays in the 1930s, when well-heeled makeweights such as the Maharaj of Vizianagram (33 Test runs) further undermined the competitive balance.
More recently, of course, Zimbabwe were gutted by political machinations long before their suspension from Test status. But until Ireland clubbed together to play (and lose) three Tests against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in April, they had not played a Test match since their last appearance at Lord's in 2019. Nor had most of their players even played so much as a first-class game in the same period, after their fledgling domestic competition was put into mothballs during Covid and never brought back out again.
That lack of first-class cricket, incidentally, also covers a wealth of potential experience that they've not been permitted on the county circuit, due to the reclassification of Ireland-qualified players as overseas signings. Hence Tim Murtagh, the man whose five-for routed England for 85 on that heady first day at Lord's in 2019, was forced to retire from internationals even though he's still doing the business for Middlesex in the County Championship at the age of 41, while the crucial experience that the circuit offered to the spine of that 2019 team - William Porterfield, Kevin O'Brien, Gary Wilson, Paul Stirling and Boyd Rankin among them - has not been replicated for the class of 2023.
"When you think about the inexperience, it is what it is," Heinrich Malan, Ireland's head coach, said. "But it's also the starting point for us. It is challenging when you think none of our lads have played a lot of domestic first-class cricket for a period of time, but it's also our duty to go out there and do our best for our country.
"We are pretty much at the bottom of that Everest," he added, "but it's an exciting opportunity for us to try and climb that as quickly as we can."
The climb, however, is made all the harder by the ongoing escalation of cricket's club-versus-country struggle - one that last week veered uncomfortably close even to English circles with Jason Roy's decision to negotiate an early release from his incremental contract to play in the first season of Major League Cricket (all two weeks of it, none of which - for this season at least - would have overlapped with any England commitments).
For Ireland, however, the implications are vastly more serious, and the cause célèbre for the coming contest is surely the absent Josh Little, their star left-arm seamer who will spend the week with his feet up having played for Gujarat Titans in the IPL final in Ahmedabad on Monday night - a contest that his team-mates happened to watch on a mobile phone in the frozen-food section of a North London corner shop, of all the poignant vignettes with which you could hope to illustrate such a tale.
"There's no one in the changing room that has any issue with Josh playing the IPL and we all wish him really, really well," Malan said. "But hopefully things work out moving forward so that, when these sorts of opportunities do come across our desk as an Ireland international cricket side, we can have our best teams playing for us.
"Hopefully that inspires the next generation as well, seeing a Josh Little at the IPL. Maybe we can find another Josh Little playing in the middle of Malahide."
Malan perhaps did not intend to scorch the international game any further with his remark, but it does increasingly feel that the uber-carrot of an IPL deal is a far more realistic means for Little to help inspire a generation than any exploits he could yet produce for his country.
According to a report in the Sunday Independent, Little's Test career may now be over before it has begun, with the bowler said to be angry at being described as an "unsustainable investment" by Richard Holdsworth, Cricket Ireland's performance director, after featuring in just "two [actually three] out of 23 days" of international cricket in the past four months.
Each of those three days with Ireland occurred at Chelmsford earlier this month, for which Little broke off from his IPL stint to aid their optimistic but not unrealistic challenge of winning three games out of three against Bangladesh, and so leapfrog South Africa in their bid for automatic World Cup qualification.
In the event, a first-match washout wrecked their chances, and thereafter Ireland cut a discombobulated outfit, theoretically playing a home ODI series but in fact finding themselves outgunned on and off the field by a raucously pro-Bangladeshi fanbase than outnumbered their supporters by approximately 3000 to 30.
Holdsworth also happens to have been the first person to say the quiet bit out loud, namely that this Test does not constitute a "pinnacle event", given Ireland's financial future is effectively resting on their forthcoming World Cup qualifiers. The 50-over event is now looming for them in Zimbabwe next month, with the 20-over version for European teams following soon afterwards in Scotland.
And while Holdsworth is entirely within his rights to prick the pomposity of a format that has let Ireland down right from the moment they were handed Full Member status in 2017 (one Test per year of status is pitiful by any standards), it hardly adds much heft to a spectacle that is already grotesquely overshadowed by the Ashes, and facing further complications due to rail strikes that are likely to affect the attendance at an underwhelmed Lord's.
There's no question that Ireland have the pride and the talent to put up a fight this week. Harry Tector, the ICC's No. 7-ranked ODI batter is a truly thrilling prospect, while several of their players - Curtis Campher, Lorcan Tucker, Balbirnie and Stirling among them - were in the runs even in defeat in Sri Lanka last month.
But against England's Bazballers, in an Ashes summer, with the dice so grossly loaded against them that they can neither put out their best team nor practise adequately in the (traditionally) best format, it's asking an awful lot of Ireland - and a beleaguered Test game - for the coming contest to be even moderately compelling.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket