The memories of Don Bradman’s genius were too fresh in the minds of the Australians. Any young batsman showing special promise was soon branded as the second coming of the cricketing messiah. Norman O’Neill would have to play his entire career under this giant unfair shadow.
It was forgotten that O’Neill was very human and as different from Bradman as possible. He was tall and well-built, while The Don had been small and slight. He was spectacularly aggressive, to the point of taking risks, while Bradman remained a merciless accumulator, more inclined to delight crowds with his enormous scores than finesse. It was forgotten that O’Neill’s entry into First-Class cricket had been quiet and rather unremarkable for a couple of seasons before coming of age in 1957-58. The comparisons continued to be made and not always in hushed tones.
But, O’Neill did not falter to the extent that Ian Craig had done. He made top grade and delighted the world with flamboyant batsmanship built on the foundations of classical method. There was also electric fielding in the covers capped off by a powerful throw borrowed from his serious dalliance with baseball. And finally there were his fastish leg-breaks with a useful wrong ’un, with the knack of capturing valuable wickets.
And when he hooked and drove Wes Hall’s furious pace to a career-best 181 in the famous Tied Test at Brisbane, he was heralded as one of the very best batsmen of the world alongside Garry Sobers, Peter May and Hanif Mohammad.
Sadly, the sparkling start was not taken to its logical and much desired conclusion. His career lasted just six years before a problematic knee forced him to call it a day at the cruelly young age of 28. His record remained impressive and his knocks enchanted admirers to the last day, but towards the latter part of his career he failed to reproduce his early consistency.
He remained an unfulfilled promise, a blooming flower snipped off at the bud — even when the huge shadow of Bradman was peeled away from retrospective analysis.
Norman O'Neill was born on February 19, 1937.
Text: Arunabha Sengupta