Perhaps I am prone to overrate the 2011 Cricket World Cup due to the wonderful distraction it provided from the horrors of an honours year dissertation. However, it certainly provided a steady stream of excitement, often involving England, before climaxing in the best final for 15 years; and perhaps the best since the competition’s inception in 1975. Yet, among many memorable individual performances by more heralded personalities – Shahid Afridi’s magical bowling, Tillikeratne Dilshan’s powerful and imaginative batting and Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s peerless finish in the final – Kevin O’Brien’s outrageous match-winning century for Ireland against England ranks as the most unforgettable.
While On This Day remembrances generally peer further into history than a mere 366 days; it feels entirely appropriate to commemorate and celebrate the one year anniversary of Kevin O’Brien’s quite ludicrous innings. The nostalgia is partially provoked by a pondering whether life spent mired in research into unilateral, transtibial amputees was actually a better existence than working the archetypal dead-end job for meagre wages.
As O’Brien sauntered to the wicket – sporting the worst haircut seen on a cricket field since Kevin Pietersen dispensed with the skunk – the game appeared to be following the recognised template for innumerable World Cup group stage matches: Big country bats first and racks up a mammoth total; minnow is eventually overwhelmed by a clatter of wickets and resultant increased required run rate, after an occasionally gallant, but more usually feeble, pursuit of the total. Following the accepted script, O’Brien entered the fray with Ireland 106/4, chasing 328, and needing 222 from 166 balls.
Cricinfo’s text commentator described O’Brien as having, “shades of Flintoff about him.” While this description alluded to O’Brien’s girth rather than any previously renowned cricketing ability; the following exhibition of sporting majesty was straight from the everyman superman category that Flintoff occassionaly specialised in.
After a fairly pedestrian start in the scheme of the run chase, O’Brien began warming up with two flogged sixes from Graeme Swann. 25 off 14. Swann, and England, appeared to recover from that initial shock and kept O’Brien reasonably well caged for the next few overs. 35 off 25.
The pyrotechnics commenced in earnest at the start of the batting powerplay; James Anderson and Mike Yardy treated savagely as O’Brien reached a brisk half-century. 51 off 30. Commentating on television, Mark Nicholas’ rather patronising remarks about O’Brien’s display of ‘courage’ were spectacularly misplaced in the carnage that immediately followed.
The real Larry Dooley – and the magnificent period of the most flamboyant World Cup innings of them all – was doled out in the next eleven deliveries O’Brien faced: 4, 1, 6, 4, 4, Dot, 6, 4, Dot, 4, 6. An absolutely extraordinary sequence comprising some truly monstrous hitting; and two very fine bowlers – Anderson and Tim Bresnan – made to look like purveyors of utter filth. 90 off 42.
It is difficult to recall exactly at which point that the realisation began to dawn; this is on. There was undoubtedly a moment where the upset began to feel somewhat inevitable. As the ball continued to disappear high into the Bangalore night sky; and Ireland became one of the only teams in the competition to make proper use of the batting powerplay (taking it in the 31st over and smearing 62 runs for no loss); and the rather forgotten Alex Cusack rotated the strike immaculately; that Ireland would win became a relative formality.
Arguably the most impressive part of O’Brien’s innings was his contrastingly measured approach when the target became more feasible, running swiftly between the wickets and applying asphyxiating pressure to the England fielders. He reached his hundred with a calm two into the legside. 100 off 50. The fastest hundred in World Cup history. By a distance. More importantly for Ireland: 56 required from 54 balls.
O’Brien continued to play with a chilling certainty, finding the gaps with relatively textbook cricket shots and casually whittling the target away; before being run out with eleven balls remaining. 113 off 63. While O’Brien’s presence at the conclusion would have been fitting, his personal ovation with victory almost assured was an equally appropriate tribute to a supreme feat of sporting endeavour.