Martin Donnelly - Summer sun on a winter's day

Trevor Chesterfield

October 25, 1999

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One early memory is of sneaking into the senior housemaster's dining room at Wanganui Collegiate and, on a frosty Monday, listening to a static radio broadcast of day two of the second Test between England and New Zealand. It was winter 1949 and the gentle Jessie Mills treated us to cocoa and buttered toast at five in the morning as we gathered around the gas heater and Jock Mills, the senior housemaster prattled engagingly about one of our new boyhood heroes, Martin Donnelly.

There were other, more imposing, heroes those days: Len Hutton, Headley Verity, Maurice Leyland, Herbert Sutcliffe, Clarrie Grimmett, Tom Burtt; even, after a fashion, Frank Mooney, John Reid and Noel McGregor. Mostly though it was Hutton. Yet Donnelly somehow came alive for us young Kiwis that chilly 1949 dawn as we tried to hear, through the static, what Rex Alston and John Arlott had to say over the ancient Atwater-Kent radio.

Donnelly: a hero of sorts whose left-handed talents once inspired Errol Holmes, of the MCC team of 1935/36 in New Zealand, to write a letter and suggesting here was a schoolboy whose special skills deserved more recognition after reaching the 40s and threw it away when, in excited anticipation, he stepped out to smash the spinner and was stumped.

How do you conjure a hero of someone who you have seen only in newspaper pictures or flickering newsreel camera shots? Hutton had been a hero through the same medium, as well as from stories found in a book of pre-World War II exploits; the same for Grimmett, Herbert Sutcliffe (not our own Bert), Verity and Leyland. Quite easy if you are a 10-year-old with a taste for Yorkshire lore and legend and tradition, or imagine all New Zealanders should be able to bowl like the great Clarence Victor.

Later Hutton became a reality: an innings of calm artistic Yorkshire precision at the Basin Reserve, and the odd guest appearance in the late 1950s when the spirit of adventure had transplanted a budding journalist in England.

Donnelly, however, was one of those shadowy figures who came more alive through the voices of Alston and Arlott and their ball by ball descriptions rather than fusty newspaper reports and the agency style of clipped, precise and dull standards with their perception that statistics were more important that a classic cover-drive or flowing straight drive past a bowler.

A 10-year-old with a deep passion for the game, a touch of the romantic and an articulate eye for batting or bowling style and a love of leg-spin bowling argued in his mind he could have penned tastier embellishments than the cold words written by the `special NZPA tour correspondent' appearing in the local daily. What did they know of Donnelly whose artistry had been unfolding before them on a warm, sunny late June afternoon at Lord's. The 10-year-old did, in fact, write an essay which, when rediscovered years later made the author cringe with embarrassment: tortuous and clumsy phraseology than those of the agency men doing a better job.

Yet, for five months the exploits of the forty-niners under Walter Hadlee's leadership, captured the mind and burrowed their way into the subconscious; images of greatness and calm, stoic Kiwi charm which graced the county grounds of England with his left-handed perfection in those early years after World War II.

Then came the rare opportunity at the Basin Reserve in the mid-1950s: Donnelly played in a charity match to benefit the 1949 team manager Jack Phillipps. The footwork was still measured, the handwork confident and certain and for Phillipps the perfection of someone with a taste for the moment with a cameo far sunnier than the chilly two November days. It was as though Donnelly had not five years before had stepped into the shadows of a business career and rarely touched a bat.

Cardus once wrote, in the London Sunday Times of a Test innings at Old Trafford in 1949 of how he `plays late, like all batsmen of class, and without rhetoric or show of violence or waste of muscular motion. He is a courteous batsman, a pedigree batsman'.

Years later, during a rained-off Test afternoon in 1960 in a cramped tea lounge at Old Trafford, Cardus was asked by the youthful journalist had he really meant it when he once suggested Donnelly was the finest left-handed foreign batsman to play in England since World War II.

``I did say that, didn't I,'' he said with a careful smile, eyes glinting behind his glasses. ``There were Arthur Morris and Neil Harvey; not forgetting your other fine left-hander, Bert Sutcliffe. All good; all quality. Donnelly and Morris were different. From the moment they walked out to bat: you could feel it, they had a touch of style, of class. What England would have done had he been one of us and available for selection in 1948 . . ?''

It was a statement more than a query, a touch of hope that the young man, who at 19 toured England with the New Zealand side of 1937, had suddenly become an Englishman. Then, there had been a touch of the snob about Cardus.

In 1937 he scored 1414 runs at 37.20 and classified as a Jacobite by The Times as he usually was at his most munificent when fighting for lost causes; a fair description as his innings had the habit of lingering in the mind of many long after others of equal greatness had faded into print on yellowing pages.

His life in those elysian times was not all about applying his batting skills to a particular battle. In World War II he rose to the rank of a squadron commander and was in the charge into the port of Trieste before heading for England to join the New Zealand Services side in 1945. It was at Lord's in those first weeks where he learnt to adjust to pitch conditions with some careful advice from a teammate, Ted Badcock.

``Sit still, you're moving around; be patient and give yourself time to see the ball,'' came Badcock's comment; sage advice on why applying the basics are always so important. The smart bowler would pick up the fidgeting at once, spot it as nervousness and probe it for weakness.

Then again, Donnelly had neither a net nor handled a bat in three years since playing for Wellington. As with all batsmen after a long break, there was a touch of impatience; a wondering of why he was not striking the ball with calmness and precision; getting the elbow up and the bottom hand guiding the blade through.

He joined the Dominions XI for a game at Lord's against England. The sun shone throughout; the war in Europe had been won and the public, after years of deprivation, thirsted for a game or more and Lord's was packed with thousands unable to gain admission. Wally Hammond classified the 133 as the finest innings of that summer; Donnelly classed it among his top five. And a six hit the pavilion roof and clattered into the guttering.

There is a story about this game which was apocryphal of the time and related by Donnelly's mother-in-law. A spectator had gone into a nearby pub, ordered a double scotch, said ``I have just seen the most marvellous day's play'' drank his whisky and dropped dead.

In the October of 1945 he went up to Winchester College at Oxford and the following summer gave a new meaning to university batting standards with six centuries, one was an undefeated 116 against the Indians for the University while another was for Oxford in the University game at Lord's; all as a freshman.

For New Zealand in 1949 he batted at five, for other teams he normally went in at four with a reputation for style and grace, which included an impressionable 162 for Gentlemen against Players' at Lord's in 1947.

Born in Ngaruawahia, on October 17, 1917, into a farming family, his twin brother, Maurice, died during the influenza epidemic which killed off many children in 1918, and spent much of his life abroad: England, Australia, Europe during the theatre of battle in WW II. At a young age the family moved to the Taranaki dairy farming community from where his spirit of adventure began from an early age and continued through a career which turned him into one of New Zealand's finest.

Bert Sutcliffe was probably more organised and orthodox and it showed. Donnelly though carried skill with his class and that was the difference between the two great left-handers.

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