Ireland set for Test debut after long audition

Dublin (AFP) –


When Ireland become the 11th nation to play Test cricket against Pakistan at Dublin's Malahide ground on Friday it will be the culmination of a journey that started nearly three hundred years ago.

There are records of cricket being played in Ireland as early as 1731, with Dublin's Phoenix Cricket Club -- still going -- founded in 1830.

But the sport's reputation suffered from being seen as the creation of English "colonisers", with native games such as Gaelic football and hurling holding sway.

Ireland first made the rest of the cricket world sit up and take notice when they skittled out the touring West Indies, reputed to have enjoyed some typically generous Irish hospitality, for just 25 on their way to a victory at Sion Mills in 1969.

After competing in English county one-day competitions, Ireland eventually made it to the 2007 World Cup finals following three failed qualifying attempts.

Having tied with Zimbabwe in their opening fixture, Ireland turned up on St Patrick's Day in Kingston, Jamaica, to see a green pitch for their match against Pakistan, and a sea of green in the crowd as thousands of Irish fans took over the Sabina Park ground.

Ireland won by three wickets but the joy in defeating Pakistan -- as well as Bangladesh -- in 2007 was as nothing compared to four years later when England were beaten in a World Cup match in Bangalore.

Kevin O'Brien's stunning 50-ball century -- still the fastest-ever in a World Cup -- proved decisive as Ireland chased down England?s 327 for a memorable win.

- Test status -

It was then the idea of becoming a Test nation, a status the International Cricket Council granted Ireland and Afghanistan last year, took hold.

From an Irish perspective, securing Test status was a way of stopping leading players following Eoin Morgan, now England's one-day captain, from leaving to seek better opportunities over the Irish Sea.

That journey was also taken by Ed Joyce and Boyd Rankin, both of whom are now back in Ireland's Test squad.

Concerns remain that the "golden generation" of Irish cricketers are ageing -- six of the 14-strong squad are well into their 30s -- and that there is a lack of depth behind them.

But that has not stopped television rights for the Test being sold to Sky Sports and RTE -- Ireland's national state broadcaster -- for a reported 1.8 million euros ($2.1 million), a remarkable sum for Irish cricket, with Malahide on course for a 6,000 sell-out on Friday's first day.

"We're prepared to take risks," Cricket Ireland chief executive Warren Deutrom told the website.

"And the risk for us is huge because it?s an untested format. We've never had Test cricket in Ireland before.

"In a country like Ireland where the game at international level is still bedding down in the mainstream environment and a five-day game in a country where it probably rains more than others? That?s a risk.

"But you know what? The game is thriving, more people are playing it, more people are getting interested in it so we've got to back ourselves."

The significance is not lost on Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed, who said it was "a privilege to be a part of this historic Test match".

No side have won their first match at this level since Australia beat England in the inaugural Test in Melbourne in 1877 but that Ireland are playing Test cricket is a victory in itself.

"It is a massive occasion for everyone involved in Irish cricket," said captain William Porterfield.

"You?ve got a lot of past players -- some of them are here with us, some aren?t, but we have to remember and recognise what they have done to get us to this stage because if it wasn't for them, and everything that they have done, we would not have been lucky enough to be taking the field, come Friday."