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27th Jul 2019

Why Ireland’s Test match at Lord’s was about a lot more than victory or defeat

Dion Fanning

Ireland cricket

When I told a friend of mine, my five-year-old son had been at Lord’s with me on Wednesday, he spent a moment marvelling at how wonderful it was for him to see Ireland bowl out England for 85.

He then moved on to the central message he wanted to get across.

“It’s very important, “ he said, his voice turning solemn, “that he goes back today to understand what Test cricket is all about.”

In that sentence it was easy to grasp England’s enduring fascination with Test cricket: it is the form of the game which most emphasises obligation and discipline. It is about suffering and the opposite of suffering, boredom. And, of course, it is about futility.

A lifetime watching cricket introduces you to futility in forms you could never imagine. If sport is a metaphor for life, it may be because both ultimately have no meaning. Nowhere is that more pronounced than in Test cricket.

All you think Test cricket is about can be overturned by an hour or two of chaos as happened on Wednesday morning at Lord’s but the problem, as Friday showed, is there is usually the opportunity for a chaotic retaliation.

Ireland’s first Test match at Lord’s was, still, a magical and astonishing occasion. Victory would have elevated it into something else entirely, but what it was should not be downplayed or diminished.

On Wednesday morning, as Tim Murtagh ambled in from the Nursery End, this became another remarkable episode in Irish cricket history at the place which means so much to so many.

If England ultimately avoided the shame of defeat to Ireland, on Wednesday Ireland demonstrated the potential of their cricket and their ability, that can’t be suppressed, to challenge conventional wisdom about the game, at home and abroad.

If the first day was beyond comprehension, the rest followed a more predictable pattern. We went back on the second day because it was important for my son to understand what Test cricket was about, but we went back too because there was nowhere else some of us wanted to be since the fixture was announced.

The first time I went to Lord’s was with my father in 1991. On a warm Saturday, we watched Robin Smith make 148 not out against the West Indies. This was a West Indian team with Viv Richards, Desmond Haynes, Malcolm Marshall and Curtly Ambrose, but in that match Smith was the star.

We then spent two further days sitting in the lower deck of the Compton Stand watching the rain fall with my dad insisting he could see a break in the clouds and, at any minute, the players would emerge to play this game to a conclusion.  This was another exercise in futility. The rain never stopped, the players emerged again only briefly and the match was drawn.

We went to Lord’s every year after that until 2011 when my father’s illness meant he couldn’t go as planned to watch England play India, to see VVS Laxman, whom he adored, or to watch Tendulkar play for the final time in Test cricket in England.

I knew his illness and the treatment he was undergoing had consumed him when he said in the autumn that he hadn’t even followed the series.

When Ireland emerged from the pavilion and walked down the steps at Lord’s on Wednesday, I thought of my dad and it felt like an injustice that he wasn’t there.

He was an Anglophile who grew up playing Gaelic football for Austin Stacks and eventually for Kerry, while listening to cricket and soccer on the radio. He saw no contradiction in that or in rounding up people in St Brendan’s Park in Tralee to play cricket every summer in between games of Gaelic football or soccer.

At his funeral in 2012, a neighbour told me how those games seemed to matter a lot more to my dad than they did to most of the other kids. He said my dad played as if they were taking place at Lord’s or the Oval rather than in the middle of a housing estate in Tralee.

He accommodated all of this easily, with barely a glance towards the narrow minds of nationalism that said you had to be one or the other. And, if you were the other, you didn’t really belong to Ireland, as they defined it. It wasn’t how he defined it.

Like so many others, he would have cheered Eoin Morgan winning the World Cup and revelled in Ireland bowling England out for 85 and seen no contradiction in the the two.

Cricket, for him, was the place where subtlety and wit could triumph. If it was a game that emphasised futility, it is also a game full of ambivalence and doubt where answering the central question of sport – ‘Who’s winning?’ – is often hard to do. This is one of the things that makes cricket glorious.

Today, it seems we are always being asked to pick a side and to provide definitive answers. Britain has torn itself apart after asking a binary question to which there was no easy answer. Everything has the potential to be the opening of another front in a culture war or a skirmish in the conflict of the righteous.

“Who’s winning?” my son asks whenever he sees a game of any kind on TV. On Wednesday it was easy to answer. Ireland are winning, I said.

He wasn’t sure about this at first. He was born in London and now lives in Dublin with his Irish father and English mother. He just wanted a good match, he said, when he answered his own question -“Who do we want to win?” – in the days before the game.

In the shop at Lord’s he went running over to the cricket balls painted in the colours of the teams at the World Cup and proudly held up the one in Pakistan’s colours, where his grandfather is from. Then he showed me England’s equally proudly. This is who he is, at home in all these places, belonging to all these places. 

As the day went on, he was happy Ireland were winning, as a bowler born in England dismantled the England team and created a day that stood alone as something we could not forget.

And that will linger when the result is forgotten. When the brutality of Friday’s innings is forgotten, what Tim Murtagh and the rest of the Ireland team did on Wednesday will remain.

My son is now at the age where you begin to ask yourself what will he remember. Are these the days he will recall? Will this incident linger into adulthood? These questions can occasionally be accompanied by guilt but sometimes, like on Wednesday, it is accompanied by hope. A hope that this day when we sat at Lord’s and watched something that once would have seemed impossible will remain with him. As I sat there, in the place my father loved and I hope he’ll love, it came with a plea: please remember this. Please remember this, as I will always remember this.