Mike Holmans December 10, 2009

Goodbye and hello to Iain O'Brien

Thirty-three is a fair old age to be embarking on a gruelling county career playing more cricket than he has ever done in his life


Iain O'Brien will be a great tonic for Middlesex © Getty Images
 

In a few days' time, Iain O'Brien will be a former Test cricketer, since he retires after New Zealand's current match against Pakistan. Barring exceptional figures like 0 for 250 or 18 for 80, he will finish his career as a Test bowler with about 70 wickets at about 34 apiece. He may improve on his tally of one five-for in 21 Tests, but his career figures will even then be unimpressive. But the figures tell only a part of the story: much of his contribution over the last two or three years of being a regular in the side is less tangible than is recorded in scorebooks.

New Zealand will always need a bowler who can bowl into the teeth of the howling gale at the Basin Reserve even though the main reward for doing so is exhaustion, and every team needs someone to bowl on flat tracks against well-set top-class batsmen when the best hope of a wicket is a run out. Those are the really hard yards, and Iain O'Brien will run them all and still be disappointed when he is finally taken off. Captains dream of commanding soldiers like O'Brien.

Not only does he do the jobs no-one else wants to do; he always does them with a huge smile on his face. He appears to be just so thrilled to be on the field at all, and the enthusiasm he exudes cannot fail to lift flagging spirits. Bundles of energy like him spur the top players on – if he is still charging in, they have no excuse for slacking even when things look grim.

He has therefore been an important cog in the New Zealand machine even though his tally of wickets has been somewhat smaller than one might have hoped. His announcement of retirement did not exactly depress an entire nation the way Freddie Flintoff's did in England, but that does not mean he won't be missed.

New Zealand's loss, however, is Middlesex's gain. A bowler who is only just good enough for Test cricket ought to be very much a top-ranker in county cricket, particularly at the bottom of Division 2 where Middlesex currently languish, so I'm delighted that Angus Fraser has signed him up. And we get him for the whole season, fitness permitting, rather than just have him flit in and out between serious engagements. Someone with his outlook on playing cricket will be a great tonic in a dressing room which has been rather deflated whereas on the field, his straight-ahead bustle will nicely complement Tim Murtagh's swing and the very promising Steven Finn's height and awkward bounce. With the experienced spin of skipper Shaun Udal, that's the nucleus of an attack which can win promotion - if only the batsmen could string a few good innings together, which almost none of them did in 2009.

It is a one-year deal, with a view to making it three years if his body can stand it – which is as yet unknown because 33 is a fair old age to be embarking on a gruelling county career playing more cricket than he has ever done in his life. But, if one reads his character aright from his blogs, he will just say “Bring it on. I'd play every day and bowl at both ends if I could.”

So, while congratulating him on a worthwhile Test career and wishing him all the best for his final international game, I'll lay out the welcome mat for his entry to the Middlesex fold and hope that his best is yet to come.

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