Kevin O’Brien knows that no matter what he does in this week’s ODI series against England, he will ultimately be remember for one thing. His name is inextricably linked with his 50-ball hundred in the 2011 World Cup, which sealed a famous Ireland victory against their oldest rivals in Bangalore, and he is all too aware that there is no escaping that fact.
“It’s coming on 10 years now,” he laughs. “It’s a little bit frustrating. It’s obviously a very proud thing, and to talk and think about it does give me goosebumps. But I’d like to think I’ve had some performances since then to not just go back to one game.
“Whether my scores show it or not, I think I’m a better cricketer now: more rounded, with more experience under my belt. I’m certainly in a better space now; a more comfortable space with where I am mentally and physically.”
While England’s team from that night at the Chinnaswamy bears no resemblance to the one that has led the way in ODI cricket over the past five years, O’Brien is one of six men from that Ireland XI currently at the Ageas Bowl ahead of Thursday’s series opener. If that is a reflection in part of the teams’ respective talent pools, it speaks too of the importance of O’Brien’s generation to Irish cricket.
But when the selectors named their 14-man squad for the first ODI, two of those six – George Dockrell and Gary Wilson – were only among the reserves. Nine years on from that win, a new batch is emerging in Irish cricket, with a group of young players coming through simultaneously for the first time in a long while.
“There’s four or five players all around a similar age,” O’Brien says, “and for them it’s a great opportunity to write their own legacy and write Irish cricket’s next chapter. The hunger’s certainly there with the young guys to get better, train hard, and be the best players that they can be.
“Ultimately it’s up to them to bring Cricket Ireland forward when myself and a few of the older boys hang up the boots. We’ve brought it as far as we can, and it’s up to the younger guys to bring it even further.
“It’s certainly something that I’ve taken notice of over the last 14 or 15 weeks, over lockdown – a few areas that I need to improve on to stay a step ahead of the younger guys. That’s great to have for me as an individual, and from the team’s point of view if we’re all trying to be better than each other, ultimately the team should be in a better place going forward.
“The competition for places is crucial and it’s important that we have as much depth as we can. People are only going to experience that by being thrown in at the deep end and playing games like this and learning on their feet.”
In particular, there are positive signs with two young batsmen: Gareth Delany and Harry Tector. Delany’s ultra-aggressive style, with high hands and impressive power, have catapulted him from club and provincial cricket into the national set-up, and he looks set to open the batting with Paul Stirling in this series.
“He hits the ball as clean as anyone that I’ve ever seen in an Irish jersey,” O’Brien says. “Fifty-over cricket’s a different game and a little bit more structured, and he’s still learning. Being a young guy he’s only going to get better. Plus he’s a useful legspin bowler and a good fielder, so he’s a three-in-one cricketer: that’s something that we’re crying out for, people who can do all three.”
Tector, meanwhile, is in line for an ODI debut in the middle-order after impressing in T20Is. “He was all the way through, all the underage teams and was captain of the U-19s a few years ago,” O’Brien says. “He’s been earmarked. Harry’s a very technically correct batsman: he can score quickly, and he’s got most if not all the shots in the book.”
Despite that talent, O’Brien is under no illusions about the scale of the task facing Ireland. He hit a quickfire hundred in the intra-squad warm-up game, after feeling in “good nick” since returning to training last month, but if there was any suggestion that the absence of some key players would hurt England, that was shot down by the practice match against the Lions on Sunday.
“I didn’t need any reminders of how England would play against us,” he says. “The depth in their squad is probably the strongest in world cricket, with the talent on display the other night.
“We always have a chance. We’ve got match-winners in our squad with both bat and ball as we’ve since in the last six or seven months. When we play well, we’re a good team – we’ve just got to put in a performance for 100 overs, or as many of those 100 overs as we can. We know if we’re not on the ball against England they’re going to capitalise. We’ve got to be positive with everything we do and take them on. That’s the only way we’re going to compete with them.
“Cricket Ireland has come a long way since 2011. Test status and being a full member brings other responsibilities. On the field, we’re just trying to get better every time we train and every time we play.
“Playing this type of game against arguably the best team in the world is going to make us better cricketers and a better team as a unit. We’ve just got to focus on what we do best and any obstacles we can overcome over the next three games.”
England cricket team, One Day International, Ireland cricket team, Reece Topley, David Willey, Twenty20
World news – GB – Kevin O’Brien: ‘We’ve brought Irish cricket as far as we can, now it’s up to the younger guys’ | ESPNcricinfo.com