From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.35 :: NO.07 :: Feb. 16, 2012
Bill O'Reillynever bowled a wide.
I read recently that once upon a time Dickens met Dostoevsky and that Beethoven and Mozart had a get together. So naturally I began to wonder what the conversation might have been like between say those great men of Gloucestershire W. G. Grace (born 1848) and Wally Hammond (born 1903).
I happen to know how it went when Australia's Bill O'Reilly (born 1900) used his interview technique to get the story from that other great bowler Sydney Barnes (born 1873) of England and how it was when Fred Trueman (born 1930) spent many happy hours with Wilfred Rhodes (born 1877).
Rhodes and George Hirst, both Yorkshiremen first and England all-rounders second — there was an enormous row in Yorkshire because Herbert Sutcliffe called his autobiography “For England and Yorkshire” because the good folk of Leeds, Bradford, York and Hull knew which ought to be given the greater importance — continued to coach long after their careers ended.
Trueman told me, with a chuckle, that Rhodes encouraged chucking. “Throw it up, lad,” he used to tell young spin bowlers and, said Trueman “if you want to flight on the ball you have to use an action like a chucker. At that time” — mid-1950s — “nobody took any notice.”
O'Reilly was a character above all other characters. No one ever asked him a question about his life and and felt short changed by the answer.
We became matey — as one does covering matches from a gregarious press box like the one in Sydney — during the 1982-3 tour of Australia and I asked him who he had met that impressed him. “Alec Bedser,” he said. “He was, in a cricket sense, son of Barnes, you know. They bowled the same stuff, just above medium, so many variations and all on a good length and the line just around off stump. And his leg cutter — boy, it was a beauty.”
I asked if he had known Barnes who lived on to 90, and worked right to the end as a clerk copying documents in perfect copperplate, so they say, for Stafford council. The answer is in R. S. Whittington's biography of O'Reilly Time of the Tiger. O'Reilly was called Tiger in the Aussie dressing room but by the time he had migrated to the press box only the few who knew him well used that form of address. I would never dare.
He was after all 6ft 3in, with a shock of Irish red hair and so they always added, a sharp temper. Better keep on his good side and let him talk. He was fascinating.
O'Reilly, bowling leg breaks at almost medium pace, a slower googly and a top-spinner in the Bradman, era met Barnes, who was 80, at a Cricket Writers Club dinner in 1953.
“I wanted to know everything about the man,” O'Reilly told me. “But he was grumpy, would hardly answer my questions until I remember a tip some old reporter gave me. ‘No man can resist the temptation to talk about himself' this old guy said and so I asked ‘Go on then Sydney, show me what your field was.'”
Trueman (in pic) told me, with a chuckle, that Rhodes encouraged chucking. “Throw it up, lad,” he used to tell young spin bowlers and, said Trueman “if you want to flight on the ball you have to use an action like a chucker. At that time” — mid-1950s — “nobody took any notice.”
This is how Whittington remembers the rest of the conversation. I think he was sitting nearby because O'Reilly constantly referred to “we” and the tale flows so easily.
Whittington says “The old man used a knife and fork, other impedimenta and some bread rolls to give his demonstration. He moved a bowl of red carnations to make room.” Only one who saw that vase move could have added that detail.
O'Reilly to Barnes: “I know what you did, you ran the ball away from the bat.” Barnes: “Yes, and I ran ‘em in too.”
“You didn't bowl the wrong ‘un.”
“I never had to.”
O'Reilly asked for this great bowler's autograph.
“Your hand's still firm.”
Barnes: “It should be. I'm still a clerk at Stafford and I'll be at work there at nine in the morning.”
It was a meeting of great men. O'Reilly never bowled a wide and there is no record of Barnes bowling one although that is more difficult to check since he bowled in many lower leagues. My mother, like her mother, was a great cricket fan, and used to tell me: “If I went to watch at Bowling Old Lane — in the Bradford League — and Barnes was on the other side we knew we had not much hope.”
I have been to dozens of Cricket Writers dinners but never found a twosome so tempting. In 1953 it would have been dinner jackets, bow ties and no women. Thirty years on some of us thought that male-only convention was old-fashioned and broke the rule and now it is smart dress and as many females as you wish.
Those were different days. O'Reilly used the offensive “n” word for West Indians with a sort of apology. “I see you don't like that,” he said. “It's generational. I have always talked like that and I seem to be too old to change.” In other ways he was very conventional. “I have never been near a dressing room since I retired.
I don't need to ask what is happening. It is all in front of me on the field.”
Some things though never change; writers invent stuff. It is now thought that Dickens and Dostoevsky did not meet because they never mentioned it. It is impossible for Beethoven and Mozart to have met.
So I am glad there were witnesses to the O'Reilly-Barnes meeting. I just wish I had been one of them.
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