Shayne O’Connor: ‘He never, ever let the team down’ (Part 1)

SBOC

According to legend, New Zealand is the home of the battler: of the Chatfield, the Vettori, the Larsen.

These shores spurn greats – Warne and McGrath are unworthy of donning the fern; the flavours of Paul Wiseman and Chris Martin being much more to taste. No other country boasts cult heroes of the Chris Harris ilk, much less international caps like Andrew Penn, Chris Drum and Warren Wisneski.

The problem for the opposition is that those Kiwi battlers have a niggly habit of, well, battling. So while the greats and the very goods have been known to take the neighbouring dressing room a little less than seriously, it really doesn’t pay to do so.

Shayne O’Connor was the living, breathing personification of the New Zealand stereotype: he was brisk, not quick; he played quite a bit for New Zealand, not lots; he took wickets, yet was never one to land massive hauls.

But in the words of Sir John Graham, “he never, ever let the team down – whenever he went out, he went out and gave 100 percent”. In the semi-final of the 2000 ICC Knockout, that 100 percent made him a match-winner.

He was part of a bowling attack that was so New Zealand it was almost overwhelming. Geoff Allott shared the new ball with O’Connor, backed up by a middle-overs battery of medium pacers: Scott Styris, Nathan Astle, Chris Harris. The only spinner was Paul Wiseman; by contrast, the opposition tweaker was Saqlain Mushtaq.

“To come out and get a five-for – I don’t think I even got a domestic five-wicket bag in one-day cricket, so to end up with a couple of international five-wicket bags, I guess I’ll take it – it was pretty cool really. From memory that day I wasn’t exactly knocking the poles over with in-swinging yorkers or anything like that, I might have been a bit lucky to get one or two of them, but at that level you’ve got to take them when you can.”

O’Connor finished the Pakistan innings off with a return catch that defied belief – his mid-pitch reaction seemed to lie somewhere in between elation and surprise. His 5-46 had set New Zealand up well; and Roger Twose, twinned with efforts from Nathan Astle, Craig McMillan and Scott Styris, saw the side home.

So came the final. While a batch of Indian heavyweights marginalised O’Connor through that game, he’d done the damage earlier in the tournament. He’d got New Zealand through a tricky stage, when they were missing several frontline players.

Chris Cairns’ return in the final saw him make a superlative hundred, sneaking New Zealand home with two balls to spare.

It was New Zealand’s first – and to date, only – major trophy.

Sadly, it was near the end for O’Connor’s international career: he played just one more ODI series later that year, and a cluster of Tests, before injury took their toll. He retired in 2003, despite looking a sure bet for a return on the upcoming tour of Sri Lanka, and moved into a life in business.

He was just 29 when he hung the boots up, but knew that it wasn’t worth sacrificing an opportunity in the outside world in return for an extra few poles.

John F. Reid, whose involvement with the New Zealand Cricket set-up has varied from batsman, to administrator, to interim coach, speaks particularly highly of O’Connor’s ability to have a wider view in this regard:

“He had a drive to be as good as he could be, was resilient in the face of injury but had the mature realisation that cricket was only part of a life that was full of other important things.”

Speaking to those around him, the general consensus is that O’Connor is the archetypal ‘good bloke’ – “it was a pleasure to have him around,” is how his first national coach, Steve Rixon, puts it.

And while it would be fair to say that O’Connor was no world-beater – 53 Test wickets, 57 international caps – he became a solid performer, spending a good six years in-or-around the national side. In Tests, his wickets came at 32.5 apiece, and at 30.3 in ODIs. Numbers that imply a steady team-man.

It’s appropriate that his greatest moment in a New Zealand kit – even with semi-final hauls, Steve Waugh-destroying yorkers, and match-winning displays – was a gritty 38 minutes with bat in hand.

Playing the third Test against Australia at Hobart in 1997, O’Connor and Simon Doull kept out everything that Shane Warne and Paul Reiffel could throw at them.

Sadly, the draw they secured avoided a whitewash, but didn’t take the edge off a fairly comprehensive series thrashing at the hands of the Australians.

“I look back and in all honesty I wonder how the hell I ever survived. Through not only the Tests in Australia, but the World Series there as well, where we played Australia and South Africa and that was incredibly hard. I don’t know if it was the First Class cricket there or if it was the level I was at, I just found the First Class cricket there was really hard. Every time you walked out on the field the Australians just wanted to smash you off the park. Every step you took over there was a really hard one, I found, and I look back and say how the hell did I survive?”

O’Connor emerged from that series with a reputation that had swelled hugely: having only entered the national side a few months prior, he left as one of the few players to seriously trouble the Australians.

“I guess, in your mind, performance is the only option – hell, I’d turn around and say I was lucky things came off for me. I guess that was where I launched my career, I suppose. To keep it in perspective, compared to some of the great players I had a relatively short career, and I guess modest results. But certainly by my standards, that was the launching of it for me.”

Despite O’Connor’s successes, and the evident grittiness that was being instilled in the side by coach Steve Rixon, that series was overshadowed by off-field issues between the Australian board and the players. “The public squabble paid scant respect to the touring team; it would be difficult to imagine the house being so divided if the opposition had been one of the front-line Test sides,” was how Malcolm Knox put it in that year’s Wisden.

***

“I’d be watching these fellas – Ewen Chatfield, Richard Hadlee and John Wright, Bruce Edgar, those sorts of guys. Everyone just seemed to be into watching them.”

As far as cricketing influences go, the players of New Zealand’s golden era aren’t too shabby. The personality clashes and conflicts of the time were never going to register to a schoolkid watching them on TV, and a young O’Connor saw a future – even though he did enjoy being a farm boy.

“Being – I don’t want to say astute, because I wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, but I kind of knew that school wasn’t place for me to be. I don’t think I was a bad kid, I just wasn’t, as I said, the sharpest tool. I didn’t really enjoy school that much, not in the classroom anyway. […] I just started thinking, ‘well everyone seems to be into these cricket guys,’ and you hear how you can go and play professional cricket and make a living of it, so I thought ‘well, I’m going to have a go. I’m going to be like those guys’.”

“It just took me, I enjoyed it,” says O’Connor. “I set myself on this path of playing cricket for New Zealand, and nothing else really mattered to me after that.”

He showed early promise; he made Central Districts and New Zealand age-group sides, and went on an under-19 tour of Pakistan. “Those were all stepping stones, really,” O’Connor recalls. But he doesn’t try to exaggerate his achievements, pointing out that “I didn’t make all of the teams all of the time”.

Of the tour to Pakistan, “quite frankly I was terrified of going there, I didn’t know what the hell of expect. But was obviously excited at the same time, it was another step closer to the dream, really.”

It was a unique experience – and not just for the cricket.

“I’ve got photos of us holding automatic weapons up on the border to the Khyber Pass. You’d never go there these days.”

Not long after that, O’Connor moved south – to “learn my trade as a bowler”. His move to Otago didn’t see him reside in Dunedin, but stay in the country, living in Alexandra.

“I was a farm boy through-and-through, so I knew the city wasn’t for me. When I moved to Otago, the convener of selectors [Jack Alabaster] was based in Alexandra, and fortuitously he said ‘as long as you’re moving down, would you come and play for the Alexandra club and play in the Hawke Cup for Otago Country?’.”

O’Connor’s still in Alexandra today, manager and director of Central Otago tourism business Trail Journeys. He simply couldn’t leave.

“As soon as I got here, I really enjoyed the place – the people were amazing, they took me in and looked after me, and gave me every chance to prove myself as a person and as a cricketer. I was actually supposed to only come down here for two years, learn my trade as a bowler, get a bit of First Class experience and then go back up to CD. But I just couldn’t leave, the people had been so good to me here […] and I just couldn’t up and leave on them. So here I am 21 years later.”

He got his first taste of First Class cricket in his first season down south; coming into the side at the back-end of the 1994-95 Shell Trophy. His debut, against Auckland, saw a very young Otago side only really boast Peter Dobbs as an experienced head.

“At the time as a young fella you don’t think about that necessarily and you don’t realise it. You’re ten-foot tall and bulletproof, but I guess that’s also where a senior or experienced head can keep a bit of a reign on you as well. Things that you don’t realise that perhaps can go or are going wrong, they can pull it back in and keep you on task. I came the year after Neil Mallender left Otago, and I remember my father said it was a shame that someone like him wasn’t there who could’ve taken me under his wing.”

But while his numbers weren’t great on debut – nought and seven, and 1-88 for the match – the step-up hadn’t overwhelmed O’Connor.

“I wasn’t perturbed at all. You can look at the stats all you like and say ‘that wasn’t great,’ but it wasn’t actually too bad. […] If you were looking at it from a selector’s or a coach’s point of view, asking ‘has this kid got some potential?’ I think I showed that. Yes, I was a bit of a possum in the headlights […] but I’d had a bit of a taste of it and thought ‘right, it can only get better from here’.”

And so it did – the following season saw him take 15 wickets at 35.3, which improved to 28 poles at 21.5 apiece in 1996-97. He got into the New Zealand Academy, and went on a tour of South Africa. He had success there, and suddenly found himself in the national side.

“That season I’d been in the first live-in academy at Lincoln. Throughout the year we knew we were basically on trial for that academy team [to South Africa], and I guess the season I had coming out of that was a bit of a product of the amount of work we did in that academy. I was that way inclined, so I was there to completely take every opportunity that I could in the academy. It kind of suited my ambition to be in there.”

John F. Reid remembers him well not just from his time with the national squad, but from his academy time too: “frankly what I remember most was a young man who while talented and successful remained incredibly grounded and treated those around him (administrators, volunteers, general public, fans) with respect, courtesy and maturity.”

“He also had the understanding that he was just a person that happened to be ‘good at cricket’ and that many people in this world had talents and abilities of some sort or other and as such didn’t regard himself as someone that had to be treated differently to others. I will always have admiration for him in this regard – the ability to stay grounded in the real world while operating in the world of international cricket.  I have learned over many years as a player and administrator that this is an attribute/quality that is all too rare among international cricketers.”

O’Connor was also an increasingly talented bowler – although it does seem as though he lacked a certain amount of confidence.

“I remember I’d always said to myself ‘if I’m going to make it, I need to make it by the time I’m 23’, because almost all of the good players make it before or up to about then. […] I just put a bit of a goal on myself, and here I was. I’d just turned 23 and I hadn’t made it, so I was starting to make plans. I’d enrolled in university, and figured ‘right I’m going to have to find a real job now’ and just carry on with cricket and see what happens. But thanks heavens, I got a call-up.”

That call-up, for the Independence Cup in India, saw Reid have a hell of a job in trying to tell O’Connor he was in the side.

“They had a bit of trouble tracking me down. I was out in the middle of Central Otago with no cell-phones or anything like that. We were setting up for duck-shooting, opening weekend, and John [F.] Reid was trying to get hold of me and couldn’t.

“They were asking my friends in Alexandra and ringing people around there. Next thing people started driving out and saying, ‘you’ve got to ring so-and-so’. My first thought was, ‘crikey, he can’t get me any shotgun ammo, this is going to be a disaster’. I don’t know if they knew, but no one told me what it was about. We carried on doing what we were doing, and about 20 minutes later we said ‘okay, let’s go’.

“We were driving back in to where I could get a phone, and someone else pulled up in a vehicle and said I’ve got to ring someone else. I was like, ‘what have I got to ring all these people for?’ I got in and got the phone and had to ring John Reid so the alarm bells went off then.”

Eventually he discovered his selection, and made the journey over to the subcontinent. In his ODI debut, against Sri Lanka, he took three wickets (all top-order batsmen) in a game dominated by Romesh Kaluwitharana at his best.

He stayed in the side for the tour of Kenya and Zimbabwe later that year, competing with bowlers like Heath Davis, David Sewell and Gavin Larsen for a slot.

The first Test against Zimbabwe saw him offered a chance, and with two Flowers, Alistair Campbell, Dave Houghton, Heath Streak and both Strang brothers, it was a difficult introduction to Test cricket – even if Zimbabwe’s 21st Century incarnation doesn’t suggest it.

“You look at the Zimbabwean side now or whatever, and you say ‘oh you made your debut or you got your best figures against Zimbabwe’. You’ve still got to turn around and say, well yeah they did have a good team at the time, and you still get all of the same nerves. It’s your first one, you’re on the big stage, you’re in a foreign country and all of that. There’s still pressure on it, and I certainly wouldn’t want to take anything away from that Zimbabwe team at the time. They genuinely believed they could beat us, and in one-dayers they did beat us.”

“I was always humbled to even been there,” O’Connor says of playing at international level.

“I guess you could say that’s a form of a mental demon that you have to get over, and say ‘righto, I am here, now how can I contribute to the team’ rather than being a bit star-struck. You have to say, ‘I’m here, this is what I’ve worked for all my life, this is what I dreamed about’.”

But despite having to make sure he wasn’t overwhelmed by international cricket, especially when he came up against Australia after the African tour, those around him had full confidence in his cricketing abilities.

Coach Rixon notes his “very good ability to pick off the top-order batsmen, and that’s probably the biggest thing I saw in Shayneo”. Rixon especially espouses O’Connor’s ability to swing the ball “at a very tidy length with a little bit of pace,” and how batsmen who toured New Zealand struggled against those skills.

“What I liked about Shayneo especially was the simple fact that up-front you’d get a guy that would swing the ball. To most sides that travelled to New Zealand, they found it very difficult to handle any swinging ball. That’s against the greatest of them all. The Tendulkars, the Dravids, the Gangulys, the VVS Laxmans of the Indian world. We would eat them up for fun in New Zealand.”

John F. Reid is equally effusive about O’Connor’s bowling, terming him “a talented bowler who could swing the ball and consequently got good players out at the highest level”.

“I am a firm believer that the Test game demands bowlers who either bowl very quick, or move the ball laterally (swing or spin). Shayne could swing the ball and understood the variations required to put doubt into batsmen’s minds.”

It was on the tour of Australia, bowling to Steve Waugh, that O’Connor bowled what has been described as ‘the ball that made him’ – a very full delivery, swung in, that castled Waugh just four short of a hundred.

The cliché might be a little worn, but it did make his career; it was the beginning of the best cricketing years of O’Connor’s life. There’d been a debut and a yorker, but now it was time for much more than that.


Thanks to Sir John Graham, Steve Rixon and John F. Reid for their contributions to the Shayne O’Connor story.
Part two is here.

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