Cricket hero O'Brien rules out England switch
If you see an opportunistic bookmaker offering 10-1 against Kevin O’Brien representing England in the 2013 Ashes – as William Hill have been doing – don’t be tempted to reach for your wallet.
“I reckon it would have to be 1,000-1, more like, to be worth it,” says O’Brien himself. “Because I have absolutely no intention of playing for England.”
The suggestion came as a surprise to him, and understandably so. Until Wednesday night, only one member of this Ireland squad had been tipped to emulate Ed Joyce and Eoin Morgan by swapping emerald green for lilywhite.
That was George Dockrell — a precocious slow left-armer who warrants comparison to the young Daniel Vettori. As for O’Brien, there was little apparent interest in a 26-year-old journeyman who had failed to hold down a place at Nottinghamshire in 2009.
But then the O’Brien of 2011 is a very different animal to the one who struggled in county cricket. He proved that point in Bangalore, with a savage beasting of England’s attack. O’Brien’s 50-ball hundred had the sort of punishing simplicity that we are more used to seeing from the giants of world cricket. It had a touch of Graeme Pollock about it, or maybe Clive Lloyd.
A frenzy of interest is already building around O’Brien’s signature. No sooner had the game finished than his agent was emailing a number of counties, looking for a deal for next season.
But why stop there? An Indian Premier League contract is a realistic prospect. Perhaps even a nomadic lifestyle along the lines of Kieron Pollard, the globe-trotting Twenty20 specialist from Trinidad. Not even Pollard could have hit the ball harder this week.
“It’s nice to know that these things could happen, but I’m just concentrating on the rest of the tournament,” O’Brien said on Thursday.
“Yes, the innings was a bit of a surprise to me because it’s not every day you hit 100 off 50 balls. But it still hasn’t sunk in fully. I’m doing a few interviews today, then hopefully I can chill out this evening and get ready for the next match.” O’Brien’s astonishing tour de force set up Ireland for the most memorable victory in their history (which, incidentally, dates back to 1855).
Yes, they may have beaten Bangladesh and Pakistan during the 2007 World Cup, but this was England, the oldest enemy. And the result was even more satisfying because the winning team contained nine home-grown players — surely enough to scotch the theory that Irish cricket relies on imports from South Africa and Australia. These days, it is England who are more guilty of that.
No surprise, then, that the party wore on into the night. “There aren’t too many bars in Bangalore that stay open past 11, but the hotel were very kind when we got back to our rooms,” O’Brien said.
“We had a few beers and a few glasses of champagne to celebrate. I think we got to bed about four o’clock, then I was up at 9.30am, so I’m feeling a bit tired, but we had a rest day and we’ll all be back on the job on Friday for training.”
Ah, the training. It is easy to caricature the Irish as fun-loving dilettantes, but as many as 13 of their 15-man squad are full-time cricketers, and Wednesday’s match was the first in which they had fielded a fully professional XI.
“I have got a lot more consistent over the 14 months since I received a full-time contract,” O’Brien said. “Up until last year there were only two guys on that list: Trent Johnston and Alex Cusack. Now there are six, on top of the five guys playing county cricket in England, which tells you how far we have come.
“In 2010, we played 52 matches, which gave us so much opportunity to hone our games. You want to play as much as you can for Ireland, and whenever you do, you wear the shirt with pride.”
According to Warren Deutrom, the chief executive of Cricket Ireland, the decision to extend the professional playing base has been the best move he ever made. Deutrom believes that O’Brien and Paul Stirling — two of the heftier members of the batting line-up — have changed their body shape completely since embarking on a daily fitness regime at the gym. And you could see the benefits of all that weight training in the 102-metre six that O’Brien hit off James Anderson.
Don’t be fooled by the idea that Ireland is not interested in cricket. As the sixes rained down in Bangalore, the excitement back in Dublin was moving towards a crescendo. The leading rugby pundit George Hook was almost in tears on his afternoon talk show.
The morning after, O’Brien’s brother Ger — who captains the Railway Union club, where the family play — reported a huge spike in membership applications. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that this invaluable exposure may be denied them at the 2015 World Cup, after the International Cricket Council announced its plan to cut the number of teams to 10. “We can’t do anything about the ICC’s decision,” O’Brien said.
“It’s out of our hands. We just hope that there is some sort of qualification process to decide which teams get to play in the tournament.”
Unlike Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, Ireland remain an associate nation, which means that they have no guaranteed fixtures and no place on the ICC’s top table.
The odds are stacked against them. Until this tournament, they had never played a single one-day international under floodlights. And yet they have already overtaken Zimbabwe in the world rankings, and are holding steady at No?10. How good could they be if handed a level playing field?
One question remains. Kevin O’Brien may not be interested in appearing in the 2013 Ashes series. But what about Tests for Ireland? The prospect remains doubtful. Phil Simmons, the Ireland coach, has suggested that it could still be five to 10 years before that final step is taken.
“Our problem is that we don’t have a first-class structure,” O’Brien said.
“There is a big gap from club to international cricket, and particularly to Test cricket, so it is a long way away. Whether we do get to play a Test in my time, who knows, but I hope that day comes sooner rather than later. It is a big ambition for all of us.”
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