Norman O’Neill: Battling Great Expectations

Published: 2022
Pages: 224
Author: O'Sullivan, Brian
Publisher: ACS
Rating: 4 stars

The only disappointment of the ACS Lives in Cricket series is that there have, thus far, very few titles that have featured cricketers who originate from outside the UK. Without carrying out any actual research I suspect Norm O’Neill is just the fourth, all Australian, and the first since Keith Carmody almost a decade ago.

If my recollection is correct all three of the previous Australians, Carmody, Ric Charlesworth and Ernie Jones, were tackled by Australian writers. O’Neill is not. His biographer is a New Zealander, albeit one who has lived in England for almost half a century. As far as I am aware this one is Brian O’Sullivan’s first book, but he was a journalist for his entire working life, so has all the skills necessary to tell a good story.

And O’Neill is a decent subject. His peak was during the late 1950s and early 1960s, an era which, other than the series of the first tied Test, is the period of the game’s history with which I am least familiar and all I really knew of O’Neill was that he was, as the sub-title of his biography references, a man who when he first came on the scene was saddled with comparisons to Don Bradman.

O’Neill was 21 when he played the first of his 42 Tests. By the time played his last, less than seven years later, he had the creditable average of 45.55. His First Class career was over at 30, after a domestic season in which he averaged 67.91. The immediate cause of that were knee problems, but he had fallen out of favour with the national selectors when he had, technically, breached his contract with the ACB when an article appeared under his name in newspapers across in Australia questioning the legality of Charlie Griffith’s bowling action following Australia’s defeat in the Caribbean in 1965.

The book itself is a well researched journey through O’Neill’s cricket career and gives much detail of the life of a man who never was, of course, a professional cricketer. The statistics are excellent and each chapter ends with a list of all the matches played by O’Neill that season complete with potted scores and details of O’Neill’s contribution. I suppose that is only really practical because, as an Australian, O’Neill did not play too much First Class cricket, but it is a refreshing change to read a cricketing biography without having to look anything up online.

So Norman O’Neill: Battling Great Expectations is a decent biography of an interesting cricketer, but it does have a few features which raise it a notch or two, not least of which is an intensely personal foreword from the pen of David Frith, who played with O’Neill when both were teenagers in the 1950s.

But there are contributions from others as well as Frith. Former New Zealand captain Mark Burgess writes a chapter reflecting on O’Neill’s final First Class outing, a charity match in India. Warren Saunders, the man whose name is synonymous with the St George club, provides the eulogy he read at O’Neill’s funeral in 2008, and a number of O’Neill’s contemporaries, including Keith Slater, who played his single Test alongside O’Neill in 1958/59, gave their time to O’Sullivan.

There are a decent selection of photographs as well, O’Sullivan being able to draw on the personal collections of Frith, publisher/writer Ronald Cardwell and the enormous archive of the late Roger Mann. One image that I particularly liked is one captioned O’Neill deftly avoiding a (Wes) Hall bouncer.

The one slight surprise is that there appears to have been no involvement in the project from O’Neill’s family. The book strongly suggests that his widow remains with us, and of his three children one, Mark, himself had a decade long First Class career through the 1980s, but O’Sullivan seems not to have spoken to any of them. Perhaps they simply did not wish to become involved, or perhaps O’Sullivan took the understandable view that having been able to interview contemporaries the understandable lack of objectivity that would be inherent in any family contribution would not have added anything to his efforts. Whatever the answer to that particular question may be this biography of Norm O’Neill is an engrossing read, and an excellent addition to a fine series of books.

Leave a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until they have been approved

More articles by Martin Chandler