Thursday 22 March 2018

O'Brien insists Ireland have the personnel to up their game in testing group

Niall O’Brien: ‘We need to up our game — but we have the personnel to do so'
Niall O’Brien: ‘We need to up our game — but we have the personnel to do so'

Ger Siggins

Bowler Tim Murtagh may be 98 days older, but there's no doubt that Niall O'Brien is the senior pro on this Ireland team. The wicketkeeper/batsman is in the foothills of the Himalayas this weekend, preparing for what will be his, and Ireland's, eighth cricket world cup.

The often-fiery O'Brien has mellowed, and reckons responsibility has played a role. "I think being a senior player both for Ireland and for Leicestershire has given me added focus", he says . "In the past I have sometimes spoken or acted before thinking. Off the field, I'm a lot more settled, which helps on the field."

Not that captain William Porterfield will want O'Brien to lose too much of that fire. The ICC World Twenty20 is a testing prospect in Dharamshala, where, to progress, Ireland must top a group with Oman, Bangladesh and Netherlands. "There will be three tough games, especially with Bangladesh playing well," says Porterfield. "Holland, too, have shown their strength in this format, knocking us out last time out."

While temperatures are a balmy 21C, the altitude of 1,470metres is right on the mark where athletes' bodies start to be affected. Ireland will be wary of Bangladesh, who beat Sri Lanka and Pakistan last week to reach the final of the Asia Cup and have beaten India, South Africa and England in the last 12 months. Should Ireland overcome the Asian tigers, they face the Dutch, who blew them away in the same competition two years ago. That was a bruising lesson, with the target of 190 overhauled with over six overs to spare.

"It's a tough group," says O'Brien. "For the first time, I reckon we are underdogs as Bangladesh are playing some really good cricket. We have been a little indifferent in the last 12 months in this format, so we need to up our game - but we have the personnel to do so."

"A little indifferent" is generous - Ireland have won just half of 14 completed T20 games, losing to Scotland (2), Papua New Guinea (2), Hong Kong, Netherlands and UAE.

However, O'Brien is keen to make a mark as one of only three men who have played in all eight ICC events since Ireland broke through in 2007. "It will more than likely be my last global tournament, so I aim to play with no fear and enjoy every moment", he insists. "Being part of every world cup is something myself, William and Kevin are very proud of. I think it is a wonderful achievement for any player to be around - and good enough - for such a long time. Some of the cricket we played in 2007 was outstanding and hugely motivational for the next generation."

It hasn't been a bed of roses for O'Brien, however, and the retirement of friends such as Trent Johnston and John Mooney made it harder. "For a time, I questioned whether I wanted to keep going," he admits. "I'd played a lot of cricket and wasn't massively enjoying touring. But I've had a new lease of life and I'm really enjoying playing for Ireland and seeing the side evolve."

Previous coach Phil Simmons took the keeping-gloves from him in 2012, which became a bone of contention between the pair, and a source of friction when the senior bowlers backed O'Brien. New coach John Bracewell has reversed that call and the 178-cap Dubliner will be behind the stumps in India.

"Keeping wicket is what I love and when I wasn't keeping, I certainly didn't enjoy games as much. We have three good keepers in the squad, so John has more options than most international coaches. I will keep working hard to deliver behind the sticks for the team.

"Most people didn't get the situation with Simmo. We actually got on very well for the most part. Yes, I chose to go to the Bangladesh Premier League rather than play an I-Cup game against Kenya. For a while, it was a bit iffy between us, but both Simmo and I are fairly stubborn people, so it was always going to take time. But in the end, we were good mates and enjoyed each other's company, especially over a beer or two."

O'Brien is on a two-year Ireland contract, and that 200th cap is in his sights. A career in England is partly why he had to forgo more than 150 games since his debut in 2002. At 34, dusk looms over his career and he has been collecting coaching badges and media experience. "I am in my last year at Leicester, but hope to continue playing there for years to come. Who knows where I will end up. I love Ireland and would love to return one day - hopefully cricket continues to grow and I can help the next generation achieve some career highs."

Ireland fixtures (live on Sky Sports 2): Mar 9 v Oman (2pm), 11 Mar v Bangladesh (2pm), Mar 13 v Netherlands (9.30am).

Squad: W Porterfield (capt, Warwickshire), A Balbirnie (Middlesex), G Dockrell (Leinster Lightning), A McBrine (NW Warriors), T Murtagh (Middlesex), K O'Brien (Leinster Lightning), N O'Brien (Leicestershire), A Poynter (Leinster Lightning), S Poynter (Durham), B Rankin (Warwickshire), M Sorensen (Leinster Lightning), P Stirling (Middlesex), S Thompson (NW Warriors), G Wilson (Surrey), C Young (NW Warriors).

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