Leo O'Connor and the Queensland quest
In 1975-76 Queensland were closing in on their first Sheffield Shield title - they were ultimately beaten into place by a combination of South Australia and rainand had to wait another 19 years to break their duck. This article, in February 1976, looked back to when an unfortunate run-out and eight runs prevented the State sharing with South Australia in its first year in Australia's premier cricket competition
There have been some near misses ... but this is claimed as the season. You could say it came with the advent of Greg Chappell in 1973 ... the arrival of a truly professional approach by QCA administration led by Brisbane Lord Mayor and longtime Australian Board of Control member Clem Jones . . . the influence of the enthusiastic Cricketers Club, which fringes the hallowed Woolloongabba turf ... or the re-vamping of Brisbane's so often maligned Gabba cricket ground on Vulture Street.
No matter really, because the thing is that Queensland cricket has really come of age in class and enthusiasm and this is all happily coinciding with the season in which the Queensland Cricket Association will reach its own centenary. A close 'miss-out' in Greg Chappell's first year as State captain was again followed by a further second placing in 1974-75 ... now comes the new year of happy anticipations!
It was for this reason and to talk of earlier things that your correspondent journeyed to the delightful Melbourne suburb of Elwood to talk with Leo O'Connor - Queensland's first Shield skipper, now a sprightly 85 years, keen of eye and perception, and quietly retired with his memories from a hectic business and public service life midst the elegant surroundings of a neat home and garden. Leo was chairman of the Australian Government's Housing Commission during the difficult Second World War years and he served as a Royal Commissioner into both the nation's post-war housing needs and, later, that of the State of Victoria.
O'Connor has really returned home but only after more than 30 years' residency in Queensland. He was born (1890) in the Victorian north-west town of Murtoa, was Dux of nearby Warracknobeal College and, on transfer to Melbourne during his early life in banking circles, O'Connor played cricket for Carlton-a leading Victorian district club. Although Leo O'Connor did not fancy himself as a first-grade Australian Rules footballer, he was induced in 1909 to play a trial game with Essendon. This led to a permanent half-forward position-always playing as an amateur-until transferred in 1911 to Wagga (NSW), where he excelled as captain of Newtown. The basis was then set for a prominent association with the Queensland Australian National Football League when a further banking transfer took him to Brisbane in 1912. On retirement as a player in 1923, O'Connor was for ten years president of the Queensland League and, since retirement to Melbourne in 1946, he has represented Queensland on the Australian Football Council.
But he is remembered chiefly as a stalwart of Queensland cricket. An immediate success in his new surroundings, O'Connor was soon a member of the State side (1912) and played against every visiting MCC XI from 1923 until 1930. Through a long career, Leo O'Connor only once failed to score in any grade of cricket. Typical of his enthusiasm was his continued participation in Brisbane `A' Pennant matches after his retirement from representative cricket in 1930. And very fruitful, too, because after leaving the first-class arena, he topped the 1931-32 `A' season averages with 694 runs at 77, top score 127.
QCA appropriately celebrated its Jubilee in 1925-26 with the announcement that it had been accepted into the Sheffield Shield competition to join the original (1893) competitors, NSW, Victoria and South Australia. Leo O'Connor had been State captain from 1923 and was already a comparative veteran of 36 when he led his side into that first Shield match in November 1926. It, like other early Brisbane Shield games, was held at the Exhibition Ground - now more familiar as the venue of the annual Royal Brisbane Agricultural Show.
Despite the occasional absence of the later Australian international star left-arm bowler, Percy Hornibrook, the Eleven was a strong one. O'Connor immediately performed magnificently as wicketkeeper while only a classic 127 innings by NSW captain Alan Kippax saved his side, who totalled 280. O'Connor opened the innings and saw schoolteacher Cecil Thompson score Queensland's first Shield century in the first innings and the remarkable allrounder Ron Oxenham push on with a fine match record of 62 and 57 while also taking 7 for 132. A great NSW recovery was led by Kippax with another century and the home State was set 522 to win in the final innings.
Undaunted, Queensland set about the task. Three batsmen, including Thompson, went cheaply and then Oxenham helped his captain in a long partnership. O'Connor showed all his dour fighting spirit and concentration and, after Oxenham's dismissal, battled on grimly with Brisbane medico Dr Alec Mayes to reduce the gap from 22 to 14 runs. Last man in, H. D. (Bill) Noyes, defended strongly as O'Connor slowly reduced the margin by deftly placed on-side shots-a necessity occasioned by all fieldsmen being placed on the off side to contain the flashing cover shots. Noyes desperately survived the last four balls of an over from Ray McNamee to give O'Connor the strike.
"Some people blamed me for that mistake," said a thoughtful Leo O'Connor, "but, after all, I had scored 196, in first and last out, and Alan Kippax later expressed his opinion that, in any case, I had even then beaten Amos' throw home!"
Those eight runs were to decide the Shield in South Australia's favour. At Sydney a week later Leo O'Connor was to score 103 and 143 not out (being the eighth batsman to do so in the history of Shield cricket) in masterminding a brilliant revenge win against the real might of NSW - Charlie Macartney and Tommy Andrews having returned to the side to help Kippax and Co. Inability of several players to obtain leave from employment in those difficult times led to a somewhat weakened Queensland team losing to Victoria and South Australia on their first Southern tour to Melbourne and Adelaide.
Victoria were soundly beaten by 134 runs in the return match at Brisbane in 1927, O'Connor scoring 71 and 21 while the redoubtable Oxenham - a Queensland public servant who was subsequently to represent Australia and virtually carried the Queensland XI on his back for some years after O'Connor's retirement - scored 104 and 73 and took 4 for 18. The loss cost Victoria a win in the Sheffield Shield and gave the coveted trophy to South Australia, who played Queensland only once in view of the `excessive travel distance' between Adelaide and Brisbane! (Note: This is now an overall four hours' air return flight compared with seven days' train travel in 1926!) Those eight runs, if achieved, would have meant sharing the 1926-27 Shield competition between Queensland and South Australia.
But it was not to be, and O'Connor was to battle on with a team of varying merit until his retirement. The Oxenham brothers - Lionel was also a public servant-Eric Bensted, Dr Otto Nothling, Percy Hornibrook (when available from his dental practice), F. J. Gough, F. M. Brew, Roy Levy, Des Hansen, E. R. H. Wyeth, L. L. Gill, C. W. Andrews and - in two fleeting appearances - Eric Knowles, all valiantly helped the Queensland Shield cause.
Geoff Cook sometime later heralded a new breed - following his straight-break spin bowler father, Barney Cook, into the side - and most ably represented Queensland with bat and ball up to 1948. Eddie Gilbert, an exceptionally quick aboriginal fast bowler with a few steps and high action, was brought down from the Barambah settlement to star for a few overs before never quite recovering from a no-ball episode in Melbourne. Tom Allen was for years a most sturdy batsman; the great Australian wicketkeeper, Don Tallon, and to a lesser degree his slow bowler-cum-humorist brother Bill, also starred. Leo O'Connor's son, Brian, played as an all-rounder and other long-service team men were C. P. Christ and P. L. Dixon - the latter sadly an RAAF war casualty.
Then that superbly artistic opening batsman W. A. (Bill) Brown was brought up from NSW to start a new era while also building up one of Australia's most successful sports-store complexes. Brown continued to delight the spectators with his graceful strokeplay for some years after the war and was ably supported by the burly opening batsman Rex Rogers and by the talented Bill Morris during two great seasons.
Charlie Harvey of the celebrated cricketing brothers followed; the international brothers Ken and Ron Archer came on the scene; present State selector Ernie Toovey started a useful and long Shield career, and ebullient Wally Grout took over the gloves from Don Tallon. And then the great fast bowler Ray Lindwall came to join Ken Mackay and Peter Burge in the still unavailing quest for the elusive Sheffield Shield.
I believe it is safe to say that no Australian genuinely interested in cricket would begrudge the first Queensland win in the Sheffield Shield . . . and how more appropriate could success be than in the year when the Northern State celebrates both its Association's centenary and a Golden Jubilee of participation in the Shield competition.