Saturday, April 21, 2012

At the wicket with Iain O’Brien - Part 1

A blessed career in the middle

Into the wind at the Basin - again...
Iain O’Brien donned the black cap of New Zealand on 36 occasions and made a career of bowling into the wind – an admirable choice when your home ground is (windy) Wellington’s Basin Reserve. His first class career spanned a decade but was eventually cut short by a spine that more closely resembled an S-bend. He was never the type of international cricketer would was going to set the world alight, but he holds a special place in the hearts of those who truly understand the New Zealand game – he was always the fan’s cricketer. Any number of his Wellington and New Zealand team mates will tell much the same story.  He retired from the international game at arguably the height of his powers and upped stumps and moved to the United Kingdom to be a ‘proper’ husband and start a family – how many other cricketers would make that choice?

A thinking cricketer, Iain has something of a cult status both in New Zealand (he will always be a Hutt boy) and his second home in Matlock. He broke the mould by writing a blog about his cricket while he represented his country before it was closer to the norm, and started spending time in the commentary box once he’d finished in the field. His international commentary debut at the Basin for the third South African test was the 200th test of Kiwi legend Bryan Waddle (whose first was also at the Basin) – coincidence?

On his final evening in Wellington prior to returning to his wife and young daughter in Matlock he caught up for a chat with a cricketing Buddha. With the ability to talk more than Matt Hayden sledged I’ve had to split the interview into two parts – his career in the middle and life after cricket.

In Part One we cover off his days as an international cricketer – from what he wrote inside his treasured black cap to his eternal thanks to the Sydney Morning Herald. Iain discusses playing at the Home of Cricket and his cricketing home, and opens about the hypocrisy of Kolpak and the ECB. 



A cricketing Buddha: First up, thanks for giving a rank amateur blogger the opportunity to interview a New Zealand cricket cult figure – it’s greatly appreciated.
Iain O’Brien: No worries mate. 

ACB: Very few people get the opportunity to represent their province, let alone experience the pride of representing their country. Who gave you your first test cap? How were the emotions when you strode out to wield the willow with Dan (Vettori)? 
IOB: My first cap was given to me by Walter Hadlee; father of the Hadlee brothers (Barry, Dayle and Sir Richard), so that was pretty special. He was Black Cap 29 and I became Black Cap number 229 so there was something of a matchup there – a niceish piece of symmetry.

I didn’t have to do anything until the second day of the test match and finally got the pads on and was out in the middle, and I had to face Warne and McGrath in that first one. I was a bit scared of McGrath and didn’t really want to get out to Warne – a little bit scary. Mate, I really can’t remember a lot of it – I do remember being excited but freakishly nervous.

ACB: What was it like wearing the silver fern in front of your home crowd at the Basin (Reserve; Wellington)?
IOB: Playing at home was special. Mum and Dad came down, and my best mate came down, for my first test match in Christchurch - we’ve got family down there so they were all there. But then to play four test matches at the Basin with Mum and Dad there (my brother and sister were there for a few of them) in front of your home crowd, was great.

I don’t know if you saw during this last test match here but (Mark) Gillespie was cheered every time he got the ball or went out to bat - you heard how the crowd welcomed him. That was a big part of when I was playing there. You knew you were the home town boy and you knew you were going to get that support – that’s great fun! It’s good fun when you’ve got five or six thousand people pushing you along and helping you out - and they do help you out. It’s like having that extra ten percent in the tank in terms of the energy you’ve got to offer.

ACB: We’re all faced with difficult family decisions at different stages in our life and your choice to retire from test cricket to become a ‘proper’ husband and start a family is to be applauded. How difficult was it to give up your black cap after working so hard to establish yourself in the side?
IOB: It was a pretty easy decision, in fairness. Not many people know this but I probably played more cricket than I would have had a few other things gone to plan. That’s a little bit evasive but if a couple of other things had gone to plan I would have actually retired earlier in my career but things don’t always go your own way in life. That gave me an opportunity, awfully but I welcomed it, to keep playing international cricket. It then became very tough…. I wanted to keep playing but I wanted a family more and so it was an easy decision. I was getting older, my wife was getting older and I was only spending two months of the year at home and things weren’t quite happening as we were hoping so it came down to “I want a family more than I want to play for my country”. It sounds exceedingly selfish and it absolutely is but I’m proud of my decisions - I’m proud of what I did in cricket , I was proud of what I was doing in cricket, and I’m proud of what I’ve left behind in cricket.

I’ve got a little girl, she’s 14 months, and she’s fantastic and I haven’t seen her for three and a half months so I’ve got to get home - I see her in a couple of days’ time.

ACB: I can’t imagine what it’s like to spend that much time away from home.
IOB: To an extent that’s our lifestyle. The wife and bubs were here for the first 11 weeks of the summer and then they went back just before Christmas and I’ve done it alone since then. I knew I couldn’t play cricket soon after they left because of my body and she let me stay on and do this commentary stuff. She’s understanding; she understands how careers work and so Rosie has been amazing to let me stay here and get more experience with the commentary side of things for life after cricket – that’s been brilliant. It’s not fantastic but Skype’s amazing and we’ve been sending photos and videos back and forth all the time.

ACB: Test bowler to club batsmen – how was it? Can we expect a Rigoresque (Mark Richardson) transformation and see you facing the music for New Zealand at the top of the order?
IOB: Going from test cricket to first class cricket everything has been sucked out of the atmosphere and it’s like you’re playing in a vacuum. It can be a little bit hard to get things right – there’s big pressure when you come back out of the test team to be the successful player, the successful bowler, and that pressure can be quite hard – I did find that pressure hard to manage a couple of times because you’re a test bowler and you should be bowling better than this, and I found that tough.

Going back to club cricket is even harder because there’s an even bigger vacuum, if you can have a bigger vacuum, and it’s an even bigger void. I used to get frustrated with some of the skills of the other guys around me but I had to bite my tongue – you get used to fielding skills and the like that at the higher level and so coming back to club cricket used to be quite tough. I now enjoy it – I love it now – I know it’s the only cricket I can play!

I turned out for Petone-Riverside four or five times this summer when I could. I played a little bit towards the end of the summer and absolutely loved it. It’s all I can do now so I just have to embrace it and enjoy what cricket I can play. Now, playing as a batsman who can bowl a little bit is quite good fun. In my last game for Petone I scored 55 and took five wickets so that’s good fun and you’re helping to contribute. I’ll always want to win a game of cricket so I’ll do what I can to win any game of cricket.

ACB: For those of us with little more than dreams of a career as a professional cricketer; as a kid from the Hutt what was it like playing at ‘the home of cricket’ (Lord’s)?
IOB: You don’t really think about that too much, and that sounds weird, because you’ve earned it - that’s been a big philosophy of mine in my cricket. I’ve never told anyone this but I had two words that I wrote on the inside of my black cap; earned and deserved.  And so when you rock up to Lord’s as a test cricketer, or whatever, it didn’t feel out of place. I’d been there a couple of times before, but you earned the right to be doing these things, to be playing this cricket, for being in these situations. The hours training, the nights out you haven’t had, the school camps that you couldn’t go on because you had to play your club cricket, the rep teams you didn’t make because you were slightly too old - all those things add up to that pride and then the ability to step back and say look “I earned this and I deserve to be here”. That helps with some of those overwhelming feelings, those feelings that “sheesh, this is a bit much”. That stuff for me helped me process a lot of that - where I was, what I was doing, and who I was bowling to. 

ACB: Your visa battles with the ECB are well-documented, and have been covered off by far more qualified scribes than I, but how much did you wish you had a passport from a Kolpak country? It’s good enough for the South Africans or the Pacific Island boys in the rugby.
IOB: If it was any other sport I could have played but for the fact that it was cricket and the ECB have a rule in their guidelines which is actually illegal. But, the process of proving it illegal is two years and GBP100,000 on top of what we already went through so to do that becomes  unviable. The crazy thing is that if my wife had been from Spain, Germany or Holland then I could have played no problem but because she’s from England I couldn’t play – which was confusing and damn right frustrating.

So, do I wish I was from South Africa or the West Indies? No, because I’m a happy Kiwi and a proud Kiwi but that would have made life a whole lot freakin’ easier. So yes, it is frustrating. And what’s also annoying is that I got to England before the Hurricanes number eight, Thomas Waldrom, went across there and he ended up in the England rugby squad - I’ve spent more time in the UK than he has and he can play for England. I couldn’t even play domestic cricket as a local, let alone club cricket as a local, yet he could play for England – the ECB have got this wrong…. The ECB have set it up so that feels very xenophobic.  Their current success and ranking is built on having players not born in England or Wales.  I don’t get it.

ACB: Now that you’re playing days are over what would you like cricket fans, both here and in England, to remember you for - as a bloke and as a cricketer?
IOB: I guess my team mates would say I was a little bit rude and a little bit blunt so for Iain O’Brien they never had to guess what I was thinking.  I blame a lot of that on my inability to deal with some of my anxieties in social situations, the mental health issues I have suffered.  In terms of cricket wise and in terms of what I’m trying to do now with my life and my career after my playing days, look, I want to be remembered as a hardworking and determined cricketer, and that was a big part of my make-up - doing the tough jobs and trying to have success at them – and having some success too. I enjoyed that and I wouldn’t have played if I wasn’t doing good too. I enjoyed being known for the guy that did the tough job. The numbers are good, without being amazing, but I did a job that became more acknowledged so people down the line, when they’re doing that job, will be more acknowledged – if that makes sense.  I highlighted a tough job and became pretty damn good at it.

I love the commentary and I also love working with fast bowlers – I really want to help them become successful domestic quicks, and then international quicks. I’ll do my commentary in the UK and I’ll do my coaching over there, which I’ve still yet to sort out, but I’m sure I’ll end up with something; freelance or however it works.  I do want to be involved there, in the technical side of cricket, I enjoy it and that’s why I think I also find I enjoy the commentary because I can explain technical stuff to a wide range of people and so that helps – the grasp of the English language is pretty handy. Those are the things, in terms of my cricket side of life, as you put it, I want to be remembered for, I guess.

ACB: During your playing days you wrote your own blog (far more successful than my fledging ramblings) which unfortunately you’ve now given away – firstly, it begs the question: why? Second - did writing while playing at the highest level ever cause issues within any of the players or management?
IOB: I stopped it because I stopped playing and the blog was about me and my life around cricket. So when I wasn’t playing it became a little less relevant for me to keep doing because it was my way of assessing my days’ play – my way of having a review of the day and trying to make myself a better player - pat myself on the back for the things I did right and contemplate the things I did wrong, and try and process them. That’s basically why I haven’t done it - I am going to try and get back into writing some more pieces.

It will start up again pretty soon but yes, when I was doing it, I never managed to offend a team mate, which I’m pretty proud of. I had to talk about some pretty average batting displays, and some pretty awful bowling displays by us and I had to talk about them - I couldn’t just ignore poor shots or terrible bowling, I had to talk about them and I managed to find a way to highlight them without being rude or without being insensitive, and without frustrating anyone. I knew a lot of my team mates read it, they wouldn’t necessarily admit that to me, but I knew they read it and so I was very conscious of making sure I didn’t cause any conflict in the changing room.

And again, I think finding a constructive way to say something wasn’t great is actually now probably helping me in the commentary box – instead of just saying “it’s shit”, I say “that’s poor, but this is why and this is why it might have happened”. I’ve developed ways of explaining poor performance maybe a little bit better so  it’s helped me in that way, but yes, I got into a bit of trouble for a couple of blogs; one where I mentioned the word faggot and one where I mentioned the crowd in Brisbane – that was the same one, sorry – but that was just someone looking for something to write about really. The Sydney Morning Herald wanting something to write about and it was generally nothing but it was the best thing that could have happened for my blog because everyone started reading it - it made it famous, so they were well thanked. I need to thank the Sydney Morning Herald for putting that up.

A final farewell at Napier - thank you, Black Cap 229


Stay tuned for Part Two: a career post cricket - I’ll post it within the next week. Iain reveals his thoughts on spot-fixing, Jesse Ryder, his battles with depression, the commentary crossover and his future in nude modelling.

Iain’s now back in Matlock ensconced as a husband and a daddy but keep an ear out for him on the airwaves – his commentary is wasted on the couch. You can follow him on Twitter @iainobrien - some of the tweets are gold. He announced his comeback to competitive cricket on 1 April under the hashtag #WishMeLuck…

Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi. If you enjoyed it, sign up for email alerts for future pieces from a cricketing Buddha, and make sure you keep an eye out for Part Two.

1 comment:

  1. oh cool I found the first part of this Iain Obrien series, I just commented on the second part and I loved it and this one is as good as the second one, congratulations

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