‘The hero of Bangalore is now the master of Malahide,’ cooed the commentator as Kevin O’Brien completed the two runs he needed to reach a century on Test debut.
Part of the famous O’Brien Irish sporting family, Kevin’s older brother Niall was also making his Test debut in this match but had failed to set the world alight. Kevin, on the other hand, had top-scored with 40 off 68 balls in Ireland’s disappointing first innings.
Ireland started the Test with great promise, reducing Pakistan to 159-6 before a century stand between Shadab Khan and Faheem Ashraf (with only one previous Test match between them), saw the visitors in the position to declare on 310-9 shortly before lunch.
It had been a great Test match with fortunes shifting intriguingly, but on the second day of actual play (remember, the first day had been rained off), Pakistan’s canny declaration tested the Irish debutants with a tricky little spell before their lunchtime nibble. The Pakistan bowlers truly rattled the Irish cages as the hosts were reduced to 5-3 after 6.1 overs. Devastating! It was a second severe blow to their confidence, but thanks to some brave batting by Kevin O’Brien and Gary Wilson (33 off 74 balls), they scratched their way to 130 all out before being asked to follow on.
In the second innings, Ed Joyce (43 off 98 balls) and captain William Porterfield (32 off 120 balls) showed some Irish fight by laying a slow and steady foundation, moving the score gently along to 69 before Joyce was run out. Another flutter of wickets saw Ireland sinking into despair at 95-4 and then 157-6 before O’Brien was joined at the crease by Stuart Thompson. The pair worked solidly to record the Ireland men’s first Test century partnership, which came up off 176 balls. Thompson went for a well played 53 (116 balls), having added 114 for the seventh wicket with O’Brien.
O’Brien soldiered on, supported by the obdurate 23-year-old Tyrone Kane, who batted through to the close and scored eight off 67 balls, allowing his teammate the time he needed to reach a historic Test century on debut. O’Brien’s century came up off 186 balls with 10 fours, and he ended the day undefeated on 118 with his side moving into an interesting position.
Ireland’s 319-7 has given them a lead of 139 runs with three wickets in hand… and if you’ve ever heard of Botham’s Ashes, then you’ll be nodding sagely. Yes, Pakistan could roll the last three wickets quickly on the final day and knock the runs off without loss, but this is where the magic of Test match cricket happens. Over the first three days, the fortunes of Test combat have swayed back and forth but now, as the finish line rolls into view, Ireland has the upper hand. The ball is now rolling for them, the bounce going in their favour, yet so much will depend on luck and the itchiness of the umpire’s finger. However, what you should know is that Ireland has turned a potentially humiliating defeat into an exciting chase for victory.
Yes, Pakistan could roll the last three wickets quickly on the final day and knock the runs off without loss, but this is where the magic of Test match cricket happens.
‘This has been one of the great days for Irish sport,’ roared the TV commentator as O’Brien and Kane made their way off the field at the end of the day’s play. Battle-weary, they certainly had a spring in their step, and it was a truly wonderful sporting moment to see the Pakistan fielders making their way over to O’Brien one by one to acknowledge what had been a truly superb Test innings.
After a good night’s rest, who knows what the Irish might accomplish here at Malahide. After all, the Irish now have a sense of belief and they will have a partisan crowd cheering them on. For their part, the Pakistan batsmen will be determined to prove their superiority over the newcomers… but should they suffer the loss of some early wickets, who knows if they will respond with shaking knees or solid strokeplay?
Either way, we’re set for an incredible final day of Test cricket, which could see a terrific finale or an easy romp to victory for either side. Even if we do enjoy Bothamesque performances to end the match, this is a Test that will forever be remembered as O’Brien’s Test.
Speaking after the match, O’Brien said that scoring a century on his Test debut was ‘pretty special’, especially considering the position they were in: ‘The legs are a bit heavy, and for the last half an hour I was struggling, but TK hung in there and we’ve just got to build the lead tomorrow.’
Having top-scored in the first innings, scoring only his second first-class century in Ireland’s second innings was indeed something special… and a long time coming!
‘My first hundred in seven years, so long overdue!’ he smiled. ‘The objective was to bat all day. A very proud day, and we’ve just got to get through tomorrow morning. Another 40-50 gives us an outside chance… we’ve got to keep fighting as we’ve done all day. We’ve shown we can compete at this level in our own conditions.’
Ireland might have been deprived of top-class competition for many years, but O’Brien has certainly not been spoiled for choice when it comes to great batting performances in big matches. The memory of his blistering 50-ball century against England in Bangalore in the 2011 World Cup lives long in the memory of anyone who saw it, and it is a scar that remains deep within the psyche of the English cricketers who suffered O’Brien’s consequences. That day back in 2011, Ireland improbably chased down England’s mammoth 328 from the back of a top-order collapse that left them reeling on 111-5, with O’Brien going on to score 113 off 63 balls (13 fours and six sixes) as Ireland raced to victory with five balls to spare.
‘For me, Bangalore is definitely No 1, for the sheer moment of where it was and who it was against, in the World Cup,’ said a breathless O’Brien. ‘If I can continue [tomorrow] for another hour and a half, to 170-odd, this could top it,’ he admitted.
‘It was a very proud and emotional moment, to get there is a great honour, and hopefully we’ve put ourselves in a good position to go on and win it. There’s no reason why we can’t. We’ve just got to start off well tomorrow.’
For the record
O’Brien is only the fourth man to score a century on Test debut in his country’s first ever Test match, following on from Charles Bannerman (Australia, 165 not out), Dave Houghton (Zimbabwe, 121) and Animul Islam (Bangladesh, 145). He’s also on the verge of becoming the highest-scoring batsman in his team’s first Test match.
Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)