I made my Test debut at the Gabba…

Earl O’Neill, 1987-1999.

 

“Who the hell remembers the bloke who came second?”

 

The tall right-hand classicist ranks second only to Don Bradman on the list of Test batsmen.  He is without peer in the controversy he engendered.

 

Earl O’Neill forced his way into the Australian team after two seasons of Shield cricket in which he broke every record a batsman could.  He debuted against New Zealand in Brisbane, batting at five, and hit 109 in his first innings.  He played every match in that Test series for an average of 57 yet was threatened with demotion over his long hair.

 

“Prove to me that my ponytail impedes my cricket”, he stated in an interview, “and I might think about a haircut.  My record in first-class cricket speaks for itself.”  It was to be an ongoing theme throughout his Test career.  He was regularly pilloried in the media for not being part of the team, for his taste for music and culture, for lacking ‘Australian-ness.’

 

O’Neill walked onto the SCG for the Bicentenary Test against England in January 1988 sporting six earrings.  He scored the only century in Australia’s first innings.

 

“Earl is the most unique person I’ve ever met” said Steve Waugh after O’Neill retired.  “He took a lot of flak just for being himself, but he never wavered when it came time for him to do his work.  He’s got a great brain for cricket, a great strategic sense of the game.  I’m proud to have played on the same team as him.”

 

O’Neill cemented his place in the Australian cricket team in the First Test against the West Indies, on a fast, bouncy Gabba pitch. He exchanged heated words with Malcolm Marshall before scoring a run and signalled to the pavilion for his baggy green cap.  From Marshall’s four remaining balls in the over, he hooked one for four, pulled another for six and went on to make 128.  He never again wore a helmet at the crease.

 

“England ’89 was the greatest cricketing experience of my life.”

 

O’Neill played every match on the tour that brought Australia to the prominence they enjoy in Test cricket to this day but, almost predictably, it was not without controversy.

 

The Second Test at Lords was played over O’Neill’s birthday, which he celebrated without, some say, due regard for his role as Australia’s best batsman.  Nonetheless, he scored 238 in a brilliant, chanceless innings that many respected commentators still consider the best display of strokework ever seen.

 

“From the moment I stepped through the gate, I knew it was going to be a good day.  The world outside the fence ceased to exist.  It was just me with a bat, Dilley and Foster with the ball and nine other guys waiting for me to mess up.  I did, eventually, but I made a lot of runs in the meantime.”

 

O’Neill’s greatest triumph was almost his undoing, his teammates took umbrage at his attitude.  As supportive of him as they’d been, they thought he was pushing it far too far.

 

“It’s a job.  I show up, I do my job, collect my pay and go home to live my life.  If I don’t do my job right, sack me.  And fair enough, a bloke that doesn’t do his job deserves to be sacked.  But it seems to me, I do my job well enough.”

 

O’Neill did pull his head in after the Lord’s Test.  Controversy and rumours continued to swirl around him, but he concentrated on his game and kept mute.  He continued to pile up runs.  In the Third Test against India in ‘91/92, at his favourite ground, the SCG, he made the quickest Test century on record, hitting the only six of his innings when on 94, the 52nd ball he’d faced.

 

“Shane and I have nothing in common.  He wouldn’t know a good dinner or a great song if it hit him in the face.  But he’s a decent bloke and I’m glad he’s in the team.”

 

Earl O’Neill and Shane Warne were cricket’s odd couple.  O’Neill was well known to carry a miniature library on tour and would sit in the pavilion, padded up, reading about medievael European history, so absorbed that he’d have to be told by another player that he had to go in to bat.  Warne may never have read a book in his life.  But genius knows genius, as do outcasts.  Warne and O’Neill became good mates and were always the last two back to the team hotel.

 

O’Neill made his highest Test score in the drawn Test against South Africa at the MCG in December 1993, with 327.  At the post-match press conference he said “I saw the number on the scoreboard and thought, bloody hell, I’ve just bought a ’64 Corvette with a 327 V8, this’d be a nice number, so I threw my wicket away next ball.”

 

He may have been joking but not everyone saw it that way.  O’Neill had a well-publicised punch-up with Craig McDermott that night. “It was an even match, Craig’s slow and I’m weak, so I ducked everything he threw and nothing I threw hurt him.”

 

O’Neill didn’t play the Sydney Test that season, having strained a ligament in his left knee in a motorcycle accident on New Year’s Eve.  He was the only one to console Damien Martyn, but had another fight with McDermott.

 

“The man is an idiot.  He wouldn’t know irony if it tore his head off.  I tweaked him just a tad and, next thing you see, he’s got his meaty paw around my throat and Shane’s got his other arm in a hammerlock just so he won’t kill me.”  O’Neill said, several years later, that he was disgusted by McDermott’s attitude toward Glenn McGrath and told McDermott “That skinny kid will be an all-time champion and you’ll always be an al-ltime hack.”

 

Following David Boon’s retirement, O’Neill took the number three slot he’d always wanted and hammered bowlers out of the match, all over the world.

 

“I’ve played Test cricket for twelve years, there’s a lot more to life and I want to explore it.”

 

O’Neill announced his retirement to the team in the SCG rooms after the win against England in January ‘99 and confirmed it in a press conference the next day.  As always, he was hounded by controversy.  He was 32, at the peak of his cricketing prowess, had an average of 72.8, an average that had never dropped below the 57 he established in his first series.

 

“I’m gonna walk before you make me run,” he said at the press conference,  Two days later, his deliberate quote of a Rolling Stones song was picked up.

 

“It took you blokes two days to get that?”

 

Earl O’Neill’s legacy is far trickier to assess than you’d expect of a batsman with a Test average of 72.8.  He seemed to spend much of his career deliberately trying to sabotage himself.  Never on the field, of course; as a batsman he was almost without peer, as a fieldsman in his preferred second slip (“I don’t like walking for no good reason”) he took more Test catches than anyone.

 

Toward the end of his Test career, he was ostracised for refusing to sing the team songs after a match.  He not only described John Williamson as “a talentless hack’, he told John so at a post-match function, though he did later stress that it was “nothing personal, John’s a decent bloke and he can criticise my batting anytime he wants.”

 

In many ways, O’Neill was compared to Bradman, for his prowess on the field and for his ‘distant’ attitude.  O’Neill decries this.  He was, like Bradman, a man apart, but for very different reasons.  While Bradman stayed in of nights to study match figures, O’Neill went out to catch obscure rock and roll bands.

 

“Bradman, as a kid, practised all the time.  I never practiced, I’ve a bizarre gift.  If I really had practiced, I’d be better than Bradman.”

 

O’Neill met Bradman twice but they never hit it off.  They were cricketing geniuses but came to the same point from two radically different directions.

 

After retiring from Test cricket, O’Neill played grade cricket in Sydney.  He refused to play for NSW, citing his love for suburban grounds and the purity of play.  In 2002 he started writing a sports column for ‘The Australian’, which led to calling cricket and AFL on the ABC.  He is well known and very well respected for his opinions on sport.

 

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About Earl O'Neill

Freelance gardener, I've thousands of books, thousands of records, one fast motorcycle and one gorgeous smart funny sexy woman. Life's pretty darn neat.

Comments

  1. Shane John Backx says:

    He was replaced in the Test Team by Warwick Todd. Todd was a far better fit for the side.

  2. Absolute gold,Earl !

  3. Congrats on your career Earl. Mine was dogged by injury.
    Chronic insomnia. I always wake up after my debut century at Adelaide Oval.

  4. Interesting read, Earl.
    Well played. In all senses.

  5. Love it, Earl.
    The dance. The memories.
    Standing on the deck watching my shadow stretch…
    Can’t remember.

  6. Earl O'Neill says:

    My lawyer recommended several expurgations. Mostly for the sake of my reputation.

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