Test cricket more than held its own in a fascinating match between Ireland and Pakistan this week at Malahide, as burly Irishman Kevin O’Brien once again showed he is the man for the big occasion.
It is a credit to both teams that, despite losing the entire first day to rain, they recovered from desperate situations to keep putting pressure on their opponents.
Playing their first ever Test match, Ireland did well early with the ball, having Pakistan at 6-159 on the first day of play before they were able to escape to 9-310 declared.
If they had been able to dismiss their opponents for 200, this match would have been completely different.
Having done so well with the ball though, the Irish batting was unable to stand up to the excellent Pakistan attack, who ripped through the line-up to remove them for 130.
Asked to follow on, the Irish made a better start, but still found themselves at 4-95 on the third morning. When O’Brien walked to the crease, Ireland still required 85 runs to make Pakistan bat again.
In the first innings, he had come out at 4-7, and it was his composed and hard-fought top score of 40 that helped his team to at least reach triple figures. Had he been dismissed cheaply then Ireland would have struggled to make 50.
Walking to the crease once again in a similar situation in the second innings, Ireland’s chances of avoiding a crushing, innings defeat were slim, let alone any thoughts of setting a possible target for their bowlers to try and defend.
In the 2011 ODI World Cup, O’Brien played his most famous innings. Coming in at 4-106 chasing England’s 327, he hit a swashbuckling 113 off just 63 deliveries, leading his team to perhaps its most famous victory.
Here though, he needed patience, skill and an ounce of luck. O’Brien defended stoutly, and waited for the loose ball to dispatch. He lost allies between lunch and tea, but found Stuart Thompson as a willing ally, who had scored his maiden first-class century the week before the Test, and now went about helping his senior partner in turning this Test around.
At tea, the two had nosed Ireland ahead by 32 runs.
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The new ball had been taken by Pakistan and with four wickets remaining they would have been hopeful of wrapping up the innings quickly and forcing a victory before stumps. But O’Brien was having none of it.
Both batsmen played and missed at excellent deliveries, but they didn’t allow it to alter their concentration. Loose balls were dealt with, and the crowd saw flashes of the typical O’Brien aggression, with drives and cuts that ran away to the boundary.
It was Test cricket at its purest, with the bowlers attacking and beating the batsmen, and the batsmen defending and attacking when they could. It wasn’t always pretty, time and again the bowlers beat the bat or hit the pads, there were edges short and wide of fieldsmen, and even dropped catches giving the batsmen a life.
But they stuck at their purpose and didn’t give away their wicket. It was fascinating to watch.
Finally the moment came: the ball jammed through the gap at point for two runs and Kevin O’Brien had become Ireland’s first Test centurion, and the crowd rose in unison to salute him.
It was spine-tingling stuff and a great reward for persistence and effort that ran against his natural attacking grain.
At stumps on that fourth day, Ireland was 7-319, holding a lead of 139 runs. They were knocked over early on the final day, with O’Brien finally dismissed for 118, leaving Pakistan a mid-road chase of 160.
At 3-14 early on, the Irish must have thought they were a huge chance of snatching an unlikely first Test victory, however, once the shine evaporated from the ball, Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam batted excellently to help raise victory for the visitors by five wickets in an enthralling Test.
Despite the result, the match will always be remembered for Kevin O’Brien’s wonderful double – top scoring in both innings and making the first Ireland Test century. Though he is not usually regarded as the best of the Ireland cricketers, he is the one who has risen to the occasion more often than not.
What this match has also proven is that giving Ireland Test status was the correct decision, but having a World Cup next year without them competing is entirely the wrong decision.