County-ing their blessings!

As Ireland steps on to the big stage, the cricketing fraternity believes that long English county stints have helped Irish cricketers get used to the longer format of the game.

Kevin O'Brien scored a century in Ireland's first-ever Test match against Pakistan at Malahide.   -  Getty Images

Ireland may have lost its first-ever Test match, but its cricketers have ensured that they win hearts. Even after being imposed a follow-on by its opponent, Pakistan, in the first innings, the William Porterfield-led side bounced back — thanks to a gritty century by Kevin O’Brien. It’s a different story that in the end it lost by five wickets to a superior Pakistan side, but the way Ireland fought in the Test has earned praises from the cricketing fraternity.

History books show that there is a common trend of teams tending to struggle in their first-ever Test match. But for the first innings jitters, Ireland played in a manner as if it was quite used to the longer format. And, many in the fraternity believe that the experience of playing in English county cricket for long has helped the Irish cricketers.

William Porterfield plays a shot during Ireland's debut Test match against Pakistan.   -  Getty Images


Ireland’s wicketkeeper-batsman Niall O’Brien tells Sportstar that a long stint in county cricket has actually been a booster in his career. “I played county cricket for 14 years and learnt my trade there,” Niall says. “We have played a lot of county cricket so we know how to play the longer format of the game. We never panicked even when we had a bad first innings. We showed our character,” the 36-year-old adds.

READ: Niall hopeful of Ireland raising its bar in Test cricket

Now, with the country attaining Test status, the Irish cricketers will be considered ‘overseas cricketers’ for county championships from next year and Niall believes that it is important for Ireland to develop its own competition.

Former Zimbabwe captain Tatenda Taibu, who now lives in Liverpool, also admits that playing in England for many years has actually helped Irish cricketers in a big way. “Remember, Ireland cricket gets a lot of assistance from England and a lot of their players are into county cricket, which is of great help. They are playing a lot of four-day cricket, which is beneficial,” says Taibu, who until recently was a selector for Zimbabwe.

The former stumper-batsman adds: “They would get better because the more they play against the top teams, the more they get used to the pace of the game at the highest level — they get used to the swings and spin,” he points out.

Australia pace great and former bowling coach of the Aussie side Craig McDermott is of a similar view. “They obviously have had a number of players in county cricket and they have really well. Hopefully, that will help them in Test matches,” McDermott says.

Though he agrees that the Ireland players have benefited largely from county cricket, former Bangladesh captain Akram Khan is not willing to judge the team just by one Test match. Having played in Bangladesh’s first-ever Test match — against India in November, 2000 — Khan admits that for any team, surviving the first few games is always a tricky affair. “You cannot judge a team just by one Test match. We scored 400-plus runs in the first innings of our opening Test against India. But the same team folded for 90 odd runs in the next Test. We will be able to assess them after 10 Tests. Here, you need to pick 10 wickets and play as a unit,” Khan says, adding: “Ireland’s advantage is that they play county cricket, which prepares you well. It is a great learning ground.”

Despite following on, Ireland made Pakistan work hard for the win at the Malahide Oval in Dublin on Tuesday.   -  Getty Images


But then, with the players losing the long-cherished county stint from next season, will the challenge be greater? Emmet Riordan, Ireland’s seasoned cricket writer who covers the sport for The Irish Times, feels that a clearer picture will be available only next summer. “Some players may actually decide to play the county championship. If that happens, we may lose a few players. We have to wait till next summer for that,” Riordan says.

Most of the players, however, turn up for the local first-class tournaments, and Riordan, who has covered the team for the last two decades, says that conducting a Test match costs a lot of money, and because of that there could only be a couple of Test matches a year. “We will actually get to know a lot next week when the FTP (Future Tours Programme) is announced. The big thing is, Test matches cost a lot of money to put up in Ireland, because we only have a pop-up stadium. Unlike England or India, we don’t have stadiums across the country. It costs over a million euros to host a Test. So, two or three Test matches a year is what Cricket Ireland would ideally want to host,” Riordan says, adding that things could only get better once Cricket Ireland has its own stadium.

In the post-match conference after the Pakistan Test, Ireland skipper Porterfield was blunt enough to point out that his team’s resolve in the second innings proves its elevation to Test cricket was deserved. “The biggest thing was how we fought back in the second innings with the bat — that showed the character we have,” he says.

“It’s something that’s been talked about during big occasions, World Cups. That’s always been known to be there, but Test cricket is Test cricket for a reason, it’s there in the name, you did get tested and we were after the first innings. To get up to close to 350 showed what we’ve got in the changing room and the passion that we have for playing our cricket,” the vastly experienced skipper noted.

With the fraternity heaping praise on the team, Ireland’s cricketers would love to believe that the longer stints in the English county cricket have prepared them for the big stage. And now, with a good start, it would be on them to carry on the momentum.

Well begun is half done!

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