BILL O'REILLY was one of the few great cricketers of whom it could be said, without flattery, that he was as fine a man as he was a player. On the field he was the best spin bowler produced by Australia, thanks in large part to the personality he brought to his bowling. He was anti-establishment, all 6ft 3in of him, his own man from his feet to his balding head, and truculent withal, right up until his death.
One of the most important features of O'Reilly's iconoclasm was that he would not turn Sir Donald Bradman (his junior by three years) into an icon, as so many have done. O'Reilly rated Bradman as the greatest of batsmen, just as Bradman declared in a tribute that O'Reilly was 'the greatest bowler that I ever faced or saw'. But it was Bradman who became the establishment of Australian cricket, and who dictated its history, leaving outsiders like O'Reilly and Jack Fingleton to tell the truth to the few who would listen: that Bradman was too taken up with himself, and making money, to be a team-man.
As a boy from the bush, O'Reilly was born an outsider, in the small country town of Booligal. To become a cricketer in Australia, then and now, a player has to live, work and play in a state capital. But O'Reilly, trained as a schoolteacher like his father before him, was posted to rural areas by the education department of New South Wales and could not keep a place in the state team until 1931/2. He did however play against Bradman in country cricket, Bradman scoring 234 not out one week for Bowral, and O'Reilly bowling him first ball the following Saturday.
In addition to any personal rivalry between them, the 1930s were a difficult time for the Australian Test side because of sectarianism. Hitherto the team had consisted of cricketers of English descent: now came players of Irish descent, Roman Catholics, like O'Reilly, McCabe, O'Brien and Fleetwood-Smith, and the two factions changed on different sides of the dressing-room. When Bradman, a Protestant, became captain, O'Reilly sensed discrimination and once found himself accused of insubordination along with other Catholics in the team: a trumped-up charge in the eyes of the 'Tiger', as he was known.
O'Reilly's passion helped to make him the most feared of all spin bowlers, for he disliked batsmen, pious adminstrators and purveyors of 'humbug' with equal venom. He had a relatively long run-up, then bent his right knee and gripped the ball in defiance of all coaching and orthodoxy. Yet he made the ball bounce, especially his googly. He alone has taken more than 20 wickets in four successive Ashes series, his only four. With Clarrie Grimmett he made a pair as feared as any fast bowlers today; and without him, at the Oval in 1938 when Len Hutton made 364, he still bowled his 85 overs for only 178 runs and three wickets.
In his 27 Tests between 1931/2 and 1945/6, O'Reilly took 144 wickets with his leg-spin: in other terms he, like Grimmett, averaged five dismissals per Test, as only a handful of bowlers have ever done. His bowling average of 22.59 is extraordinary for the era in which he played, one of 'featherbed' pitches built to last for timeless Test matches. And Australia had no pace bowler to open up the opposition for him.
It was on such a pitch at Old Trafford that O'Reilly bowled one of the most famous overs. England eventually scored 627 in a drawn game. But when they had reached 68 without loss on the first morning, O'Reilly reduced them to 72 for three wickets in four balls. He had Cyril Walters caught at short-leg, knocked out Bob Wyatt's middle-stump, and had Wally Hammond edging past the keeper for four before bowling him next ball. In all first-class cricket he had 774 wickets at 16.60, again in cricket's highest scoring period. In Sydney grade cricket he broke all records with 921 wickets at less than 10 runs apiece.
After retiring from cricket and teaching he wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald, writing his last Test column in the Bicentenary Test of 1988. While most journalists would have been repeating themselves by the age of 82, the Tiger was still burning brightly, even fiercely, if the subject turned to Kerry Packer, or 'pyjama cricket' (a reference to the players' bright clothing in one-day matches), the humbug of politicians or the inequalities of society.
Those who were big enough could take O'Reilly: 'He likes to sound off', said Ian Chappell, the former Australian captain, 'but his heart is in the right place.' The small could not take him. One Australian fast bowler, criticised for uncouthness, sent O'Reilly an indignant letter. It was returned to him, with his syntax and spelling corrected.
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