|European Championships: Northern Ireland, July 2002|
O'Brien named in Ireland's European squad
2 July 2002
IRISH National coach Adrian Birrell has wasted no time in planning the future of Ireland cricket. After just two games under his charge, Andrew Patterson has been dropped and Niall O'Brien, last year's Ireland Under 19 wicket-keeper, will make his senior debut in the European Championships, beginning on July 19.
Ballymena's David Kennedy, who got a fleeting glimpse of the international scene when he played in the uncapped game against West Indies A last month, is the other notable absentee in the 13-man squad. He loses out because of the fitness doubts surrounding three of Ireland's pace bowlers and Conor Amstrong is included as cover.
Adrian McCoubrey, who came through his first game in a month, for Ballymena on Saturday, without any ill-effects is, of course, welcomed back as Ireland's premier strike bowler but Paul Mooney, who has a niggling hamstring injury and missed the weekend inter-regional challenge game at Eglinton and Derek Heasley, who has a perennial knee problem, are also in the squad.
But the main story is not so much the axing of the out-of-form Patterson, after a run of 22 successive internationals, as the call-up of the bleach-haired O'Brien. Because this is not a one or two-game trial, O'Brien is the only wicket-keeper in the squad and only injury will prevent him winning five caps in the space of seven days before the month is out. Birrell first saw him at the Academy in his home Eastern Province last March, just days after his appointment as National Coach, and his performances not only impressed him but also former South African captain Kepler Wessels.
The 20 year old, whose father Ginger O'Brien was the last Railway Union player to be capped for Ireland - he won the last of his 52 caps in 1981 - has been under the spotlight all season although the game that probably made up Birrell's mind to call him into the international squad was last week's anniversary game at Rathmines, when the South African played alongside his new charge.
Opening the batting with Jeremy Bray, O'Brien made 47 from 51 balls against the Leinster professionals and although it was a 'good track' it only confirmed his form this season. He is averaging almost 50 in league cricket for Railway and although Birrell has said he will not use him as an opener in the first match of the European Championships, against Scotland at Lisburn, it gives Ireland another option.
'He can bat anywhere from one to nine but his selection is a strategic decision for the long-term. We need to groom him for 2005. There are other keepers but Niall is young and he really wants to do it. We need to work on his temperament but, long-term, it is definitely the way to go' said Birrell.
'If he can perform in the European Championships it could make him a powerful player for Ireland in the long-term. The earlier you get a young player in, the better for all concerned. It's the right decision.' The inclusion of O'Brien gives an obvious message to the youngsters coming through, such as Andrew Riddles and William Porterfield at Donemana and Eoin Morgan, from Dublin. If you are good enough you are old enough and with Jordan McGonigle, 20, Dom Joyce and Armstrong, both 21, and Andrew White only 22 tomorow, the same age as McCoubrey, there is no shortage of young talent already in the team and Birrell had no hesitation in promoting another.
O'Brien wasn't even the South's wicket-keeper at Eglinton over the weekend - although that will surely change for the final inter-regional game at Clontarf in 11 days time - so the decision to promote him ahead of Patterson, who missed the NCU's last two inter-regional games, was probably all but decided even before the latest inter-regional challenge. His 37 runs, off 50 balls, would not have harmed his prospects and Conor Armstrong's innings of 66 in the same match was probably just as important in making up the selectors' mind to include him.
Although he will almost certainly go into the Euro championships as a bowling reserve, it was his all-round ability which won him the 13th place. Birrell confirmed that Patterson's absence from the NCU's last two games had no bearing on his omission from the Ireland squad, rather it was his batting record in recent matches. Since scoring 55 against the UAE at the ICC Trophy in Toronto - his only half century in his last 40 games - he has averaged 12.7 in nine innings and the new coach believes O'Brien is a better keeper than his Cliftonville rival.
The rest of the squad picked itself with Peter Gillespie the only other player still to confirm his fitness. He has not played since tweeking a hamstring two weeks ago but the North West captain himself and National Coach are confident that Ireland's top scorer against the West Indies A will be ready to return for Ireland's most important games of the season.Ireland squad: