Remember when Ireland played their first Test?

No, you don't, so let's rewind back to it

Raf Nicholson  |  

We were here first: the Ireland squad that played the country's first Test

We were here first: the Ireland squad that played the country's first Test © Courtesy of Isobel Joyce

Last year, four months on from his team being awarded Test status by the ICC, the CEO of Cricket Ireland, Warren Deutrom, announced that Ireland would be playing their first Test in May 2018. "We are excited to welcome Pakistan to Ireland for our inaugural Test match next year," he was quoted as saying. "It has been our wish to make our Test debut in front of our own fans within 12 months of becoming a Test nation, and against a big team, so I'm delighted."

There was just one thing wrong about that statement. The event he was referring to will not be Ireland's first Test at all.

That match took place 18 years ago. The opponents were the same: Pakistan. But Ireland's first - and so far only - Test was played by women.

In an era when women's Test cricket is at best a biennial event, played only as part of the multi-format women's Ashes, and when the Irish men's team have had to fight tooth and nail for Test status, this seems unfathomable. But two decades ago women's cricket looked very different.

When I asked around for explanations as to how it was that an Irish women's Test came to be organised, Ireland allrounder Isobel Joyce said: "Pakistan said, 'Do you guys fancy playing a Test?' 'Sure, we might as well,' we said."

It really was that simple.

Back then women's cricket was still entirely separate from the men's game. In Ireland the merger with the men's game was a year away; the Irish Women's Cricket Union (IWCU) still reigned supreme. At the global level the body in charge was the International Women's Cricket Council (IWCC), a voluntary, amateur organisation that nonetheless backed Test cricket to the hilt.

Any Full Members of the IWCC could organise Tests among themselves, and to qualify for full membership a country generally only needed to have played in a World Cup. By 2000, Full Members included not just Ireland but Denmark and Netherlands, as well as Pakistan.

What women's Test cricket lacked was not will but resources. The IWCU, for example, was chronically under-financed, surviving on minuscule government grants bolstered by fund-raising.

"At that time we weren't playing many internationals - we couldn't afford it," says Siobhan McBennett, a former manager of Ireland Women. "I remember when Pakistan said they'd like to come, we agonised over it for a good while, because we were going to a World Cup that year and it was in New Zealand and that was going to cost us a lot of money. We thought, 'Can we afford to have [Pakistan]?'"

The Pakistan women's team, set up in 1997 by sisters Shaiza and Sharmeen Khan, faced even greater difficulties. They were initially unable to train in their own country due to death threats, and the PCB refused at that stage to even acknowledge their existence. The Khan sisters were essentially bankrolling the entire team whenever a tour took place.

So why play a Test?

The legspinner Ciara Metcalfe says that the continuous breaks were hard to adjust to: "It felt like I was just eating sandwiches all the time!"

"Pakistan were trying to make a name for themselves," recalls McBennett, who was heavily involved in both the IWCU and the IWCC at the time. "They were very keen to play a Test, so that they could go to the PCB and say, 'We've played a Test!' It was a little bit of a tick box. And for Ireland, too, we were trying to get the men to take some responsibility for women's cricket, and they had little interest. We felt it was a tick box, so that we could say, 'Of course we've done that!'"

So they did.

The Test began on July 30, 2000 at College Park, Trinity College in Dublin. Costs were kept minimal. Most of the Irish players lived locally and went home every evening after close of play. A local Pakistani restaurant whose owners were mad about cricket provided some of the players' meals for free. College Park was the ideal location: both McBennett and the Irish first-class umpire Alan Tuffery, who presided over the Test, worked at Trinity; and since it was a university pitch, it was easy to secure access for the four consecutive days for which it might be required.

The Ireland players recall that preparing for multi-day cricket was tricky, not helped by the fact that there was little time for training. The majority of the squad had to take a holiday from work in order to play the match. "It was hard juggling everything," remembers the captain, Miriam Grealey, who was working as a secretary in an architect's firm. "I don't remember doing specific training. It was more verbal conversations with the coaches."

The medium-pacer Saibh Young concurs. "We had a lot of conversations about what sort of runs we should have on the board at lunch and at tea and at the end of the day, and how many overs you should get through in a day, when would be good to declare, what was the pitch like, and what were Pakistan like. We didn't have a lot of information about the Pakistan team, because they hadn't been in many competitions. We had to do our research based on how they had done against other teams, and then we had to make our game plan.

"The whole concept of trying to keep a match going for four days - we had to go back to the drawing board and really think about how it would work. We never planned like that for our limited-overs matches."

Many of these plans would be in vain. As can be gleaned from a quick glance at the scorecard, the Test turned out to be rather a one-sided affair. Pakistan won the toss and elected to bat, but were bowled out for 53 in 47.4 overs.

For Joyce, it wasn't exactly the thrilling start to Test cricket that she had been hoping for.

"I just remember thinking, 'God, this is really boring.' They blocked it for most of their first innings. It felt like forever!" For the legspinner Ciara Metcalfe, the continuous breaks were hard to adjust to: "It felt like I was just eating sandwiches all the time!"

Isobel Joyce, the 17-year-old Player of the Match on Test debut, went on to captain Ireland in the limited-overs formats

Isobel Joyce, the 17-year-old Player of the Match on Test debut, went on to captain Ireland in the limited-overs formats © AFP/Getty Images

The pace of the game is perhaps best summed up by Young's standout memory of the occasion: "I'd bowled nine overs for no runs and I was doing a ten-over stint. On the second to last ball of the tenth over, they got an edge through the slips. So my figures for the first innings ended up being ten overs, nine maidens, one run. I was so annoyed!"

Ireland went on to bat for the same length of time, 47 overs, with Caitriona Beggs and Karen Young accumulating half-centuries. They finally declared with 193 runs on the board. "We probably could have batted longer but there wasn't much point," recalls Grealey.

She was right. Pakistan were 8 for 1 in their second innings at close of play. While the start of day two was delayed by overnight rain until the early afternoon, it wasn't much help. They were all out for 86, succumbing to defeat by an innings and 54 runs. The star was Joyce, who finished with figures of 6 for 21, earning herself the Player-of-the-Match award.

Afterwards the two teams agreed to use the leftover time to play two ODIs at Trinity College on the succeeding two days. Ireland won the first by 138 runs, bowling Pakistan out for 70. Rain curtailed the second. "It was all a bit of a mismatch," rues Grealey.

She is quick to point out, though, that it shows how far Pakistani women's cricket has progressed since then. It's unclear how much influence the Test cricketing crusade of the Khan sisters had, but the PCB did eventually alter its stance on the women's game, with the result that Pakistan are now - two decades later - firmly established in the top flight of international women's cricket.

In any case, the historical importance of the occasion defied the one-sided nature of the cricket. Karl Johnston, reporting on the Test as cricket correspondent for the Irish Times, labelled it "a significant piece of Irish cricket history". Each of the players was given a plaque marking the first Test match to ever take place on Irish soil.

Ireland Women never played another Test.

"For us at that time we had to make sure we were always in the World Cup," says McBennett. "We played more and more of the 50-over format. Our players didn't get to play much as a team, so when they did, they practised the format that was going to matter."

A year later the IWCU merged with Cricket Ireland; in 2005 the IWCC ceased to exist as the ICC took over the reins of the women's game. Test cricket - for women, anyway - was no longer on the agenda.

But those who played in that inaugural Test have never forgotten it. "It was a fantastic thing to be involved in," says Grealey. "It's very special to have been involved in the very first one. You hear about the men doing the first one, and you go, 'No, no, we played one!'"

"There is a whole folklore which goes along with being a Test player," concurs Saibh Young, who has plans to head to Malahide on May 11 for the men's Test. "It means a huge amount."

Raf Nicholson is an England supporter, a feminist, and has recently completed a doctoral thesis on the history of women's cricket. @RafNicholson