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Cricket news - Lord's - The foundation stone of Ireland cricket
William Porterfield is not a sentimental man. But even he could not suppress a bout of wistful nostalgia as he made his way from the away dressing room in the Pavilion, over the hallowed Lord's turf and towards the ECB offices where the pre-match press conference was to be held.
On the walk, he remarked to media manager Craig Eastdown how things were a little different back in 2004 when he was an MCC Young Cricketer. Back then during a Test match, Porterfield would have to ensure the corporate boxes were stocked with match-day programmes, sell scorecards and even help out the ground staff.
On Wednesday, an interview with him will be in those programmes. His name will be on that scorecard and he will judge the work put in by those ground staff to determine whether to bat or bowl first if he calls the coin toss correctly. "It's going to be slightly different being on this side of the fence," he says.
Porterfield is one of seven members of the Ireland squad to have roots at Lord's, and one of five members to have gone through the MCC Young Cricketer's Programme. The "YCs" is an intensive programme for young players who aspire to play professionally. Essentially, the scheme offers them the chance to base themselves at Lord's and make use of the world-class facilities.
They play regularly against county 2nd XIs and around a third of the intake go on to earn professional contracts. The scheme, as a point of pride, welcomes overseas players and has provided opportunities for the likes of Mark Waugh, Darren Sammy, Ross Taylor and Mohammed Nabi. They could also make up almost half the Ireland XI for this England Test: Porterfield, Andrew Balbirnie, Kevin O'Brien, Gary Wilson and James McCollum.
The trio of Porterfield, O'Brien and Wilson played in the same MCC side, which perhaps makes their collective story all the more fascinating. This was a time when the domestic structure in Ireland was not fit for purpose. Paul Stirling's talent ensured he was on the books at Middlesex from an early age, but for these three who did not quite make the grade at the time, there was a degree of uncertainty and the YCs provided a chance to maintain a presence within the English system.
It is no coincidence all three remember this time not just as a big step in their technical and personal development. Beyond cricket with Ireland, there was no gauge of what day-to-day professionalism was beyond the county set-up across the Irish sea. And at this juncture in their careers, even international cricket did not promise a fruitful living.
"Certainly thinking back when I made my way over to the MCC in 2004, I certainly didn't think I would have a 13-year international career with Ireland," states O'Brien, whose brother Niall also came through the programme.
For Wilson, this was something of an awakening. He grew up wanting to play cricket all the time and had quite a blaise attitude to working out how. "I've always figured things would be OK, but I didn't rightly know what I needed to do". As such, he did not attend university barring half-a-year in Manchester which he admits "wasn't the best decision" he's made. Nevertheless, he came good, and his apprenticeship on the YCs did not just drive him to be more focussed but also broadened his base of teammates beyond Porterfield and O'Brien.
"We had a great group of players," recalls Wilson. "Not just us three - of course! - but the likes of Darren Sammy, Mahmudullah. But also some good players who went on to leave the game. The different people from different backgrounds helped push each other in that set-up."
Balbirnie's journey was slightly different. As part of the intake around 2010, there was buzz around this prodigious middle-order batsman (Balbirnie went on to make his international debut that summer). With enough of his fellow countrymen around the circuit, and with counties starting to regard Irish players as value for money, even with the odd "club v country" clash regarding fixtures, Balbirnie actually arrived at St John's Wood looking for a second chance. He had age-group cricket for Middlesex, the previous couple of years, but no firm deal, mostly because of a lack of red-ball aptitude.
"I was a pretty raw 18-year old who didn't know too much about how to bat for long periods," says Balbirnie. "Playing for the YCs was my first taste of multi-day cricket." There were other experiences to draw on, too.
Balbirnie's lodgings were a hostel in Hampstead which, if you're unfamiliar with the area, is something of a juxtaposition. Low-rent dwellings in high-end suburbia. He bussed to and from Lord's with his kit bag in tow and, when he wasn't netting or playing, he was working on the covers during England Tests. "For a boy living in Dublin with not a lot of cricket, all of a sudden I was engulfed in cricket mania."
Eventually, that full-time contract with Middlesex came through. And though it ended in 2016 after a battle with injury, there is an unshakeable feeling that despite having played two Tests, 64 ODIs and 23 T20I caps, aged 28, he might be "the one that got away", unable to fulfil his potential for the benefit of the club. Upon returning for this Test, he made sure to visit the Middlesex offices to say hello to some familiar faces.
Wilson's step into County Cricket was not as smooth, but still relatively straightforward. Runs for the YCs against Surrey 2nd XI saw the same county take him onto their books from 2006 to right until 2016, before he moved to Derbyshire for his final two years of English cricket.
A steady flow of 2nd XI matches for Porterfield was followed by the 2007 World Cup which led to Gloucestershire giving him a deal in 2008. A longer stay came with Warwickshire, from 2011 to 2017.
Kevin O'Brien was unable to secure anything concrete but his white-ball prowess were appreciated by Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire, Somerset, Surrey and Leicestershire. The irony of him being Ireland's first Test centurion is not lost on him or his teammates. During an after dinner speech, Ed Joyce joked O'Brien had taken the century that was rightly his.
Joyce's thread is an interesting one to pull at. A troublesome left knee and hip pushed him into retirement last year after managing to hold it together to play in Ireland's maiden Test against Pakistan. As a former Middlesex and England player, Lord's holds great significance for him. He will ring the five-minute bell on day one.
A trailblazer of sorts for this generation, making his first class debut for Middlesex in September 1999, a week before his 21st birthday, many followed his lead. The value of county cricket for Ireland is not lost on him.
"It's the reason we have a decent team, to be perfectly honest. There's no way we'd have had the quality of players without having county cricket to fall back on. You just could not do that here (in Ireland). It was an incredible resource."
Of course, full membership shifts the goalposts. From next season, Irish players will be classified as overseas. While the YCs will still be open to youngsters, the step into County Cricket would require committing fully to England and meeting the necessary three-year residency criteria or nabbing an overseas spot which, Stirling aside, seems beyond the current crop. Tim Murtagh, aged 37, is expected to retire from international cricket to finish his career with Middlesex. All but three of this squad have benefited from county experience.
That is, perhaps, why there is a sense of melancholy heading into this match. Not anywhere near the surface, of course. The honour of any Test is great and even the most decorated in the format savour the opportunity to play at Lord's. Obtaining Test status will mean cutting themselves off from the English domestic system that has provided them with so much. All but three of this squad have benefited from some form of county experience. It is, though, a necessary measure.
"It is very simply a growing pain," explains Cricket Ireland chief executive Warren Deutrom. "If we are going to stand on our own two feet as a full member, we have to be able to rely on our own domestic system to produce our players." That system is the Inter-Provincial Championship, which was granted first-class status from 2017.
Naturally, this feels like the culmination of a generation. One that had to leave to better themselves and found new experiences and progression in a world now closed for future generations.
Yet even then, this Test - the fact there is even this Test - is an example of how this crop has made the most of these opportunities to ensure those further down the line will benefit from Ireland being a stable international force with a robust domestic structure. As the saying goes, a society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.
"Could this have happened earlier?" asks Wilson aloud. "Maybe. There are players like Joyce and Niall, Trent Johnston, John Mooney who really deserve to be here. You feel for them obviously, but you know the honour is on you. And you know this is only the beginning even if it's near the end for us."
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