Lord's splendour can't hide the great Test divide

Andy Balbirnie prepares to lead Ireland out on the second morning Michael Steele/Getty Images

By 10am, the queue for entry at Lord's North Gate was quite frankly eye-popping. It stretched past the Wellington Hospital, past the BP garage, down towards the road that provides a shortcut to the Beatles' zebra crossing. But for the buses tiptoeing past those punters who had spilled off the pavements, it would have wormed all the way across the road to the aisles of Panzer's delicatessen, from whence more than a few of today's Nursery Ground picnics are sure to have been picked up.

And to view the splendid scene that lay beyond those gates - with near-packed stands on all four sides of the ground, and the sun burning through in the early afternoon to complement that uniquely contented hum that passes for atmosphere at Lord's - you'd be forgiven for assuming that you were watching a sport in the rudest of health. Until, that is, you drilled down into the actual details of the contest.

But no! Don't go peering behind the curtain … that'll only spoil the illusion. And yet, everything that was right about the Lord's experience today - the steady flow at the bars and the happy chat of reunited friends, and out in the middle, that languid sense of life gently meandering before you, like an afternoon's fishing on a quiet corner of the Thames - was everything that's wrong with the contemporary Test experience. And startlingly, that fact remained true even though England laid on a(nother) batting display of historic, genre-bending, dominance.

Have we been spoilt by the exploits of Ben Stokes' rebooted Test team? I'm not convinced it's that simple, for you'd be hard-pressed to find any genuine criticism of the manner in which England have overwhelmed their opponents.

In his notes for the souvenir match programme, Stokes restated his team's battleplan in the same stark, uncompromising tones that they have so far served up for the scorecard. "We're out here to score runs, take wickets and win games - and we like to do all three as quickly as we can," he wrote. And on the evidence to date, there's little reason to believe England will be detained much beyond lunch on Saturday afternoon. Job done, a round of golf and the FA Cup final awaits.

Instead, the worry is that today's exploits in particular reflect the same levels of privilege that were on display within the walls of Lord's. It's easy to ignore the signs that all is not well with the Test world when everything looks quite as serene as it was made to feel this afternoon. And in three weeks' time, when Australia rock up here for the second Test of the most anticipated Ashes summer since 2005, it would be self-loathingly righteous not to get swept up by the excitement.

But if Ireland's toils on this extraordinary stage don't give you pause for thought, and reason to reflect on the lot of the less fortunate members of Test cricket's brotherhood, then not only are you probably dead inside, then your beloved format is likely to follow suit in pretty short order. Never mind being in possession of the most storied ground in the world, with the right to turn a vast profit from two Tests per summer. England's opponents right now are a team that burned €1 million on hosting their first Test match in temporary facilities back in 2018, and have been so scarred by the experience, they've barely dared to carry any hosting costs since.

And so there's no point in complaining, either, that Ireland are not worthy of their Test status. The reasons are writ large in the back-story to this contest, and so are the wealth of mitigations. And, as one or two of the jazz-hatters in the crowd today ought to know if they've ever donned the black, red and gold colours of another famously nomadic team, I Zingari, if you plan to get out of the darkness and reach the light, you generally have to walk through the fire. There's only one way for Ireland to get the experience they need to compete in the future, and that's the hard way.

The cracks in the façade were clearly visible last year, even at Lord's. Prior to England's five-wicket win over New Zealand in the first Test of the summer - the contest that kicked off the Bazmania that followed - there was more than a little disquiet about the price of entry for that match. Most tickets then ranged between £100 and £160, and there were still some 16,000 seats unsold in the week before the game. "What is cricket without its fans?" Stokes said in his first pre-match comments as captain. "What is sport without its fans?"

It is clearly to MCC's credit that they reduced their prices for this Ireland Test - between £70 and £90 in the main, with Under-16s at £20 - although you'd have to assume that England's style of play was the decisive factor in today being so packed out. But amid the ongoing tussle over the ICC's future revenue distribution, there's an onus on England in particular to provide more than just a glorious stage on which their less-well-off opponents can get beaten - because if Stokes' fantastic team is to succeed in its mission to make Test cricket great again, they will need more than just India and Australia to give them a run for their money.

This fact was brought home to the ECB in no uncertain terms during the pandemic, when many of the same England players produced mental miracles to "keep the lights on". But they were only able to do so thanks to the goodwill of their opponents that summer - most particularly West Indies and Pakistan who endured lengthy bio-bubbles for the Test series, although Ireland were also an important factor as they, along with Australia, agreed to fulfil their white-ball obligations.

The extent of England's subsequent gratitude, however, has been mixed. Both West Indies and Pakistan benefitted from being able to host extended T20 series last year, but not before Pakistan had been outrageously fobbed off by the unilateral cancellation of England's goodwill stop-over in 2021-22 - a shameful episode that led to the departure of the previous ECB chairman, Ian Watmore.

Happily, the new chair and CEO combo, the former Surrey pairing of Richard Thompson and Richard Gould, seem to be more attuned to the true needs of the sport - with Gould acknowledging on a recent Final Word podcast that the time is nigh to pay visiting teams a fee for fulfilling their side of a bilateral agreement, to "encourage people not just to play Tests but make sure they can pay their players, and pay them well, so that they want to play Test cricket again."

It's surely a critical step in shoring up a creaking format. But if an unprecedented run-rate of 6.34 across 82.4 overs in a home England Test is insufficient to set pulses racing, it may be that the sport has already been bled too dry to save those sides on the extremity.