O'Brien extends county love affair
Niall O'Brien, the Ireland wicketkeeper-batsman, has signed a three-year deal with Leicestershire, extending a career in county cricket that he sees as an effective way for Irish cricketers to gain the experience that is denied to them at international level by a lack of fixtures.
Ireland failed to qualify from Group B of the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka, playing only one full match, and currently only have four fixtures scheduled in the next 12 months. O'Brien praised county cricket for giving him the opportunity to develop. He has scored 5,317 first-class runs at an average of 35.91 and moves to Grace Road following three seasons at Kent and six years at Northamptonshire.
"Most of the Irish boys are playing full-time in England. We love playing county cricket; it's a very good standard and a good way to learn your trade," he told ESPNcricinfo. "We play three different competitions, which is very very helpful. But it's not for everyone. A few of the lads are fully contracted and based in Ireland.
"There's not a lot of cricket for Ireland and that's disappointing. We'd like to be playing cricket year round and to develop we need to be on the future tours programme playing against the best sides in different conditions. The odd games here and there are great occasions but they're few and far between. As a professional sportsman, it's difficult playing against big sides just once a year. I accept that teams have busy schedules but hopefully we can be involved on a more regular basis."
For the immediate future, O'Brien 30, joins Leicestershire with the chance to work with a young side, aided by the experience of captain, Matthew Hoggard, Claude Henderson and former West Indies batsman Ramnaresh Sarwan. "There's some good young players there and I'm looking forward to getting stuck in and setting a good example," O'Brien said. "There is talent and I'm hoping to help it grow."
Leicestershire chief executive, Mike Siddall, said: "We are delighted that Niall is joining. With the untimely retirement of Will Jefferson the club needed an experienced opening batsman and Niall fits the bill perfectly. He is a top-class international cricketer who will bring his personality and knowledge to the dressing room and we are really pleased he has chosen Leicestershire."
The deal was being sounded out while O'Brien was in Sri Lanka, as Ireland went out of the World T20 with two inadequate batting displays: 123 for 9 against Australia and 129 for 6 against the eventual winners, West Indies.
"We were disappointed with how we played, especially against Australia," O'Brien said. "If we'd have played even five to ten percent better we would have got through the group ahead of West Indies. But we competed well and batted our allocation twice having been in poor positions - we didn't get bowled out cheaply like England, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe did."
To make the step from competing well to winning on the world stage, Ireland are seeking more international fixtures, with Bangladesh and Zimbabwe the most likely opponents. But O'Brien described a "reluctance" for those teams to commit to fixtures against Ireland - a subject fast bowler Trent Johnston was vocal about at the World T20.
Alex Winter is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo