Martin Paterson Donnelly
October 17, 1917, Ngaruawahia, Waikato
October 22, 1999, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, (aged 82y 5d)
Left hand Bat
Slow Left arm Orthodox
Martin Paterson Donnelly, who died on October 22, 1999, aged 82, left an indelible impression on cricket despite the brevity of his career. As a New Zealander at Oxford, he entranced cricket-followers in the immediate post-war years in a manner surpassed only by Compton. He proved that reality matched appearance with a magnificent double-century against England in the Lord's Test of 1949. C. B. Fry said he was as good a left-hander as any he had seen, including Clem Hill and Frank Woolley. Then Donnelly retired and became a businessman in Sydney.
For New Zealanders, his career was even more tantalising, since he played only 13 of his 131 first-class games in the country. None the less, he did enough in his seven Tests to raise the country's cricketing profile, and establish himself among the country's best-remembered sporting heroes. when he was elevated to the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame in 1990, the citation read: They said he had everything as a Test batsman: style and grace; confidence and determination; success and modesty. The words they said encapsulate the sense of loss that surrounded Donnelly, despite his long life. His cricket was a victim of the war, the lowly cricketing status of his country at the time, and the game's financial circumstances.
Donnelly was born in 1917 to a country family in Waikato, one of twin brothers; his twin died in the flu epidemic the following year. Martin's sporting talent emerged quickly, though he was never tall - not much bigger than a lemonade bottle, said one contemporary - and was known to his team-mates as Squib. In 1933, he got a letter from Bradman, organised by his Uncle Vic, looking forward to the young man taking his place amongst his country's champions. It happened very rapidly.
After just one first-class match for Wellington, in which he scored 22 and 38, Donnelly was selected, aged 19, for the 1937 tour of England. The selectors were impressed by his style and, above all, by his outfielding. They kept faith and picked him for the First Test at Lord's even though he came into the match with two successive ducks. He got a duck again, but that was no worse than Len Hutton, who was also making his debut. In the second innings, he came in at No. 9 and helped save the game in idiosyncratic fashion, which included a certain amount of hooking. As the series developed, his qualities shone through: he stood alone as New Zealand collapsed to defeat at Old Trafford, and scored fifty in barely an hour at The Oval. He had already scored 144 there against Surrey. Wisden praised his batting style and his coolness.
Though he played some cricket at home over the next few seasons, there were no major opportunities. Donnelly volunteered for military service, and in 1942 embarked for Egypt, where he was a tank commander, and star of the show at the Gezira Sporting Club. In some Cairo bazaar he picked up the multicoloured cap that he used as a lucky mascot. The war took him to Italy, and - evidently with a little help from the sympathetic New Zealand commander, General Freyburg - to England in time for the moment when the public was ready for cricket again. He scored magnificent hundreds in exhibition matches at Edgbaston and Scarborough in 1945, but topped them both in the match Denzil Batchelor called the perfect game, when the Dominions beat England at Lord's with eight minutes to spare. Donnelly hit 133 in three hours. You sat and rejoiced, wrote Batchelor, hugging your memories to your heart and gradually letting the dazzle fade out of your eyes.
That autumn, Donnelly went up to Oxford to read history, and became a Dark Blue institution. His graceful batting was regarded by a generation of undergraduates as the best free show in town; as soon as the word went round that he was in, they would flock to watch. In 1946, he scored six centuries, including 142 against Cambridge. As captain 1947, he averaged 67; though he missed his century in the University Match, he scored 162 for the Gentlemen, which included 50 in 40 minutes. It was the climax to a delightful display, said Wisden, his punishment of any ball not a perfect length being severe and certain; he excelled with off-drives; hooked or cut anything short. This ensured his selection as a Cricketer of the Year, the article casually describing him as the world's best left-hander. By then, he had played fly-half for an all-conquering Oxford rugby team and, less successfully, centre for England at Lansdowne Road on a bitterly cold day when Ireland scored what was then their biggest win over them.
But Donnelly's thoughts were already turning to the future. He got a job with Courtaulds, who were sympathetic enough to let him play half the matches for Warwickshire in 1948- without his customary success - and to join the 1949 New Zealand tour. Together with another left-hander, Bert Sutcliffe, he taught the English public and cricket establishment to understand that here was a country of growing sporting significance, which should never again be palmed off with three-day Tests. All four games were drawn and Donnelly failed only in the last. He made 64 at Headingley, and 75 and 80 at Old Trafford. Sandwiched in between was his epic at Lord's, when he scored what remains the only double-century for New Zealand against England: 206 in just under six hours. But his career was almost over. In 1950, he married; that year he played just four matches for Warwickshire, captaining them against Yorkshire when he scored his only century in county cricket: Wisden almost drooled: glorious... artistic...perfect timing. Then it was over. He sailed for Sydney in the autumn to become the sales and marketing manager of Courtaulds Australia. His cricket thereafter was minimal. Though he played in a first-class match as late as 1961, for the New Zealand Governor-General's XI against MCC, he spent far more time fly-fishing. He had certain similarities with Bradman, wrote Alan Gibson in 1964, the build, the hawk-eye, the forcing stroke square of the wicket on the leg side, the determination to establish a psychological supremacy over the bowler as soon as possible. But Donnelly did not share Bradman's passion never to get out. As with his batting, so with his career. As Frank Keating put it: It was as if all his own cricket had been a student pastime, a youthful wheeze not worth mentioning any more.
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack
Batting & Fielding