O'REILLY, WILLIAM JOSEPH, OBE, who died in a Sydney hospital on October 6, 1992, aged 86, was probably the greatest spin bowler the game has ever produced. Bill "Tiger" O'Reilly was unquestionably one of cricket's great figures: as a player, as a character and later as a writer on the game. His cricket was proof that spin bowling was not necessarily a gentle art. He was 6ft 2in tall, gripped the ball in his enormous right hand and released it at a pace that could be almost fast-medium. It would then bounce ferociously on the hard pitches of his time and, on occasion, knock wicket-keepers off their feet. He bowled leg-breaks and, especially, top-spinners and googlies, backed up by an intimidating manner. Jack Fingleton said he was "a flurry of limbs, fire and steel-edged temper". It has been suggested that his action and the general commotion before delivery were born of a deep sense of frustration at not being able to bowl fast enough to knock the batsman down. Off the field, his gruffness was mitigated by his intelligence, erudition, wit and twinkling eyes.
He played 27 Test matches and took 144 wickets - 102 of them Englishmen and the vital wicket of Walter Hammond ten times - averaging 22.59. But his figures have to be judged by the fact that all but one of his Tests came in the 1930s, when other bowlers were dominated by batsmen to an unprecedented extent. No one ever dominated O'Reilly. Even when England made 903 at The Oval in 1938, he bowled 85 overs and finished with figures of three for 178. And before that, he had secured the Ashes by taking five for 66 and five for 56 at Headingley.
O'Reilly was born in White Cliffs in the New South Wales bush into a large Irish family on December 20, 1905. His father was a small-town schoolmaster and young Bill was above average at several sports, including tennis, athletics and rugby. Cricket was harder to arrange. According to Jack Fingleton in Cricket Crisis, the four O'Reilly brothers played with a gum-wood bat and a piece of banksia root chiselled down to make a ball. Since the others were older, Bill inevitably bowled more than he batted. The brothers also cuffed him a lot, possibly because he was starting to show them up. In 1917 the family moved to Wingello. When he played his first match for Wingello Juniors, the team walked to the opposition's ground seven miles away in Tallong, with their dogs chasing rabbits along the way. In 1919, he went to the high school in the larger town of Goulburn, where he concentrated on his athletics as much as his cricket. And when he went to the teachers' college at Sydney University in his late teens he was more interested in such events as the hop, step and jump, in which he held the state record. According to Fingleton's account he would probably have been lost to cricket had he not been asked to make up the numbers in a Sydney junior match and, with a method that at first made everyone giggle, whipped out the opposition.
In the summer of 1925-26, the young O'Reilly, by now an undergraduate at the teachers' college in Sydney University, met the man whose destiny was to be linked with his for ever. O'Reilly's own account of this remains a classic. He was passing through Bowral Station on his way home to Wingello for his summer holiday when he heard his name being called down the platform. He put his head out of the carriage window and was told to get out at once: Wingello were playing at Bowral and needed him.
"How was I to know that I was about to cross swords with the greatest cricketer that ever set foot on a cricket field? He didn't have it all his own way, let me tell you. Well, not for the first couple of overs, anyway." By the close of play, 17-yearold Don Bradman was 234 not out. The match resumed a week later, according to the local custom. "The sun shone, the birds sang sweetly and the flowers bloomed as never before. I bowled him first ball with a leg-break which came from the leg stump to hit the off bail. Suddenly cricket was the best game in the whole wide world."
In 1926-27 O'Reilly was chosen for the New South Wales state practice squad on the strength of one match for North Sydney. A year later he made his first-class debut against the New Zealanders. But teachers in New South Wales work for the state rather than an individual school and the newly-qualified O'Reilly was despatched to three different bush towns. This may have cost him the chance of a Test against England in 1928-29 and, very probably, a tour in 1930. He was transferred back to Sydney in time for the 1931-32 season and after four more matches made his debut for Australia. He performed quietly in a match in which Bradman scored 299 not out and Grimmest took 14 wickets, but he had arrived. In the 1932-33 Bodyline series he took 27 wickets, without anyone noticing much, given what else was happening. In the series in England in 1934 he took 28 wickets, including seven in an innings twice. At Trent Bridge he won the match with seven for 54, achieved by what Wisden called "clever variation in flight and pace combined with spin off the worn turf". In blazing heat at Old Trafford, he transformed the game in an over which England began at 68 for no wicket. Walters was caught at forward short leg off the first ball, Wyatt bowled middle stump by the second and Hammond, after glancing a four off the third, was bowled by the fourth. Hendren and Leyland recaptured the initiative and England declared at 627 for nine but O'Reilly finished with seven for 189. He took 109 wickets on the tour, including nine for 38 against Somerset. He went back to Australia and suddenly announced his retirement. He had married in 1933, had a daughter and was anxious about his teaching career. However, Sydney Grammar School offered him a job that enabled him to play on. He toured South Africa in 1935-36 and took 27 wickets again, 25 in the great series against England in 1936-37 and 22 back in England in 1938, despite the unforgiving wickets ("dosed up to the eyeballs", said O'Reilly) of Trent Bridge and The Oval.
He played only one more Test, the one-off game against New Zealand at Wellington in March 1946 when he was already 40. The opposition barely beat his age : they were bowled out for 42 and 54 and O'Reilly took five for 14 and three for 19. It was the 11th time he had taken five in an innings in Tests. O'Reilly then began writing on cricket for the Sydney Morning Herald with a muscular, very Australian prose style flavoured with wit and imagery ("You can smell the gum-leaves off him", he wrote of one country boy just starting with Queensland. Until he finally retired in 1988, he was as revered in Australian press boxes as he had been on the field. His opinions often came more from the heart than the head, especially if it was a question of attacking the selectors for playing safe and ignoring a young player, most especially a young leg-spinner. But he was consistent, loved quality and hated one-day cricket ("hit-and-giggle") which he generally refused to watch. He was hot-blooded and humorous which perhaps explains why his relationship with the cooler Bradman is believed to have been based on intense mutual respect rather than the profoundest form of Australian mateship. While Sir Donald walked the corridors of cricketing power O'Reilly was the rumbustious backbencher.
His last few years were rendered miserable by illness, including the loss of a leg. But he was blessed with a marriage to Molly that lasted 59 years. In his career he took 774 wickets at 16.60 and was successful at every level: playing for North Sydney and St George, he topped the Sydney Grade averages 12 times and took 962 wickets at 9.44. He took a wicket every 49 balls in his first-class career and it was said he never bowled a wide. His batting was left-handed, hard-hitting and occasionally stubborn (1,655 runs at 13.13); he never quite forgave himself for getting out at Lord's in 1934 when he might have saved the follow-on, in which case he rather than Verity would have had use of a rain-affected wicket. He did save the follow-on by making 30 not out at Old Trafford in the next Test. Future generations will have to judge the greatness of his bowling on the fragments of film that survive and the written descriptions, of which R. C. Robertson-Glasgow's may stand as definitive:
'As with those more florid opponents of legendary heroes, there seemed to be more arms than Nature or the rules allow. During the run-up, a sort of fierce galumph, the right forearm worked like a piston; at delivery the head was ducked low as if to butt the batsman on to his stumps. But it didn't take long to see the greatness; the control of leg-break, top-spinner and googly; the change of pace and trajectory without apparent change in action; the scrupulous length; the vitality; and, informing and rounding all, the brain to diagnose what patient required what treatment.'
When O'Reilly died, Bradman said he was the greatest bowler he had ever faced or watched.