Kevin O'Brien: 'For Ireland to go deep into T20 World Cup, they need Josh Little bowling well'

The former allrounder also backs Harry Tector to deliver at the big stage

Sreshth Shah
Sreshth Shah
Kevin O'Brien's retirement, earlier this year, meant that Ireland's biggest World Cup matchwinner - historically at least - will not be with them for the first time since the side played their maiden T20 World Cup game way back in 2009.
Those are some big shoes to fill for Ireland at a global event, trying to qualify out of the first round before the big teams await, but O'Brien has earmarked two 22-year-olds to fill that void - Josh Little and Harry Tector. The reason? Just like O'Brien, the duo is not scared by the big stage, they enjoy it instead.
Little, the left-arm swing bowler with two younger sisters also playing for Ireland, caught global attention last year with his control, and even made ESPNcricinfo's ODI team of the year in 2021.
During the home season this year which included visits from India, New Zealand, South Africa, and Afghanistan, he sustained the control. But most impressive was his stint with Manchester Originals at the Hundred, where he took important top-order wickets to finish as the competition's joint fourth-highest wicket-taker, while also adding a mean bouncer to his artillery. Both those qualities could prove deadly in the first round, where Ireland are up against West Indies, Zimbabwe and Scotland.
"Josh is the leader of the attack even though he is very young," O'Brien told ESPNcricinfo on the sidelines of the Legends League Cricket tournament recently. "He is relatively early in his international career but he has taken the mantle on his shoulders and he is performing well. For Ireland to go deep into the tournament, they need Josh bowling well, Josh taking wickets.
"With Josh, he is a wicket-taker. The thing is that Josh likes playing on the big stage, in front of big crowds, that doesn't faze him. He likes being put under pressure and likes a challenge and rising to the occasion. That is going to stand somebody in good stead at the World Cup when every game can be a pressure game. I expect Josh to go out there and perform well and take wickets."
As for Tector, the middle brother in a trio of siblings who have all represented Ireland across various age groups, the big stage brings the best out of him, according to O'Brien. Usually, a specialist batter at No. 4 or No. 5, Tector stands tall when the quicks run in, and has a compact transition into his shots, be it driving on the up off the front foot or rocking back to pull from inside the crease.
His apparent comfort in playing top-class bowling was evident when he scored 64 not out off 33 balls and 39 off 28 against India in the two T20Is over the summer. Even though the ODI format is where Tector has thrived the most - scoring a hat-trick of half-centuries in the West Indies in early 2022 and two centuries in three ODIs against New Zealand during the home summer - O'Brien believes his recent match-time with Barbados Royals at the 6ixty and the CPL will help him transition those skills into the T20 format.
"Harry likes being in the limelight, in the middle," O'Brien said. "He has got a very calm head on his shoulders. He knows how to time a run-chase well. That's an important attribute batting at No. 4 in limited-overs cricket. That's important, to stay with the rate, whatever it is. To be able to stay within touching reach of it. And obviously come home as well."
The one thing Ireland need to improve - if they are to come out of the first round as one of the top two teams in their group, and have a head-turning run in the Super 12s - is to not let the game slip away when they are in strong positions. During the second T20I against India, they nearly chased down 226 only to fall short by four runs. And then against New Zealand, they lost two ODIs they could have won, by one wicket and one run respectively.
"The big thing that the team probably will take [from the defeats] is the fine margins against the better teams in the world," O'Brien said. "I think World Cup cricket, tournament cricket, that's different from playing series all the time. The first group [round] is three games. You win three games and you qualify, so obviously you want to play good attacking, aggressive, fearless cricket. But ultimately you want to win the game.
"You have got to adapt to situations that are dealt to you on the current day. If that means you play a bit reservedly or within yourself to be there till the end of the match and win the game, then that's what you must do. Ultimately that is the challenge for the team - to play according to what the situation dictates."
Ireland, led by Andy Balbirnie, begin their World Cup campaign against Zimbabwe in Hobart on Monday. They stay in the same city for their next two matches, against Scotland (Wednesday) and West Indies (Friday). They had an ordinary warm-up, however, losing to Namibia and having their Sri Lanka fixture washed out.

Sreshth Shah is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @sreshthx