Gum and glitter, Tom Larkin

Martin Donnelly
Rod Nye
HarperSports, $49.95,
ISBN 1 86950 293 0

In 1929, I was in the North Taranaki Primary School team that went to Hawera to play South Taranaki. I remember well, as we arrived, seeing two of the South Taranaki players out in the middle, bowling at a single stump. They hit it with alarming regularity. One was tall and dark, and the other, very small, had a large white bandage round his head. It would have been clairvoyant indeed to have said, then, of the tall dark boy, Tom Pritchard, that 20 years later he would be one of the best fast bowlers in English County cricket or of the small boy, Martin Donnelly, that he would be accepted as one of the greatest left-hand batsmen of all time. Yet that is what happened.

Rod Nye opens his book by telling of a visit that Martin made, with a friend, to a Christchurch fortune-teller in the early days of the Second World War. And there, amidst all the traditional trappings of necromancy, she foretold that he would never return to live in New Zealand again. Nor has he.

It is a sad feature of Martin Donnelly’s life as a cricketer that his superb skills were on display only briefly in his home country. (Out of 221 first class innings he played only 24 here, and appeared here in only one match for New Zealand.) But abroad, especially in the Middle East during the War, and in England for five years after it, he charmed and thrilled great crowds – as a player for Oxford University (where the Parks would fill at the news “Donnelly’s batting”), for Warwickshire, and for New Zealand in the great 1949 tour.

By that time, he had the skills and confidence that come from playing constantly at the top level. Throughout the ’49 tour, as one writer said, he was “both gum and glitter”, able to stand fast in adversity, and to score brilliantly when the hunt for fast runs was on. His capacity for improvisation made it difficult for bowlers to contain him. In his great innings of 206 in the second Test against England at Lord’s, one fast bowler sought to rein him in by bowling wider and wider of the stumps. Martin responded by throwing his bat accurately and hitting the ball to the boundary. Did he do it deliberately?

Of course I did. It wasn’t flying out of my hands … There’s no rule that says the batsman has to be hanging on to the end of the bat.

The dust-cover to Nye’s book carries the sub-title “New Zealand Cricket’s Master Craftsman” and a photo of Donnelly in action, poised, balanced, and graceful.

Clearly then cricket is at the heart of the book. But it goes well beyond that to talk of Donnelly in many contexts – as schoolboy, as soldier, as student at Oxford, as rugby player (he represented England), as businessman, and as family man (49 years married to the lovely Elizabeth, and living in Australia after the serious cricket was over). That embracing perspective is valuable, for it not only stirs warm memories among those who knew or watched him, but also, today, can sharpen curiosity among those who know only of his fame.

There are some sportsmen who move so sweetly and effortlessly on our playing fields that it is easy for the spectator to endow them, in imagination, with personal attributes and appeal that they do not in fact possess. Many an All Black who has stirred our hearts has proved, off the field, to be graceless and unappealing. What one saw of Martin Donnelly, however, was all in all – for he is as attractive a person as he was a player, socially at ease whatever the company, attentive, witty, and gifted with a memory that enables him to recapture the least detail of incidents and conversations from long ago.

I understand that several anecdotes, by or about Martin, were edited out of the book. Even so, it contains some wonderful stories. One is of General Kippenberger when he was recuperating in England from grievous injuries suffered at Cassino. At Martin’s invitation, he went to Lords to watch the cricket and during the afternoon settled a dispute between two famous old English cricketers by providing from memory the facts about a match played by the Australians in 1921! There is an uproarious account of Martin’s whisky-soaked evening with Ernie Crawford, Irish full-back against the 1924 All Blacks. “Don’t worry about the police,” Ernie reassured Martin, as he drove recklessly through the streets of Belfast. ”I’m the City Treasurer!” And there are frequent appearances by Henry Dudley Gresham (“Shrimp”) Leveson-Gower (arranger of the Scarborough Cricket Festival for 50 years) whose dearest love after cricket was champagne. “Oh, my dear fellow,” he would say to anyone who went to fill his glass, “J-j-just leave that bottle here with me.”

Rod Nye worked for several years on this book and assembled facts and reminiscences about Martin from all over the world. As a result, there is an abundance of detail, and little-known aspects of Martin’s life on and off the field are painstakingly revealed. Some of this effort, however, seems misdirected. While Martin’s time at Oxford was undoubtedly one of the high points of his life and warrants a thorough record, to devote four chapters to it is too much. Instead, we could have had an expanded view on the 1949 tour, identifying, for instance, the means by which special fidelities were generated among its members. Equally valuable would have been Martin’s comments and recollections of the “lesser” members of the team, of that great man Verdun Scott, of Tom Burtt, John Reid, Frank Mooney and the rest.

That said, Rod Nye has done splendidly in throwing a friendly light on a great New Zealander, and in evoking the days when, as Paul Irwin put it, “there at the wicket was Donnelly, making music with the bat.”

Tom Larkin, as a schoolboy cricketer, was described as “little inferior to Donnelly”. He is a former ambassador to Japan and a people’s representative on the Press Council.

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