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January 31, 2012
After Kevin O'Brien returned home from the 2011 World Cup, a tournament that featured his heroic 50-ball hundred (the fastest in World Cup history) that shocked England on a balmy evening in Bangalore, one of the first calls he received was from the Cricket Ireland bosses. They wanted to let him know that one of the IPL teams, Kochi Tuskers Kerala, had asked if O'Brien could be signed up as a reserve player. "Unfortunately, since I was not part of the initial auction last year, I could not sign up. That was a little disappointing," O'Brien told ESPNcricinfo. This year, when the IPL opened the window for players to register on the auction list, he did not think twice.
What makes O'Brien's case unique is that among the 144 names on the final list, he is one of only three players representing the Associate countries at the auction. His elder brother, Niall, and Tom Cooper, who plays for Netherlands, are the other Associate players in the auction that will be held on February 4 in Bangalore.
"That last year's performance against England would be hopefully high up on the mind of the bidders come Saturday," O'Brien said of what he hoped for at the auction. That that knock would not be looked upon as a freak innings was made certain by O'Brien: he was signed up by Gloucestershire soon after the World Cup and, last June, playing in the Friends Life t20 match against Middlesex in Uxbridge, O'Brien slammed a 44-ball century, the fastest in domestic Twenty20.
The few thousands who were present on the day were in for a double treat. O'Brien had walked in to open with former New Zealand batsman Hamish Marshall (who now represents Ireland) and built a record opening partnership of 192 runs, with both batsmen scoring centuries. "It was a great day for me. I was opening the batting and I really enjoyed it," O'Brien said. "So now I can not only open, but also play down in the middle order. It is good to have two strings to the bow."
His 113 against England had instantly turned O'Brien, 27, into a national hero. The man from Dublin, who plays for the local Railway Union Cricket Club, became a symbol of pride. A week after returning from the World Cup, O'Brien was dropping his mother off at work when he realised just how popular he had become. "I had a hood on and the [car's] windows were up," O'Brien said. We were at a traffic signal. Suddenly I noticed a cab driver jump out of his car, tap on my window and congratulate me on my performance."
Now, O'Brien felt, he could use that popularity to attract more fans for the IPL in Ireland, if he is bought by any of the nine franchises. "If either myself or Niall were to be bought at the auction, it will certainly raise the profile of the game in Ireland. The public will surely have a huge interest in the IPL, if one of us is playing in it."
Cricket, O'Brien said, has been getting bigger in the country since 2007, when Ireland beat Pakistan in the World Cup. Last year's victory over England has raised the popularity levels of the sport even further. "A lot more people are talking about cricket on the streets," he said. "A lot more people are coming to our games."
In the four previous IPL seasons, there had been only one player from the Associates to play in the IPL: Ryan ten Doeschate, who plays for Netherlands. Despite not having played regularly with the top-bracket teams, O'Brian felt that all three Associate players in the reckoning this year had played enough competitive cricket to stand up to anyone on the international stage. "Niall has been playing county cricket for twelve years now; Tom Cooper plays first-class cricket in Australia; I have played country cricket for Gloucestershire and previously with Nottinghamshire. So we all have got experience."
O'Brien, who was recently appointed the vice-captain of the Ireland team, decided to skip the Bangladesh Premier League [BPL], even if there was healthy interest in him from the franchises. In fact, Niall was signed by Khulna Royal Bengal for US $80,000. "Unfortunately it [the BPL] clashes with the 2015 World Cup qualifying matches in Kenya, and then qualifiers for the World Twenty20 in March," O'Brien said. "Hopefully I will be there next year. My contract with Cricket Ireland comes first and everything else next."
As far as the franchises' interest in him goes, O'Brien could remain optimistic. "He is a good pick. A value for money one, in the way ten Doeschate was for Kolkata Knight Riders," a franchise official said. ten Doeschate, the 2011 ICC Associate and Affiliate Player of the Year (he picked up the award three times in the last four years) was bought by Knight Riders for $150,000, after having his base price set at $50,000.
"Unfortunately, there are quite a lot of players with his [O'Brien'] type of skills. [But] There is no doubt he is a quality player," said a coach from another franchise. "He and his brother are good players and franchises will definitely consider them during the bidding." Asked if O'Brien had catapulted himself into the minds of the potential bidders solely on the back of his match-winning performance against England, the coach did not agree. "He is a good hitter of the ball and we have seen it for a while now," he said.
Small wonder then, the O'Brien brothers have planned to spend this weekend together, waiting to see whether either or both of them have earned their IPL ticket. "Niall is coming over on the weekend and we are going to follow the auction on the internet," O'Brien said. "It is going to be a nervous morning."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Nagraj Gollapudi
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Plays of the day from the IPL match between Chennai Super Kings and Kings XI Punjab in Abu Dhabi