When Niall O'Brien, Irish cricket's hottest property, strode out to bat at the start of season 2002, not even he could have envisaged the meteoric rise his career was to take. But speed is the most apt description of this man's tale.

O'Brien is probably the most travelled young cricketer in these shores. He has had the good fortune to have plied his trade in Australia (for two winters) and in Port Elizabeth in South Africa. And this is all at the age of 21!

But his prominence in the Irish side only really came about following back-to-back hundreds at the start of last season. "The two centuries in two days that I scored for Railway Union (against Cork Harlequins in the Royal Liver Cup and Malahide) gave me a lot of confidence. I've always had great belief in my ability." The significance for O'Brien was that he hadn't hit a century before that glorious weekend.

He made his debut against Denmark in the European Championships last July, and batting initially down the order didn't suit his style. "I'll play anywhere for Ireland. There's no question of that but I do prefer opening the batting", he says. "I prefer the harder ball onto the bat and I like facing the quicker bowling." In making his debut he became the first Railway Union player since his father Brendan ‘Ginger' O'Brien to do so.

Then came the defining innings of his career to date, a sparkling 111 in the win against MCC at the Mardyke, Cork. He opened the innings that day with Andrew White from North Down, with whom he had travelled to Port Elizabeth during the winter of 2001-02. White scored 76 in an opening partnership of 182. O'Brien achieved an overall batting average, in his debut season for Ireland, of 47.25. He also scored four centuries in total at club level.

English county scouts began making enquiries and by the end of April this year, he should have completed trials at Kent, Sussex, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. "County cricket would enable me to realise my cricketing ambitions. If the opportunity arose to play Test cricket, I wouldn't see any problems in playing for England. But that's a hell of a long way off", he grins.

But O'Brien, who recently collected the Sunday Independent/Hyundai Irish Cricketer of the Year award from ICU President Eoin McCann (right), knows where he came from. "Dad would obviously be my biggest role model. He's had a major influence on my career and I've always received great support from him and my family. Further afield", he continues, "Australia's Steve Waugh would certainly be someone who I look up to.

"I'm a big fan of the Australian mentality and when Waugh came over to Ireland a few seasons ago, I was fortunate to receive some coaching from him." Ireland coach Adrian Birrell is another who has played a leading role in his development. "Adrian is very good technically, but he's also a great motivator who has instilled a lot of confidence in me."

O'Brien is one of the real success stories of the underage system having represented his county at Under 15, Under 17, Under 18 and Under 19 levels before moving on to Ireland A level (where he scored a century in a tournament against Scotland) and his full debut during the European Championship last summer.

By the end of the summer, O'Brien will have accumulated more air miles than Pavarotti has had hot meals, but he still looks onward and upward. His journey is only beginning. He's aiming for the stars and his potential will ensure that he's soon sure to join them.