Few cricketers could overshadow a tie between India and England at a World Cup like Kevin O’Brien did against the auld enemy in Bangalore on March 2, 2011.
Just days after the two heavyweights couldn’t be separated after a hundred overs, O’Brien and his Ireland accomplices stole the attention of the cricket world, completing the highest ever successful run chase at a Cricket World Cup. Pipping England by three wickets and five balls to spare, O’Brien plundered 113 off 63 balls, breaking several records and English hearts in an innings yet to be rivalled in the tournament’s history.
Known to that point as the surprise packet of 2007 when they shocked Pakistan in Jamaica, Ireland had since pushed on in their Full Member aspirations. They topped their group and the Super Eights section of the 2009 World Cup Qualifier, coasting past Canada in the tournament’s final by nine wickets, solidifying their position as the ‘best of the rest’.
Ireland threw away a golden chance to press their quarter-final claims early in the World Cup proper, failing to chase down 206 after cruising at 151-5 (and needing just four an over) against Bangladesh in Dhaka. Coming off a dramatic 338-run-apiece blockbuster by contrast, opponents England were battle-hardened and hungry after pushing the eventual champions.
‘Obviously throwing that game away (against Bangladesh), we knew we had to win the English game if we wanted to stand any chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals,’ O’Brien told Emerging Cricket in this week’s podcast.
‘The feeling in the camp was different (to 2007). We were going into that World Cup in 2011 expecting to qualify for the quarter-finals. People might hear me say that and raise an eyebrow, but we had a very good team.
‘Under Simmo (Phil Simmons) we had a really settled side. Everyone kind of knew their role. Simmo had drilled us well and we were a very, very well-disciplined team.’
No one had given Ireland hope of victory on that sweaty afternoon at the M.Chinnaswamy Stadium, and when England posted 327 after winning the toss, the stories were already being drafted. Headlines were written up, and the press in the box had all but put their feet up. William Porterfield falling first ball in the chase appeared a mere flash in a foregone conclusion – or so everybody thought at the time.
England players high-fived as they knocked over the top order. Paul Stirling, Niall O’Brien and the big fish of Ed Joyce all walked back to English smiles and giggles. The grin on the face of captain Andrew Strauss hinted that even he could not see how his team could fold, as their opposition languished at 106-4, needing a run rate of more than eight an over for the best part of 28 overs. Unbeknown to everybody, the star of the show had barely played a part.
With just two ODI fifties against Full Members to his name as he walked out to bat, O’Brien was an unlikely protagonist. The Dubliner hadn’t made a century in almost two years for Ireland, last reaching three figures with an unbeaten 101 against Oman in Krugersdorp at the 2009 Qualifier.
‘I’d be lying if I said yes,’ O’Brien admits when asked if he felt Ireland could salvage anything as he took guard under lights, and when Gary Wilson fell five runs later, Ireland were given odds of 400 to 1 for victory. O’Brien was joined by Alex Cusack, and Ireland had ‘collapsed in a heap’ according to Nasser Hussain on commentary. Fittingly, Kevin thought of the broadcasters who predicted the game meandering to a dud finish when planning his attack.
‘We were pretty much dead in the water,’ O’Brien admitted.
‘I remember saying to Alex Cusack, I said “listen, why don’t we just play a few shots. I’d rather lose trying to win the game and get bowled out for 160 in 26 overs or 27 overs, than tap it around for the next twenty overs and lose by fifty runs and basically bore the crowd for an hour and a half, and bore the people watching on TV. Bore the people commentating on the game.”’
O’Brien looked at one delivery before his arm-chancing – a defensive push with hard hands hinting of his intentions. Batting on a guard outside leg and stepping in with a forward press, Kevin opened his account edging a drive for four, before moving to five off seven pushing Michael Yardy down the ground. It was the last time he dawdled at under a run-a-ball.
Yardy dropped short. O’Brien pulled away. Yardy over-corrected, and O’Brien in his guard exploited the cover area, lifting over the infield. A matador with the stumps as his cape, the English in the red mist fired the ball in waiting for Kevin to miss.
There was a problem in this plan though: Kevin never missed.
O’Brien stepped across to plunder Swann into the stands, repeating the dose two balls later. Swann’s figures blew out, Broad lost his radar, and the Irish, in spite of their fallen teammates, kept the required run rate to a flatline of eight. As the runs flowed, O’Brien pushed his chips all in.
‘We just took our chances. I slogged a couple in the stands off Swann, Cusie hit a couple here and there and all of a sudden after 30 overs we took the Powerplay, which was unheard of in around that time in international cricket because a lot of teams left the five over batting Powerplay to probably the last ten overs.
‘I remember saying to Cusie, “listen why don’t we just take it now. Just for a bit of craic.”’
Just for a bit of craic. Kevin O’Brien’s efforts, on the biggest stage of International cricket, no less for an Associate all-rounder batting at six, were compartmentalised by an off-hand remark unflustered without pressure or inhibition.
Joking aside, Ireland’s strategy was genius looking back in hindsight. As one of the last recognised partnerships, and instead of knocking it around and needing 10 or 12 an over at the backend, the pair could plant the seeds of doubt in English heads far earlier in proceedings. With a dominating Powerplay, Ireland could turn things upside down by doing things in reverse.
Yardy bowled the first over of the Powerplay, sent into a spin by O’Brien shuffling across his crease. Terrified by the prospect of being hit over cover, a flummoxed Yardy fluffed his lines. Unable drag himself away from the leg-side, O’Brien filled his boots behind square with cross-bat shots.
It would be remiss not to acknowledge the shot selection when the bowling was more disciplined. Taking a liking to Tim Bresnan with an outrageous inside-out square drive to a ball on off-stump, O’Brien and Cusack took on Jimmy Anderson, beating their 16-run over of Yardy with 17 off England’s spearhead. For England, it may well have been the nature the boundaries were hit that started the disintegration. Holding his cover drive that lasered to the fence, O’Brien moved to 76 (at a strike rate of 200), picking up a good-length ball and pulling into the second tier.
62 runs in the Powerplay. O’Brien made 45 off 16 balls in a blitz from 35 to 80. As the record books were flicked through checking fastest hundred records, Ireland had yanked the required rate down to seven. Strauss had no time to think or let the game drag on, put on the spot an hour earlier than he prepared. Kevin O’Brien and his SS Wonder Bat had tipped the scales in Ireland’s favour, though the of expectations now being favourites had weighed on him.
‘I remember vividly saying to myself, “We need only seven and over now.” There was a big mental shift then and that brings a different type of pressure, because the first seven or eight overs of my innings there was no pressure on me or Cusie.
‘But obviously once we got closer to the England target, more and more people started coming into the ground the longer the game went on, so obviously people then started thinking actually Ireland had a chance of winning and that brings its own added pressure and its own mental pressure.’
Dazed and punch-drunk, the England’s pressures extended past Andrew Strauss struggling with equations. The yips of Yardy at the bowling crease extended to the rope, out of position for a potential boundary catch. More punishment ensued as O’Brien whacked Bresnan over Yardy, as well as members of the crowd, next ball. The seven an over required was whittled down again to six and a half.
With Kevin on 91, Strauss cracked. Running in circles, the skipper snatched at a chance to swing proceedings back in England’s favour, and O’Brien sneaked two vital runs. Strauss’ sixth bowler, Paul Collingwood, was entrusted with the 40th over, which was bookended by boundaries. Cusack bludgeoned his sole six, while O’Brien brought up the 150-run partnership with a thumping boundary through mid-on. O’Brien, now on 97, was three runs away from history.
In the last ball of the next over, and blissfully unaware of the record on the line, O’Brien picked his moment. Yardy was again too straight with a full toss, and O’Brien found two knowing exactly where he could get them. Nursing into square leg, O’Brien scurried back well before Broad’s wayward throw came in, and with both arms outstretched wheeled away in celebration. Roaring at his team in the stands, O’Brien had smashed Matthew Hayden’s record for the fastest hundred by 16 balls.
‘I’m not that deep a thinker of much in general. I don’t know if I believe in the zone or that type of thing.’
‘Everything I went to hit came somewhere close to the middle of the bat. It was just one of those things where everything clicked for us as a team and me personally on that day.’
O’Brien gestured for a towel, eager to finish what he started. He added another 13 runs from 13 deliveries even without a boundary, before being run out by Tim Bresnan. He combined with John Mooney in a partnership of 44 in 39 deliveries, and Ireland now needed just 11 from as many balls. Trent Johnston walked out at nine, and with the experience of almost two decades of elite cricket, put away a Broad full toss with calm. Ireland completed the miracle run chase with another boundary for Mooney, and the team sprinted to celebrate with the two men in. O’Brien took no chances in wrangling one of the stumps available, and England trudged off, fronted by the brave face of their captain.
‘We weren’t expecting such an innings from Kevin O’Brien,’ Strauss admitted in the match’s post-game television chat.
‘We thought we had done a reasonable job with the bat and also with the ball initially.’
O’Brien and his Ireland teammates celebrated with a drink or two in the dressing room, before returning to the hotel to meet with family.
‘I think we got back to the hotel at let’s say 1 o’clock at night and the hotel residents bar was closed so we were like “what!? What’s going on here!?”
‘Luckily the hotel manager put in a big esky full of beers and basically opened up this kind of room beside the reception.
‘I remember the next day waking up and heading over to Porty’s (William Porterfield’s) room and obviously being captain he had a proper suite with a living room and a couple of couches and there were just bodies lying across the couches.’
Fans of the emerging game celebrated all over the world, not just basking in the underdog glory, but also believing O’Brien and Ireland’s efforts went a long way to pushing Associate participation at future World Cups. Reversing their ten-team plans for the 2015 tournament, the ICC reverted to the 14-team format just months after Ireland’s victory, with Ireland, Scotland, UAE and Afghanistan all competing.
Organisers were not as forthcoming for the 2019 tournament, shrinking the tournament to 10 teams (and excluding two Full Members), despite nights like Kevin’s in Bangalore being far too common to ignore. O’Brien and others in the midst of cricket’s new pathway feel the tournament’s format is stifling the game.
‘It was disappointing when the ICC made that decision.
‘I still think it’s a massive opportunity not just for Ireland but for other teams, other countries around the world to have a chance to express themselves as a team, as individuals on the world stage.
‘I don’t know why the ICC are contracting their tournaments. When I was growing up, that (the World Cup) was all I watched
‘It’s really important for the smaller nations to experience those 50-over tournaments.’
If one ever needed a single moment to typify what the game’s flagship tournament is missing, you’d only have to cite March 2, 2011 in Bangalore to make the point. Just like Kevin O’Brien stealing all the attention on that sweaty night, his innings outlines a case of an extended World Cup on its own, and provides a beacon of inspiration for cricket’s underdogs, even when thrown into a pit of pressure.
If only another team had the opportunity to test themselves.
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