The sun was out, and the partnership was set. England were still 51 behind, but the gap was becoming small enough for the Irish to become nervous. Murtagh the Menace, or Tim Murtagh as he is commonly known, had been defied, as had Mark Adair and, after taking the wicket of Rory Burns, so had Boyd Rankin. Ireland had two other realistic options, other than the three men who had done all the damage in the first innings, to use in their efforts to break the Jack Leach and Jason Roy partnership: Andy McBrine and Stuart Thompson.
Initially, they were used together. Thompson replaced Murtagh from the Pavilion end, while McBrine came on for Rankin from the Nursery end. After patiently soaking up the end of Rankin’s first spell and Murtagh’s second – neither man went for more than two an over for the last two overs of those spells – Roy and Leach were much less circumspect with their replacements. Neither McBrine nor Thompson managed to bowl a boundary-less over until the fourth, with the switch back to aggressive batsmanship best represented by Roy’s decision to charge and hit McBrine’s second ball over long-on for six. Even when McBrine eventually got the aforementioned boundary-less over in, it still went for six, taking the total number of runs from his first four overs to 28 and causing William Porterfield to give Adair one last try before lunch. When that over finished, England had gone 0-0 in their actual score to 1-0 in the effective game score – in other words, the deficit had been fully erased.
Ireland tried a different tactic to start the second session – unlike the start of the first day, the start of England’s second innings and the start of the second day, Murtagh didn’t start the session. Adair continued and Rankin came back. The latter should have had a second wicket when he forced an outside edge from Leach as he fended off a short ball but was reprieved by Gary Wilson’s drop. The next three overs then went for eight, six and eight. England were 47 ahead now. Roy and Leach weren’t batting without causing alarms for their own team, but those alarms were starting to ring just as loudly for Ireland. Adair had been seen off, Murtagh’s return wasn’t looking promising and Rankin had to be given a break sooner or later. Porterfield decided to make it sooner, reintroducing Thompson from the Nursery end and Thompson, lumbering up the hill, bowled him with an inswinger.
Middle of middle. 2-171.
The game changed again as a result of that wicket, as Joe Denly started slowly, and Leach slowed as he approached his maiden Test ton – a maiden first-class ton. It looked like fortune would stay with him long enough to help him make it when he was dropped for a second time, this time a sharper chance to Adair at second slip off Murtagh’s bowling, but a mere three balls later, he presented Adair with another chance. This time, Adair made no mistake, forcing Leach to walk off eight runs short of a most unlikely hundred.
3-182. Lead of 58. Joe Root walked out to bat at No. 5 for the first time since October 2015. 6.4 tight overs followed from a combination of Thompson, Murtagh, Adair and McBrine before it culminated in a mix-up which saw Denly run out, which England needed as much as a gaggle of Piers Morgan impersonators. Jonny Bairstow was then soon the subject of wags on Twitter who were calling him “Jonny Pairstow” when Adair trapped him LBW, a decision upheld on review. Moeen Ali managed to keep Root company in the three overs until the tea break, even though Rankin’s short ball troubled in him twice in row before the walk off. At this point, England were 5-209, just 89 runs ahead and having squandered their best chance of dominating the match.
There’s a lovely club feel about this Irish team, a practicality which appeals to cricketers, amateur and professional, and never was this more in evidence than when Wilson judged that Root was standing so far out of his crease to Murtagh (who doesn’t always touch 70mph) that he needed to come up to the stumps. Instead of the helmet being walked all the way down to ground level, it was simply chucked down from the balcony. No fuss, no muss.
Meanwhile, Rankin’s short ball was still troubling Ali and eventually brought about his downfall, edging behind for a simple catch to Wilson with the lead a mere 97. Root nearly followed him three balls later when he edged Murtagh to first slip, but the ball just landed short of Stirling and went for four.
He’d yet to register another boundary when he decided, 18 balls later, to come down the crease to the second ball of Adair’s new spell and attempt to drive the ball. If Wilson had let himself down before, then he excelled himself here, moving so far to his right to intercept the ball, which was headed roughly for Stirling’s chest, that he caught it with both hands. And if there was a slight advantage to England before, the game was firmly Ireland’s to lose now.
Sam Curran, England’s last batsman of repute, joined Chris Woakes, but he had a new partner as early as Adair’s next over, with Woakes mistaking the situation as the ideal time to launch into a full-blown cover drive at a ball of good length, Andy Balbirnie holding onto a hard, low chance to reduce England to 8-248, a lead of 126. Although, having said that, Curran and Stuart Broad then proceeded to throw the bat at just about everything, adding 45 crucial runs off just 37 balls before the former finally fell to the short-ball tactic off Thompson, and in so doing continuing the habit of the day – a wicket falling in the first over of a spell. But it wasn’t a tactic of uniform success. It had cost runs before Curran’s dismissal and it did afterwards, Broad, who has looked more like a batsman in this match than he has for some time, swiping the end of Thompson’s next over for six. When lightning finally ended play, it was hard to see who benefited from the early interruption of play, but on balance, it was most likely Ireland, as it allowed them to avoid a potentially awkward mini-session in the evening and come back fresh the next day to finish the England innings, preferably before the lead reaches 200.
In a situation such as this, each team always has an ace in the hole. For England, it is probably Broad, with his ability to bowl match changing spells and an excellent fourth innings record at Lord’s. For Ireland, it is most likely Kevin O’Brien, the only Irish Test centurion to date, the best man that Ireland could have to stop a collapse and a hero of many unlikely victories against many teams, including England. Day three could see the culmination of another.