By Sajid Sadiq
Niall O’Brien is a left-handed batsman and wicket-keeper who has played 51 One-Day Internationals (ODI) and 20 Twenty20 Internationals (T20Is) for Ireland. He began his professional career with Kent before joining Northamptonshire in 2007. Recently he signed a three-year deal with Leicestershire and moves to Grace Road following three seasons at Kent and six years at Northamptonshire.
O’Brien has also played in overseas Twenty20 leagues, first the Indian Cricket League in 2008 and then the Bangladesh Premier League last year. His innings of 72 from 107 balls in the 2007 World Cup group match against Pakistan helped Ireland earn an upset victory and also earned him the man of the match award.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, O’Brien talks about his early days as a cricketer, the highlights of his career and the future of Irish cricket.
Excerpts from an interview:
PakPassion (PP): How did you get interested in cricket? Ireland is not really that well known for cricket.
Niall O’Brien (NO): Cricket, when I was growing up, was quite a minority sport, but for me and my family it was quite an important part of our lives. My dad played cricket for Ireland, captained Ireland, so it was an everyday thing for me and my family and friends growing up in the village called Sandymount in Dublin. Every day we were down at the cricket club to play. Although it was not a popular sport with a lot of people in Ireland in those days, we were just like any other kid in Pakistan, India, England, South Africa, Australia, all wanting to play a Test match for our country one day. We probably lived slightly differently to the majority of young people in Ireland, cricket was actually the most important sport in our childhood.
PP: What about the levels of coaching in Ireland? You mentioned your father played cricket. Was he your mentor and coach, or were there other guys in Ireland who coached you?
NO: My dad was one of my biggest mentors. He captained Ireland. When I started playing top-level club cricket as a 14-year-old, he was still playing as a 50-year-old or thereabouts. But I did have some other good coaches along the way. I was lucky enough to be coached by a man called Brian O’Rourke who is heavily involved in the youth structure of Irish cricket. He’s a very fine coach.
We were given the best that Irish cricket had to offer, although it would probably pale in comparison to a lot of countries around the world. But we got on with it and there are a lot of us who have come through that system at that age group and made good careers for ourselves.
Although the infrastructure wasn’t as solid as in many countries, from our point of view we were given as much as they could afford and as much time as we wanted to improve our games. From that point of view, there was always coaching available, also Cricket Ireland brought in people like Hansie Cronje, Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh and Jonty Rhodes to play and coach the youth of Irish cricket. So I’ve been lucky enough to be coached by some fine players. The biggest stepping stone of my career was when Adrian Burrell, the Ireland coach, took over in 2002 and he took my game and Irish cricket to another level.
PP: You’ve been playing county cricket for a number of years now. How did you get into English county cricket? Was it through the county scouting network?
NO: I was a very keen footballer, but at the age of 16 I made the decision to focus more on my cricket than on my football. I got spotted when I was about 18 or 19 by a couple of counties, but the Irish coach Adrian Burrell had a contact at Kent and he set up a trial. After a week’s trial at Kent they offered me a contract.
I’m still here 11 years on so I must be doing something right! County cricket is a form of the game I really enjoy, I really enjoy playing at all the different county grounds, different venues, different spectators, and playing three formats of the game is very, very worthwhile for me.
PP: Tell us about your First-Class debut for Kent against Gloucestershire, a game you probably still remember where both teams forfeited an innings and then Kent chased down 300+ in 60 overs. That must have been quite an experience?
NO: Yes it was an interesting game really because Geraint Jones had been picked to play for England against West Indies. I’ll never forget lying in my hotel bed in Bristol and being woken by my phone and it was Geraint Jones ringing me from the Caribbean wishing me all the best for my debut, so that was a really touching way to start the day. I must say my debut didn’t go quite as according to plan as I would have liked – I didn’t get a chance to have a bat – and I didn’t keep wicket particularly well. I think that was more due to nerves than anything else.
It rained for two-and-a-half days, so I had a chance to speak at length with Jack Russell about wicket-keeping, about county cricket, what was expected as a professional cricketer and what kind of training and commitment you have to give to the game. So that was very valuable really and I’ll never forget the chats with Jack Russell over a cup of tea and some soggy Weetabix, which he loved so dearly. It was a day that will live long in the memory as I was making my debut but I didn’t really do much. I didn’t get a catch or get any runs, I didn’t get to bat. But it was a great win and I think Michael Carberry got 125 and he played fantastically well, but thankfully I’ve had better days since. You always remember your debut fondly and playing for Kent was a very proud time for me.
PP: What about your Twenty20 debut in which Andrew Symonds scored a 34-ball century, that must be a pretty memorable game, that must have been quite interesting to watch Symonds bat that day?
NO: Yes Symmo was a very talented cricketer, a very interesting character. His cricketing qualities are absolutely unquestioned. He could bat, bowl, field and he was a good guy to be around in the dressing room. Some of the innings he played for Kent were absolutely out of this world and it was a pleasure for me to play two or three seasons with him at Kent. It’s a shame his career didn’t progress quite as he and everyone who knew him would have liked. But that was the man. That was the way he played the game, that’s the way he lived his life and he had some good times down at Canterbury.
PP: You played some games with Shahid Afridi at Kent. What was that like playing alongside and being in the same team as Afridi?
NO: Yes that was funny. We were doing throw-downs before a match and I think we were playing at Middlesex on his debut at Maidstone. He said to me, “Niall can you give me a few throw downs”. So I gave him a few and he was hitting everything with the edge and he wasn’t hitting the ball very well. I thought “this guy’s not very good”, but when he batted he hit the ball out of the ground!
We were playing a Twenty20 and he said to me, “if someone hits me for six, next ball I’ll bowl a bouncer so be ready”. And he bowled plenty of bouncers! It was an interesting time, “Boom Boom” is a nice guy, someone I get on well with even to this day. He’s a very warm character, helpful and very friendly, so I always enjoy meeting up with him. As I do with all the Pakistani guys in the national team, I’ve got many, many, good friends, Taufeeq Umar, Mohammad Sami, very close friends of mine, and Kamran Akmal is obviously part of the wicketkeepers union. But “Boom Boom” is obviously a great talent, really good character and a nice person to be with.
PP: Now tell us about that incident in 2004 at Stormont with Brian Lara. What actually happened and were things sorted out afterwards?
NO: I think a lot has been made of this and it’s quite a good story. Brian Lara was playing against Ireland and it was in the days when touring teams would come to Ireland to give the spectators a chance to see the best players in the world, rather than a chance for Ireland to compete. Trent Johnson bowled a good ball, as far as I know he got a little nick, I tumbled away to my left and took it. It was the kind of ball you don’t really appeal for because you think it’s clearly out. The umpire obviously was of the opinion that the crowd are here to see Brian Lara bat and not Niall O’Brien keep wicket and gave him not out, and that was that. I ran down at the end of the over and my captain said to me, “Did he nick that?” I said, “he didn’t nick it skipper, he middled it!” Brian Lara obviously heard this, took his gloves off and put his bat down, walked up to the other end of the wicket and pointed at me, and kept repeating ” I walk when I nick it, I walk when I nick it.” So being the quiet guy I am, I told him where to go and gave it back to him, not necessarily in those polite words and there was a bit of an incident!
He went on and got a magnificent 110 I think, which the bowlers didn’t thank me for, because obviously I had a chirp at Brian Lara and he wasn’t very pleased. Anyway, when I was batting, second or third ball I nicked one through to the keeper and the same umpire had given me out and I had to walk past Brian Lara without having scored a run. Lara winked at me and said, “I suppose you didn’t nick yours either junior” and just strolled past me.
So that was that and Brian Lara had the last laugh. But the next day, I came out to bat again and I got 64 not out, won the game for Ireland and Brian Lara had to present me with the man of the match award. So you know we have become very, very good friends since.
I enjoy his company and vice-versa through a close friendship with Dwayne Bravo. I was a young, exuberant youth who shot my mouth off one time too many. Cricket is a funny old game and it comes to bite you in the backside. It did that that day. But you have good days and your bad days, a bit of inexperience from the situation, but it brings back memories. Brian is obviously a fantastic player and a good friend.
PP: You’ve had some fantastic times with the Ireland team beating Pakistan, West Indies and England. It must be a little bit frustrating though that Ireland isn’t getting regular international cricket and also not getting those regular fixtures against the top sides?
NO: We’ve beaten some good teams in the past, but we need to play more consistent international cricket against the big boys and we need to put up more of a fight. We didn’t play well in the T20 World Cup – got bowled out for under 150 twice and Australia chased their runs easily. We want more cricket, but we need to play better. We’ve got a good team. We would love to have a sustained period of time where we can play plenty of one-day international cricket, T20 cricket and good first-class cricket against the Test sides to see how we’re faring.
We want to play Test match cricket, but at the moment one or two games a year against top quality opposition, people look for us to test ourselves fully. Watching Bangladesh and Zimbabwe play Test match cricket or watching New Zealand get bowled out for 45, or whatever they got bowled out for in one Test match, and the week before scoring 82 in the T20. We could be playing cricket and playing a good standard of cricket. I’d be hopeful we wouldn’t be bowled out for 45.
I am not saying that we’re a better team than New Zealand, but I’m sure we would give the likes of New Zealand, West Indies, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh a good run for their money if we had them over for a sustained period of time for a three or five-match series.
Whether that will happen in my life time, I’m not sure. I hope so, because for Test matches I’ve got the technique, temperament and physical endurance at that level. I’m not saying I am going to average 50 like Sachin Tendulkar, but I am saying I am confident of my ability to score runs at the international level on a regular occurrence. Time will tell. Hopefully, the ICC will do a favour upon us and Ireland will be able to play Test match cricket in the near future.
PP: It’s interesting that you mention the likes of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, as some observers are saying that there should be a two-tier system in Test cricket with Ireland playing in the second division. How do you feel about that? Do you think it would be a good idea and could it work?
NO: I think two divisions in Test cricket would be a great idea, absolutely. It would bring a competitive edge to every game I feel with promotion and relegation, whatever the case might be. Yes, I think it would be a great idea, and hopefully it is something the ICC are thinking of and we will get the opportunity to play Test cricket sometime soon.
PP: What about cricket in Ireland, the club system, the league system? How strong is that? Will it continue to produce good cricketers like you?
NO: At the moment there is a club system in place and I know Cricket Ireland is looking to bring in a First-Class system. At the moment, the step from playing club cricket to, for example, playing for Ireland against Pakistan is too big. So Ireland are hoping to bring in a First-Class system, that will bridge the gap and bring Ireland the next generation of good cricketers in Ireland. There are some good cricketers coming through – a lot of good cricketers coming through – and we need to keep developing and nurturing that talent.
PP: What about the fact that Ireland lose some of their best players at the moment, with the likes of Eoin Morgan playing for England. That must be a little bit frustrating for the guys at Cricket Ireland who develop and produce these players?
NO: Eoin is a fantastic talent. In my opinion he is England’s best limited-overs batsman and I think it was inevitable he was going to would play for England.
Yes we’d love to have him play for Ireland, but we can’t supply him with the cricket that would challenge him on a week-to-week basis, that’s the problem. He plays with some of the best and we’re delighted when he does well. He hasn’t forgotten where he comes from and is still good friends with many of us, but trying to stop someone playing Test cricket when you can’t offer them Test cricket is a very difficult thing to do.
PP: Do you think if Ireland were given Test status and, as we discussed earlier, they were in the second division of international cricket, do you think that would stop some of the Irish players playing for other countries?
NO: In a word: yes.
PP: Going back to the victory in the 2007 World Cup over Pakistan, it must have been a fantastic moment for the Ireland team out in the Caribbean?
NO: Yes, it was brilliant. It was a World Cup, cloudy day, St Patrick’s Day, the wicket was green. We all had a feeling and we played brilliantly. We took our catches, which was something we didn’t do in the first game against Zimbabwe. We caught everything, we stopped everything and when we went out to bat we got ourselves over the line.
I think Pakistan made a mistake by not playing Danish Kaneria, I think they should have played a leg-spinner. Even on a green wicket, Ireland as a nation are not very good at playing spin or at least not very good at playing leg spin back then.
It was fantastic to win it in front of all my family was something I will never forget.
PP: Was that the highlight of your career to date?
NO: It was definitely a highlight from a personal point of view, playing the way I did but I think the victory against England was a fantastic achievement for everyone concerned. To chase 320 is a great effort but from a personal point of view the Pakistan victory was something that set Irish cricket on its way and without that victory we probably wouldn’t be where we are today.
PP: Would you be interested in playing in the Pakistan Super League that has been set up?
NO: I will be. I’ve been approached to play in the league and provisionally been given the green light to play in it, so fingers crossed I’ll be able to go and play and see all of the people of Pakistan who have been very friendly towards me down the years since the days we beat Pakistan. Fingers crossed, watch this space!
PP: Thank you for your time and best wishes for the future.
NO: My pleasure.
(Saj Sadiq is Senior Editor at PakPassion.net. He can be followed on Twitter at @Saj_PakPassion)