English cricket will remember Norm O'Neill as a tall, handsome, right-handed middle-order batsman who displayed a glorious array of strokes very much in the manner and style of his idol, Keith Miller. It was the great irony of his career that he should be labelled, after a dazzling début, aged 18, for New South Wales as "the new Don Bradman".
O'Neill was, in so many ways, the opposite of Bradman: taller, much broader, principally a powerful back-foot player with a punishing drive who danced into the spinners and would never be tied down. But he was also renowned for his anxious starts and for an impetuosity that would bring a rash shot when well set. Bradman was small, rock-like from taking guard, had infinite patience, was all but invulnerable when established and played a rash stroke twice in his life.
But by 1955 Bradman had been retired for six years and Australia was fretting, fearing that, with his departure, a golden age had ended and they would not be able to re-establish the world supremacy he had won for them. The team sent to England in 1956, Bradman's old guard, were routed by English spinners in a damp summer.
Then, out of the Sydney suburb of Carlton, arrived this good-looking boy with a Bradman-like appetite for runs, who averaged 43.61 in his first season (1955-56) and, by the following March, was chosen to tour New Zealand, playing in three international fixtures where his 218 runs gave him an average of 72.66.
In the next two Australian summers, O'Neill scored 1,005 and 874 runs and had forced his way into the Test team to play England's tourists under Peter May, making sure they would remember him with 104 in their second fixture in Perth. He followed that with 84 against them in Sydney, 71 not out in the first Test at Brisbane, and finished his first Test series with an average of 56.40.
Like most Australian boys of his time, he grew up playing baseball and such was the speed, power and accuracy of his throw that there were rumours that the Yankees were interested in his future. He also added leg-breaks and medium-pace seam (17 Test wickets) to his repertoire. Eventually, even the nostalgics accepted that they were not seeing a new Bradman but an original O'Neill.
In India and Pakistan in 1959-60, he hit memorable centuries in Bombay, Calcutta and Lahore. To many Aussies, his greatest moment came in 1960 in Brisbane when he made 181 against the West Indies, and the most fearsome fast bowling on the planet in the famous Tied Test. Bobby Simpson, one of his batting partners in that historic match, paid this tribute: "If God gave me an hour to watch someone I'd seen, I'd request to see Norman O'Neill. He had the style."
O'Neill did not disappoint his admirers, at home or abroad, on his much anticipated début in England in 1961, hitting seven tour centuries and scoring almost 2,000 runs (including 117 in the fifth Test at the Oval). He was named one of Wisden's Cricketers of the Year in 1962.
Thereafter he found consistency elusive although, on his day, he could have the crowd on their feet. He continued to serve his state splendidly until 1968, scoring 741 runs in 1966/67 but after a disappointing "A" tour of New Zealand he announced his retirement because of recurring knee problems. In his 61 matches for New South Wales, he averaged 50.52. He scored 2,779 runs in his 42 Tests at an average of 45.55 but it is the grandeur of his batting, not the figures, that will be remembered at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
His old team-mate Alan Davidson recalled him as a modest man who was nevertheless charismatic once on the field. He tried to talk O'Neill out of his nerves at the start of an innings:
"Those blokes out there are more scared of you than you are of them." But it didn't make any difference. Once set he was the most exhilarating player you'd ever want to see – he was dynamite. He'd play attacking shots off balls other people would only think of defending. He had wonderful skill and technique. His shots off the back foot down the ground off fast bowlers – you can't really describe how good they were.
Norman Clifford O'Neill, cricketer: born Sydney, New South Wales 19 February 1937; married Gwen Wallace (two sons, one daughter); died Sydney 3 March 2008.Reuse content