Friday 24 May 2019

'I know when to knuckle down, but I'd rather... not'

Kevin O'Brien is looking to balance his attacking instincts with the responsibility of being a senior pro as he bids to slay England again

Finest hour: Kevin O’Brien (left) celebrates with his brother Niall after his match-winning World Cup century against England in Bangalore in 2011. Photo: Tom Shaw/Getty Images
Finest hour: Kevin O’Brien (left) celebrates with his brother Niall after his match-winning World Cup century against England in Bangalore in 2011. Photo: Tom Shaw/Getty Images

Sam Wheeler

Kevin O'Brien accepts that his career will always be defined by his pink-haired heroics against England in 2011, and he's fine with that. Even though his unforgettable match-winning century in Bangalore was far from a lone highlight in a 13-year international career studded with memorable moments.

Even though he reckons he is a better cricketer than he was eight years ago. Even though he has plenty of opportunities to add to his list of great innings as Ireland play seven one-day internationals on home soil against the world's best sides over the next month - starting against England at Malahide on Friday - before a mouthwatering Test match at Lord's.

It's just that nothing could really top beating England at a World Cup, from an almost impossible position, with the fastest century in the history of the competition - with his hair dyed pink for the Irish Cancer Society.

And the likelihood is that O'Brien will never play in another World Cup: Ireland failed to qualify for this summer's edition, heinously shrunk from 14 teams to 10, and he will be 39 by the time the next one rolls around.

Occasion

"I think most sports people are defined by one occasion," he shrugs. "Ray Houghton is defined by that goal against Italy in 1994, and he had an 18-year career in the top flight.

"But I'm a better cricketer than I was six years ago, I've been in more situations, I've failed a lot more, which is where you do your most learning in any sport."

In the autumn of his career, O'Brien has managed to become a more consistent batsman - just two single-figure scores in his last 16 ODI innings, plus Test scores of 40, 118, 12, 56 - balancing his desire to entertain with the responsibility of being a senior figure in a new-look Ireland side that he admits "plateaued" in recent years following the retirements of so many stalwarts.

"Probably subconsciously, there's a little bit more responsibility, not pressure, on my shoulders," he says.

"I see that as a challenge rather than a hindrance. It's good to have pressure, good to have 'x' amount of people expecting you to put in performances game-in, game-out. I like that added responsibility. Over my career, if teams and coaches have given me more responsibility, generally I've been more successful.

"Maybe that's the type of character I am, I like being in that difficult position and rising to the occasion."

Yet O'Brien is able to play with a breezily unencumbered mind. Thoughts of failure don't creep into his head. In a sport where players are generally judged on statistics, the numbers don't matter to O'Brien. Does he never think about his average?

"No," he replies instantaneously. "Maybe it depends what type of cricketer you are. The way I play, if I'm batting I want people to step away from the bar and watch me.

"If that's for 10 minutes, I want to entertain people for 10 minutes, or for an hour - I want to entertain them for as long as possible."

Does he try to share that attitude with his team-mates?

"Well, you can't have seven batters who bat like me: one day you might get 400, next be bowled out for 50. You need a mix of styles. But the more players you have who are flamboyant and want to take the game to the opposition, the more chance you have of winning. I know when to knuckle down, but I'd rather . . . not! I'd rather hit a few balls into the stands and entertain whatever crowd is there."

Twelve months ago O'Brien said he felt Test cricket wouldn't suit his temperament. Yet in his second innings of Ireland's inaugural Test, against a world-class Pakistan attack, he reined in his natural instincts and played the situation. His 50 came up off 100 balls - hardly sluggish by Test standards, but a quarter the pace of his famous 50-ball Bangalore century. He hit no balls into the stands - a conscious decision, having been caught in front of the wicket when well set in the first innings.

"Well, I try to play a similar way to how I would play a T20 or a 50-over, maybe take a little bit less risk, but still play my natural game, just try to score as quickly as I can," he says.

"If the ball is there to be hit, just try and hit it. If you're positive with your mindset and positive with your footwork, you can make a half-decent ball into a ball you can score off."

For the next month, O'Brien and Ireland are focusing on the 'middle-ground' format of ODI cricket.

First up are England, who under the captaincy of former Ireland batsman Eoin Morgan (cricket is complicated …) have brought a T20 attitude to 50-over batting, redefining the boundaries of what is possible with a series of 400-plus scores, interspersed with some disastrous collapses.

"England are the best team in world," says O'Brien. "But we shouldn't go into the game fearing them, or being scared of what they might do, that they might score 'x' amount. We've just got to go in and perform our best, because we've competed against them before, we've beaten them before. They won't take us lightly, they will know us on home soil is going to be a difficult game.

"We've seen England fall apart before - Scotland beat them last year. Their batting line-up is explosive, but all of a sudden, if you get two or three quick wickets, you're into a lower-middle order that maybe hasn't been in those situations as much.

"To win, we've got to play the perfect game. We can't drop a chance; we've got to be on the ball from the get-go with bat and ball. You've got to be positive; we can't back off. We need to stand toe to toe with them, look them in the eye and say 'listen, we are here to take you on'.

"May is an exciting, challenging month. What am I most looking forward to? Winning."

O'Brien's top knocks

2011: 113 v England, Bangalore. Reached his century off a World Cup record 50 balls to inspire an astonishing three-wicket victory.

2011: Hits the fastest century of the English county season, off just 44 balls, for Gloucestershire v Middlesex.

2013: Smashes 84 not out v Pakistan at Clontarf to secure a tie - perhaps Ireland's best result on home soil. Needing 12 for the tie off three balls, he finishes 6, 2, 4.

2018: 118 v Pakistan, Malahide. Wonderfully mature century in Ireland's inaugural Test.

Irish Independent

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