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O'Reilly, William Joseph (Bill) (1905–1992)

by R. I. Cashman

This article was published online in 2016

Bill O'Reilly, John Player &​ Sons, 1934

Bill O'Reilly, John Player &​ Sons, 1934

National Library of Australia, 24679787

William Joseph ‘Tiger’ O’Reilly (1905–1992), cricketer and journalist, was born on 20 December 1905 at White Cliffs, New South Wales, fourth of seven children of New South Wales-born Ernest Peter O’Reilly, schoolteacher, and his Victorian-born wife Mina, née Welsh. Teaching transfers took the O’Reilly family to Marengo (Murringo), near Young, and then to Wingello, in the Southern Highlands. Bill travelled by train to Goulburn High School for two years before boarding at St Patrick’s College for three years. He earned a scholarship to attend the Teachers’ College, Sydney (1924–25). On holiday in December 1925, he played for the Wingello cricket team. A match against Bowral over two Saturdays led to a celebrated encounter with the seventeen-year-old (Sir) Donald Bradman. On the first day Bradman scored 234 not out, but, when he resumed the innings on the second day, O’Reilly bowled him with his first ball.

In Sydney O’Reilly had taken up athletics with the Botany Harriers, excelling in field events such as the running hop, step, and jump. He played cricket for David Jones Ltd on Moore Park for two years, heading the competition's bowling averages. During his first posting as a teacher, at Erskineville Public School, he joined the North Sydney Cricket Club in the 1926–27 season. Such was his success that he was selected for New South Wales in 1927–28. The Department of Public Instruction then posted him to a succession of country schools, at Griffith, Rylstone, and Kandos. While absent from first-grade and first-class cricket, he perfected his most lethal delivery, the ‘wrong’un’; difficult to detect, it also bounced disconcertingly.

After O’Reilly was appointed to Kogarah Boys’ Intermediate High School in 1931, he rejoined the North Sydney club. He appeared for the State side in the 1931–32 season and performed sufficiently well to be chosen for the last two Tests against South Africa. In the 1932–33 ‘bodyline’ series against England, he led the bowling attack with 27 dismissals. On 6 May 1933 at the Catholic Church of St Francis of Assisi, Paddington, he married Mary Agnes Herbert, a typiste. Next year he moved to Hurstville and joined the St George District Cricket Club.

O’Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett formed a powerful partnership in the national team. They took 53 of the 72 wickets (28 to O’Reilly) that fell to Australia during the Tests on the Australians’ 1934 tour of England. While O’Reilly bowled downwind at near medium pace, Grimmett bowled more slowly and into the wind, the accuracy of both spinners maintaining pressure on the batsmen. In the third Test, O’Reilly dismissed three top-order batsmen (Cyril Walters, Bob Wyatt, and Wally Hammond) in four balls. Grimmett (44 wickets) and O’Reilly (27) dominated the bowling during the 1935–36 Australian tour of South Africa.

Grimmett having been dropped from the team, O’Reilly was the leading Australian wicket-taker (with 25) during the 1936–37 Ashes series in Australia, and he repeated the achievement (with 22) during the next, in England in 1938. He took 8 for 33 in the single Test that Australia played against New Zealand in 1946. Troubled by his left knee, he retired from first-class cricket at the end of that tour. In a short but spectacular international career, he had played in 27 Tests, securing 144 wickets at an average of 22.59. In all first-class games, he took 774 wickets at 16.60.

The problems of balancing teaching and cricket had caused O’Reilly to contemplate retiring from the game in the mid-1930s. Employment at Sydney Grammar School from 1935 to 1939, where he received leave on half-pay while absent playing fixtures, alleviated this problem. After briefly joining his friend Stan McCabe in his Sydney sports store, O’Reilly became company secretary of the Lion Tile Co. Pty Ltd in 1940, and was to remain with the firm for thirty-six years. Because the company was declared a protected undertaking, he was unable to serve in World War II.

A fine clubman, O’Reilly played first-grade cricket until 1948–49. He had led St George to four successive premierships from 1939–40. In 1946 he was appointed a delegate to the New South Wales Cricket Association but was ousted in 1950. He believed that he was a victim of sectarianism, and that he had been overlooked for the captaincy of the Australian side in 1946 for the same reason. Earlier, in 1937, he had been one of four Catholic members of the team whom the Australian Cricket Board of Control summoned to face vague and unsupported allegations, one of them being that they were undermining Bradman's authority as captain. O’Reilly suspected that Bradman was complicit in this debacle and later commented, 'I really never forgave him’ (O’Reilly 1992), even though Bradman denied any involvement. Bradman and O’Reilly greatly respected each other’s ability, but they had limited rapport. Gregarious, bold, even abrasive, and proud of his Irish heritage, O’Reilly had little in common with Bradman except cricket.

When O’Reilly covered the 1946–47 English tour of Australia for the Sydney Morning Herald, he launched a career in journalism that lasted until 1988. Clarity, wit, and forcefulness characterised his reporting. In his later years he frequently lamented the decline of spin bowling and the promotion of limited-overs cricket. He published two tour books and an autobiography.

Six feet three inches (190 cm) tall, balding, broad-shouldered, and loose-limbed, with large hands that could almost enclose two cricket balls, O’Reilly bowled a leg break and two varieties of top-spinners, as well as his wrong’un. He bowled more balls per Test (371), on some of the most unresponsive pitches, than any Australian bowler other than his spin partner Clarrie Grimmett (392). His approach to the wicket was awkward: he ‘wheeled and strained over 13 long paces before releasing [the ball] in a convulsive tangle of arms and legs’ (McHarg 1990, 10). His antipathy to batsmen earned him the nickname ‘Tiger.’ While he bowled with his right hand, he batted left-handed, playing an occasional swashbuckling innings. He was an indifferent fielder.

O’Reilly came to be widely regarded as the ‘greatest bowler of his time’ (McHarg 1996, 399). In 1980 he was appointed OBE for his contributions as a player and a writer, and in 1986 he was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. The Pat Hills Stand at the Sydney Cricket Ground was renamed the Bill O’Reilly Stand in 1988. That year the Sydney Morning Herald introduced the O’Reilly medal, awarded annually to the best first-grade player in the Sydney competition. O’Reilly died on 6 October 1992 at Caringbah and was buried in Woronora cemetery. His wife and their daughter and son survived him.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Bradman, Sir Donald. ‘“Tiger” Probably the Greatest of All Time, Says The Don.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 7 October 1992, 1
  • Coward, Mike. A Century of Achievement: The Players and People of the St George District Cricket Club. West Pennant Hills, NSW: Cricket Publishing Co., 2010
  • Haigh, Gideon, and David Frith. Inside Story: Unlocking Australian Cricket’s Archives. Southbank, Vic.: News Custom Publishing, 2007
  • McHarg, Jack. Bill O’Reilly: A Cricketing Life. Newtown, NSW: Millennium Books, 1990
  • McHarg, Jack. ‘O’Reilly, William Joseph.’ In The Oxford Companion to Australian Cricket, edited by Richard Cashman, Warwick Franks, Jim Maxwell, Brian Stoddart, Amanda Weaver, and Ray Webster, 399–400. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996
  • National Library of Australia. Bill O’Reilly. Interview by John Ringwood. 29 February, 21 March, 25 April, and 18 July 1992. Transcript
  • O’Reilly, Bill. ‘Tiger: 60 Years of Cricket. Sydney: William Collins Pty Ltd, 1985
  • Pollard, Jack. Australian Cricket: The Game and the Players. North Ryde, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1988

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. I. Cashman, 'O'Reilly, William Joseph (Bill) (1905–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oreilly-william-joseph-bill-16316/text28267, published online 2016, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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