A great loss

I will miss my two heroes, Bill Brown and Norman O’ Neill, but they will not be lost to me as I can still visualise them as clearly as when I saw them in their pomp.

The death of two great Australian batsmen over the last few weeks in Bill Brown and Norman O’Neill has brought back a flood of memories to those who knew them and had the privilege to see them bat. I was one of the very lucky ones who knew them personally for a very long time.

Time often erases the public’s memory of perception of players of the past, but not those of team-mates or opponents who have enjoyed and marvelled at their talents.

Both Bill and Norm had exquisite styles. Brown’s movements were sleek and as smooth as silk, while O’Neill was all power, but still with great grace.

I am very proud to say that they were heroes of mine, though in different ways. Brown was very much my schoolboy hero. After all he was from the inner Sydney suburb of Marrickville where I was born and brought up and we both played for the Marrickville club in the senior Sydney competition.

While Bradman, Miller, Lindwall and Morris were the heroes of my mates, Bill Brown and Colin McCool were my particular favourites. I was enchanted by Billy’s elegant style and run-making ability, while Colin did all the things I wanted to achieve.

Brown was a fine leg spinner, a wonderful batsman and a superb first slip fieldsman.

O’Neill was a team-mate and long standing friend with talent and style. I was in awe of him as were all his team-mates and opponents. No batsman gave me greater watching pleasure than him.

If I could relive an hour watching any man bat, he would be the one. Yet he always played under the added pressure of being a prodigy, of being labelled “The New Bradman” when he thrilled the crowds early in his career. It was an unnecessary burden Norm could have done without, for he was a magnificent player in his own right.

He was talented enough to pitch for Australia at baseball and got lucrative offers to play in the United States. He, undoubtedly, had the strongest throwing arm that I have seen in cricket. No boundary was ever too far as his powerful arm sent the ball thudding into the ’keeper’s gloves over the stumps.

He was also a very capable leg spinner who bowled a magnificent wrong ’un and would have undoubtedly taken a lot of wickets these days.

He will be remembered, however, for his wonderful batting, which once seen will never be forgotten. He was a classic strokemaker with a technique straight out of the coaching manual, but polished by a style and flair that was all his own.

If there was a key to his batting, it was his uncanny judgment of length. He never seemed to get it wrong and that allowed him to get into position very early and play powerful strokes against deliveries most batsmen would have been happy just to keep out.

He was particularly strong on the backfoot against fast bowling, capable of spanking the fastest delivery straight back past the bowler, before the latter had completed his follow- through. This is a skill enjoyed by only a few players that I have seen.

Norm developed a reputation as a nervous starter, and that was the only flaw in his game. But he thrilled crowds wherever he played. He appeared in 42 Tests, the last in the West Indies in 1965 and scored 2779 runs at a very respectable average of 45.52. But he was the sort of player who did not need statistics to prove his quality.

Norm O’Neill was an adventurer. No discussion of the great players should ever leave him out.

The most often asked question to me on my frequent visits to India was, what is Norman O’Neill doing?

I have been answering this ever since the Australians visited India in 1959. Norm was the star of the Tour. This question came not only from cricket fanatics or cricket associations or clubs, but also from strangers on the street. One old passer-by in Mumbai summed it up perfectly when he said that Norm had brutal power, but executed his strokes with grace and style.

Billy Brown, on the other hand, was all elegance and poise. He stroked the ball away with perfect timing, style and precision. The almost forgotten leg glance, initially made famous by Ranjitsinhji, became Billy Brown’s hallmark.

Many who had seen both Ranji and Brown compared their style and elegance and declared them equally graceful. It was praise indeed for the Australian.

Records will show that Brown was a fine batsman in a period when not many Tests were played. He scored 1572 runs from 22 Tests at an average of 46.82. Unfortunately, his career was during the Bradman era and all batsmen who had good averages in the 40s suffered in comparison with the great man.

Brown followed Test cricket until his death and was a popular and welcome visitor wherever he went. In an era where current players are perhaps not as appreciative as they should be of past players, Brown was always welcomed by one and all.

His engaging friendliness and self-deprecative humour about his own career made him an excellent companion. He had a fund of stories to tell and had great appreciation for the modern player. At the same time he was immensely proud of the players of his period though he didn’t look back at them through rose coloured glasses.

I will miss my two heroes, but they will not be lost to me as I can still visualise them as clearly as when I saw them in their pomp.