Had they not played for the same country, it surely would have been a fascinating sight to watch Bill O'Reilly bowling to Don Bradman in Test cricket, in a battle pitting a batting titan against one of the finest bowlers of his time.
Described by Jack Fingleton as "fire and steel-edged temper", O'Reilly was among the most feared bowlers of his time. "Tiger" attacked batsman with batteries of leg breaks, top spinners and 'bosies', all delivered at a medium-fast pace, and plenty of opposition batsmen would have sighed in relief as he finally retired from cricket in 1946, taking to the press box with a pen and typewriter. But even in retirement, the guile and his love of dismissing batsmen remained.
O'Reilly was among those following the progress of Bradman's "Invincibles" in the Ashes of 1948, and saw first hand Bradman's imperious form in the prelude to the first Test at Trent Bridge. Rather than exhausting himself piling up big scores in the tour warm-up games, Bradman preferred to give away his wicket away after reaching landmarks.
Bradman settled for 107 at Worcestershire, rather than his customary double hundred, and followed it with centuries against Surrey, Essex and Sussex as the first test drew nearer. At Nottingham, Australia bowled first and England were rolled over for 165 on the opening day, with Bill Johnston and Keith Miller taking eight wickets between them. By the second day, Australia looked to be running away with the game; at stumps they were poised on 293 for 4, with Bradman unbeaten on 130. Norman Yardley, England's captain, had attempted to close down Bradman's scoring opportunities by bowling in tandem with Charlie Barnett to a line outside leg stump and a predominantly leg side field. It had strangled Bradman's scoring and he opted to play the waiting game, at one stage going 83 minutes without hitting a boundary. But Bradman remained at the end of the day, refusing to lose his wicket.
England had stopped him scoring at his usual pace, but still had no idea how to dismiss him ... until that evening. At a social gathering involving some journalists and a number of English players after the second day's play, O'Reilly provided England with a massive equalizer. Discussing the day's cricket with Alec Bedser, O'Reilly complimented Bedser on his bowling that day, but suggested that the placement of his leg side field ought to be changed. A pencil and paper were procured, and O'Reilly showed Bedser the leg side arrangement he would use if he was - as he put it - "having a pop at Don." The leg slip was moved wider to a backward short leg position, 12 yards from the bat.
Bedser opened the bowling the following morning with the field that O'Reilly had shown him, targeting Bradman's stumps with inswingers. Bradman leg glanced in his second over, and Len Hutton - positioned at O'Reilly's backward short leg - did not have to move. Spurred on by the dismissal of Bradman, England struck with two more wickets soon after, before a partnership between Lindsay Hassett and Ray Lindwall wrested away their momentum.
The batting put up a sturdier showing in the second innings, with Compton scoring 184, but Australia were left with only 98 to score to win the test. In strode the Don at 38 for 1, and Bedser immediately restored the earlier leg side field. Bradman was held scoreless for nine balls, before he received another inswinger from Bedser. Bradman leg glanced and, for the first time in his career, fell for a duck in England; caught Hutton at backward short leg, bowled Bedser, assisted by the Tiger. At last, England felt that they might have a solution to the Bradman conundrum.
Australia batted first in the following test at Lord's and began poorly as Sid Barnes fell for a duck to Alec Coxon. Bradman came in and began scratchily, reaching 13 in almost an hour when he leg glanced Bedser once more. This time the ball went wide of Hutton, who just managed to get his hands to it, before spilling a difficult chance. Once Bedser left the attack, Bradman began to open up against the bowling of Coxon and Doug Wright, looking increasingly assured until lunch.
The assurance did not last for long; Bedser returned to bowl after the break, and in his second over, Bradman again glanced him to Hutton at backward short leg. O'Reilly's leg trap had snared the Don for the third time in succession. Nobody had ever seen Bradman struggle like this before.
But if England thought they had the answer to Bradman, they had not counted on his willpower and bloody-mindedness. The Australians were in control on the third day when Bradman walked in for his last Test innings at Lord's. Those who had expected him to return to his earlier glories to provide a fitting farewell to the ground were disappointed. Bedser was promptly brought on with his leg trap, and Bradman took on a very different, un-Bradmanesque approach.
Time and time again, Bradman shouldered arms and allowed the ball to strike his pads. Not one leg glance was played against Bedser, whose inswingers were met with a left leg thrust firmly forward. This was a Bradman few had seen before; refusing to be dismissed in the leg trap and playing well within his limits as a result. His trademark strokeplay came to the fore against other bowlers, taking him to 89 when he edged an outswinger from Bedser to Edrich at slip, perhaps focusing too much on the leg trap set for the inswinger.
Despite his failure to reach a century, Bradman's final innings at Lord's ended England's hopes of finding a way to counter him. Runs followed soon after with an unbeaten 173 at Headingley, but O'Reilly had enjoyed the last laugh in their rivalry.
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Bradman Charles Williams
Brightly Fades the Don - Jack Fingleton
Cricket Conquest - Bill O'Reilly
Wisden Cricketer's Almanack - 1949
Salil Benegal is based between Chicago and Singapore, and switches between studying chemistry, freelancing in cricket and travel writing