It’s been a year of change in cricket broadcasting in New Zealand.
First of all there was the travesty of removing first class commentary from the airwaves. We ranted on about that and, to a point, some sense was restored with the Internet Only option. What a creative idea that was.
And then, last weekend, the tragic passing of Peter Sharp; the blueprint of what a cricket commentator should be.: able to paint a picture, articulate, and scary in his knowledge of the sport.
But amongst all this has been the sudden impact, in New Zealand anyway, of Iain O’Brien onto the landscape.
O’Brien. The bowler of two very distinct careers as a New Zealand fast-medium bowler, the sudden retirement, cameo movie star as an evil South African, the attempted comeback, and blogger.
That first part of the career. Picked as a bit of a bolter to play Australia in 2005. Arguably one of the best batting line-ups of all time. Two wickets (Hayden and Martyn mind) at close on 100 a piece and it was off to the bowling into the wind at the Basin for a few years.
But then the blog began. The golden days of O’Brien’s cricket career are clearly linked to the blog. The better you perform the more confident you are to write about it. The more you write, the more you think about your game; the more accolades you get the more confident you feel, and on it went.
The breakthrough was in Australia in late 2008. Fielding in the undesirable position of on the boundary at the Gabba he was called a “fagot” (sic). This was blogged and all hell unfolded. Not from NZC, but from Cricket Australia; keen to dispel the theory that Brisbane sports watchers were feral. As if.
That story was picked up by Cricinfo, BBC etc and the legend was born. Hits on the website grew by a factor of 1,000. It’s no coincidence that O’Brien was now at the top of his game.
Off to Adelaide. Punter was lining up another ton on the friendly road. Soon after tea he pulled a long-hop from O’Brien into Peter Fulton’s mitts. Hardly the most glamorous way to go.
So he was showered with the “You missed out there” on his way from the field. Naturally, Ponting offered some advice in return. Another blog entry, another press conference, another front page story. And another meeting with the ACB.
Following that was the period where O’Brien was NZ’s best bowler. The 6 For v West Indies, that extraordinary spell against Pakistan in what turned out to be his last test. And, all the while the blogging continued; syndicated on ESPN Cricinfo etc.
Even the batting came on; the previous claim to fame being the slowest pair in test cricket history. The proudest innings being a gutsy rearguard on a turner in Sri Lanka against Murali. He scored only 12, but survived for 77 balls, allowed Vettori to bring up a characteristic fight-back century in a 71 run partnership that briefly raised hopes of an improbable draw.
During this period he was making a name for himself on Twitter. How his teammates laughed at that. The same teammates that are all over the place in 2012. Oh the irony,
At the end 0f 2009 he quit test cricket, moved to England and had a baby daughter. This was when he started in commentary for BBC Radio London, and then for BBC Five Live in the UK, as well as offering in-studio comments for major matches involving New Zealand. He was a natural at it; the love of the game, combined with the analytical thinking developed through the blogging years.
There was unfinished business though which saw O’Brien return to Wellington at the start of the season hoping to make his way back into domestic cricket and possibly more. But the 36 year-old body said no, and despite his trying all manner of theories, including a diet which precluded anything enjoyable, it was not to be.
But this opened the door for commentary opportunities; both on radio and leaping into the den that is the SKY commentary box. He took to both; even learning that on TV you talk less. There was a real confidence about what he did. It is not an easy task to know how and when to correct Ron Snowden without overdoing it, but O’Brien seemed to judge it right. The only slight complaint, the perceived over Englishness of his accent, has been tempered as the season has progressed.
He returns to the UK in April for good. His last stint in the box will be the third test at the Basin. But you would like to think we will get to hear more of this.
In other news, England tour New Zealand next season.