Niall O'Brien is, arguably, the best wicket keeper/batsman to have represented Ireland. Certainly his batting - which would gain him a place in most Irish sides without any additional assets - puts him ahead of contenders for the title such as Andy Patterson, AP Kelly and Frank Browning, while his wicket keeping is highly regarded on the county circuit in England. Possessed of boundless self-confidence - few others would have attempted to reverse sweep Shane Warne at any time, let alone before they had scored (though he was later to describe the resultant 0 as his "worst moment in cricket") - he comes, of course, from a notable cricket and sports mad family, in south Dublin.
Thus his father Brendan - better known as Ginger - gained 51 caps for Ireland, mostly opening the innings, captaining the side on four occasions, while his younger brother Kevin has won cricketing fame far beyond the boundaries of Railway Union's Park Avenue ground. Additionally, sister Ciara played for Ireland Women at U23 level besides being a multi capped hockey international, while three brothers have also played senior cricket for Railway, most notably Gerard, a former captain and now President of the club who has around 150 senior wickets to his credit. We might also note here that, like his father, Niall was a highly talented footballer and hockey player, Kevin considering that he might well have made a career out of the former.
Niall and his brothers were all educated at Marian College in Ballsbridge where cricket was not played at the time. Niall did receive the Headmaster's permission to start a cricket team there, but little came of it. However the O'Brien siblings were not only constant attenders at Park Avenue from infancy and were prominent members of the club's strong age group sides besides constantly playing among themselves. Thus the absence of the game in any organised form at school was not really a problem. Nor did it prevent Niall's selection for Ireland in age group matches from U15 culminating in the 1999 - 2000 U19 World Cup in Sri Lanka, where the opposition faced included a strong Australian side led by Michael Clarke and including, amongst others, Mitchell Johnston. Though the Irish captain Peter Shields kept wicket, Niall played as a batsman, topscoring with 36, against Bangladesh.
As has been the case with a growing number of Ireland's best cricketers in recent years, a professional career in England has deprived domestic cricket of seeing much of the best of Niall. Thus a few highlights must suffice to show what might have been. In 2001 opening the batting for Railway in a senior league match against Rush at Kenure, he found himself leading the chase to pass the hosts' seemingly modest 152. However the Park Avenue side also found the going difficult and were in some trouble at 109-7 when Niall, who alone had shaped with any real confidence, was joined by younger brother Kevin. Together they saw their side to victory by 7 wickets, Niall being undefeated on 68, his highest score of the season.
The following year was his best in Irish cricket. He scored 760 runs in Leinster cricket at 50.67 with 3 hundreds and 2 fifties, besides making 29 dismissals as a wicket keeper. He had begun the season with a hundred in the Irish Senior Cup against Cork Harlequins and the following day, away against Malahide in the League, made another. Batting first Railway reached a useful 235-7 from their 50 overs with Niall finishing on 114. The hosts could manage only 205-9 in reply. Two fine innings against The Hills, interspersed with one against YMCA followed. In the first match against the Milverton side, he made a commanding 91* as Railway had little difficulty in winning by 9 wickets. Then against YMCA he made 106 out of a total of 249 with 35 the next highest score, Kevin then took 3-54 to round off victory and a good day for the O'Brien clan. The brothers were at it again in the return match with The Hills, their side totalling a formidable 283-8 with Niall making 110 before Kevin weighed in with 3-46 to seal the victory.
Small wonder that Railway won the League that year. As Niall celebrated his call up to the Irish side with a century against MCC at The Mardyke and hit another for Ireland A, he had a truly memorable year. These performances resulted in his becoming the Sunday Independent/Hyundai Irish Cricketer of The Year. One reason for the highly successful season had been the three previous winters spent playing abroad, two in Australia and one in South Africa. It might be appropriate to mention here that Niall has made several other visits to Australia and is a huge admirer of the country and its attitudes to cricket. He has played first grade cricket for Mosman - on his first visit Down Under- and North Sydney, both clubs with which Trent Johnston has associations and has benefited from one to one sessions with coaches such as Noddy Holder of Perth.
In 2007 a break in the county programme enabled him to play in the Bob Kerr Cup semi-final against North County, a match which Rilway could perhaps claim they were robbed of. North County, with home advantage led off with 296. Niall, unphased by the challenge, made an excellent 89 sharing in a big partnership with Trent Johnston. However when they had reached 195-5 from 33 overs rain intervened. With a scoring rate system, not yet D/L applying, they were deemed to have lost the match. They had batted 33 overs; one more run would have brought victory. Niall's dismissal, stumped off Ritchie Lawrence, was the crucial one.
Niall's Kent contract resulted in his playing in the Kent Premier and County Leagues. He appeared for virtually a full season in 2003, batting at 4 and keeping wicket for St Lawrence and Highland Court (Canterbury) for whom he hit four undefeated half centuries, three at a run a ball or better. However his highest score of 63* came off 95 balls with 7 fours in a good win over Whitstable. In the following seasons his appearances were more spasmodic. Switching allegiance to Beckenham he had several good scores, notably an 88 against Lordswood in a drawn game in 2004. Two seasons later, when his County commitments had increased still further, he hit quick 70s in the last two matches of the season. Both matches were home games.
In the first, against Sevenoaks Vine he reached an undefeated run a ball 72 with 6 fours to bring about victory by 5 wickets after Beckenham had been set 147 to win while, facing his old club St Lawrence and Highland Court, he steered Beckenham tom a two wickets win, with 71* off 75 balls, four of which were hit to the boundary. 2003 saw him receive trials from several county sides but he settled with Kent playing for their Second XI with some regularity that season. His subsequent appearances for the 1st XI were linked to the Test career of Geraint Jones. When the Papua New Guinea born Welsh Australian eventually gained a Test place Niall had the chance to impress at first class level. It was time to move on to Northampton when Jones was dropped from the England side.
In the Kent second team, he played alongside cricketers such as future Hampshire and England left hander Michael Carberry and current Somerset mainstay Peter Trego. Niall's best innings for Kent in the 2nd XI Championship came in an innings victory against Worcestershire at Canterbury in 2003. Batting first the visitors were bowled out for 140, to which their hosts replied with 431. Coming in at 6, Niall made exactly 100, sharing in partnership of 138 for the 5th wicket with off spinning all-rounder Alex Loudon. Loudon, an Old Etonian friend of Prince William, would later gain one ODI cap for England before abandoning cricket for the City of London and the charms of his school friend's future sister-in-law!
Niall also had some useful matches for Northamptonshire Seconds, though most of his cricket at Wantage Road has been for the 1st XI. However in a home match with Middlesex in 2007, he made 83 and 53 in a remarkable 7 wicket win over Middlesex, a match in which his side made 352-3 to record win by 7 wickets. Despite Niall's contribution they owed most to a dominating undefeated 161 from Australian "one cap wonder" Chris Rogers, now scoring prolifically with Middlesex. Niall had a remarkable match against Warwickshire Seconds that same season at Milton Keynes. He made 47 in the first innings but it was his wicket keeping that stood out as, with six first innings catches and a further four in the second, he had 10 victims in the match.
While Niall met with some success for Kent at County Championship level, he has been seen at his best for Northamptonshire, for whom all his first class hundreds in English cricket have been scored. During his first, 2007, season, he was by no means sure of his place and, batting low in the order, did not show his true form until the end of the season. Then, against Leicestershire at Grace Road, he helped build a match winning second innings total as his 109 at No 7, helped his captain David Sales (187*) in a partnership of 185, enabling Northamptonshire to declare at 459-6 and go on to win by 177 runs. Niall's hundred came off only 101 balls.
The following season saw him aggregate 857 runs at 45.10 with 2 hundreds and 4 fifties. Also making 40 dismissals, he was chosen the county's Player of the Year, despite the strong claims of South African Lance Klusener. Niall, described by Wisden as "an unrelentingly positive presence in the side" replaced another South African Ricky Wessels, son of Kepler, as wicker keeper after three matches. Both his hundreds came against Glamorgan. In late May at the St Helen's ground, Swansea, he made 108 in the first innings, batting for 159 balls with 14 fours, puting on 126 for the first wicket with Stephen Peters, whose share was 36. An innings victory resulted. The Welsh were again on the receiving end later in the season at Wantage Road when they just managed to hold out for a draw after being dismissed for 287 in their first innings.
The hosts replied with 488/7, Niall making 168, the fifth highest score by a Northants wicket keeper from 303 balls with 20 fours and 1 six. H put on 211 for the 5th wicket with Klusener (202*). A score of 109 against Surrey at The Oval the following season, in a stand of 159 for the 3rd with Wessels, was made at what Wisden termed a "sedate pace", but last - 2011 - season he was back to scoring big hundreds with 166 against Gloucestershire at Bristol. Coming in at 125/5 and, according to the Almanac, "striking firmly through the covers and jabbing through mid-wicket", he made 166 from 208 balls with 20 fours and 1 six, sharing in productive partnerships with Andrew Hall (182 for the 6th) and Jamie Middlebrook (187 for the 7th). The match was won by an innings and 6 runs.
His best performance - thus far - for the County in a List A match came against Hampshire at the Rose Bowl in the 40 over Clydesdale Bank Trophy last season (2011). Hampshire had scored 200 and Northants were 23-1 when Niall came in. Wisden may be quoted once more, "A typically inventive 121 from 94 balls steered Northamptonshire to their fourth successive win. It was an innings of adrenalin. He sustained a hairline fracture from a blow to the hand by Simon Jones while still in single figures." He hit 10 fours and 3 sixes, making his runs out of the 164 added while he was at the wicket. Niall has also taken part in two Asian based T20 competitions. In 2007/08 he was one of the Delhi Jets side in the "rebel" Indian Cricket league while early in 2012 he took part in the Bangladesh tournament which led to problems, now seemingly happily resolved, with Cricket Ireland. He found the two experiences beneficial to his cricket though, from scores which have been seen, his highest score in both competitions was 35 made at the end of the latter competition against Duronto Rajashahi. It came off 39 balls with 2 fours and, showing that batting was by no means easy was top score in a batting line-up that included Herschelle Gibbs, Dwayne Smith and Sanath Jayasuriya.
Niall has scored 3693 runs for Ireland at an average of 35.51 with 6 hundreds and 20 fifties. However for many observers his finest innings was his 72 against Pakistan in the St Patrick's Day epic during the 2007 World Cup. Pakistan had been bowled out for 132 but Ireland were 15-2 with potential match winners Jeremy Bray and Eoin Morgan gone when Niall joined William Porterfield. He proceeded to dominate the innings. Facing 106 balls and hitting 6 fours and 1 six, he added 49 with Porterfield, lost Botha to a poor decision but then found another good partner in brother Kevin, before, trying to force the pace, he was stumped from the off spin of Shoaib Malik. Not without a few alarms, Kevin accompanied eventually by Trent Johnston then saw Ireland to a remarkable victory. Alan Lewis thought Niall's innings the best he had ever seen by an Irish batsman, Johnston and others were equally euphoric but for the Man of the Match, "It was just a game of cricket for me. They had the ball and I had the bat." Later in the tournament he made an 88 ball 63 in a losing cause against England, before becoming a rare wicket for Michael Vaughan, stumped once more.
His first hundred came in his debut season against MCC at The Mardyke in 2002. For neither the first nor last time the Cork weather misbehaved itself but with both sides forfeiting an innings, Ireland ended up chasing 295 for victory on the last afternoon. Niall, batting at No 1 in the absence of Jason Molins, put on 176 with Andrew White which set Ireland on the road to success. He was eventually out for a 151 balls 111 with 12 fours. Deservedly Man of the Match he became Ireland's fourth youngest centurion, though he has since moved down that list thanks to Eoin Morgan.
His other five hundreds have all been of first class status, having come in Intercontinental Cup games, and two deserving of the title "Daddy Hundreds" to borrow from the Graham Gooch lexicon. These were both made at the expense of the United Arab Emirates, three years apart. The first came in the Semi Final of the 2005 competition. In hot weather at Namibia's Windhoek ground, Ireland, fortunate to bat first, made a first innings 350/7, Niall making 2 while Morgan blasted his way to 151 at a run a ball. Gaining a first innings lead of 161 they then batted UAE out of the match, with Jeremy Bray (190) and Niall leading the way with a second wicket record partnership of 304,then an Irish record for any wicket. Niall finished on 176 from 277 balls with 15 fours and 1 six thus making the highest score by an Irish wicket keeper. Ireland just failed to win the match but had easily qualified for the Final against Kenya which began two days later. Here Niall was again to the fire. His first innings 106* coming from 153 balls with 7 fours and 1 six He and Andre Botha put on 165 for the 4th wicket in 29.5 overs having "batted skilfully" before Johnston declared behind to deny Kenya more bowling points. Eventually off spinners White and Kyle McCallan bowled Ireland to a fine victory.
Niall's second "daddy" against UAE came at Abu Dhabi in March 2008 and, considering that he was unwell for part of it, was a remarkable innings. UAE were bowled out for 228 after deciding to bat and Ireland were 67/2 when Niall came in. He was suffering from an upset stomach, and, keeping going on tablets and special drinks, was somewhat subdued in the early part of his innings. However finding useful partners in Kevin, Johnston and McCallan, he overcame all difficulties to make asuperb174 off 291 balls with 23 fours, batting for just over 8 hours. Ireland were to emerge eventual winners by 9 wickets. Seven months later he was to help ensure Ireland's qualification for the Final as one of three centurions in an innings win over Kenya, a match in which Ireland had to gain maximum points.
His 135 came off 235 balls and included 17 fours. With Botha also making a century, White 92* and Kevin storming to 171* Ireland posted an unassailable total which their bowlers to bring about an innings victory. Ireland thus faced Namibia in the Final at Port Elizabeth a fortnight later. 55 behind on the first innings, Niall having been out for a duck at No 2, Ireland eventually needed 201 to win. Niall and Porterfield (34) then put on 68 for the first wicket before Niall and Man of the Match Alex Cusack saw them to a splendid victory. Cusack having made 95* in the first innings finished on 39. Niall "batting positively" was on 119 from 165 balls, 15 of which had been hit for 4 and two for 6.
Among his many other fine and vital innings for Ireland, pride of place should, perhaps, go to his match winning 40 in the World Cup T20 against Bangladesh at Trent Bridge in June 2009, a victory which enabled Ireland to qualify for the Super 8s. Certainly their task was made easier by what Wisden termed "some brainless shot selection" from their opponents but an asking rate of nearly 7 an over against a Test attack was challenging and made no simpler by the loss of Bray for 2. Enter Niall, batting with a runner after an injury at the end of the Bangladesh innings. He raced to 40 with 3 fours and 3 sixes the latter all "soaring leg side" blows in the same over from paceman Mortaza who had himself hit two off Cusack's ultra-expensive final over. In all Niall batted for 25 balls and was then able to see Kevin finish the job, before being declared man of the Match.
As a wicket keeper, he has made 148 dismissals for Ireland, 124 of which were caught. He and Paul Jackson head the list of catches made in an innings with 6, Niall's having come in a European championship match against Italy at Hamilton Crescent in 2006. He has also made 4 dismissals on 4 occasions.
No account of Niall's career would be complete without a reference to his disciplinary record which has led to his undergoing a one match ban and a fine for Ireland, and, after returning late to his county after an Irish match, losing the Northamptonshire vice captaincy. More recently came the controversy, now happily resolved, arising from his decision to play in the Bangladesh T20 tournament, which led to his not being selected for Ireland in the World T20 Qualifiers. However most, if not all, followers of the game in Ireland and - probably at Wantage Road are prepared to accept these transgressions which are far outweighed by his highly successful performances.
Niall John O'Brien has scored 4887 runs in all first class cricket at the time of writing (11 June 2012) and 3023 in List A Matches. These and impressive wicket keeping statistics show his value to any side he plays for. It is greatly to be hoped that he will continue to delight his many admirers for many seasons to come.
He is profiled in Siggins and Fitzgerald's Ireland's 100 Cricket Greats.
Edward Liddle, May 2012