It’s going to be a historic occasion for Ireland. The one-off Test against Pakistan beginning at Malahide next Friday would be the country’s first outing in the five-day format. It’s also going to be a big test for a young Pakistani team, looking to find its feet in the longest format of the game.
Most Pakistan cricket fans remember Ireland as the team that knocked the Pakistanis out of the 2007 World Cup that was played in the Caribbean islands. The good news for the fans is that the Irish have slumped since peaking almost ten years ago.
Pakistan have pleasant memories of their last tour of Ireland which will perhaps be remembered for a stunning 152 from 86 balls by opener Sharjeel Khan in a One-day International at Malahide in the summer of 2006. Sharjeel might have fallen from grace because of his role in the PSL corruption scandal but back then he was on a roll. He hammered the third fastest 150 in ODI history to lead Pakistan to a mammoth 255-run triumph against Ireland.
The Pakistanis will return to Dublin, hoping to conquer the Irish again. Things, though, are unlikely to be as easy as they were back in 2016.
Pakistan have done well in limited-overs cricket under Sarfraz Ahmed having won the ICC Champions Trophy in England followed by their No. 1 spot in Twenty20 Internationals. But Tests have so far been a different story. And that’s primarily because they haven’t played many of them in the past 12 months. During that period, Pakistan have played just two Tests. They haven’t played a single one in 2018.
And that’s not the only reason why some fear that Pakistan might struggle at Malahide. The touring party also lacks experience. They just have four senior players – Sarfraz Ahmed, Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and Mohammad Amir – in the squad. Back in 2016, when Pakistan achieved a credible 2-2 series draw against a formidable England side their biggest batting heroes were Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan. Misbah hit a match-winning ton at Lord’s while Younis recorded a memorable double century in their victory at The Oval. Both of them have retired. In their absence, Pakistan could struggle considering that most of their batsmen simply lack the experience needed to shine in Test cricket, especially when the conditions are challenging.
Another chief reason behind Pakistan’s Test success two years ago was Yasir Shah. The leggie, who has taken 165 wickets from just 28 Tests, bowled match-winning spells both at Lord’s and The Oval. Unfortunately for Pakistan he was ruled out of the current tour because of injury.
Pakistan’s tour of England and Ireland didn’t get off to a good start as their batsmen faltered in the rain-hit tour opener against Kent at Canterbury. But just when things were beginning to look bleak for them, a stunning display of leg-spin bowling by youngster Shadab Khan must have lifted the spirits in Pakistan’s camp. Shadab, the 19-year-old leggie who was brought in to fill the void left by Yasir took 6-77 on the opening day of a four-day match against Northamptonshire on Friday. Playing in only his ninth first-class match, Shadab bamboozled the Northants as the Pakistanis dismissed them for 259.
It’s still too early to predict whether Shadab will be able to repeat such heroics against Ireland and later in the two-Test series against England starting at Lord’s later this month. But early signs look good. The youngster made his bones as a wicket-taking bowler in the Pakistan Super League and later made his presence felt in the Champions Trophy. He is a match-winner and should prove his credentials with the red ball as well.
Pakistan, however, should be concerned with the lack of teeth in their fast bowling arsenal. Their pace spearhead – Mohammad Amir – has failed to impress much since returning to Test cricket after serving a five-year ban over his role in the 2009 spot-fixing scandal. Once regarded as one of the most lethal pacers in world cricket, Amir has failed to really regain his golden touch since returning to international cricket back in 2016. Since July that year, Amir has played 16 Tests and has managed to take just 44 wickets. Before he was banned, Amir had played 14 Tests and had taken 51 wickets.
Though he has just played 30 Tests, Amir is by far the most experienced bowler in the squad and will need to lead by example. The Pakistanis also have Hasan Ali, Mohammad Abbas, Rahat Ali and Faheem Ashraf but all of them still have to prove their worth in Test cricket.
Meanwhile, Ireland have been taking steps to fortify their team ahead of the landmark Test at Malahide. While Pakistan are short on experience, the hosts have made sure that their team has plenty of it to tackle the tourists.
Ireland have included two vastly-experienced former England internationals — Boyd Rankin and Ed Joyce — in their 14-man squad for the one-off Test. Coached by Graham Ford, the seasoned South African who was the national coach of Sri Lanka, Ireland will be captained by the experienced William Porterfield. Also included in the squad is Kevin O’Brien, the man who smashed a match-winning century against England at the 2011 World Cup in Bangalore. The squad also includes experienced county cricketers Tim Murtagh, Gary Wilson and Paul Stirling.
Rankin is the only Irish player with Test experience as he has played for England in the five-day format. Rankin, together with Murtagh, Stuart Thompson and Tyrone Kane will provide Ireland with ample seam options to trouble the Pakistanis especially in conditions that are expected to favour them.
The Irish, who will become the 11th team to play Test cricket, know the importance of their inaugural Test. They have worked hard to gain Test status having beaten top flight teams in major events in the past. They will go all guns blazing, fully aware that a victory will be remembered for a long time to come.
For the Pakistanis, it would be an opportunity to gain much-needed confidence ahead of a much bigger test that would come against England. A win against Ireland would certainly raise the team’s morale ahead of the first Test against England, which will begin at Lord’s from May 24. The Test at Malahide might not be a big match for Pakistan but it’s a match they cannot afford to lose.