Working Class Heroby Telford Vice / 18.03.2011
There’s a Kevin O’Brien in every pub. He’s the unassuming bloke with messy hair wearing the non-designer T-shirt, jeans and slops who looks like he doesn’t need more from life than the beer he is holding in one hand, the girl he has in the other, and the mate at the other end of a fat chat.
He doesn’t spend enough time thinking about himself to fret over who likes him and who doesn’t, but he knows all about loyalty. There’s little in the way of superhero sculpting about him, but he carries his solid frame like an off-duty loose forward.
If you walked into the pub where the real O’Brien was enjoying a slice of the good life, and you were one of those sad kids who was never able to throw or hit or kick a ball without falling over and dislocating something or breaking your glasses – and you therefore grew up pretending to hate sport and all it stood for – you would still look at him and think: “Decent fella.”
If you had watched Ireland’s World Cup match against England, and you walked into the pub and saw O’Brien in his element and knew exactly who he was, you wouldn’t blink at the comfortable pleasure he took in being Kevin O’Brien.
If a Campaign for Real Sports Stars announced itself, O’Brien would make the perfect poster boy. He struck a blow for exactly that in Bangalore on March 2. Actually, he struck 63 blows. That’s how many balls he faced to score 113 against England’s finest bowlers.
In the process, O’Brien scored the fastest World Cup century – off 50 balls – and powered Ireland to a famous three-wicket victory that made all the cricket world’s non-English eyes smile. He did so under a thatch of pink hair, in the cause of cancer awareness.
O’Brien’s realness, the fact that he shoved one up the arse of the most despised team in cricket (or rugby, or football, or competitive nose-picking, for that matter), and his lurid hair combined to send him into overnight celebrity orbit. Andy Warhol would have been impressed, even though he was one of those sad kids who…
On an illegally hot and humid morning at the cathedral of cricket, Eden Gardens in Kolkata, two weeks after O’Brien pummelled the Poms to a pulp, a scrum of increasingly unruly photographers can’t wait to crouch, touch, pause, hold, engage with him. The 40 or so snappers have been stewing in the sun for too long. They could use windscreen wipers on their foreheads to deal with the sweat.
For now, Barry Chambers is the closest they’re going to get to O’Brien. “He’s in an ice bath,” Chambers, who has to be the most non-Nazi media liaison Nazi in the history of media liaison Nazis, tells them. The accidental cruelty of what he has just said is lost on him.
“He’ll be there for about half-an-hour.”
That doesn’t cut the mustard for long. Soon the question is asked again.
“When will O’Brien come out?”
Chambers answers: “In 30 minutes.” He is asked again. He answers again.
Then one of the photographers yelps desperately, “But you will arrange it?”
Chambers is the archetypical cheerful Irishman, but he has his limits. A sharp spike pierces his voice. He speaks in bold, underlined, italicised capitals. “He is in an ice bath. Thirty minutes.” With that, he turns away and has a quiet mutter to no-one in particular, “and I’m not fucking getting in there with him”.
Less than 15 minutes later, a chilled O’Brien saunters out of the shade of the dressingroom towards the white heat of the field. His pink hair is messy. He’s wearing a team T-shirt, track pants, and slops. There is not a smidgen of sweat to be seen within five metres of him. The orgiastic whirr of shutters blurs into the soft noise of stardom as he spreads a slow smile for the cameras. He tosses a ball upward and catches it, over and over again, grinning all the while and looking straight into the lenses.
That job done, O’Brien lopes five steps leftward to reel off interviews with SuperSport and BBC television. As in all dealings with the quagmire of conservatism called TV, the questions never veer away from the obvious and the superficial. The small mercy is that they are asked and answered quickly.
Then it’s Mahala’s turn.
Mahala: This is interview number how many, do you think, since your century?
Kevin O’Brien: Barry? Sixty?
Barry Chambers, Ireland media liaison officer: I know at one stage we had 132 requests for him. So what we usually do when they pile up is to do them in group conference. But it’s about 60 on an individual basis. The day after the England game he did something like 38.
Are you sick of it?
KO’B: It is enjoyable. They ask the same questions all the time, so I have the answers nailed down to a T. It’s like revising for your formal exams in school. You just do all the work, and when it comes exam time it’s a piece of piss, really.
Does it feel as if your life has changed?
I suppose it has a little bit. There’ve certainly been a lot of requests on Facebook, or whatever, and a few e-mails here and there. So, maybe it has from that perspective. But it’s going to be interesting when I get back home and see what the public reaction is. That is the big thing I’m looking forward to.
I read that one of your former teammates, Kenny Carroll, is a postman back in Ireland and…
Kenny Carroll? Yeah, he’s a good mate of mine…
…and, apparently, he was delivering the mail while you were playing against England, and every time he delivered something he would push the doorbell to ask what the score was.
Oh, really. Didn’t know that.
So, how long will the pink take to wash out of your hair?
Well, it’s kind of faded a lot now. So I’d say maybe another a week or so. It should be gone by then. I was actually thinking about shaving my head for the next two games; just trying to get it back to my natural colour, but there wasn’t any of that left.
It’s a delicate shade of rhubarb at the moment.
The level of respect for Ireland has gone up dramatically during the World Cup. That must make you feel really good.
I think that’s not just from this World Cup. In 2007, not a lot of people knew who we were. But we achieved very good things in the Caribbean (when Ireland beat Pakistan and Bangladesh), and since then we’ve been playing pretty consistent cricket. We ran Australia close last year – we probably should have won. We ran England close in 2009 up in Belfast, when we lost by two runs. It’s no shock to us that we’re competing here, and competing very well. We have a lot of self-confidence in the team, and we have a lot of confident players, and it is something we believe in: that we can beat these guys any day of the week. But teams are respecting us a lot more than they might have, and they know that if they don’t do their homework on us that we can beat them. It’s great to know that teams are taking us a lot more… probably professionally than they would have.
When you see opposing players off the field, in hotels, for instance, have they been treating you with more respect since your win over England? In a face-to-face way?
After the England game, Yuvraj Singh came up to me at the swimming pool and tapped me on the shoulder and he goes, “Great knock! Fantastic!” That’s amazing, that someone of his stature can come over and say well done, and Suresh Raina also said so before our match against India. It is, obviously, great to have world stars coming up and saying congratulations and having a quick chat with you. It is nice for that to happen.
The innings itself looked like something straight out of Boy’s Own. There was nothing you could do wrong. Did you get the feeling that you could do just about anything out there?
I haven’t really thought that much about it. I took a few chances early on and got a few balls away. I actually don’t think I mistimed the ball at all for the whole innings, which is quite strange for me. But it was kind of surreal. I couldn’t actually believe it was happening. I remember looking at the scoreboard, and seeing 80 off 40 balls, and I went, “Bloody hell! Where did that come from?”
You’ve made a point of emphasising that you’re not taking on sides on your own out there. Is there a very strong team culture in the Ireland side?
It’s huge. It might sound like a cliché, but we’ve got 15 boys here, and it’s like a massive family. I’ve been in the team now for about four-and-a-half years. A few guys have been in for eight or nine years. It really is like a big family, and that is something we strive to achieve. When things aren’t going that well, you’ve got to stick by each other. You know that 14 other guys are backing you and know what you’re capable of achieving. It’s a great thing to have that belief in the changeroom.
Tell us about Railway Union (the Dublin club O’Brien plays for, his only regular team below international level).
We’ve got a cricket section, and a hockey section, which I play in whenever I’m not busy with cricket. We’ve got a rugby section, a football section, tennis section, lawn bowls. All those sports have a lot of kids playing them. It’s a real family orientated club. You walk into the bar and you know you’re only going to see friendly faces you can have a pint with. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
That culture has gone out of South African sport. It’s become so professional, and we’ve lost something. Is club culture an important part of sport for you?
Massively. There’s no better feeling for me than walking up the lane to the club carrying my bag and knowing that I’m going to go inside and see people I’ve been friends with for years. I know Niall (O’Brien’s brother, who plays for Northamptonshire on the English county circuit) feels the same when he comes back for a weekend. He’s always straight down to the club for a couple of beers. He knows he is going to see people he hasn’t seen in a while. It’s a great club to be
I’m sure they love you to bits at Railway. But do they also cut you down to size?
Oh, yeah. For sure. The lads don’t let you get away with anything. If you say something, they’re straight on the bandwagon and they’re giving you jib. They’ll bring you down to earth.
What do you reckon the first Irish bowler who gets you out when you get back home is going to say as you leave the field?
I don’t know. “Thank God”? Let’s wait and see. I know my first game back is a local derby against Pembroke. Their club is about 30 yards away from ours. It’s going to be pretty tightly contested, and there will be a few verbals flying around. It should be something to look forward to.
I read that you have no desire to go and play county cricket, that you’re happy in the Irish set-up.
I didn’t say that. I probably have no desire to go over there full time, but I wouldn’t mind doing so for a Twenty20 gig. Myself and Niall are trying to look over a few things for me. If I could get a deal in England for about four weeks, that would be fantastic. I’m pretty happy with Cricket Ireland. I’m earning a decent living there, thanks to our sponsors. But if something came up in England, or in the IPL or wherever, that would be great.
Have you had enquiries from IPL people?
Not directly to me. There might be something here and there, but I think it’s too late for this year’s tournament.
Do you know the price of a pair of batting gloves?
It depends which shop you go to in Ireland. But you should pay around 45 Euros, I would say.
I’m asking because I wonder if players in Ireland are more connected to the real world than some of the guys in the bigger teams.
Only the guys in the bigger teams can answer that. Speaking for myself, a lot of us had to work for a living. Kenny is still a postman. We don’t forget our roots. I’m not saying the big teams do. I’m just saying that they have a lot handed out to them and we have to work a little bit harder for it.
Did you have a couple of beers after scoring your hundred?
Ah, one or two. Y’know…