February 11, 2015

Kev and John's excellent adventure

Nagraj Gollapudi
At 111 for 5, Ireland looked to be at the receiving end of a mismatch, but they turned things around with a win their nation will never forget

Pink-haired Kevin O'Brien became the poster boy of Ireland cricket after his epic knock of 113 off 63 balls © Getty Images

The message went out from Ireland coach Phil Simmons just as Kevin O'Brien was nearing his century: "Tell Kevin, once he gets his hundred he's got to win it for us now," recalls allrounder Andrew White of the evening of March 2, 2011 in Bangalore.

Chasing 328 against England in a World Cup group clash, Ireland were a sorry 111 for 5 halfway through. Then O'Brien started hitting. Hard, far and strong, over and over. The Chinnaswamy Stadium went into a trance, and England surrendered to O'Brien's will.

Alex Cusack and O'Brien tilted the balance towards Ireland till the 40th over. At the start of the final ten, they needed 65 runs with five wickets in hand.

In the middle, White, who did not play in that game, still remembers O'Brien's response when the coach's message had been delivered. "I remember Kevin just looking at me and saying, 'I'm going to keep going. I'm going to keep going.'"

White was not quite convinced. "Part of me was thinking, 'Do you really want to keep going? I'm not convinced you are going the right method here. You have done so well to get us so far. Your one miscalculation, one rash shot could put us under serious pressure.'"

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Ireland's 2007 World Cup victory against Pakistan had given the young Associate team some legs to stand on. The class of 2007 was a mix of farmers, electricians, teachers, postmen - journeymen brought together by the joy of playing their favourite sport.

In 2009, Cricket Ireland introduced professional contracts, making life slightly easier for the players. There were more opportunities to play against Full Members like England, and also to reign over the ICC's World Cricket League.

The team led by William Porterfield in 2011 was cut from a different cloth from its 2007 predecessor. With his obsession for detail, their coach, Simmons, had instilled professionalism in the squad. It meant that whether it was a WCL game or the World Cup, White says, Ireland never took anything for granted. "In many ways that preparation gives us the belief that when we go into the field against Australia, India, Pakistan, England, whoever it may be, we can perform."

Defeat to Bangladesh in their first game of the 2011 World Cup left Ireland frustrated and disappointed, but against England, White says, "we didn't need motivation".

In Bangalore, the Irish could not help but notice the massive entourage that travelled with the England squad. White says, "England arrived with nearly as many backroom staff if not more [than the team]. It was like a cavalry of players and management." It made the Irish more determined. "Let's show them we don't need x, y and z. We have simple, professional resources. We have a great backroom staff. There's only five or six of them, but we can do it with that."

"I'm going to keep going. I'm going to keep going": there was no slowing Kevin O'Brien © Getty Images

White, at the time the most capped Irish cricketer, who had failed in the Bangladesh match, was informed on the morning of the England game that he would not be playing. Despite the "massive disappointment", he wore the 12th-man cap "most proudly".

When O'Brien went out to bat, White remembers he appeared carefree. "Sometimes Kevin gives you the impression that he is 100% determined not to just give it away. On this occasion his was just a carefree, relaxed attitude." He hit Graeme Swann for a couple of sixes over midwicket. "It was then we started thinking, 'Right, Kevin is clearly in a destructive frame of mind. He is not going to die wondering.'"

The closer O'Brien and Cusack took Ireland, the more the players in the dressing room shifted nervously in their seats, as thoughts of winning took shape. "Once the target went below the 100-mark it became unpleasant to watch. The closer we got, the more painful the defeat was going to be. If we had been bowled out for 200, it would have been accepted. But if we had lost by 10-15 runs it would have been a disaster."

O'Brien's daring approach inspired his team-mates. John Mooney, who had been the best bowler for Ireland, taking 4 for 63, joined O'Brien when Cusack was run out with Ireland 55 short.

Mooney had been padded up for a long time. "I was looking forward to getting out there. I remember sitting on the balcony, being really nervous, but being equally as excited that if I got out there, we were going to win the game."

This was the match, he says, every Irishman had looked forward to months in advance as they prepared for the World Cup. "Every time I was in the nets in the build-up to the World Cup, that was the one game I would visualise. I would imagine being in a World Cup situation against England. That is the way I have always been since I was a kid: as an Irishman, we always wanted to beat England."

When O'Brien was run out, at the start of the penultimate over, Ireland needed 11 runs. When White ran to the middle with water during the over break, he was amazed. "The calmest people in the ground were the two batsmen. They knew exactly what they were trying to do. I asked John if he was happy with the way things were going. And he said, 'Yes, all under control.' This, when the rest of us were sitting on the edge of our seats."

Danny Morrison, the former New Zealand fast bowler-turned commentator, was sitting alongside White, and with three runs to go, he said, "I feel like running on to celebrate."

England, frazzled, defeated, shocked, had to accept their fate. "The longer Jimmy Anderson took at the top of his mark, trying to decide what to bowl, it didn't matter… By that stage the momentum was totally with us. It was the perfect end," White says.

Mooney faced Anderson at the start of the final over. "It was the first ball of the last over and I remember saying to myself: 'I need to at least get a two. And I'll be the man who wins the game against England.' That was the thought going through my head. But I actually hit the ball so well that it went for a four. And then I just couldn't believe it. I ended up throwing the bat. I had never done that before. It was just crazy."

O'Brien can "never forget" that last ball. "I was sitting in the changing room, pretty tired after my innings. But the adrenaline was still in my body and I was just shouting at the ball to get over the boundary rope. Once it did, I just turned around to the rest of the lads and jumped up and down, shouting and screaming."

Ruth Anne, O'Brien's girlfriend then, his wife now, cried as she watched from the stands. Warren Deutrom, the English-born chief executive of Cricket Ireland, "grabbed" Pat Nally, a sponsor representative, "man-hugged, and bounced around in a circle for ages".

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Just before the drama was about to unfold, Barry Chambers, Ireland's media manager, was in the press box, above the dressing rooms. The gloom that had gripped Chambers before O'Brien walked in was lifted thanks to a stray remark from an Englishman.

Stop press: the front page of the <i>Irish Times</i> the following day
Stop press: the front page of the Irish Times the following day © Irish Times

"We were 111 for 5. Nobody gave us any real chance," Chambers said. "I had gone to the media room. Already many English journalists had started writing their reports. Then Kevin hit a few hits. Tim Abrahams of Sky Sports News turned to me and said, 'I get a feeling that Ireland are going to do it.' I just laughed." Abrahams had not finished yet. "If you win, can I speak to Kevin?" he asked Chambers. "I said he could speak to anybody he wanted and whatever he wanted if we won." Abrahams got the first interview, as promised by Chambers.

The victory resonated beyond cricketing borders. Chambers had three mobile phones and all three rang continuously for the next three days, as everyone wanted a piece of Ireland. "The underdog triumphing against the odds is such a cliché, but for me our victory over England was the cliché writ large," Deutrom says.

Before the win, it was Chambers who would normally contact the media. "A lot of times we were begging for coverage. But that was the one week I did not have to pick up the phone. They were calling me." Deutrom recollects fielding "at least 30-40 interview requests" and just running on adrenaline. "Our moments in the sun are too few and far between, so it was just too good an opportunity to pass up. Barry Chambers and I were the last to leave that room, at about midnight. It was a long two days."

The players went to bed after five in the morning, and despite hangovers and lack of sleep, O'Brien, Porterfield, White, and team manager Roy Torrens took an early-morning call from Ireland's president, Mary McAleese. Ireland was going through tough economic times, with soaring unemployment due to the collapse of the housing market. McAleese thanked O'Brien for giving his countrymen a boost with the win.

In an interview to the Sunday Times in Ireland, O'Brien recollected being put on the spot by the president. "She also told me that it's a great day when Ireland can beat England and described my efforts as 'Cuchulainnesque.'" O'Brien was clueless. "I'm not a great history man, but I found out afterwards that it had something to do with a sliotar being hit across the Irish Sea."

O'Brien admits that he did not contemplate the historical significance of McAleese's reference: Cuchulain is a hero in Irish mythology, a warrior renowned for strength and power. "I think I had a bit too much to drink at that stage," he says.

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For the players and Irish cricket, Chambers says, the win gave respect. "Suddenly, cricket became cool. There would have been a perception that it was an upper-class, elitist English game. But Kevin O'Brien, an Irishman, become a poster boy. Him and John Mooney - you could not get a pair more Irish than them. For them to be so instrumental in the victory was important." The success put O'Brien on cricket's global map. "It has allowed me to play all over the world in the last four years, and opened a lot of doors both on and off the field."

Irish fans let their hair down, and so did the players, calling it a night at dawn
Irish fans let their hair down, and so did the players, calling it a night at dawn © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

According to Mooney it paved the way for recognition for Irish cricket and cricketers. "That one victory alone within our own country has elevated us in the sporting circle. That is the real benefit. We are looked at as athletes, as much as anybody else."

Mooney received the ultimate compliment from Irish football legend Packie Bonner. Bonner entered Irish sporting folklore when he saved a crucial penalty against Romania, helping his team reach the quarter-finals in their maiden World Cup, in 1990. Bonner came up to Mooney and said he remembered where he was when Mooney hit the winning runs against England. "That is huge," Mooney says. "Everybody remembers what he did in the World Cup for Ireland."

Pride remains a defining characteristic of Irish cricket, according to White. "The cricketing community in Ireland is very small compared to Test-playing nations. All the players know each other inside-out, having played with each other from the age-group levels. There is a great bond, great camaraderie.

"For many of us in 2007, there was no real money. There is not a large amount of money at stake for many of our players. And therefore we are used to playing for the pride of representing our country."

The victory in Bangalore will never be forgotten. At a bank in late 2013, an official looked at White's details and asked if he was a cricketer. Then she said, "You guys gave us one of my greatest nights, sitting with my English relatives, watching the game unfold."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • perl57 on February 11, 2015, 19:50 GMT

    And people think England can still go the distance. Jimmy will get tonked around and whole team would be worse than SL this time around.

  • Masking_Tape on February 11, 2015, 17:22 GMT

    Reason number 1002 why smaller nation should play in the World Cup.

  • vatsap on February 11, 2015, 13:34 GMT

    One of the best matches in WC history and possibly the best in 2011 version. When the under dog wins, the feeling is amazing.

  • dummy4fb on February 11, 2015, 8:41 GMT

    one of the best group stages match ever. Ireland became the best underdog team for me and I really hope they win again and get elevated to test match status soon.

  • dummy4fb on February 11, 2015, 7:23 GMT

    Nice article. One of the most enjoyable match I have ever seen. This article has given me the recap of the thrilling feelings once again.