Tim Murtagh tells Guerilla Cricket’s Tony Bishop why Ireland’s first ever Test match is the pinnacle of a long career
The Sussex Cricketer pub is a perfect place to reflect on a glorious sun-bathed day of well-supported county cricket. The game itself between Sussex and Middlesex is perfectly poised with both sides feeling they can win after fortunes have seesawed across three days.
We are not short of bowling inspiration: Jason Gillespie sits at the next table and the elegant, tanned white-haired gent at the bar is none other than England fast bowling legend John Snow, now well into his seventies, but looking fit and lean.
Enter Tim Murtagh, Middlesex opening bowler, taker of 712 first-class wickets and currently the world’s most famous ‘adopted’ Irishman.
Left stranded on 13 not out in a last-wicket run-out and having bowled probingly up the hill without reward, including a sharp missed caught and bowled, any player could be forgiven for wanting to just unwind quietly with a drink. Tim, however, is relaxed and happy to discuss the forthcoming Ireland and Pakistan encounter when, at the age of 36, he will make his Test debut.
There has been cricket played in Ireland since the late 18th century but he has no doubt there has never been such a genuine sense of occasion and a building sense of excitement about the country’s coming of age, not just in the Emerald Isle but also globally.
Whilst acknowledging his status as an Irish adoptee, his pride is clear to see. “It is slightly different for me not living there, but it is the only thing people have been talking about since it was announced,” he says. “I’ve been concentrating on the start of the county season to get into some rhythm before the Test, but now it’s around the corner it’s very real and quite something”.
Former Australian bowler Gillespie, now the head coach at Sussex had said that if Ireland got Test status it “would be huge news in world cricket, and it would be a massive positive story for the world game”. Murtagh agrees. “With Test cricket’s future questioned in some quarters, Ireland and Afghanistan are big news stories for the game and hopefully we can live up to that. Global coverage, being on Sky Sports and, of course, Guerilla Cricket and big audiences listening in Pakistan and around the world, it’s going to be really special”.
Murtagh qualified for Ireland in 2012, the opportunity coming through his Middlesex colleague Ed Joyce, who will line up alongside him against Pakistan. Joyce asked him about his heritage based on his Irish name. Murtagh was immediately keen on the idea. “I said yes and the very next day got call from Mark Garaway, who was then head of Cricket Ireland, offering to help with citizenship and passport issues, he recalls.
One benefit has been the fillip it has given to his ODI career. Whilst he has performed superbly for Ireland in ODIs (he is one shy of fifty wickets at a credible economy rate of 4.5) at Middlesex he has increasingly focused on the red-ball game. This is clearly a slight frustration, but Tim acknowledges that his county have a depth of bowling reserves to deploy in limited-overs cricket.
He has always viewed Test cricket as the pinnacle but by his own admission not something he thought would ever happen when he started out in the game “I didn’t think the chance to play a Test would ever be possible, but here it is and I think it will be a great game”.
So, looking ahead to Malahide, is there anyone in the Pakistan team he is particularly looking forward to bowling at?
“Pakistan are an experienced Test side and will be a massive challenge. They are also an interesting mix of youth and experience,” he says. Cricket has a habit of tossing up family dynasties. Murtagh recalls that “way back in 2000, he bowled against Pakistan legend Inzamam-ul-Haq in a British Universities match.” In Malahide, 18 years on, there may will be the opportunity to take the wicket of Inzy’s young nephew, Imam-ul-Haq. “That would be quite something,” he admits”.
Other than that, the homework started in Dublin on Tuesday where he was “studying videos on the opposition and hopefully catch them cold”.
For the home side, Murtagh is looking forward to bowling with Boyd Rankin, the only Irishman with Test experience, having previously represented England. Joyce, of course, scored a one-day hundred for England in Australia in 2007 before reverting to his native team.
There is also the comforting presence of three other familiar figures in the shape of current and former Middlesex players Paul Stirling, Andrew Balbirnie alongside Joyce.
Naturally, I hope that an opening bowler will have an inside track on the Malahide wicket, but, having watched four rounds of early season county championship games now, Murtagh’s response really should not surprise me. A lot of rain in last week has made it tough to get out to the middle to prepare, so the simple message is to be ready for anything.
That said, he is quick to volunteer that “a green top and a bit of cloud cover, added to the fact that Pakistan will not have played too much cricket in those conditions would not be unwelcome”, which is no surprise coming from a bowler so adept at generating swing and movement in early-season conditions.
After a few minutes in his company, I am reassured to sense his genuine excitement ahead of the historic Test. But as an avid Middlesex watcher, I naturally want to learn a little more about the man I have sat in the pavilion watching rip apart opposition top orders.
Uncle Andrew played first-class cricket with Hampshire and is also a cricket writer and biographer. Brother Chris also played for Surrey and then Shropshire, so cricket was always in the Murtagh family. Although I have often witnessed his trademark ‘keepy-uppy’ when fielding off his own bowling, football it seems was not a serious challenger to cricket.
He is, however, a passionate Liverpool fan, and is no doubt about the outcome of the Champions League final, for which he has a ticket. “Liverpool will win easily,” he assures me.
My last question brings us back to Ireland and the future of a man making his Test debut at such a late age. Ireland may well play a Test at Lord’s in 2019, but will Tim be there? The answer is a resounding “yes” in terms of desire. Yet even if form can be temporary and time is inexorable, I would not bet against his nation’s first Test match wicket reading lbw Murtagh!