Kevin O'Brien's retirement well and truly marks the end of an era in Irish cricket. Here is an ode to the stocky all-rounder that made it a habit to win all David versus Goliath battles and prove that his country may be the underdogs, but one that is capable of slaying the giants on any given day.
The streets will never forget.
In football, the phrase is used for players who made an impact worthy of remembering for generations even if they stayed away from the limelight for most of their careers. Kevin O’Brien’s 16 years in international cricket were the very epitome of the saying. Hailing from the small island of Ireland, it was never going to be easy for a cricketer from the nation to make his mark at the elite level. Yet, all the feats that the all-rounder managed to achieve individually and with the team are simply extraordinary, ones deserving our attention to the utmost. His retirement marks the end of an era in Irish cricket and there could be no better time to remember the accolades he managed in the gentleman’s game.
Kevin announced his decision to hang up the boots once and for all last week, more than a year after having quit ODIs. Unfortunately, it was less of a choice than one would’ve liked, given the veteran had fallen out of favour with the selectors owing to a poor stretch of form. Nevertheless, that hardly diminishes the legacy of the all-rounder given everything that his country owes to him. With his influence on the field, Ireland regularly qualified for World Cups, registered some epic victories that have gone down in the history books and finally achieved their long-awaited Test status. He was one of the main men responsible to put Ireland on the world cricketing map and became the first true cricketing superstar from the small European country. He ended his career as a household name in the global cricketing fraternity, thus becoming perhaps the only cricketer from his nation to achieve that status.
Cricket in this country owes a lot to what Kev achieved on and off the field and has left the game in a better place. Everyone in the team wishes nothing but the best going forward for Kev in his coaching career.
The indications of Kevin going on to become a legend were there from his very first ball in international cricket. He made his debut in an ODI against England in 2006 and was handed the ball in the 11th over with the hope of turning the tide in the hosts’ favour. Facing him was a giant of the game Andrew Strauss, who had been on the international scene for a good part of two years now and was increasingly living up to his tremendous potential. Yet, none of that fazed Kevin, as he needed just one ball to get the better of the future English captain and announce his arrival onto the world stage. The headlines had been written and soon enough, Ireland would qualify for their first ever ICC World Cup in 2007.
There, the Green and Whites would pull off perhaps the most significant result in Ireland’s World Cup history, again courtesy of Kevin O’Brien. Coming off a tie against Zimbabwe, not much was expected when they took on Pakistan in their second group stage game. However, Andre Botha gave a performance for the ages with figures of 8-4-5-2, while Kevin also contributed with a wicket to bowl out the Asian contingent for a paltry 132. Victory looked inevitable, but at the end of the day, they were the underdogs for a reason.
The wickets kept tumbling one after the other and before long, Kevin saw himself resigned to helping his team across the finish line with tail-ender Trent Johnston, who could pretty much just hold a bat at the time. A marathon 52-delivery knock from the emerging superstar that was Kevin, which begot just 16 runs, meant a first-ever World Cup win for Ireland and qualification to the Super Eights at the cost of their much more fancied opposition. The fairytale was not over yet, as they would go on to defeat Bangladesh as well, the same team that had triumphed against the world-class Indian side. Kevin once again played an instrumental role with a quickfire 48(44)*, taking his team to a defendable total.
With Kevin a part of the team’s core, Ireland has qualified for seven consecutive T20 World Cups since 2009, a streak that remains well and truly alive. In 2009, they again faced the opportunity to qualify for the Super Eights, this time in the game’s shortest format. A brilliant bowling performance saw them restrict Bangladesh to 137 but the batting faltered and by the time Kevin came in at number six, they were reeling at 89-4. A mammoth 49 runs required from 34 balls. Lo and behold, sensational strokeplay saw the batter smash 39 runs from just 17 deliveries, lacing his fine knock with four boundaries and two maximums. Another big game, another crucial knock from Kevin, another chapter added to his collection of legends.
To represent your country more times than anyone else has, in any sport, is testament to his ability, his dedication and his will to win. I know I speak for teammates down the years, that we were always glad he was in our trench.
However, it was not until 2011 that the world truly sat up and took notice of the budding cricketer from Dublin. A knock of a lifetime was on cards for the phenom, such that it would elevate him from being considered just a superstar to a legend and all-time Irish great of the game. A sublime display that broke multiple records and finds a mention every time amongst the best ODI knocks of the ongoing millennium. The stage was set, Ireland were about to take on their noisy neighbours England, the inventors of the game and a team vastly superior in history and status. The same was evident in their batting performance as the side cruised to a total of 327. When Kevin made his walk to the pitch from the pavilion, his team was already down to 106-4, requiring no less than a miracle to score the remaining 222 runs in 166 deliveries.
The miracle did arrive, in the form of a perfect storm from the all-powerful blade of O’Brien. Boundaries rained left, right and centre, fuelled with rage from an Irish adamant about making a statement. Before long, the century mark was hit in just 50 deliveries, the fastest ever to date in World Cup history. By the time Kevin lost his wicket to a runout at 113, the result was more or less done as Ireland scripted a historic run chase in Bangalore, featuring one of the greatest batting displays of all time. Kevin was finally afforded the status of a legend by the media, one he well and truly deserved.
In 2013, Pakistan became the victim of Kevin’s brilliance once again, albeit it was no more a composed and calculated knock but an onslaught of improbable magnitudes. In a match curtailed to 47 overs, the subcontinent side had managed 266 runs, which meant the revised target for Ireland stood to be 276 in the same number of overs. As usual, a struggling Ireland required 118 from 85 balls at the time Kevin was called to the crease. As usual, a sensational 84 off 47 balls ripped apart the Pakistan bowling department to shreds as they had no answer to the powerful hitting of the burly all-rounder. In a thrilling finish, Ireland fell just one run short of the target, producing a thrilling draw as their talisman was named man of the match.
Despite all his achievements, it was really in 2018 when Kevin O’Brien scaled the pinnacle of cricket. With Ireland having finally attained Test status, their debut took place against Pakistan in Malahide. While the entire side painfully struggled against the red ball, Kevin thrived, high scoring for his side in both innings. A diligent 40 in the first was followed by an outstanding century in the second, once again earning him the man of the match award. Unlike his usual aggressive brand of cricket, the veteran exercised patience and commitment, ending up with 118(217).
He thus became the only Irish cricketer with centuries in all three formats of the game, a record likely to stand for quite some time. His other feats include having the second most runs for Ireland in their history with 5,820, as well as having the second-most wickets with 172. When it comes to appearances, he is clear at the top of the charts and is a fitting representative for his nation.
At the end of the day, Kevin is an icon of the game on as well as off the field. Amongst all his achievements, perhaps his most impressive feat remains the time he managed to hit a six so big the ball smashed into his own car’s window in the parking lot. Kevin became a true poster boy of cricket when he dyed his hair pink to raise awareness about breast cancer and the game will sorely miss his character, entertaining persona and above all, his knack for slaying the giants.