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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Niall O’Brien full of belief as Ireland make long-awaited Test debut against Pakistan

On Friday in Dublin, Ireland will play their first official match in cricket's longest format 

Niall O'Brien played a match-winning innings for Ireland against Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup. Paul Gilham / Getty Images
Niall O'Brien played a match-winning innings for Ireland against Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup. Paul Gilham / Getty Images

It seems fitting Pakistan should be Ireland’s first Test match opponents. In all likelihood, Irish cricket might well have reached this point even had they not enjoyed a famous win over Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup. That does, though, feel like a pivotal moment in their rise.

The victory over England in 2011, especially the manner by which it was achieved, perhaps meant more to those involved. But the fixture against Pakistan at Sabina Park four years previously was what launched Ireland on the international stage, the moment the world was forced to sit up and take note.

Snapshots of that day in Jamaica remain vivid. Captain Trent Johnston’s winning six. The “Blarney Army” singing “are you England in disguise?” as Pakistan’s batting faltered. The victory celebrations continuing through the night.

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All great memories for the Irish, of course. And yet the first mental image that springs to mind for the player who played the defining innings in that seminal match is an anguished one.

“The first memory that comes into my head is playing such a poor shot and getting stumped,” Niall O’Brien, Ireland’s wicket-keeper, said. “I should have been there at the end to see the team home.”

The left-hander’s 72 represented over half of his team’s runs in the nervy run-chase against the world’s fourth-ranked side. He admits he did not foresee such an epic performance ahead of the time.

“I went into that game in really poor form,” O’Brien said. “I had had a run of really low scores, and felt really out of touch with the bat. So much so that I didn’t even practice in the nets the day before because I thought there was no point practicing as I was batting so badly.

“During a rain break, the coach Aidy Birrell took me out to the car park for throw downs, and things just clicked. I am delighted to play my part in a famous win which really set us on our path for the next 10 years, up till this day really.

“It set us on our way to this Test match. We needed a result like that to make the world sit up and take note, and since then we have gone from strength to strength.”

Ireland and Pakistan play out their 2007 World Cup encounter. Paul Gilham / Getty Images
Ireland and Pakistan play out their 2007 World Cup encounter. Paul Gilham / Getty Images

By contrast, O’Brien’s form is strong ahead of his and his country’s belated Test debut. He made 165 for North West Warriors in Ireland’s domestic first-class competition last week.

The make-up of the opposition attack this week, with the likes of Mohammed Amir, Rahat Ali and Shadab Khan in harness, will likely pose a greater threat, but O’Brien thrives on challenges.

“I just got in a bit of a groove, and got into a bit of a contest with Mohammed Sami, bowling at 90 miles an hour,” O’Brien said of his Sabina Park heroics.

“There was a little bit of friendly banter between the two of us, and it was ended up being one of those days. I got a few out of the middle, was able to play a nice innings, but I should have been there at the end, but the captain Trent Johnston hit that one over the ropes.”

The Pakistan squad for the Malahide Test match, beginning on Friday, does not include any players from the starting XI in the World Cup fixture 11 years ago.

By contrast, there are likely to be four Irishmen – O’Brien, his brother Kevin, Will Porterfield and Boyd Rankin – who featured then in this week’s starting line-up.

They have grown up together and are vastly experienced, both at international cricket as well as the first-class game.

As such, O’Brien is confident his side can be competitive in the game’s longest format immediately. Winning Test matches is a notoriously tricky skill to learn.

New Zealand, for example, went 26 years without winning one when they started out. More recently, Bangladesh only won one at the 35th attempt. Twenty of their first 34 matches were lost by an innings.

“We are confident that we can win every game,” O’Brien said. “Other teams would probably say the same, but we have real belief in our own abilities and our teammates’ abilities.

“Hopefully we will get the opportunities to play plenty of games, and we can Test ourselves and put ourselves up against the best. If we do, then I’m sure, I have no doubt, we can come out on top against some of these sides.

“There is plenty of experience. It is easy to say, but we won’t be phased by the occasion.

“We have the experience and the know-how at first-class level. The boys are just looking forward to being on the park and taking on Pakistan.”