Tiger June 7, 2008

Life of Bill

O'Reilly's autobiography is one of the most pleasant and perceptive around

Bill O'Reilly: 'all bobbing knees and twirling elbows' © Getty Images

Before and after 1946, New Zealanders had little association with Bill O'Reilly - one of the holy trinity of legspinners, with Clarrie Grimmett and Shane Warne. During the 1930s the big, burly medium-pace spinner who rumbled forward, all bobbing knees and twirling elbows, ranked only second to Don Bradman as a match-winner of the highest quality. Early in 1946, O'Reilly, 40, and his joints creaking after close to 37,000 deliveries spread over nearly 20 years of top-class cricket, was one of 13 Australians who sprinted through a five-match tour of New Zealand.

In his autobiography O'Reilly noted that the Australian Board of Control picked only 13 players for the tour, and paid them the trifling sum of one pound each a day. There was also a green-and-gold blazer, but with the letters A, B and C on the pocket instead of the traditional Australian crest. In his book O'Reilly said one Auckland schoolboy told him the letters stood for "Australia's Best Cricketers."

Almost the best. No Bradman, but the side was strong enough to thrash New Zealand (who made 42 and 54) in the last game, which was later elevated, if that is the word, to Test status. O'Reilly took 8 for 33 in the match, and 8 for 128 in a match against Otago. That game was the more notable for Walter Hadlee scoring 198 in the Otago second innings, allowing the Australians an eight-wicket win, but depriving them of the holiday trip they had planned for the last day.

Forty years on, to the exotic life around the press boxes in Australia, and to discover the magic and merriment of O'Reilly in his sports-writing role for the Sydney Morning Herald. About this time, too, came his autobiography, named simply Tiger, and one of the most pleasant, and still very perceptive, tales of a man with equal quantities of common sense, ambition, industry and good humour - all bound together by Irish charm.

O'Reilly may have bowled with a broadsword, but he sometimes his comments on his cricketing life and times come with a flick of the foil. Early in the book he examines his feelings toward Bradman:

On the cricket field Bradman and I had the greatest respect for each other. I certainly did for him, and I know he did for me, but I might as well come straight out with it and let you know that, off the field, we had not much in common.

You could say we did not like each other, but it would be closer to the truth to say we chose to have little to do with each other. I don't think this arose from the ego-laden encounters of our younger days. It was more a commentary arising from our different backgrounds.

Don Bradman was a teetotaller, ambitious, conservative and meticulous. I was outspoken and gregarious, an equally ambitious young man of Irish descent.

Later, after being told by Gracie Fields, the famous singer, that she thrived on crowd behaviour, that it helped her career along and was very good for her ego, O'Reilly commented: "I wonder whether it would have made any difference to Bradman's career if he had been able to lap up the unquenchable eagerness with which cricket crowds tried desperately hard just to touch him."

Later still, O'Reilly is very critical of Bradman as captain and member of the selection committee that picked the Australian team to tour England in 1938 and left at home O'Reilly's great spinning partner, Grimmett. The Irishman in O'Reilly prompted his reaction that he was glad Bradman was in his team, as he did not have to bowl at him, and doubly pleased that Bradman used to help build large piles of runs for O'Reilly and his mates to bowl at.

In Tiger, O'Reilly lovingly writes of his upbringing "in the bush", his career as a teacher, his family, and his lustrous playing career followed by his autumn in the press box. Here O'Reilly was a gem. Although I was middle-aged then and worn round the edges, O'Reilly, with his Irish gift of flattery used to refer to me as "young Kiwi". And we used to jockey for positions so we could sit at his table at lunch. Late in the afternoon O'Reilly would dictate his piece for the day to the Sydney Morning Herald copy-taker. A hush would descend over the press box as we strained to catch the wise words that might offer us word-stranglers some fresh and expert take on the day's action. Australian cricket writers are a noisy lot, often jabbering away whatever the time or the action on the field. Anyone who, like O'Reilly, could trim the chatter to a respectful murmur was no ordinary man. And Tiger is no ordinary book.

by Bill O'Reilly

Collins, 1985

Don Cameron is a writer based in New Zealand