The Test’s importance is negligible compared to the impending Ashes and World Cup Qualifiers.
Broader perspective: seeking the summit
“So, Ben, what will the Ashes competition entail for you?”
No offence was meant for England’s real opponents in tomorrow’s one-off Test against Ireland, but there was also no need to go back and answer the query, which was asked in the first few seconds of Ben Stokes’ first news conference of the summer.
In just under a fortnight, The Bazball Ashes—to give it its prominent name—begins. And suppose that is the “Pinnacle Event” for the year, to borrow the recently coined jargon. In that case, there is no guilt in agreeing with Richard Holdsworth, Ireland’s performance director, who believes that this prologue is everything but.
However, it is a Lord’s Test, an event that sparkles even if it is not made of gold. Ireland’s captain, Andrew Balbirnie, observed, “When you walk through the Grace Gates, it hits you pretty quickly how big an occasion this is.”
On Wednesday afternoon, as the sun was on the verge of peeking through the clouds, the ancient stadium had all the typical indicators of a huge event that was about to take place: boundary markings in location, sponsor logos on the outfield, replay screens flickering into life, and takeout stands lined up around the Nursery Ground. The closer you go to the action, the more real everything seems to become.
Of course, none of those mentioned above shouldn’t be a surprise. All of this, however, is unusual in the case of Ireland’s Test cricketers, who are unfairly compromised even as they work to maintain their nation’s international cricket team’s relevance.
When Ireland played their first Test at Lord’s four years ago, they briefly appeared to pull off the biggest shock in the game’s history. They had played a game in four years when they squeezed in three straight in Asia this month, mainly to avoid looking foolish when they made their comeback to the big leagues.
And three weeks ago, Ireland’s most recent international match was a bizarre three-match One-Day International (ODI) “home” series against Bangladesh in Chelmsford. It was a valiant attempt by Ireland to jump ahead of Bangladesh and secure the final automatic World Cup qualification spot, which, even as it failed in front of a sea of jubilant Bangladesh fans, couldn’t help but highlight the team’s impoverished, nomadic status.
Ireland has every right to feel extremely let down by a sport that invited them to the head table in 2017 but cleared away the dinner dishes as soon as they sat down. But at least they are present and prepared to enjoy the moment to the fullest, even though their journey to Zimbabwe for the World Cup qualifiers next week is now the most significant event in their calendars—much like receiving an invitation to Buckingham Palace on the day of a colonoscopy.
“That’s the hand we’ve been dealt, and we have to be grateful to have these opportunities,” Balbirnie continued. They have a long summer in the Ashes ahead of them. We’re quite fortunate that we were admitted for this Test. I can’t get too greedy. We’re quite grateful since these are Tests that I never thought we’d receive, and this is my second visit here as captain.
England may also need to avoid being overly greedy. The team’s new philosophy has yet to be put to the Test in situations where they haven’t quite been such overwhelming favourites as this. Still, Stokes dismissed any suggestions that they might try to win in two days, which wasn’t an outrageous idea considering they managed 506 for 4 against Pakistan in one day.
Stokes’ all-out attitude has often drawn criticism in previous games, most notably in their one-run defeat to New Zealand in February. In that match, a less flashy approach from a position of precise control would have undoubtedly resulted in an easy victory.
His response to each of these concerns has been consistent and unambiguous: Test cricket must aim to be entertaining if it is to compete in the T20 era, and as one of the sport’s most ardent supporters, England has a responsibility to set the bar high in this area so that other teams, not least Ireland, can benefit from a resurgence of interest. It makes it unlikely that it will be in everyone’s best interests if England loses this week or if they exhibit behaviours that might be disrespectful given the situation (we’re looking at you, Nighthawk).
In the end, though, it’s simply another Test. It must be defeated or won, and despite England’s enormous advantages over its opponents, the team that will play on Thursday morning still needs to be settled.
There are weaknesses throughout the team, from Zak Crawley at the top of the order to the recently developed shyness of Harry Brook in the middle to the returning Jonny Bairstow – on that broken leg that won’t be tested for at least five days until the Ashes begin – to Stokes himself and that injured knee that has turned into an ongoing management concern.
The go-to bowling duo of James Anderson and Ollie Robinson, let alone the absent speedsters Jofra Archer, Mark Wood, and Olly Stone, haven’t bowled a ball in anger since New Zealand. A bowling attack led by the defiantly ageless Stuart Broad, two up-and-coming rookies in Matt Potts, and the debutant Josh Tongue is a less intimidating prospect for Ireland’s batters than they had anticipated.
They will have to pull one over in England before they board their flight to Zimbabwe and begin their summer’s primary business. As well as their hosts, of course.
England LWWWW (most current Test first, the latest five tests)
Josh Tongue and Harry Tector are featured.
Brendon McCullum hailed Josh Tongue following his late inclusion to the team as injury cover as “a big strong lad… a rough diamond.” Now that England men’s Test cap No. 711 is about to debut, the team’s collective thoughts can’t help but drift towards a somewhat more intense match at Edgbaston in two weeks. Nevertheless, the debut should keep one corner of the seam attack firmly anchored firmly in the present.
Besides the fact that Tongue is the first Worcestershire debutant since Moeen Ali in 2014, his story is noteworthy for his tenacity. He was going through a 15-month layoff last year and worried that it might be the end of his career. But he made a strong comeback this winter, performing outstanding performances with the England Lions on Sri Lanka’s flat wickets. The prospect of a faster tempo and more excellent bounce is welcome news to the England management.
Given the unrest around his world-class abilities, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Ireland team management wants to keep Harry Tector’s trekkers under wraps. Nevertheless, despite their best efforts, rumours are starting to circulate that, at the young age of 23, they may have discovered the genuine deal—a possible heir to Eoin Morgan—however, one whose levers are more similar to Kevin O’Brien.
At the T20 World Cup in October, Tector struggled, but since the beginning of the year, his performances have picked up significantly. He has scored 803 runs at an average of 50.18 across all formats, including three half-centuries in six Test innings and an astonishing 140 from 113 balls against Bangladesh this month, which included no less than 10 sixes. If Ireland wishes to confront Bazball, he will join the fray quickly.
Team news: Bairstow returns, and Tongue makes his debut.
Chris Woakes, the Lord of Lords, is unfortunate because he had instead expected to be signed up for his first home Test in two years, especially at a place where he averages 61.20 and 11.33 with the bat and the ball, respectively. Instead, Worcestershire’s Tongue is the first pick in this summer’s Ashes.
Ollie Robinson and James Anderson are both on rest for upcoming sterner tests, so Tongue makes his debut, much like fellow seamer Matt Potts, who made his debut in the Lord’s Test against New Zealand a year ago. The top order has stayed the same since the winter, but Jonny Bairstow has returned as wicketkeeper and is now listed at No. 7, but that may change given his summer performance. The match scenario may influence the final batting order, notwithstanding Stokes’ joking in his news conference that McCullum was trying to demote him.
Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett, Ollie Pope, Joe Root, Harry Brook, Ben Stokes (captain), Jonny Bairstow, Stuart Broad, Jack Leach, Josh Tongue, and Matt Potts are the players for England.
The absence of Josh Little, Ireland’s top bowler, who was competing in the IPL final on Monday night but has yet to throw a red ball in anger in years, has overshadowed the team’s preparations. A lasting reminder of the finest single day in their Test history is provided by Tim Murtagh, who only last month got 10 wickets for Middlesex against Kent. This honours board is located in their dressing room.
But they still have Mark Adair, who was Murtagh’s opponent four years ago, and Craig Young, if he is found fit following his recent injury troubles, will be a welcome homecoming. The relative strength of Ireland’s batting, however, is that each of their top seven batters has had a solid recent run, whether it be from the ODI series against Bangladesh, the Test tour of Sri Lanka, or in the case of the openers, James McCollum and PJ Moor, their 232-run opening stand against Essex last week.
Ireland (possible): James McCollum is ranked first, followed by PJ Moor, Andy Balbirnie (captain), Harry Tector, Paul Stirling, and 7 Curtis Campher, 6 Lorcan Tucker (wk), 7 Craig Young, 8 Andy McBrine, 9 Mark Adair, 10 Graham Hume.
Conditions and Pitch
On a somewhat off-centre wicket with 24 hours to go, there is a hint of green, but as always at Lord’s, the well-drained surface is sure to be reasonably authentic. The overhanging circumstances will be what add to the actual suspense. To that end, London is now experiencing a rather eerie weather pattern, with the forecast predicting sunny skies and no clouds, but the overcast chill factor begging to disagree.
Whether Thursday brings more of the same, it may turn out to be a bowl-first day, but considering how much England loves a run chase, it might not even matter whether Stokes wins the toss.
Stats and trivia
- Since their debut in 2018, Ireland has lost all six Test matches, including two by an innings against Sri Lanka last month.
- They were successful in bowling England out for 85 in their lone prior Test at Lord’s in 2019—their fourth-lowest score in 141 Tests there—with Tim Murtagh taking 5 for 13.
- On the other hand, Ireland was dismissed for 38, the eighth-lowest score in Test history. Chris Woakes, a forgotten player, excelled with 6 for 17.
- Only eleven players, including Alastair Cook (12,472), the only other Englishman on the list, have surpassed the 11,000-run milestone in Test cricket. Joe Root needs 52 runs to do so.
- Stuart Broad will play in a Test for the sixteenth time at home. In 92 home Tests since his first one there in 2008, he has taken 370 wickets at a strike rate of 25.73.
- The sole participant in every one of Ireland’s six (soon to be seven) Test matches is captain Andrew Balbirnie.
- To reach 200 in Test matches, Stokes needs six more wickets. His bowling readiness, meanwhile, is still in question as the game approaches.
“Over the past year, I’ve learned not to plan too much since you never know what may happen. All bowlers still in the running have been instructed to approach each week and each build-up period as though they were going to play. When you plan things out properly in advance, and something goes wrong, all of your preparations are for nought.
Ben Stokes favours taking a hands-off attitude to England’s injury problems.
“I’m lucky that this will be my second Test match at Lord’s, a great accomplishment for an Irish cricket player to claim. As a Test team, it is our crowning achievement. As a squad, we are still determining when our next Test will be, so we must relish this opportunity and do all our power to succeed and make some history.
Andrew Balbirnie, Ireland’s captain, enjoys the Lord’s occasion rather than focusing on talk of priorities.
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