Ireland thank all who paved way for inaugural cricket test

DUBLIN (AP) Cricket used to be the biggest sport in Ireland.

From the 1850s.

Introduced by English colonial administrators and spread by soldiers and the railway network, cricket became the chief pastime of the island, and Ireland was good enough to beat the MCC and English sides.

But Irish cricket didn’t organize leadership, unlike hurling, which in 1884 founded a national body and was propelled by a local craving and nationalist movement.

Ireland’s blazer brigade didn’t catch up to its playing talent until June last year, when the International Cricket Council awarded the country (and Afghanistan) test status.

That status turns practical from Friday when Ireland plays its inaugural test against Pakistan in the grounds of Malahide Castle, just north of Dublin.

Ireland captain William Porterfield paid tribute on Thursday to all who have paved the way.

”Every cricketer that’s ever played for Ireland. On and off the pitch, administrators, a lot of people have devoted a lot of their lives to make this day happen,” he said. ”It culminates in us being lucky enough at this time of our careers to take to the pitch.”

Expectations of Ireland are low. Most teams take years to settle into five-day matches. And Pakistan has been playing tests since 1952.

Cricket Ireland chief executive Warren Deutrom merely wants the historic test to be completed without any issues, although a day-long forecast of heavy rain on Friday threatens a damp start.

Cricket is also a hard sell in Ireland, even more so a test than a limited-overs game. There’s temporary seating for 6,000, and Deutrom expects to sell only half of the five-day total.

Even if Ireland lose badly or pull off a shock win, Deutrom believes the side will be playing only a handful of tests a year, and mainly against the other sides on the bottom of the rankings such as Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and West Indies.

Full membership of the ICC, however, offers Ireland a bigger fixture list, and it’s the one-day and Twenty20 internationals which will help to popularize a game which has seen only a small increase in playing numbers in Ireland in recent years.

That’s because Ireland has been in the public eye only every four years, at Cricket World Cups.

It was Ireland becoming an Associate member in 1993 and playing qualifying in 1994 for the 1996 World Cup that got the ball rolling on the path to test status. That first attempt failed, as did the next bids in 1997 and 2001.

But with Ed Joyce averaging nearly 100, Ireland reached the 2005 qualifying final, earned ODI status, and went to the 2007 World Cup under coach Adrian Birrell and upset Pakistan in Kingston.

Phil Simmons took over as coach and at the 2011 World Cup, the Irish stunned England in Bangalore, and in 2015 they defeated West Indies.

They didn’t qualify for the smaller 2019 World Cup, but Deutrom says that disappointment will be compensated by a bigger fixture list that will keep them in the public eye, and much more broadcasting revenue.

Only 11 Irishmen have played test cricket, one for Australia in the very first test in 1877. The most recent, two-meter-tall (6-foot-7) fast bowler Boyd Rankin, achieved his test ambition for England in 2014 and returned to Ireland in 2016.

He’s part of the golden generation of Irish cricketers who have been rewarded with places in the first test squad, including the 39-year-old Joyce, Kevin and Niall O’Brien, Gary Wilson, and captain Porterfield.

There was disappointment this week for uncapped seamer Nathan Smith, who couldn’t train because of a side strain and was replaced by Craig Young, who made his Ireland debut in 2013.

Ireland expects to rely on a seam attack involving Rankin and Tim Murtagh.

Pakistan, despite five uncapped squad players, will unleash its own pace battery of Mohammad Amir, Rahat Ali, Mohammad Abbas and Hasan Ali. Also, legspinner Shadab Khan took 10 wickets in the warmup win over Northamptonshire this week.

Pakistan skipper Sarfraz Ahmed said it was a privilege to be the opposition.

”It’s a great achievement for Ireland to play test cricket,” Ahmed said. ”It is a big honor for me and my team to play this test.

”After this test, there will be more cricketers, and kids will be coming to play cricket as well.”