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Norman O’Neill, born February 19, 1937, was a scintillating stroke-player whose career was unfairly burdened through comparison with Don Bradman. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of one of the most attractive batsmen since the Second World War.
Close shave early in the innings
It was the 1952-53 season. Teenaged cricketers huddled near the door, looking out at the passing countryside, as the train sped off to a Green Shield match of Sydney Grade Cricket. The enthusiasm was high, the excitement infectious. The confident ebullience of youth perhaps won over the considerations of mortality that make the more mature of age shun needless forays into danger. Hence, some perhaps ventured a little too close to the wide open doorway, letting the pleasant gust of passing breeze play on their ardent young faces.
Suddenly one of the hands slipped from the greasy handrail. The 15-year-old staggered and stumbled. As the train lurched, he hurtled towards the door. The teammates gasped as he looked like falling off the coach and breaking his young neck. However, another youthful hand shot out and grabbed his arm. This timely gesture probably saved the life of one of the most attractive post-War batsmen of Australia. Norman O’Neill might have met a premature and tragic end but for the alertness of his benefactor. And that excellent cricket writer David Frith remembered his great act of that day with considerable pride.
In the shadow of The Don
Five years down the line, O’Neill started to capture the imagination of the nation with some brutal, muscular feats of run-making. With most of the recognised Australian stars playing in South Africa under the young captain Ian Craig, the 20-year-old from Sydney amassed 1005 runs in the Shield at a staggering average of 83.75. The grand finale of the season saw him hit a scintillating 233 for New South Wales against Victoria, an innings studded with 38 boundaries.
The reactions were inevitable. Miles away in South Africa, Craig had already all but succumbed to the weight of expectations. The memories of Don Bradman’s genius was too fresh in the minds of the Australians. And any young batsman showing special promise was soon branded as the second coming of the cricketing messiah. O’Neill would have to play his entire career under this giant unfair shadow.
It was forgotten that O’Neill was very human and as different from Bradman as possible. He was tall and well-built, while The Don had been small and slight. He was spectacularly aggressive, to the point of taking risks, while Bradman remained a merciless accumulator, more inclined to delight crowds with his enormous scores than finesse. It was forgotten that O’Neill’s entry into First-Class cricket had been quiet and rather unremarkable for a couple of seasons before coming of age in 1957-58. The comparisons continued to be made and not always in hushed tones.
But, O’Neill did not falter to the extent that Craig had done. He made top grade and delighted the world with flamboyant batsmanship built on the foundations of classical method. There was also electric fielding in the covers capped off by a powerful throw borrowed from his serious dalliance with baseball. And finally there were his fastish leg-breaks with a useful wrong ’un, with the knack of capturing valuable wickets.
He made his mark on debut at Gabba, when a thrilling unbeaten 71 won the Test against Peter May’s England. Within another year, he had scored three hundreds in a couple of victorious series in the subcontinent, and had been lionised and even garlanded for his efforts. His feats had obviously not been moulded in the Bradman cast, but 876 runs at 62.57 in his first 13 Tests was not a poor introduction to Test cricket.
And when he hooked and drove Wes Hall’s furious pace to a career-best 181 in the famous Tied Test at Brisbane, he was heralded as one of the very best batsmen of the world alongside Garry Sobers, Peter May and Hanif Mohammad.
Sadly, the sparkling start was not taken to its logical and much desired conclusion. His career lasted just six years before a problematic knee forced him to call it a day at the cruelly young age of 28. His record remained impressive and his knocks enchanted admirers to the last day, but towards the latter part of his career he failed to reproduce his early consistency.
He remained an unfulfilled promise, a blooming flower snipped off at the bud — even when the huge shadow of Bradman was peeled away from retrospective analysis.
The Influence of Keith Miller
O’Neill was born on February 19, 1937. His father, a builder, was not graced with cricketing legacy, but maternal uncle Ron Campion played cricket with the Glebe club in the Sydney competition.
Ages just seven, O’Neill regularly accompanied his uncle and a friend to retrieve balls during practice. As a reward, he was allowed batting practice for ten minutes, wearing pads too huge for him to move.
When the young lad moved from the Bexley Primary school to Kogarah Intermediate High, he was spotted by an enthusiastic master, Fred Larcombe. O’Neill’s height and build impressed the teacher and Larcombe thought he could become a champion sprinter. However, by then O’Neill practiced cricket with fanatic devotion and, like so many boys of his age, had grown to idolise Keith Miller.
It was Miller’s ferocious back-foot strokes that had him entranced. With time, he himself would become a more versatile back-foot player than any in the world. Apart from Miller, his other hero was also quite predictable. He saw Neil Harvey score a huge ton against South Africa and was fascinated.
With his uncle’s constant encouragement, O’Neill continued to play steadily for Kogarah High and trained assiduously, now at the Hurtsville Oval, the district ground for St. George Club. At the nets, he faced the looping, spinning donkey drops of Arthur Morris and was understandably flummoxed. It was also while making his grade for St. George that he had the misadventure on the train with David Frith.
At 17, he scored a hundred for the club and attracted the attention of the selectors. Soon, he made it to the state squad as the twelfth man. The young man was ecstatic at playing under his idol Miller.
Into top grade
Success was slow in coming. In 1956-57 O’Neill made a couple of 60s against Queensland as the star cricketers were away in England being bamboozled by Jim Laker. He managed to hold his place when the big names returned. Towards the end of the season he scored his first century, an impressive knock against South Australia.
His efforts saw him chosen to tour New Zealand. O‘Neill scored 102 in the only unofficial Test he played. However, he was overlooked when a young side was chosen for the away series in South Africa.
Indeed, O’Neill was disappointed. But he responded in the best possible way. He plundered those 1,005 runs at 83.75, becoming the third Australian batsman to top 1000 in a season after Bradman and Bill Ponsford. The comparisons were now inevitable.
In fact, during the spectacular four hour 233 against Victoria, the mention of Bradman was first made by a revered name. The veteran Sam Loxton somehow concluded that the young lad could not hook, and sent down an over of bouncers. O’Neill hit four boundaries, each one of them a beautifully timed hook shot. Bill O’Reilly, watching from the stands, called him a second Bradman. His friend Jack Fingleton lamented O‘Neill not being selected for the South African tour.
The innings was more remarkable because O’Neill was having considerable difficulties in getting his cricket practice. His employers insisted on his starting work at six in the morning to allow time off for cricket. O’Neill considered moving to South Australia. A grocery magnate in the southern state offered him employment and financial incentives. However, the New South Wales officials intervened. Sir Ronald Irish, the Australian chairman of Rothmans, provided him with a job in Sydney. O’Neill stayed with New South Wales.
At the time, O’Neill also had another offer. He had already represented his state in baseball. In 1957, he was nominated for the All-Australian team in 1957. The New York Yankees approached him to turn out for them as a pitcher and short stop. The fee offered was some 25 times more than what he would get for a Test match. There were also additional perks of travel costs and accommodation. O’Neill was agreeable, but Sir Ronald Irish dissuaded him less than a week before his scheduled departure.
Great start to Test cricket
When Peter May’s England side came over in 1958-59, O’Neill struck 104 against them at Perth for a Western Australia Combined XI and followed it up with 84 not out for New South Wales. His class at the international level was sufficiently stamped.
He made his debut in the first Test at Brisbane. The match was laborious, with the scoring rate scarcely advancing beyond 1.5 runs an over. Trevor Bailey batted seven and a half hours for a soul-numbing 68. In the tedium, O’Neill showed a refreshing willingness to hit and played a delightful innings. He square-cut fiercely and drove off the back-foot with tremendous power and won the game with 71 not out scored out of 89. Two more half-centuries followed in the victorious series. “Although O’Neill is in the very early stages of his career it is already something of an occasion when he comes to the wicket, and one can sense the expectancy of the crowd and the heightened tension of the opposition,” wrote Ian Peebles of the Sunday Times.
The following year he scored 134 at Lahore as Australia became the first side to beat Pakistan in a home series. He followed it up with 163 at Bombay and 113 at Calcutta, as his team completed their triumphant tour in India. O’Neill underlined the liking for the conditions of the subcontinent by recording his highest First-Class score of 284 against the President’s XI at Ahmadabad.
Due to his exciting batting, O’Neill was tremendously popular in India and Pakistan. This was not least because his last name was eerily familiar to a popular local common name. In one cricket-crazy Karachi family, the parents named their new son after him. The child later took to wicketkeeping. Anil Dalpat became the first Hindu cricketer to represent Pakistan when he played nine Tests in the early 1980s.
Then there was the supreme 181 at Brisbane in that greatest Test match of all. The mighty Wes Hall came at him faster and faster. And O’Neill hooked the short ones and drove the others with frightening power. The camera preserved one of these drives, off the back-foot, the left elbow incredibly high, batting at its exciting best.
Two seventies followed at Sydney and a combative 65 at Adelaide. However, by this time there were signs and symptoms that his bottom handed game was being found out.
The established star
O’Neill was a key member of the strong Australian side that visited England in 1961. He did not take too long to get used to the vagaries of the English wickets, scoring hundreds against Yorkshire, Glamorgan, MCC, Kent, Lancashire and Northants. In the Tests there was a lean patch after the opening game at Birmingham. But, he did play a solid hand of 65 in the second innings of the famous win at Old Trafford. This was after embarrassingly falling on his wicket while hooking Fred Trueman in the first innings. Jack Flavell hit him often during the game, forcing him to throw up.
Finally, at The Oval, he scripted a fascinating climax. An admirer gave him a lucky coin before the Test and he carried it in his pocket. The charm seemed to work. Dropped at 19, O’Neill creamed the bowling for 117 exquisite runs. Beaten by Trueman’s late outswingers, he bided his time and unleashed some gorgeous cover drives off the great fast bowler. Along with Peter Burge’s 181 he ensured the upper-hand in a drawn match and a series win by 2-1. The tour brought him 1,981 runs at 60 and he was named a Wisden Cricketer of 1962.
The next season he banked on another talisman for the Ashes encounters. His wife prepared him a pair of lucky lemon socks before the Adelaide Test of January 1963 and wearing them he compiled a much-needed 100. In the three previous Tests of the 1962-63 series, O’Neill had struggled. His weight had come down due to dieting and he looked a pale shadow of his old self. But, at Adelaide, with his feet snuggling in lemon socks, he struck the ball delightfully, and was involved in a partnership of celestial brilliance with Neil Harvey.
But, after some run-of-the-mill performances against South Africa, O’Neill’s body started to give up on him. One knee rebelled, and the Ashes tour of 1964 saw him score just 156 in the Tests. The only high point of the trip was when he hooked four successive bouncers from Trueman for boundaries.
By now, he was in the midst of a severe drought. It was a sequence of 15 innings without a half-century. In the Caribbean tour of 1964-65, he was one of the several men who fell to the bouncers of Charlie Griffith. In the second Test at Trinidad, he was forced to retire hurt after being hit on the forearm. Incidentally, this Test also saw him capture four for 41 with his leg-breaks, his best ever bowling figures which wiped out the West Indian tail.
He finally came good with 51 and 74 not out at Barbados in the final Test of the series, bringing an end to his run famine. But, that proved to be his last Test match. He hit three tons in the tour matches, but in the Tests, he remained unproductive.
It was not a happy ending. A bitter O’Neill joined voice with England’s Ken Barrington, Ted Dexter and John Edrich in questioning the legitimacy of Griffith’s action. He went on to say that he had no wish to play against Griffith again.
It did not quite please the Australian board. However, O’Neill was omitted from the 1966-67 series against England purely based on his performance. He went on a partially successful unofficial tour of New Zealand, before announcing his retirement on return. His knee had given up on him. He was just 28.
The art of batting
O’Neill ended his career with 2,779 runs at 45.55 with six hundreds from his 42 Tests. His collection of First-Class runs amounted to 13,859 at 50.95.
It was perhaps a career which remained full of unkept promises. However, those who watched him at his best were scintillated by his approach. His dynamic stroke-making and ability to score at great rates, along with his powerful back-foot strokes made him a crowd favourite. He was also twinkle-toed against the spinners before he gained weight and his knee refused to follow his will.
He so charmed Wally Hammond during the 1961 tour of England that the legend branded him the best all-round batsman he had seen since World War Two. EW Swanton observed, “the art of batting, he reminded us, was not dead, merely inexplicably dormant.”
One of his many fans was Alan Davidson who recalled, “Once set he was the most exhilarating player you’d ever want to see — he was dynamite. He’d play attacking shots off balls other people would only think of defending. He had wonderful skill and technique. His shots off the back-foot down the ground off fast bowlers — you can’t really describe how good they were.”
His long time captain Richie Benaud called him, “One of the greatest entertainers we’ve had in Australian cricket”
As a cover fielder he combined with Harvey to form an impregnable area. His return was described as ‘dream throw’ by Wisden.
It is incredible that O’Neill managed to enthral crowds with his approach, because he was prone to severe nervousness before his knocks. He used to sit sweating, often chain smoking in a bout of nerves, drawing on the products of Rothmans with whom he was employed. With time, he grew superstitious and unhappy. He later wrote in his autobiography Ins and Outs “batting is a lonely business.” He also found First-Class cricket to be depressing and lonely.
The comparisons with Bradman continued throughout his career and often had a strangulating effect. However, O’Neill’s height, build and good looks often resembled his idol, Miller.
After retirement, O’Neill moved into the commentary box. Son Mark did enjoy some successful summers for Western Australia and New South Wales. An older O’Neill often became tense and tongue-tied at the microphone, as a century loomed against the O’Neill name on the scoreboard.
Wife Gwen was not any less than husband and son in the sporting field, having been a hurdler at the Empire Games. However, she was the calming influence as O’Neill chain smoked away following his son’s career.
O’Neill did not really care for old memorabilia. His mother had carefully preserved the newspaper cuttings of his exploits, but they were neglected in old trunks. His dog slept on his old Australian Test sweater. However, the Australian government was more respectful of his legacy. O’Neill was honoured with the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in the 2003 Queen’s Birthday Honours.
His heavy smoking ultimately broke through his defences. O’Neill suffered from throat cancer and passed away on March 3, 2008.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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