Andy Balbirnie His Journey: Leading Ireland at Lord’s and Changing the Face of Test Cricket

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Ireland’s struggles in Test cricket and the need for first-class cricket development

When his father picked up his captain’s jacket from the dry cleaner, Andy Balbirnie realised the significance of walking out for Ireland in a Test match at Lord’s. 
Balbirnie recalls, “I was going away and requested him to leave it at the dry cleaner’s because it was a little filthy from Sri Lanka.

“When he gave it to me again, he stated, ‘It’s hard to imagine you’re going to be leading Ireland out at Lord’s. It has yet to sink in since I hadn’t given it much attention. I’ll reflect on it in the future and say, “Wow, that was a very fantastic event.

Ireland had a fixed red-ball schedule for the subsequent four years when Balbirnie was named captain in November 2019. However, the epidemic delayed his ability to captain them in a Test match until April 2023. He remembers, “I was honestly worried I wouldn’t get the chance to. “Covid put it off, dragged on for so long.”

Last month in Bangladesh, the chance finally materialised, and two more Tests were played in Sri Lanka shortly after. When I mention that Balbirnie is the only guy to have played in each of their six Tests to date, he quips, “I’m a well-hardened Test cricketer now. “I didn’t think I’d get six Test caps at the beginning of my career, but it’s not a lot,” the player said.

“If we lose to England and are bowled out for 30 in both innings but still make it to both World Cups, that’s a win; that’s been our best summer ever.”

Ireland played six of the games and lost six of them, a dismal record. Eight players received their first caps over the last three matches, making them particularly difficult. For spinners Matthew Humphreys and Ben White, their Test debuts also marked the beginning of their first-class careers.

Ireland has not held any domestic first-class cricket matches since the epidemic, concentrating their efforts and resources on the white-ball forms. The players are not treated fairly, adds Balbirnie. “You’re asking players to take the pitch under intense pressure without any first-class or red-ball experience.

“I know we have our limitations at home, and hopefully first-class cricket will start to filter return during the following few years, although if we’re going to start playing more Tests, we need to have something in place,” he said. We must better look after our players and ensure they aren’t merely thrown into the crucible of Test cricket. Even if it only occurs once every three years, games: North vs. South.

You may choose a team and learn about them with a red ball in their hands without it taking seven or eight games. We selected teams for the Tests in Asia based on what we observed in the nets and how players entered the pitch.

In the words of the board’s performance director, Richard Holdsworth, the next Test at Lord’s does not constitute a “pinnacle event” for Ireland. They will instead focus on the forthcoming qualifying competitions for the 2023 ODI World Cup in Zimbabwe and the 2024 T20 World Cup in Scotland.

The qualifier versus Italy, which will be played in Scotland in front of perhaps 30 spectators, will be far more significant than the Test match, admits Balbirnie. We will do our hardest to obtain a win, and it is an honour to play against England at Lord’s, but it’s just one Test during the summer, so I don’t want it to seem disrespectful to England or the ECB.

“Their top priority is The Ashes. They’ll probably view this as a glorified warm-up. If we lose to England and get bowled out for 30 in both innings but still make it to both World Cups, it counts as a victory and would make this summer our most fruitful one ever. I hope not, but World Cups are where we get the most fantastic attention on the international scene and at home, especially for a tournament in India and its benefits.

Despite Ireland’s rise over the last 20 years, cricket remains a relatively niche sport back home. “We’re getting there,” Balbirnie says. “There’s a lot more club teams in the country now. I still don’t think we’ll challenge rugby, football and GAA [Gaelic football and hurling] for a long time if we ever do. But if we can be that fourth or fifth-biggest sport, that would be good.

“Last weekend, while I was out in West Cork with my wife, Kate, I had two individuals approach me and say, “You’re Andy Balbirnie!” Kate couldn’t believe what they were saying when they said they were heading to Lord’s. It’s a modest step, so that’s fine.

Many secret cricket enthusiasts in Ireland are frightened to admit they are fans for fear that their GAA clubmates would make fun of them. But we are making progress.

Funding continues to be a problem. The ICC has included Cricket Ireland as one of the beneficiaries of its proposed revenue distribution model for 2024–2027; the board will receive a $5 million loan from the ICC in 2023 “to ensure it can meet its current financial needs,” with their annual earnings share expected to increase from about 2% to just over 3%.

“We’re receiving a good deal more than we typically do. I’m hoping that things will change for the better when the money comes through,” adds Balbirnie. The issue we face is that contrary to what powerful nations typically receive, we only accept a little funding through sponsorship. They may be able to survive without the ICC money, but we are incredibly dependent on it; it is our primary source of revenue.

The desire to host home matches at a brand-new, purpose-built stadium in Abbotstown, on the outskirts of Dublin, is foremost among Ireland’s long-held goals. The board hopes the new pitch will be finished in time to host matches during the 2030 men’s T20 World Cup, which they will co-host with England and Scotland. At Malahide, their primary home site, they virtually always lose money due to temporary infrastructure expenditures.

“I’m not sure it’ll happen in my career,” admits Balbirnie, “but I’d love to sit in the stands one day with Stirlo [Paul Stirling] and watch the young lads go at it against some of the best teams in the world.”

Among those “young lads” are Harry Tector, their best batting potential, who will be carded at No. 4 this week, and wicketkeeper Lorcan Tucker, who was not included in the team for Ireland’s most recent trip to Lord’s. Despite Josh Little’s prominent absence—he is taking a break after participating in Monday’s IPL final—Andy Balbirnie is confident in his team’s ability to succeed despite low expectations.

He claims they may have a few players competing for spots in the Ashes. The strain England cricket players face from the media—pressure that we don’t meet—will be on their batters to score runs against us. We don’t have many players going through the system, and just three or four journalists watch cricket. The fact that they are redefining Test cricket while we get to compete against them is an incredible challenge.

It’s immaculate. We expect them to attack us, so all we can honestly hope for is the ability to respond with a punch. Nobody is going to bet on us to win in any way. We only desire that the boys participate in the activity we have grown to love.

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