Dublin: It is an irony, which was certainly not intended by the International Cricket Council when it upgraded Ireland to Test status, that their inaugural Test — starting at Malahide in Dublin on Friday — will be against Pakistan.
Of all the 12 countries that have been awarded Test status since Australia and England played the first Test in 1877, Pakistan have been the best prepared. Back in the 1950s when Test status meant so much to the new country, Pakistan won a Test match in the first series they played against every country. They prepared by sending the Pakistan Eaglets to England every summer from 1952 until 1959 and by being ahead of their time in organising training camps.
Since then, the countries awarded Test status have been ill-prepared for their inaugural match as their results showed immediately they were thrown in at the deep end, and the currency of Test cricket has been reduced. Perhaps it was inevitable that Sri Lanka would struggle to adjust in the 1980s because of the civil war that raged, but the amazing standard of school cricket in Colombo — the world’s best — was always going to be a strong basis on which to build a Test side.
The promotion of Zimbabwe came as a surprise — especially to them. Like Ireland five and 10 years ago, Zimbabwe had made an impact as giant-slayers in one-day cricket, but those players had passed their peak by 1992. The ICC should have elevated Zimbabwe in the 1980s when they were at their strongest — and when Graeme Hick would have stayed, rather than spending seven years qualifying for England — or else not at all. Of their 105 Tests, Zimbabwe have won only 11 — six against Bangladesh and five others, some of them in suspicious circumstances (the opposition, not Zimbabwe, being the object of suspicion) — and lost 67. This record speaks for itself: the ICC’s timing was wrong.
In such unseemly haste were Bangladesh given Test status that they had no domestic competition longer than 50 overs; they had played no first-class cricket at home or abroad; and their defeat of Pakistan in the 1999 World Cup, after Pakistan had qualified for the semi-finals, came in a match which still has strong claims to be ranked the most dubious ever. Pakistan donated 28 wides and 40 extras in all to make Bangladesh’s 223 a match-winning total, which was then guaranteed by three Pakistan batsmen being run out.
Bangladesh fully deserve their Test status now, very much so, but a generation of their cricketers was condemned to know nothing but defeat. So again, Bangladesh’s record of 80 defeats in 106 Tests suggests that the ICC’s timing was wrong.
Afghanistan were promoted to Test status at the same time as Ireland and will become the 12th Test-playing country when they meet India in June; and like every other country since Pakistan, they have not been adequately prepared for promotion. Most of all, as a preliminary, the potential Test teams of Afghanistan and Ireland needed to tour several Test-playing countries and gain the experience of four-day matches there. So, too, their ‘A’ teams, otherwise they will not have any depth of reserve.
Such is the newfound enthusiasm for cricket in Afghanistan, where not a game was played 20 years ago, that their growth potential is enormous. Role models, such as their leg-spinner Rashid Khan, No 1 in the ICC T20 rankings, have lit up the pathway from rags to riches.
Ireland’s experience of Test cricket is limited to the one match at Sydney that Boyd Rankin had in England’s 2013-14 Ashes series in Australia, when he was, by his own admission, so nervous that he twice went off in mid-over with cramp. Rankin and Tim Murtagh form a challenging opening pair, but Rankin is 33 and Murtagh 36, while Ireland’s best batsman, Ed Joyce, who played 17 ODIs for England, turns 40 in September.
If Ireland’s players this week err on the side of old, Pakistan’s err on the side of young. Only Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq have scored Test centuries, apart from their doughty wicketkeeper/batsman/captain, Sarfraz Ahmed. Sarfraz has made sure that the legacy of his predecessor Misbah-ul-Haq, who is considered to have cleansed the stables after the spot-fixing scandal of 2010, has not been squandered.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018