Big picture: Searching for the pinnacle
“So Ben, what does the Ashes rivalry mean to you?”
And as the sun threatened to break through on Wednesday afternoon, the old ground bore all the familiar signs of an impending major event: boundary markers in place, sponsors logos on the outfield, replay screens flickering into life, takeaway outlets lined up around the Nursery Ground. Everything starts to feel more real the closer you get to the action.
None of the above should come as any surprise, of course. Except, in the case of Ireland’s Test cricketers – invidiously compromised even as they take it upon themselves to shore up their country’s very relevance as an international cricket team – all of this is the very epitome of exceptional.
And three weeks ago, Ireland’s most recent international encounter was a surreal three-match ODI “home” series against Bangladesh in Chelmsford – a valiant bid to leapfrog into the World Cup’s last automatic qualification spot which, even as it failed in front of a sea of ecstatic Bangladesh fans, couldn’t help but highlight the team’s nomadic, impecunious status.
Ireland are entitled to feel deeply let down by a sport that invited them to the top table in 2017, only to clear away the dinner plates at the precise moment that they pulled in their chairs. But at least they are here, and ready to savour the occasion as best they can, even if – like an invite to Buckingham Palace on the eve of a colonoscopy – their flight to Zimbabwe next week for the World Cup qualifiers is the single most important date in their diaries right now.
“That’s the hand we’ve been dealt, and we have to be grateful to have these opportunities,” Balbirnie added. “They’ve got a huge summer ahead of them in the Ashes. We’re very lucky that we’ve got in here for this Test. I can’t be too greedy. These are Tests that I never dreamed that we would get, and this is my second time here, and this time as captain, so we’re very grateful.”
England, too, may need to avoid getting too greedy. Stokes batted away any suggestion that his team might push for a win inside two days – a not-outrageous notion for a team that managed 506 for 4 in a single day against Pakistan – and yet the team’s new philosophy hasn’t yet been tested in conditions where they have quite been such overwhelming favourites as this.
At times in recent contests, Stokes’ pedal-to-the-metal approach has invited mild censure, most particularly in their one-run loss to New Zealand in February, where a less bombastic approach from a position of clear dominance would surely have delivered an comfortable win.
His answer to all such doubts has been consistent and clear: Test cricket needs to set out to entertain if it is to compete in the T20 era, and that England has a duty as one of its foremost proponents to lead from the front in that regard, so that other teams – not least Ireland – can reap the benefits of a renewed interest.
To that end, it is unlikely to serve the greater good if England end up meting out a humiliation this week, or even if they make the sort of instinctive decisions (looking at you, Nighthawk) that could in the circumstances be construed as disrespectful.
Ultimately, though, it’s just another Test that needs to be won and lost – and for all the huge privileges that England enjoy compared to their opponents, it’s not exactly a perfectly settled side that will take the field on Thursday morning.
They’ll believe they can stick one on England – they’ll have to believe – then they’ll leap on their plane to Zimbabwe and get on with their main business of the summer. As, indeed, will their hosts.
England LWWWW (last five Tests, most recent first)
In the spotlight: Josh Tongue and Harry Tector
Quite apart from being the first Worcestershire debutant since Moeen Ali in 2014, Tongue’s tale is remarkable for his resilience. This time last year, he was in the midst of a 15-month lay-off that he feared would end his career. But he bounced back in style this winter with impressive displays on Sri Lanka’s flat decks with England Lions. The promise of more sharp pace and bounce is music to the England management’s ears.
Tector had a quiet time of it at the T20 World Cup in October, but since the turn of the year, his returns have gone into overdrive – 803 runs at 50.18 across formats, including three half-centuries in six Test innings, and a startling 140 from 113 balls against Bangladesh this month that featured no fewer than 10 sixes. If Ireland intend to take the fight to Bazball, he’ll surely be in the thick of the action soon enough.
Team news: Tongue to debut as Bairstow returns
Like his fellow seamer Matt Potts, who himself debuted in the Lord’s Test against New Zealand 12 months ago, Tongue gets his opportunity in part due to the absence of Ollie Robinson, who is being rested alongside James Anderson for sterner challenges to come. The top-order is unchanged from the winter, but Jonny Bairstow is back as wicketkeeper, nominally at No. 7, although that could yet be up for debate given his exploits last summer. Stokes joked in his press conference that McCullum was looking to demote him, but the match situation could determine the final look of the batting order.
England: 1 Zak Crawley, 2 Ben Duckett, 3 Ollie Pope, 4 Joe Root, 5 Harry Brook, 6 Ben Stokes (capt), 7 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 8 Stuart Broad, 9 Jack Leach, 10 Josh Tongue, 11 Matt Potts
Ireland’s build-up has been overshadowed by the absence of their star bowler, Josh Little, who was playing in the IPL final on Monday night but has not bowled a red ball in anger in years. But they may also glance wistfully up at the honours board in their dressing-room, where Tim Murtagh – who took a ten-wicket haul for Middlesex against Kent only last month – offers a permanent reminder of the greatest single day in their Test history.
Nevertheless, they still have the dogged Mark Adair – Murtagh’s foil four years ago – while Craig Young will be a welcome recall if he is deemed fit after his recent injury issues. Ireland’s batting, however, is their relative strength, with each of their top seven boasting strong recent form, whether that be from the Test tour of Sri Lanka, the ODI series against Bangladesh, or in the case of the openers, James McCollum and PJ Moor, their 232-run opening stand against Essex last week.
Ireland (possible): 1 James McCollum, 2 PJ Moor, 3 Andy Balbirnie (capt), 4 Harry Tector, 5 Paul Stirling, 6 Lorcan Tucker (wk), 7 Curtis Campher, 8 Andy McBrine, 9 Mark Adair, 10 Graham Hume, 11 Craig Young.
Pitch and conditions
Twenty-four hours out, there’s a tinge of green on a slightly off-centre wicket, although as ever at Lord’s, the well-drained surface is sure to be fairly true. The real intrigue will be injected by the overhead conditions. To that end, London is in the midst of a deeply peculiar spell of weather, with the forecast promising sunshine and clear skies even while the cloudy chill-factor begs to differ.
It could prove to be a bowl-first day if more of the same is in store on Thursday, although to judge by England’s love of a run-chase, it might also make no difference to Stokes’ decision if he wins the toss.
Stats and trivia
“One thing I have learnt over the last year is just not to plan too much, because you don’t know what will happen. All bowlers who are in contention have been told to treat every week and every build-up period like they will play. You try to plan things well in advance and then something goes wrong, then all those plans are out of the window, so it is pretty pointless to do anyway.”
Ben Stokes advocates the laissez-faire approach to England’s injury issues
“I’m very fortunate this is going to be my second Test match at Lord’s and that’s an amazing thing for an Irish cricketer to say they’ve achieved. So, certainly, as a Test team it is our pinnacle event. We’re not sure when our next Test is as a team, so we have to enjoy this and try our very best to get a result and create a bit of history.”
Andrew Balbirnie, Ireland’s captain, puts the talk of priorities to one side and embraces the Lord’s occasion
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket