AS THE ARCTIC wind penetrated the January air, and Malahide Castle and Gardens was littered with woollen-dressed walkers, the idea of Test match cricket and a bright new dawn could not have felt any further away.

Cricket grounds can be forlorn places in the depths of winter, and even the venue which will play host to Irish sporting history in three short months is not exempt, with Malahide barely recognisable under an early-morning mist.

As winter turns to spring, work will begin on transforming the idyllic village ground into a purpose-built international stadium which will provide the setting for a momentous occasion as Ireland make their first foray into the Test arena against Pakistan.

For so many involved in the sport on this island, and indeed those who previously laid the foundations, it will be the most fulfilling, yet surreal, of days just a decade on from the indelible victory over Pakistan which initiated this remarkable journey to the top table.

No one has played as significant a role as Ed Joyce, and two decades on from his Ireland debut, against Scotland at a club ground in 1997, he — like so many others — is on the verge of realising a childhood dream.

It’s no secret that the curtain would have long fallen on Joyce’s pioneering career had Test match cricket not been around the corner, but that’s not to say the 39-year-old is clinging on to bow out on the grandest of stages.

You’ll find few who argue against the assertion that Joyce remains the key cog in Ireland’s batting wheel and certainly his sixth ODI century earlier this month against United Arab Emirates is evidence of his enduring worth.

But a long career, spanning over two decades and including four years in England colours, has taken its toll over the last number of years, with debilitating knee and hip problems forcing him to end his time in county cricket to scale back his workload.

His right knee required surgery at the end of 2016 and even last summer — at which stage he had returned to live in Dublin having taken a considerable pay-cut to sign a central contract with Cricket Ireland — there was still a great deal of uncertainty over whether he’d be fit enough to play on into 2018.

“The knee isn’t great, lots of other things are hurting, and my body is telling me to stop,” the Bray native said last June, and there were further concerns when he missed the pre-Christmas series against Afghanistan in India.

But that May Day has focused Joyce’s mind, and the prospect of taking to the field on a historic occasion, has made the painful rehabilitation work a little more bearable.

Ireland’s long-serving figurehead is soldiering on.

“Playing in that Test is the only thing keeping me going,” he says.

And now it’s within sight. Pakistan. Malahide. Test cricket. The holy grail.

On the back of his match-winning century in Dubai a fortnight ago, Joyce is feeling as fit and fresh as he has in quite some time and there is a real sense of enthusiasm and excitement when he looks ahead to a busy schedule.

“The knee wasn’t great a few months ago but I started doing pilates and has actually really helped,” he explains.

“I felt it getting worse and worse last year again and trying to strengthen up the muscles around the knee was proving difficult. Pilates has really helped and I went away on this tour to UAE and it went really well, felt really good and felt somewhere back to 2015 when it was still a bit sore but could get through it and perform.

“I’m feeling a lot more comfortable in my body, and because of that I’m looking forward to the cricket a bit more. I’ve gone on record by saying if the Test match wasn’t there I might have stopped already and that’s still true, but I’m feeling a lot happier about playing cricket this year. A lot of stuff to look forward to too.”
Encouragingly, Joyce was yesterday named in Graham Ford’s squad for the World Cup qualifying tournament to take place in Zimbabwe in March and he will again be crucial to Ireland’s hopes of booking their place at a fourth successive World Cup.

The task has been heightened significantly with the ICC’s decision to reduce its showpiece event in England in 2019 to a 10-team tournament, with Ireland set to vie with West Indies, Afghanistan, Netherlands and hosts Zimbabwe among others for the two remaining qualification berths.

Ireland will finalise preparations with a training camp in South Africa, where four warm-up games have been scheduled, before facing the possibility of nine make-or-break games in the space of three weeks.

The congested and intense nature of a tour will be a firm test of Joyce’s fitness and how he and the coaching staff manage his workload — both on the field and in training — will be a crucial factor in getting the best out of him with the bat.

“I’m going to Zimbabwe to play every game but if there’s a situation where it’s sore for one game and we feel I should miss that one and manage it day-to-day then so be it,” he continues.

“But I’d be hopeful of getting through every game out there and being able to perform.

“It is about managing it but I’m feeling a lot more positive. I feel good and because the knee is feeling good I’ve actually been able to practice properly. That was probably the biggest thing for me when the knee wasn’t good, I wasn’t able to practice properly and therefore you can’t be in as good as form as you’d like to be in.

“I’ve been able to bat for a long time in the nets and actually work on things and get a lot of volume in which I haven’t been able to do previously. I feel like I’ve hit enough balls and prepared well and mentally I’m in a good place going into games.”

It also helps when the team appear to have turned a corner following a difficult 18 months under John Bracewell, with Ireland winning their last six ODIs before and after Christmas.

New head coach Ford is still settling into the role but certainly the early signs leave huge grounds for optimism heading into the World Cup qualifiers, with the bowling attack producing far more accurate and consistent displays and the likes of Joyce providing solid platforms with the bat.

“I feel very positive about the next few months,” Joyce adds. “I’m looking forward more to the Zimbabwe trip as it’s such a big tournament because the last couple of years in ODI cricket we haven’t played well but then it looks like the team has turned the corner.

“Rob Cassell [bowling coach] has done wonders with the bowling unit, we have a lot more variation. We seem to have moved on in terms of accuracy and hopefully we can bring that into the qualifiers. I feel like the team is in a better place and because of that I think everyone is a bit more positive about it.”

While the World Cup qualifiers are the primary focus, 11 May is a date ingrained in everyone’s mind, even yesterday when Cricket Ireland unveiled its first Test kit.

But for Joyce, he can’t afford to look even that far down the line as he manages his knee on a day-to-day basis while at the same time appreciates knows the significance of the forthcoming tournament, even if he’s unlikely to be around in 2019 for the World Cup should Ireland make it that far.

“I’m looking to play the Test match and make a decision after that,” he says of his future.

“We’ve got the next three or four months, and I’m going to really put everything I have into those few months and hopefully, the team does well as well and then see where we stand after the Test match.”
It’ll be a special moment.

“Looking back, I played my first game for Ireland back in 1997 and I never thought we’d be anywhere close to playing Test match cricket in my lifetime, let alone still being able to play,” Joyce adds.

“It’ll be a very proud moment for me personally but it’ll just be a momentous day for Irish cricket considering where the sport was and where we’ve got to in the last decade. It’s an incredible achievement.”

102 days and counting.