Was he not the greatest?
Like John Wayne, he strode in from the West, six-foot-three, eyes gleaming and quizzical, a throaty chuckle ever ready to crack the awed silence. 'Tiger' O'Reilly, best described as a spire rather than slow bowler, was not of the Mailey or Grimmett mould, trading in patient, gentle guile and flight. His was more the mentality of the fast bowler, naked aggression marking his run-up, delivery and facial expression. With his huge hand he imparted great spin - as much from the off with his steeply-bouncing googly as from leg - his strong wrist whipping in the overspin. Even if his bent-kneed delivery slightly lessened his height advantage, his bowling brought prolific results and made him the severest challenge a batsman could know during the 1930s.
Was he the greatest bowler of all? England's S. F. Barnes and George Lohmann once seemed to have been the only rivals for the title, all things considered. Some of the moderns, especially Lillee and Hadlee, have come into such discussions. O'Reilly quietly knew his own worth: when asked if he had ever run out a non-striker who was backing up too far he laughed and said that when he was bowling, no batsman was ever that keen to get to the far end. Any speculation about supremacy goes a long way to being settled by Sir Donald Bradman's statement that O'Reilly was the best bowler he ever faced or saw.
Even more interesting than his 144 wickets at 22.60 in 27 Tests is the fact that in his 19 Tests against England, over four series from 1932-33 to 1938, he bagged 102 wickets at 25.36. Three times he took 10 or more wickets in an Ashes Test, Australia winning each time. Only his pal Clarrie Grimmett took more (106) wickets in Ashes Tests for either side between the two world wars, and these came in three more Tests and at seven runs per wicket higher cost.
William Joseph O'Reilly was born on Dec 20, 1905 (R. G. Menzies' 11th birthday) in White Cliffs, in the far west of NSW, 'where the crows fly backwards to keep the dust out of their eyes'. His grandfather, Peter O'Reilly, had emigrated from Bally Connell in 1865, and Bill remained deeply proud of his Irish ancestry. In 1917 the family moved to Wingello, where Bill's interest in cricket was fired sufficiently for him to take a seven-mile walk along the railway track in his over-lengthening stride. His first 'cricket ball' had been a banksia root, chiselled into shape, but the decisive day came when his brother Jack returned from a visit to Sydney with the 'secret' of Arthur Mailey's googly. Young Bill soon mastered it with a tennis-ball, and his fate was sealed.
From school in Goulburn, he enrolled at teachers' college in Sydney, pursuing his cricket and also athletics, showing distinct promise at the triple jump, shot put and high jump. Cricket sometimes seemed an unduly tough game, as when he played at Bowral during the Christmas holidays in 1925 and bowled unavailingly while a diminutive 17-year-old named Bradman carved out an unbeaten 234 on the matting-over-concrete pitch. Bill always claimed that The Don was dropped twice by an overweight slip fielder who was busy lighting his pipe at the vital moment. The romantic ending came a week later, when the match was resumed (at Wingello, such were the rules) and O'Reilly bowled the embryo world champion immediately with a beautiful legbreak, behind his pads.
He played grade cricket for North Sydney, and a good spell against Johnny Moyes got him into the State practice squad after one match. Here the strength of young O'Reilly's character soon displayed itself as he rejected Mailey's advice on grip and bowling action. His first-class debut came in 1927-28, against the New Zealand side returning from England, but after two further matches for NSW he was given a teaching post in the bush. He fumed at this interruption, which, in retrospect, he reckoned cost him a place on Australia's 1930 tour of England.
Eventually he was transferred back Sydney, teaching in Kogarah, and became regular in the NSW side in 1931-32. Moreover, after only seven first-class mat he was given his first Test cap, taking two South African wickets at Adelaide for off 81.4 six-ball overs in a match dominated by Grimmett (14 wickets) and Bradman (299 not out). O'Reilly instantly relished the 'glorious company' he was keeping.
It took him, he said, about 50 years get over the 1932-33 'Bodyline' series which followed. He believed Australia should have retaliated to England's hostile stump attack. No great batsman himself, swished left-handedly or ran for cover when his turn came. But his role as bowler was grandly fulfilled, his 27 wickets in five Tests being next to Larwood's 33. 62 wickets that season, at just under apiece, topped the wicket-taking table; though he seldom changed his opinion anything, he was to admit in later years the once-hated Jardine was, in the confines of the press box, quite likeable.
In May 1933 he married Molly, barking on the best of marriages which to last into its 60th year before his death. The first of his three nine-wicket hauls came next season against Victoria at MCC, all his victims being past or future Test players, and then came his first overseas tour.
Australia's sweet success in England 1934 owed much to Bradman and Ponsford who both averaged 94, and to McCabe but the bowling responsibility rested on O'Reilly (28 wickets at 24.93) and Grimmett (25 at 26.72). Next-highest wicket-taker Wall with six. Affording the English aesthetic pleasure with his lumbering method, the 'Tiger' used his pace-change and spin variety to mop up 11 wickets the opening victory at Trent Bridge, his second-innings 7 for 54 becoming his Test career-best figures. In the third Test, at Manchester during a heatwave, he shocked England with the wickets of Walters, Wyatt and Hammond in four balls, reducing the score to 72 for 3. Hendren and Leyland centuries brought massive recovery (627 for 9 but O'Reilly toiled bravely on to take 7 for 189 in 59 overs. 'Never say die' is a cliche which could have been coined for him.
He still had a regret. Had his impulsive batting not let him down in the Lord's Test Australia might have saved the follow and he rather than Verity (15 wickets) would have had access to a pitch nicely gingered up by the rain. As it was, O'Reilly, with 30 not out at Old Trafford, made sure of avoiding the follow-on in the next Test.
In a spectacular spinners' treble, Grimmett and Fleetwood-Smith all reach 100 wickets during the tour, O'Reilly topping the list with 109 at 17.05. His wizen little mate Grimmett also took 109 (19.8 hardly ever removing his cap, unlike O'Reilly, who was unabashed at his baldness).
Not only did the tour produce his best Test figures, but his best-ever first-class analysis came in the Somerset match at Taunton: 9 for 38, five of them lbw. Cheap seven-wicket hauls came against Leicestershire and Glamorgan, and with the stumps flying and short leg taking catches off the splice, it was as if another 'demon' after Spofforth had come to haunt England.
Stunningly, he announced his retirement back in Australia. The O'Reillys now had a daughter and he had his teaching career to consider. Sydney Grammar School then came up with an offer which would allow him to continue to play at the highest level, and by 1935-36 he was off on tour again, this time taking South Africa by storm. He (27 wickets at 17.04) and Grimmett (44 at 14.59) demolished the opposition, setting up a 4-0 victory which sealed it as a tour which became, for O'Reilly, 'by far the most pleasant experience of my cricket career'. Soon, though, he was to feel almost as sad and indignant as Grimmett himself when the tiny New Zealand-born spinner was ditched. He was 44, but was still bowling so well that in his final three Tests he took 10,10 and 13 wickets.
O'Reilly, not unexpectedly, proved to be Australia's most penetrative bowler again in the thrilling 1936-37 series against England, taking 25 wickets at 22.20. The discontent now was internal. He, his cherished team-mate Stan McCabe, Fleetwood-Smith and Leo O'Brien were hauled up before members of the Australian Cricket Board on fuzzy and flimsy charges relating to behaviour but almost certainly not unrelated to a barely tangible religious divide which had evolved in the Australian side. O'Reilly remained not only mystified but unforgiving, but he went on to take 5 for 51 and 3 for 58 for his country in the fifth and deciding Test at Melbourne.
A rare moment of batting glory occurred in the second Test when he top-scored with 37 not out (three sixes) in Australia's innings of 80 on a bad pitch, O'Brien, Bradman and McCabe all having succumbed to Voce without scoring. Put in as opener in the next Test, as nightwatchman, O'Reilly was out first ball. The overall attendance for the series was almost one million.
In the 1937-38 domestic season O'Reilly and Fleetwood-Smith each took 64 wickets, but the 'Tiger's' cost only 12.25. In grade cricket, of course, he did what S. F. Barnes used to do at non-first-class level: devastated the opposition with few exceptions. He topped the Sydney grade averages 12 times in 14 seasons, being absent in South Africa in one of them. Firstly for North Sydney and then for St George, he took 814 wickets in those years at 8.35 apiece. He could he paternal not only to promising young St George players such as Arthur Morris and Ray Lindwall but to opponents as well, provided they showed guts as well as skill. He was probably only once rendered speechless and that was when the teenaged Sid (S. G.) Barnes stretched up to pat him on the shoulder as they left the field for tea and condescendingly told the world's best bowler that he though he'd bowled pretty well.
Barnes was one of O'Reilly's team-mates on the 1938 tour of England. 'Tiger' never pretended to recall that venture with anywhere near the same pleasure as 1934. Grimmett was missing, for a start, and although O'Reilly's five wickets in each innings at Headingley set up a five-wicket victory which ensured retention of the Ashes, he never quite forgave the Oval groundsman for England's world record 903 for 7 in the last Test, when his 85 overs of sweat and toil brought him 3 for 178, including weary Hutton's wicket at 364. That and the Trent Bridge pitch were, he growled, 'dosed up to the eyeballs'.
This time he was the only one to take 100 wickets on tour, his 104 coming at his customary low price of 16.60, his achievement probably surpassing anything previous in that he now had little back-up. His pace was now brisker, his action still lumbering and windmill-like. His best figures, 8 for 104, came against Surrey, but he took 11 wickets against Gloucestershire and signed off in Belfast and Dublin with 11 wickets for 53 in three innings against Ire-land which gave him rare satisfaction.
Thus, apart from the 'oddity' Test match at Wellington after the war, when he took 5 for 14 and 3 for 19 on rickety knees in Australia's two-day victory over poor relation New Zealand, that was the end of Bill O'Reilly's Test career. In his 135 first-class matches, latterly as NSW's captain, he took 774 wickets at 16.60. In 133 matches, S. F. Barnes took 719 at 17.09. Dare one suggest that the Australian operated, in general, on firmer pitches and against stronger opposition?
As just one mark of O'Reilly's effectiveness, he dismissed England's supreme champion Hammond 10 times in 19 Tests. Suggestions that left-hander Leyland had his measure annoyed O'Reilly, who would defiantly point out that he got him nine times in 16 Tests. As for Sutcliffe, Bill got him six times in nine Tests, and his bellowed lbw appeals were about the only thing ever to ruffle the cool Yorkshireman.
In 1939 O'Reilly left school teaching for employment with the Lion Tile Company, and after the war he began writing on cricket for the Sydney Morning Herald, guided initially by the aptly named Tom Goodman. His offerings, not surprisingly, were direct, though crafted from a broad knowledge extending well beyond the cricket world. He sometimes became emotional, especially when a young spin bowler arrived on the scene. He championed the likes of Kerry O'Keeffe and David Hourn, and saw from the start what a talented player Steve Waugh was. His detestation of limited-overs cricket - the 'pyjama game' as he named it - with its spirit of restriction and denial and absence of subtlety, was expressed at every opportunity. Even last March, a friendly phone-call to him in Sydney triggered a tirade on the subject.
He scoffed at coaches, never forgave English cricket in that 'the English couldn't handle legspin so they decided to destroy it', and never lost his schoolmaster's instinct insofar as a letter of complaint from Geoff Lawson at the harshness of something O'Reilly had written about him was returned copiously marked with corrections to grammar. Here, after all, was a man who had met the great Australian literary figure Henry Lawson in 1914.
O'Reilly wrote books on the 1948 and 1950-51 Ashes series, Cricket Conquest and Cricket Task Force, and was the subject of R.S. Whitington's Time of the Tiger (1970), in which he recounts O'Reilly's meeting with SF Barnes, when the Englishman reacted to the remark that he didn't bowl the wrong'un, the googly, by saying, 'I didn't have to.' O'Reilly compiled his own life story, with Jack Egan's help, in 1985: Tiger 60 Years in Cricket. He also presented Egan's The Bradman Era video. In 1990, Jack McHarg wrote Bill O'Reilly: A Cricketing Life, a model in affectionate biography.
Early in 1988 came his final stint in the press box, high in the Noble Stand at the Sydney Cricket Ground, so altered from when he first knew it. It was one of life's unimagined privileges to sit with him throughout that match. The stiff discussions of previous years over the Falklands and the Irish question were put away, and again he described the placements of McCabe's hooks and pulls during his 187 in the Bodyline series. Interruptions were frequent. Every journalist in Australia wanted to interview him and photograph him. He was, after all, one of only three cricketers named among the 200 Greatest Australians to mark the Bicentennial. And yet the most memorable conversation eavesdropped upon was that between the old master and a teenage prodigy, Adrian Tucker, on the science of legspin.
May the old man have been spared the news that this brilliant prospect had abandoned the pursuit a couple of years later. Bill O'Reilly's personal warmth would have astounded many of those who had fought to guard their wickets against him. As an example his foreword to The Ashes '79 was embarrassing in its generosity.
In 1980 he was awarded the OBE, and was Australia's principal speaker at the Lord's Taverners' dinner during the Lord's Centenary Test match, a task he carried off courageously in spite of fatigue and a virus. It gave him a chance to remember his little mate Lindsay Hassett, who probably handled 'Tiger's' bowling better than any other -- and teased him into the bargain. Soon, O'Reilly's name was to be immortalised on a grandstand at North Sydney Oval and, later, at the SCG. It must at last have seemed that losing his left big toenail 17 seasons running had been worthwhile after all.
Bill's last few years were utterly miserable, the loss of a leg rendering him housebound. The good times were far distant. A lot of his mates were gone. We are left to argue as to whether he was the best bowler of them all. If the debate rests on figures, he is up there with the rarefied few. If it is to be on reputation and the apprehension felt by opposing batsmen, the testimony again is strong. Wally Hammond, England's greatest of the period, wrote: 'Time after time he got my wicket and I was left to puzzle discontentedly over what I had done wrong.' And Sir Len Hutton, who mastered him with the bat but could never break his will, said, in Golden Great Bowlers (a video in which O'Reilly's style can be savoured): 'Every ball that O'Reilly bowled was a potential wicket-taker. He didn't bowl what they call "rest balls". Every time that ball left his hand it was O'Reilly's intention to get somebody out. I enjoyed batting against him. He helped me to concentrate a great deal.' Enough said?