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O'Brien says new blood needed to make next step

'Kevin was the next man in. He had been playing all his life but had hardly any first-class experience to draw on.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Kevin was the next man in. He had been playing all his life but had hardly any first-class experience to draw on.' Photo: Sportsfile

Andy Bull

The O'Brien boys used to play at the Ashes in the back garden. During the summer they would stage long one-on-one Test matches, each always taking the same part. Back then Niall was a batsman whose hero was Steve Waugh, so he would be Australia, and Kevin was a bowler who idolised Darren Gough, so he'd be England.

"That's where I learned the game, in the back garden with Nialler," Kevin says. "Toughest cricket I ever played."

It never occurred to them to pick Ireland, even though their father played 50 games for the national team. "Honestly, I never believed Ireland would ever play Test cricket," Kevin says. "Not in my career."

Last Sunday afternoon Ireland were doing exactly that. It was the third day of their first Test match, against Pakistan at Malahide and the dream had suddenly become a nightmare. They were seven for four, 300 runs behind and belly-up. What's worse is that it was happening on the same day Cricket Ireland had picked for their big party. They had invited every living cricketer who had played for Ireland along to watch. Eighty came.

"Which added to the pressure," Kevin says, "because we knew they were living and breathing every ball along with us."

Kevin was the next man in. He had been playing all his life but had hardly any first-class experience to draw on. Just 40-odd games, most of them for Ireland against the other associate nations, plus a single match for Surrey, another for Nottinghamshire and a handful for Leinster in the new inter-provincial competition. There was nothing there to tell him how to bat when, in your first Test, the team are seven for four and Pakistan are on a tear. But he had played 125 ODIs, more than any other Test debutant in history. So he decided to do what he knew best.

"There was nothing left to lose," O'Brien says. "It already looked like we could be 50 all out so it couldn't get any worse."

Seven years earlier, O'Brien was at the crease in Bangalore when Ireland were 111 for five chasing England's 327 in the 2011 World Cup. The decision he made now was similar to the one he had taken then. "I decided to try and counter-attack, to put some pressure back on the bowlers."

In Bangalore, he made 113 from 63 balls; in Malahide, it was 40 from 68. But those 40 runs steered Ireland away from the rocks. Belief began to course through the team. Pakistan made Ireland follow-on that evening but their openers, Ed Joyce and William Porterfield, batted through to the close, reaching 64 for nought. "That was the key partnership," O'Brien says. "It showed us we could compete at this level."

The next day, O'Brien did more than compete. Coming in at 95 for four, by the close he was unbeaten on 118, the first Test century for Ireland. He could not add to that the following day but Ireland made 339 and had Pakistan 14 for three in the chase. In the end Pakistan won by five wickets but Ireland had proved they could handle themselves in Test cricket.

"People have asked me which innings I preferred and I'd have to say it was the hundred in Bangalore," O'Brien says. "Because it was against England, because it was the World Cup and, most of all, because we won."

The Test left him with mixed emotions. "I'm very proud and happy with the century but ultimately I'm disappointed that we couldn't put Pakistan under even more pressure." He blames himself. "If I'd pushed on the next morning and got those few extra runs, even another 30, it could have been different."

Instead, he was caught swinging at his first ball on the fifth morning. "It was a lesson," he says. "I got too caught up in everything the night before. I was still dealing with all the congratulations, the text messages and that, before I went out to bat. I wish I had left all that until after the match."

That was one of the ways in which Test cricket surprised him. "There were the little things, like at one point Pakistan had a spinner on and seven men fielding on the leg side and I've never faced anything like that. But the large thing was just how much concentration it takes to play Test cricket. We played well, bowled well, batted well, in periods, but the best teams in the world do it for seven hours a day, day in, day out, and that's the challenge for us."

Whether O'Brien will be the one to take it on, he isn't sure. He is 34 and one of a group of senior players who are coming to the end. "You are going to see a couple of retirements in the next couple of seasons," he says. "The team could lose six or seven of us, so it's imperative Ireland blood some new players as quickly as they can."

O'Brien is thinking of what he can do to help. He is midway through his level three coaching certificate and the day after the Test finished he was in the nets at his old club in Dublin working with the next generation.

When they were young, the O'Briens had to keep their backyard matches quiet. They went to school in inner-city Dublin and if the other kids knew they played the "English" sport instead of hurling, rugby or Gaelic football, then "we might have come in for a few hidings". It's different now.

Somewhere in Ireland this summer there will be a couple of schoolkids playing Test cricket in their back garden, one-on-one. They won't need to hush it up and they won't have to pretend to be England or Australia any more.

Observer

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