Hard-work bearing fruit for pioneering O’Brien
The anatomy of the global game is continually evolving - underlined by the recently leaked ICC ‘Position Paper’ - but if there was ever a term that encapsulated the changing dynamic of cricket then ‘Twenty20 freelancer’ may just be that.
Depending on your perspective, the advent of the white-ball specialist is a representation of everything that’s wrong with the modern game, or oppositely, an exemplar of a new generation of superiorly talented cricketers making full use of their coveted expertise.
Kevin O’Brien falls under that very bracket. The 29-year-old has quickly become Ireland’s first global trailblazer. He’s been a Gladiator and a Saber, an Outlaw and a Lion, a Rangpur Rider and more recently, a member of the Red Steel. It would be an injustice, however, to paint him with the same brush as those who are resented for putting money ahead of the game’s traditions.
West Indian Kieron Pollard has emerged as the archetype Twenty20 freelancer. Naturally, he divides opinion. Greedy mercenary or dazzling entertainer. Erratic slogger or unorthodox genius.
The similarities between Pollard and O’Brien are, in fact, striking but also contrasting. Both are their respective country’s one-day protagonists. Both are bludgeoning middle-order batsmen, proficient out-fielders and military-medium paced chundlers playing to their strengths and trying to earn the best possible living from a relatively short career.
If you have the talent, why not make the most of it? At the end of the day, both are reaping the rewards of natural ability and hard work. That's when the bitterness and jealousy starts.
However, that’s where the comparisons between the two cease. O’Brien’s principal commitment is his country. Unlike Pollard, his fortuity and notability emanates from his perennially industrious endeavors for the national side - in all formats.
The Dublin-born all-rounder does not feed off an exclusive diet of Twenty20, it’s just his forte. There is a lot more to his game than just being able to clear the front foot and clobber it over the boundary.
“It’s a relatively short career so I need to do the best I can in a short period of time. As far as I’m concerned, the best way to make a living over the next few years is to play as much Twenty20 cricket as I can,” He proclaimed.
“I think the past four years is the way I want to go.”
Unlike several of his compatriots, O’Brien is not tied down to a professional contract at a club. Hence the freelancer tag. He’s played Twenty20 cricket in England (for four different counties), in Bangladesh, the West Indies and now he has his sights firmly on the crème de la crème of T20 riches - the Indian Premier League.
Two years ago, he failed to attract a potential employer at the haphazard auction. His repute has spiralled since then but, admittedly, he has more pressing issues ahead with the team at the forefront of the agenda. Whatever happens, happens.
“I’ve got to put everything out of my head and just go out and play the best I can,” O’Brien declares.
“If I get a bit of luck and hit form at the right time and get a few scores then that will hopefully be enough to alert the teams overseas but if not, that’s just the way it is,” He says in typically understated fashion.
“With hard work comes all the rewards as I’ve seen before, so all the effort put in over the next few weeks will hopefully lead to good performances. However, I won’t be putting too much emphasis or pressure on myself to go out and smash a few sixes or whatever to try and highlight my ability to franchises.”
O’Brien is part of the 14-man squad currently in the Caribbean for the Nagico Super50 tournament, which started this week. It marks the beginning of a jam-packed itinerary which sees Phil Simmons’ side take on the West Indies in a limited-overs series before the ICC World Twenty20 in March.
“It’s the start of a busy period for us,” The Leinster Lightning captain explained. “All the guys are refreshed and looking forward to a heavy three months. The Super50 will be an extremely tough tournament but it will be great preparation and give us three of four weeks of solid cricket.”
The Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad plays host to Ireland’s three group games - against Guyana, Windward Islands and Jamaica - and it’s a familiar stomping ground for the 29-year-old, who excelled for the Trinidad and Tobago Red Steel there in August.
“It was a fantastic tournament [Caribbean Premier League] to be involved in. The atmosphere around the stadiums was electric with every ground packed, it was just a great experience,” He recalls.
Such has been his success, rubbing shoulders and sharing a dressing room with some of the most distinguished names in the game has become normal. He nonchalantly name drops - without being condescending - almost as regularly as he finds the fence.
“It was a great honour to play alongside the likes of the Bravo brothers, Ross Taylor and Mahela Jayawardene (the list goes on) and hopefully I can take that experience into the next few months and beyond.”
With the World Twenty20 on the horizon and O’Brien widely type-cast as a shorter-format specialist, he will be the cynosure during Ireland’s time in the Bangladesh. It’s a role which he relishes and has grown into but with greater heed, comes increased expectedness.
“The falling of it [World Twenty20] falls nicely for me. It’s just before the English season and the Caribbean Premier League as well as just before the IPL, it couldn’t be better but I don’t feel there’s added pressure.”
O’Brien knows he needs to consistently exhibit his prowess in order to keep employers interested in an increasingly competitive market. Despite his IPL base price being a minimal Rs. 3 million (approx. $48,000) in comparison to the capped players, the competition for contracts is fierce.
“I’ve performed fairly consistently over the past few years with Ireland and abroad so I’d like to think a lot of coaches and franchises already know what I can bring to a team. Hopefully that’s enough to fit with a few teams but the next few months is a shop window.”
That shop window may be cut short, however. The ICC’s move to expand the World T20 to sixteen teams has seen the introduction of an initial Group Stage. In order to progress to the Super 10 alongside the full members, Ireland will need to safely negotiate the first round with any slip-up against Netherlands, United Arab Emirates or Zimbabwe likely to prove fatal.
“It’s not ideal,” O’Brien remarks. “However, if we can come through the first round, we’ll come into the tournament off the back of three competitive games which would be far more beneficial than a couple of warm-up fixtures.”
“If we play to our ability, there’s no reason why we can’t go through but we’ll need to hit the ground running.”
The luxury of being able to supplement his earnings abroad is just that for O’Brien and doesn’t supersede his dedication to Ireland. His gun-for-hire appeal hasn’t arrived out of thin air. Shortly after Ireland completed the Associate nation treble, his name was up in lights alongside the outstanding performers of 2013. It wasn’t out of place.
“It was a great year for both the team and myself personally. Having said that,I would be the first to admit it probably wasn’t my best year. In terms of figures, 2010 was undoubtedly better. It’s just nice to be able to contribute to a winning team.”
“To win the ICC Associate/Affiliate Player of the Year award was a nice end to a successful year. I’ve been trying desperately for the last few years to win the accolade but to get over the final hurdle makes all the hard work over the years worth it.”
He may be pigeonholed as a limited-overs specialist but you only have to go by his first-class record to render that argument obsolete. With the ICC meeting this week to discuss the controversial ‘Position Paper’, reports suggest the sweeping changes within the game’s structure could result in Test status for Ireland sooner rather than later.
O’Brien admitted it may come after his time but for now, he’s fully focused on the task in hand. The rest will take care of itself.