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Odd Men In

New Zealand's Oxford Don

Martin Donnelly's brief Test career was interrupted by World War II but he shone nevertheless

Paul Edwards
Paul Edwards
Martin Donnelly captaining Oxford against MCC  •  PA Images Archive/Getty Images

Martin Donnelly captaining Oxford against MCC  •  PA Images Archive/Getty Images

If you were to seek solace in these strange days by going for a walk in the Parks at Oxford you might notice that a few of the benches around the cricket ground have been placed there in memory of former Blues. One has been dedicated to Martin Donnelly but even were you reasonably well-versed in the game you might still not be able to name his achievements with much precision. And you would not be alone. Among the hundreds of lists compiled in these cricketless months, one table sought to rank the finest left-handed batsmen in history. It is a ticklish task given that the candidates include Lara, Sobers, Pollock and Clive Lloyd. Pardonably perhaps, no one mentioned Donnelly. Who would have thought that in those joyous post-war summers of abundance and shortage he was reckoned the finest leftie in the world?
Please take your walk again. It is a May morning in 1946. Oxford are batting against Lancashire, who will become one of Donnelly's favourite opponents. Suddenly the university lose their second wicket and he strides from the pavilion wearing the lucky multi-coloured cap he picked up in a Cairo bazaar during the war. Before long the ground will be ringed with spectators. A few tutorials have been hastily postponed but this, it turns out, has been to the perfect satisfaction of both parties, for undergraduates soon notice that dons are also watching the cricket. One of the latter may be JC Masterman, the Provost of Worcester; he helped arrange Donnelly's two-year stay at Oxford, where he is reading Modern History at Masterman's college. The Parks may not be thronged like this again until the mid-1970s when Imran Khan is in residence and the proximity of two all-women colleges helps to increase the number of spectators watching the cricket or something. Now, though, Dick Pollard drops a shade short and Donnelly square-cuts him for four. The undergraduates settle into their seats and some wonder if they can fit in a lunchtime pint at The Lamb and Flag.
"Bare figures can give no idea of the electric atmosphere in the Parks when that short, sturdy figure went out to bat," wrote Geoffrey Bolton. "A lucky spectator might have half an hour to spare between lectures… In that half-hour he might well see Donnelly hit nine boundaries, each from a different stroke… If Oxford were fielding the spectator's eyes would turn to cover point."
The students were watching Donnelly at close to the peak of his powers. Within four years he had all but retired from the first-class game and moved to Australia to become Cortaulds' sales and marketing manager in that country. He joined the Coventry-based firm on going down from Oxford and they allowed him to play for Warwickshire in 1948 and to join the New Zealand tour the following summer. But by 1950 Donnelly was 32 and had decided to make a career in business. He played his last County Championship match at the Cortaulds Ground in early July. For something like five years he had flamed across the English game and now he was gone. "It was as if all his own cricket had been a student pastime, a youthful wheeze not worth mentioning any more," wrote Frank Keating.
The promise, however, had been clear since the early 1930s when Donnelly was a pupil at New Plymouth Boys High School in the North Island. At that stage it was unclear whether cricket or tennis would be his major summer sport but a letter he received from Australia in 1933 may have settled matters. "Dear Martin," it read, "Having heard that you were a very keen little cricket enthusiast, I thought I would write and encourage you into even greater deeds. New Zealanders love the game as much as we do, and I am looking forward to seeing your name among their champions in the future." The 15-year-old Donnelly kept that letter from Don Bradman under his pillow. Less than four years later he was selected for New Zealand's tour of England, the decision to include him in the party being made on the strength of his innings of 22 and 38 and some brilliant fielding in a Plunket Shield game for Wellington against Auckland. It was his first-class debut.
Donnelly was 19 when he arrived in the country where he would play all seven of his Test matches and make all but two of his 23 first-class centuries. His height had long earned him the nickname "Squib" but his maiden hundred against Surrey revealed a different type of stature and Wisden announced that he was "decidedly a 'star' in the making". He managed 120 runs in the three matches against England and although New Zealand lost the series 1-0, Donnelly's innings were already crafted as occasion required. He was beyond promising. All the same, he began his Test career with a duck at Lord's, an indignity he shared with one of England's debutants, Leonard Hutton. In view of the innings he played on the ground after the war, Donnelly probably viewed that nought with a wry smile. And on the way back to New Zealand he was able to thank Bradman for his earlier letter when the tourists played at Adelaide. It would be one of only two first-class games Donnelly would play in Australia.
He had certain similarities with Bradman: 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. But Donnelly did not share Bradman's passion never to get out
Alan Gibson on Martin Donnelly
He returned home having scored 1414 first-class runs in his first English summer yet it was by no means clear how his cricket career would develop. He read for a BA degree at Canterbury University and transferred his allegiance to the province for the 1938-39 season. But he played only six Plunket Shield games for his new team before being commissioned in 1941 and posted first to Cairo, where Major Donnelly commanded a squadron of tanks and was a star of the Gezira Club. Having later served in Italy he returned to England in 1945 to represent New Zealand Services during a four-month tour that would take them from village greens to the Test grounds. None of the players minded and all the spectators were grateful. Though the war against Japan continued until August, cricket seemed as good as way as any of celebrating peace in Europe, even if The Oval still looked more like the POW camp it had recently been. Austerity and even the Iron Curtain were problems for other years. Donnelly was 27 and had played just 41 first-class matches.
In late August he represented the Dominions against England at Lord's. It was a three-day match which featured two centuries by Wally Hammond, ten wickets for Doug Wright and an extraordinary innings of 185 in 168 minutes by Keith Miller. Wisden described it as "one of the finest games ever seen". Donnelly made 133 in ten minutes over three hours and although overshadowed by Miller's extraordinary hitting on the final morning, that century had been as clear a proclamation of talent as anyone could desire. Denzil Batchelor was clearly sold: "You sat and rejoiced, hugging the memories to your heart and gradually letting the dazzle fade out of your eyes."
Over the next four years there would be at least three more such occasions, all of them at Lord's. At Oxford, strong county elevens found a mature batsman of international class waiting for them when they arrived to take on the undergraduates. Journalists returning late from the war hurried to the Parks to see what the fuss was about, only to find it was not a fuss at all, but the real thing. Given his fame, it would have been easy for Oxford's best cricketer to trade on his status and become something of a star but after Donnelly's death in 1999, Professor Douglas Johnson, a contemporary at Worcester, penned an addition to the obituary in the Independent:
"In college, Martin was universally liked. He was a quiet, modest man who was interested in the same things as the rest of us. At a college society meeting he talked about folk-music and folk-songs. He was not too grand for college games, and, if he was available, he would play in the college teams for cricket and rugby, at a time when they were far from strong. In one such match he hit five sixes in one over, against a visiting team that had not expected to encounter a Test batsman."
Donnelly made six centuries for his university in 1946, including 142 in front of 8000 spectators in the Varsity Match at Lord's. The following season there were four more hundreds and a three-hour 162 not out for the Gentleman against the Players. Hubert Preston's account of that innings in Wisden suggests why Donnelly was one of the Almanack's cricketers of the year: "Apart from a chance to slip off [Doug] Wright when 39, he played practically faultless cricket and hit twenty-six 4's, his punishment of any ball not a perfect length being severe and certain; he excelled with off-drives; hooked or cut anything short."
Yet however glittering his talent, cricket was always an amateur pursuit for Donnelly. Perhaps that was one reason why he struggled in 1948, his one full season for Warwickshire. He certainly found Bradman's Australians no more vincible than anyone else had: his eight innings for four different teams produced an aggregate of only 116 runs with a best score of 36 at Scarborough. That letter of encouragement had become a fond memento of another time.
But one reason why Donnelly had played cricket during his first year with Cortaulds was in the hope he might be selected for the New Zealand tour in 1949. Despite a degree of opposition in a homeland where he had not played for nearly a decade, he achieved his aim and that trip would become his glorious farewell to the game's great occasions. While his fellow tourists may have been met by a team-mate who spoke with an English accent when they arrived in April 1949, they also found a cricketer determined to prove that New Zealand should no longer be fobbed off with three-day Tests while Australians were granted five-day fixtures.
Donnelly made 2287 first-class runs in his last full summer of cricket. The tally included four centuries and the first double-hundred made by a New Zealander in Test matches. That was scored at Lord's, of course, and it took him five minutes short of six hours. The final stages of Donnelly's last great innings, which was completed on a Monday morning of dry London heat, were described by Alan Mitchell, the correspondent who travelled with the team on their tour:
"His pulling was bloodthirsty, coldly calculated, executed with both strength of wrist and perfect timing and balance, and a graceful swinging body. His off-driving was full of weight and his newly perfected late cutting a thing of joy and a suppleness of wrist that D'Artagnan could have admired. Bailey pounded up to the stumps, dragging a foot and spurting dust, only to be battered and in one over alone, hit for 12; Hollies lowered his trajectory and added speed to his spin, only to be cut or driven straight.; Gladwin glistened but with mere perspiration and the new ball lost its shine; Young was pulled and cut. The Don was alive in Donnelly."
Perhaps so but Mitchell also knew his comparison was momentary; Bradman's statistics belonged in a category of their own. As Alan Gibson reflected in 1964: "He [Donnelly] had certain similarities with Bradman: 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." Then again, it is difficult to imagine the Don singing folk-songs.
New Zealand drew all four of the Tests in 1949 and Donnelly made 462 runs from No. 5 in their batting order. By now the best cricket writers of the day were searching carefully for appropriate references and ransacking their store of metaphors. As ever, RC Robertson-Glasgow found the words for the moment: "It is a position where the player must be equally able and ready to arrest a decline or to blaze an attack, to be Fabius or Jehu at need and in turn. In this exacting role Donnelly went from triumph to triumph. He was, as it were, both the gum and the glitter; and he carried his burden like a banner."
After his retirement Donnelly spoke about his own cricket only to those who made a point of asking about it. He made a new career in Australia and set about the serious business of raising three sons and a daughter. Occasionally, though, the past would be revived. There were reunion dinners and in 1990 he was elevated to the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame "They said he had everything as a Test batsman," read the citation, "Style and grace, confidence and determination, success and modesty."
Yet still you would be forgiven if you did not quite understand Donnelly's place in the history of cricket in two countries. Perhaps you needed to live through those post-war years to understand their mixture of relief and guilt, exultation and grief, responsibility and abandon. Peace levies its own tariffs. Maybe the best we can do is find Donnelly's bench in his beloved Parks and imagine his feelings as he strode out to bat in the few summers the gods had allowed him.
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Paul Edwards is a freelance cricket writer. He has written for the Times, ESPNcricinfo, Wisden, Southport Visiter and other publications