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Born in Ireland, toughened in Aussie

"A lot of Australian cricket and their mentality and way of life has been instilled in me, and for me, grade cricket was fantastic cricket" IDI/Getty Images

Niall O'Brien's unborn grandchildren will hear some great stories one day. Like the one of how his mate stole a stump from Sabina Park after a World Cup win against Pakistan. Or the international cap he was given at 14 after he gave throwdowns to one of the game's greats.

But the impressive paraphernalia only tells part of the story. At 34, he's nearer the twilight than the sunrise of his career. And beneath the trophies, scorecards and newspaper clippings are tales and memories more meaningful than those that hang on the wall. As with most people, it's the formative memories that mean most.

O'Brien, speaking ahead of Ireland's match against Australia in Benoni today, was set to be the only man to have played in each encounter between the two nations this century before he was ruled out with a concussion. His first was at the 2007 World Cup, where he watched 24-year-old Shaun Tait's first ball from the relative comfort of the pavilion.

"Gilchrist must've been 30 yards back and just caught it as it was flying over his head," O'Brien said. "He had [Matthew] Hayden next to him, and maybe [Andrew] Symonds. I just remember them yahooing and yelling."

"I was sitting inside and just thought, 'Oh f***.'"

O'Brien came in soon after and, facing Tait, was bowled first ball. It was a full toss; the ball registered at 94.2 miles an hour. His coach, "Adi" Birrell, asked what happened. O'Brien said he just didn't see it.

He has played against Australia four times since and fared better. He feels the days of Australia playing Ireland "for a hit-out" are gone.

"They don't hold back. Last year, I copped a bit from a few of their boys. They think I've got a bit of a strut about me - both myself and Kev [O'Brien's brother Kevin]. People like [David] Warner were getting stuck in. I would have thought he had a bit of a strut as well. He was definitely having a few words.

"I like it. I actually revel in it. If I go out and face [Mitchell] Starc or [Pat] Cummins or [Nathan] Coulter-Nile and I've got Warner sledging me from point, actually I'm enjoying that."

"I had a souvenir Australian hat. Steve Waugh was doing a training session down at Pembroke Cricket Club and he said to me, 'Where'd you get the cap?' I explained and he pointed to his own one-day cap and said, 'At the end of the tour, this cap is yours"

While many pretend to enjoy the Australian approach, O'Brien truly does. His connection with Australia runs deeper than for most and was forged over many summers in Sydney. It was here he cut his teeth in Australia's most notorious cricketing back alley: the Sydney Grade competition.

At the turn of the century, a connection with Trent Johnston saw O'Brien arrive in Australia as a fresh, albeit pale, 19-year-old. He would play for Mosman. An Ireland representative at every underage level to that date, he was accustomed to a place in the top side wherever he was. His first selection night changed that, when Peter Philpott delivered some news.

"'Percy' was a great man and I was his lodger when I arrived," O'Brien says. "He put his arm around me and said, 'You're in second grade.' Then he said, 'I've got a bit of bad news on top of that. You'll be batting No.10.' And I thought, 'Hold on a minute. I'm an opening batsman!'"

O'Brien didn't mind being selected in second grade, but batting so low was staggering. "I remember ringing my dad and saying, 'I'm batting No. 10!' I couldn't believe it. Then Percy said, 'Irish, do me a favour. Between now and Christmas, every time you go out and bat, just put a big price on your wicket. Get yourself 8 not out, 10 not out, 14 not out…'"

So O'Brien did. Before long, he was given his chance up the order when Jimmy "Nuts" Sinclair had to urgently leave for work in Melbourne. O'Brien made a decent score and stayed there for the season. His perseverance had been rewarded, and he enjoyed his cricket in some illustrious company for the remainder of his time there.

"I got to mix around with guys like Brett Lee, his brother Shane, Andrew Strauss and Shoaib Akhtar.

"Shoaib was great. He used to turn up each week with a bucket of KFC and a woman on each arm and bowl about a million miles an hour, then go home again, or back to Cargo Bar or wherever he'd come from on the morning of the match."

What's striking is, O'Brien's memory is equally clear about team-mates known to nobody outside Sydney's North Shore. He speaks fondly of characters called Yatesy, Groovy, Pauly and Grover. These people shaped his cricketing adventure as much as anyone and helped him through his introduction to grade cricket.

"At Mosman I learnt about the toughness and harsh reality of grade cricket. The standard is very good, and you get nothing for free."

A few years later O'Brien arrived again in Australia. This time he lined up with North Sydney, a club that once played home to Sir Donald Bradman and Bill O'Reilly, and who played their cricket at the picturesque North Sydney Oval. It was here O'Brien received his first crack in the top grade after the incumbent, Nigel Taylor, pulled out on the morning of the match with a back injury.

"I was meant to be playing seconds and two of my best friends - Pyad and Paddy had just turned up from Ireland for a year-long trip," O'Brien says. "I went out with them for a few pints on Friday and had a few too many, truth be told. I thought, 'Ah, I'm playing twos tomorrow, I'll be all right. I'm in a bit of nick and a few pints can't hurt me.'"

He was just getting to sleep at around 5.30am when the club president called and told him that the keeper was injured and that he'd be needed in first grade.

"I thought: this is awesome. But I hadn't slept. So I got a couple of hours sleep, then jumped in a cab over to Bear Park. I got to the oval and my skipper, 'Jimmy Jack', says, 'Mate, you're in good form, I want you to bat three.'"

"As was par for the course at the Bears, we were one down early. I walk out with two hours' sleep under my belt and just remember getting sledged from ball one.

"I eventually turned around and said, 'Who's this bloke sledging me?' And it was a wicketkeeper by the name of Daniel Smith. He proceeded to sledge me from ball one to pretty much 5.32pm, when I got out for 116."

"I thought, 'This is bizarre. I've never met this bloke before.' It wouldn't happen in Ireland. You'd only sledge someone if there was really bad blood. I was just a little Irish lad walking out to bat who's had two hours' sleep - I didn't deserve it!

"So I thought, 'Okay, if this is how they want to play, then I will mix it with these boys.'

"My two friends Paddy and Pyad turned up at about 5pm to see me get my hundred. 'The state of you, lad!' they said. Then we went back to the pub and all of a sudden I was the club president's best mate. He wanted to sign me on the spot."

When they returned for day two the following week, O'Brien received assurance from his opening bowler, Newcastle product Matt Baker, that he'd "take care of 'Smitty'". The prophecy was true; Smith was dismissed early, caught behind by O'Brien. He chuckles while recalling the specific names of each team-mate that gave Smith "a bit of a gobful" - names like Burto, Pidgey and Bakes.

It wasn't all bravado and bluster on the field, though. Sometimes the mood changed when the opposition took time to learn a little more about O'Brien.

"We were playing in Campbelltown. I'd played my cricket in North Sydney and Mosman. I was used to the Sydney way of life. Next thing I know, I'm out at Raby Oval: it's two hours away, you pay a toll, it's a million degrees and flies the size of your hand. One of their quicks was all 'effin this', 'effin that', 'effin Pom'."

"I was on about 5 or 6 at the time and I said, 'All right bud, I'm actually Irish', and he goes, 'Oh sorry, you're all right then!'

"At Mosman I learnt about the toughness and harsh reality of grade cricket. The standard is very good, and you get nothing for free"

"Now we're walking off the field and they're all talking to me, saying things like, 'So where are you from in Ireland? How've you found Australia?' and I'm thinking, 'What is going on here?'"

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Like many who were born in the '80s, Australia was O'Brien's cricketing reference point. He grew up in a little village called Sandymount in Dublin. The tradition in his house was to watch the Boxing Day Test on Christmas night.

"We'd all watch the first session together before drifting off at half one, but I'd always stay up for the second session. Even now when I go home for Christmas, my mum will ask whether I'm staying up for the Test. Someone in my family always gets me a case of VB or Carlton on Christmas, so I can sit up and have an Aussie beer while watching the Test."

Asked whether he had a hero, he name-checks the usuals: Slater, Taylor, Langer - all pugnacious opening batsmen in their own right. He then takes a breath and lets the silence hang, as if to clear a path for someone regal. "Steve Waugh was my ideal hero."

More than any other Australian cricket icon, Waugh seems to be the subject of life-affirming stories from members of the public. So it is with O'Brien.

"He coached me when he was in Ireland for a four-week stint. He was playing for Ireland against Australia A. I had a souvenir Australian hat. Steve Waugh was doing a training session down at Pembroke Cricket Club and he said to me, 'Where'd you get the cap?'

"I explained and he pointed to his own one-day cap and said, 'At the end of the tour, this cap is yours.'" O'Brien was unconvinced. "I thought, 'Yeah, sure thing…'"

Four weeks later, Waugh played for Ireland against Australia A at Waringstown, Belfast. O'Brien was there.

"My dad and I were sitting by the boundary edge when he came over, tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'You've got to earn that cap now.' I said, 'What do you mean?' and he said, 'How about a few throwdowns?' So there I was giving Steve Waugh throwdowns, aged 14, and afterwards he says, 'There's your cap.'"

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"Australian cricket has always been big for me," says O'Brien. Though for many aspiring cricketers in the northern hemisphere, the grade cricket breeding ground isn't as palatable as it once was.

"A lot of the English guys at home get two or three hits a week, and when they go over [to Australia] they say, 'We don't get to bat enough.' I looked at it the other way. If I'm only going to bat twice a month I thought, 'I better be at training' and when I do get out in the middle, to make sure I make it count."

O'Brien plays the game hard, and while he feels that's an innate trait, he does recognise the impact of grade cricket on his own approach, and worries about the influence of academy culture on young cricketers making their way through the game.

"A lot of Australian cricket and their mentality and way of life has been instilled in me, and for me, grade cricket was fantastic cricket.

"But as good as all these academies are here, in Australia and around the world - and they do a lot of good things - I think they detract a lot from what you learn on the field, what you learn from good times, bad times, being around experienced cricketers… I think they're sheltering a lot of cricketers from the harsh realities of cricket.

"A lot of them have been brought up in the English academies and spoon-fed or wrapped up in cotton wool to a certain extent, whereas I just played in my garden and whatever facility I could get a hit on, I'd get a hit on."

His time in grade cricket was a perfect example.

"You'd go to North Sydney No. 2 and if the groundsman hasn't bothered to put the covers on and it's pissed raining all afternoon, then so be it. You'd get a ten-minute hit against the seamers and a ten-minute hit against the spinners, and my aim would just be to not lose my wicket.

"Whether I'm hit on the inside thigh 18 times or I've got 44 inches of bruising… if I haven't got out, then that will stand me in good stead for the weekend."

Unfortunately, he won't be striding out against Australia today. If he had done, it would have been as one of his country's best ever cricketers, and bringing with him an appreciation for the Australian way, both on the field and off.

"I think they've got some good characters in there, the Aussies. Off the pitch they're a pretty good bunch of lads. They're not shy of sharing a beer or having a chat around the bar at the hotel, and they always say hello in the morning."

While Australian cricket hasn't entirely made him who he is, O'Brien has been indelibly instilled with its spirit wherever he plays.