March 17, 2007 - Venue: Sabina Park, Kingston, Jamaica. When people in Pakistan woke up in the morning, they were probably in for a real shocker. A team of part-timers, with all their enthusiasm, secured a three-wicket victory to knock out 1992 winners Pakistan out of the World Cup.`
Eleven years have passed but the moment in which Trent Johnston sent Azhar Mahmood for a maximum over long-on on that fateful afternoon, would always be remembered as Irish cricket’s defining moment of glory, pride and a prologue to what was about to come. There was bitterness all around Pakistan, which was triggered by the untimely suspicious death of their coach Bob Woolmer. The bitterness was not just about a rookie disrupting the established order, but also about the fact that a country which had very little heritage of the sport, playing its first World Cup, knocking out a team who was considered as one of the favourites to lift the trophy.
“Dreams do come true”! Ed Joyce, former England cricketer who is just four months shy of his 40th birthday, would have realised the same when he had gone to sleep last night as after a decade of hard work and longing that would see him play a Test match for the first time in his career. The outcome of that journey would unfold over the next five days, or maybe less considering it is raining cats and dogs in Dublin, when the hosts will become ICC’s 11th Test nation after Bangladesh was inducted to the club in 2000. There will be joy, celebration, and more than that, the beginning of a journey that they can hope will lead them to a better place in their sojourn.
However, getting to the position where they are now, has not been an easy a ride for Ireland. It has been a remarkable journey that in itself is a terrific sporting tale. The game of cricket was not allowed to be played in the country and was banned by the Gaelic Athletic Association for 70 years - anyone who played, or even watched, was barred from playing in GAA games, for cricket was thought as an English game. But the game thrived in the small communities in the country and it needed a trigger point to blossom. And when the ban was lifted, Ireland started playing the England and Wales Cricket Board XI, a selection of amateur cricketers, but understandably, Irish cricket failed to shine due to the lack of exposure.
Although, time and again, the ICC asked the full members to nurture their neighbour Associates, England were not that interested in the proposition since they were the side that were taking some of Ireland’s best players. The ECB even advocated the World Cup's contraction to 10 teams and was at the forefront of the 2014 “Big three governance model” that virtually halved the share of ICC revenue going to Associate nations. And if these were not enough, ECB were blatantly unsupportive of Ireland's attempts to gain Full Membership or Test status.
For Ireland Cricket to prosper, it needed a change in attitude from their powerful neighbours and it came at a perfect time as Andrew Strauss took over the role of director in English Cricket. Be it with their support to abolish the big three model or their strong stance in giving Ireland and Afghanistan Test status, England Cricket changed its mindset in the last few years and fast-tracked the latter’s fortune and the date has finally come to embrace the reality as Ireland are playing a Test against Pakistan today in Malahide.
Although the match got delayed due to incessant rain over the skies of Malahide Stadium in Dublin today, the day also marked the beginning of some changes in approach by the ICC. The benevolence perhaps has come out of the fact that they realised that having more people in the tent than only satisfying the elites is a better idea to take the leaf of cricket forward. Ireland’s fellow inductor Afghanistan will join the league in just more than a month’s time. However, that can wait for some moment as today has been the day of Ireland and joy and happiness and celebration.
The first foray into the ground will be extra special for current captain William Porterfield, pacer Boyd Rankin, and the O'Brien brothers - Niall and Kevin - who donned that green jersey proudly in 2007 World Cup when the team took a victory lap in Jamaica. Today has been the validation of their hard work and effort that they have been putting in over the years, not just for the highs of Kingston 2007, Bengaluru 2011 or Nelson 2015.
While it was only Australia, who managed to win their first ever Test match - remember it was the first Test match of the history in Melbourne in 1877 - Ireland can see possibilities beyond the regular framework of debutants. Their opponent - the same team against whom Irish women played their first ever Test match back in 2000 - are on a journey of self-discovery following the retirement of their star duo, Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan. And with England series starting on less than two weeks of time, Pakistan will have a challenge of hastening this transition process.
But, that doesn’t demean the fact that Pakistan are the overwhelming favourites to win this encounter if pedigree and familiarity at the stage is anything to go by. At least, the hosts' most-recent performance in the Intercontinental Cup, the ICC's first-class competition for Associates, in which they finished second to Afghanistan, says that the team need to perform much better to give any sorts of competition to big boys in the league.
However, the occasion is hardly about that. It will be a historic occasion, just the way it was for them a year ago when Ireland made their Lord’s debut against England. It will be beyond a contest of bat and ball - a match that would be the prize for their years of struggle, dreams and aspirations. Hope the rain gods will stay away and give the day to all of Ireland to rejoice, smile and have a mug of beer. Let the game begin.
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