Shayne O’Connor: ‘He never, ever let the team down’ (Part 2)

SBOC2

This is the second part of Mind the Windows’ interview with Shayne O’Connor. Read part one here.

Australia built into a home series against Zimbabwe; and while Shayne O’Connor only played one of the two Tests (missing out at Eden Park with New Zealand utilising a second spinner) he proved his burgeoning talents in limited overs cricket.

“I probably found there’s a lot more pressure in the ODIs, just because of the whole attacking nature of the game compared to Test cricket. […] In the ODIs, if you don’t get started – you’re out, basically. You’re up against it.”

During the World Series, O’Connor took 4-51 in an ODI against Australia – playing in the lofty arena of the SCG. And yet it’s the Basin Reserve against Murray Goodwin, Alistair Campbell and a pair of Flowers that O’Connor recalls more vividly.

“The Basin crowd were always right behind me for some reason.”

According to a spectator at the ground that day, O’Connor “swung it round corners”. He snared Craig Wishart third ball of the game; followed by the great Murray Goodwin two overs later. When Alistair Campbell and Guy Whittall seemed on the verge of building a partnership, O’Connor broke the pair; and then came back on at the death, picking up Heath Streak and John Rennie to bowl Zimbabwe out.

It was O’Connor’s first five-for in international cricket.

“To perform, and reach what is considered a cricket milestone, in front of a home crowd and just feel the support – it’s a nice reward for everything you put in, and everything you want to do, to then get all of the accolades from it as well.

“It’s quite humbling, and I still remember – vividly – getting an early wicket and the crowd goes mad, then you get another and they were just about running on the field. It was just fantastic, I loved it.”

He was then selected for the Coca-Cola Cup in Sharjah, but played only two of four games, before playing even less on the tour of Sri Lanka. With a poorly prepared wicket (sub-standard covers led to three hours abandoned on day one, and two sessions abandoned on day two) spinning from the first over, Sri Lanka went with only one seamer – five of the six bowlers used were spinners.

New Zealand’s two quicks (O’Connor and Chris Cairns) bowled just nine out of 106.4 overs between them – Paul Wiseman and Daniel Vettori shared the spin duties, with Craig McMillan, Nathan Astle and Chris Harris taking on the rest of the bowling workload.

But in September came the Commonwealth Games – the first, and to date only, appearance of cricket at the games. O’Connor played all five matches, and although he picked up a meagre three wickets, his economy rate of 3.2 helped create that pressure that saw Vettori and Harris run through batsmen.

Played in Malaysia, of all places, New Zealand brought home bronze medals after defeating Sri Lanka in the third-place playoff.

“For the whole team, that was quite a humbling experience. Here we were walking around among all these other incredible athletes, and I think we all felt like we were spectators rather than athletes competing at the Commonwealth Games.”

O’Connor suggests that “I think we all knew it would probably never happen again” – which meant they made the most of it; and also made the most of their passes to be able to “go and watch whatever sport we wanted”.

But then O’Connor went MIA – despite his excellent First Class form of 40 wickets at 24 for the summer, and 4-66 for New Zealand A against South Africa (Herschelle Gibbs duck, Hansie Cronje 16, Dale Benkenstein 16, Daryll Cullinan first ball), he only got one Test against the dominant Proteas.

They’d only batted once in each of the first two Tests, making 621-5 and 442-1 (both declared). So even once O’Connor did get his chance, it was a bit late to stop the runs. But then came a bigger disappointment, followed by an even greater high:

“We had been working towards that final Test at the Oval for 18 months. We had Gilbert Enoka on board, he had created the picture for us – there was a 30-man squad in the room, and he said ‘in 18 months’ time, there will be 15 of you in England, 11 of you on the park. Who’s going to be there, what’s the result going to be?’

“He took us right down to the last day, he said ‘it’s on the wire, you’re on the last day, the fifth day of the last Test. It’s on the line, who’s going to be there? What’s it going to be like? How are you going to do it?’

“He talked about having your ups and your downs on the way – good series, bad series; good tours, bad tours; good games, bad games. All of that. To then miss out on the ‘99 World Cup was a huge disappointment for me, one of the biggest ever. I guess I always, when I was picked, I felt ‘oh that’s great, that’s a relief’. The feeling of ‘thank god I made it’ never left. So I could say maybe there’s a little element of me that said I could never be totally surprised if I didn’t get picked.

“Whatever the reason, I missed out and that was gutting for me. That was my chance at a World Cup, I suppose. But then you’ve got to get your head around that and say, ‘well I don’t want to miss out on the Test tour either, having come this far’.

“And then to make that, and experience touring England – it was a truly wonderful place to tour. Very traditional, very cricket-orientated. You go there and everyone’s very respectful and everything’s very organised, and the grounds are stunning, it’s just a really wonderful place to play cricket. Travelling up and down the country on these big flash buses, it’s all time to relax and take it all in. Then you get the next place and you start all over again.

“To then go to the Oval, where Gilbert Enoka had called it 18 months before – here we are down to the last day, which happened to be the fourth day of the Test, the game was completely on the line. We’d been bowled out for 160, England were about 90-2 on the last day.

“We’ve come out and bowled them out. It was just, without doubt, the highlight for me. If you pick any one of them, that day was it.”

O’Connor had missed the first three Tests; and only got a gig when Geoff Allott was ruled out through injury. Given the ignominy of an innings and 40-run loss against a county side, New Zealand’s match against Essex seems an unlikely breeding ground for O’Connor’s greatest day.

He bowled more than 40 overs, picking up 5-130 – figures that were solid, rather than awe-inspiring.

“I remember Flem [Stephen Fleming] coming to me when I took my fourth wicket and saying, ‘okay mate you’re going to be in for the next Test, so it’s up to you if you carry on bowling here’.

“I just looked at him and said ‘five wickets always looks better than four, Flem’.”

During the final Test, the second-innings wicket of Nasser Hussain, leaving England two-down before stumps on day two, had been big enough. But with Graham Thorpe and Michael Atherton having put on 78 for the third wicket, and New Zealand seemingly unable to break them, it was O’Connor’s out-swing that was the beginning of the end for England.

The team manager, Sir John Graham (although never known by anything other than ‘DJ’), is described by O’Connor as “one of the greatest men I’ve ever met”.

Graham himself, meanwhile, is even more glowing about O’Connor:

“He was one of the people I relied on – he didn’t know this, of course – to make sure that things were right. There were four or five guys who lapped up this culture. All of the others, in the end, bought into it. Shayne was as good as you could get in his actions off the field, and his actions on the field, and his actions during training sessions – which were just about every day we weren’t playing. He just gave it everything, every time he got on the paddock.”

As manager, Graham formed one third of New Zealand cricket’s holy trinity: Steve Rixon as coach, Graham as manager, Gilbert Enoka as psychologist. And according to Graham, the three of them “stuck together like glue”.

“If we didn’t uphold what we were talking about and what we were trying to do, it wouldn’t work.”

The team culture was the key part of what that trio tried to achieve:

“We started the tour with a set of tour rules, which were non-negotiable. The whole nature of those rules were to do with your behaviour off the paddock, your conduct off the paddock, and your performance on it. The aim was for each individual to be the best he could be, 24 hours a day, representing the silver fern with pride, and making sure we were leaving behind a worthwhile legacy.”

According to Graham, “Shayne exemplified it to a tee”. He even goes so far as to say that “Shayneo was the perfect guy”.

The team culture, and the eventuating success, “was done by hard work,” Graham says.

“Shayne and Geoff Allott, those two bowlers, I’d put at the top of the list in terms of dedication and determination and so-on.”

“The O’Connor way,” Graham terms it.

***

The success of that ’99 tour of England was a fitting tribute to Rixon, who departed as coach.

“He had a huge impact. I’d say he’s the best coach I played under. Like all of us, Stumpa had his warts – and I don’t think he’ll deny that either. But he demanded a lot of you in terms of preparation, and certainly in terms of performance, and I think for me anyway, and a lot of, if not all of the guys that played under Stumpa, they will say he helped them get the best out of them.”

Rixon’s comments about O’Connor the bowler are noted in part one; but it’s about O’Connor the person that Rixon speaks even more vividly.

“It’s not just him the cricketer, it’s him the person. He was a good kid. I like to see the development of the person as well. Everything about Shayneo was a pleasure to be around. He was a guy that was good in a team, and gave towards the team. That will always get votes from me.”

“He’d stay with you all day, he would try for you all day,” Rixon says, “and therefore was a guy I could very easily handle in my side. And thoroughly enjoyed having him in our team.”

After the ’99 tour came a few ODI games here-and-there, but the next major limited-overs event was the ICC Knockout.

“I was on the cusp of not going to that tournament. In fact, we were in Zimbabwe at the time, I’d had a good Test tour there and they were picking the one-day team. That one-day team was probably going to go on to the ICC Trophy. My girlfriend at the time – who is now my wife – she said to me, ‘oh, so when do you get home then?’

“I said, ‘oh, I don’t know if I’m coming home yet’.

“She said, ‘well, it’s been said in the papers that you are, the selectors have said it’.

“I said, ‘Oh, really? I haven’t been told’.”

Although that news caused O’Connor to start preparing to go home, he was in fact kept on for the ODI leg of the Zimbabwe tour – his Test successes had given him the shot. From there came the tournament in Kenya, his five-for in the semi-final, and – well, the rest is history.

***

Shayne O’Connor, between his Test debut in 1997 and last match in the whites in late 2001, took the third-most wickets of any New Zealand bowler. Only Chris Cairns and Daniel Vettori stood ahead of him, with Dion Nash, Simon Doull and company all filing in behind.

And he did do well on the late-2000 tour of Zimbabwe; a match haul of 7-116 at Harare, including both Alistair Campbell and Andy Flower, was close to a career best.

But it didn’t quite match what he’d managed a few months earlier, during Australia’s March tour of New Zealand.

Playing at Hamilton’s Seddon Park, against a batting line-up including Hayden, Slater, Langer, M Waugh, S Waugh, Martyn and Gilchrist, O’Connor managed what many greater bowlers have not – a Test five-for against the Australians.

He snared 5-51, including Matthew Hayden (for two) just before stumps on day one. He followed it up early the following morning, with Slater (two) and nightwatchman Shane Warne (10). But New Zealand’s batsmen couldn’t give O’Connor runs to work with, and despite picking up Slater and Martyn in the second innings – giving him 7-104 in the match – Australia ran in victors.

“To have that sort of success against them, you’ve got to know then, ‘nah I must be doing something pretty right’.”

It was, however, his only five-wicket haul in Test cricket.

“I do kind of wish that maybe I’d got another one or two five-wicket bags elsewhere, because I really enjoyed Test cricket. I guess I’m a bit traditional, and Test cricket was really it for me. To be able to say, ‘I got five-wickets against that Australian team,’ it might sicken the Australians to say that, but for me it’s the other end of the scale for sure.”

Sadly, O’Connor’s ODI career ended in November 2000 – and aside from one Test in November ‘01, his Test run essentially closed twelve months prior.

Injuries were the major factor; “It was hugely frustrating, when that happened – we’d been on tour a long time. We’d started in Australia for a warm practice, we went to Singapore for a triangular tournament for 10 days, we went to Zimbabwe for a full Test and one-day series, we went to Kenya for the ICC Trophy, then we went to South Africa for a full Test and one-day series. So I still look back and say it was wrong to send a sports team on such a tour, to demand so much mentally and physically for so long. Every day you don’t play you practice and or travel, and there were guys dropping with injuries left, right and centre.”

O’Connor had one of the better runs, injury-wise. But with others falling by the wayside, he picked up more and more of the workload:

“Eventually it wore me down. I got back to New Zealand, and I was not only physically completed knackered, but mentally too. We got nine days off then we had to go and start the home series here again. We were all pretty mentally and physically knackered really. Eventually my knee gave out, and it was a huge disappointment, because I was the best that I ever was, at that stage. I think had management of tour workloads or knowledge been better in those days, I think I would’ve got through it and maybe got a few more years without injury.”

He played the Boxing Day Test of 2000, against Zimbabwe, and even the selectors started to realise he needed a break. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite the break O’Connor needed.

“I played the Boxing Day Test and then the selectors left me out of the one-day side to play against Zimbabwe, and said ‘we think you look like you need a rest’. I have to say, I was thrilled at that time, I thought ‘thank god’.

“But then they sent me off and said ‘oh yeah, you can go and play for Otago’ which wasn’t quite the rest I was hoping for. I think I played a First Class game in Alexandra and then went to Dunedin, and that’s when my knee went. I knew it had been sore, but it wasn’t bad enough to stop me bowling, and I didn’t want to – just because I’d been dropped from the New Zealand team – turn around and say ‘oh I’m injured now, I can’t play for Otago’. Perhaps I should have.”

After missing virtually all of 2001, O’Connor came back firing – in the 2002-03 summer, he took 42 First Class wickets at 18.7.  But he was overlooked for the 2003 World Cup, and seemed – even when close to a recall – as though he’d still be a couple of steps back from first-choice.

“In my mind I always had to believe that I was going to come back,” O’Connor recalls of his injury battles.

“I think I was on a bit of a journey out by that stage, in terms of mentally, can I keep doing this, my injuries, am I in or out, what am I going to do for the rest of my life? All of those type things. You only had one-year contracts, so you’re thinking ‘do I have a good income this year or do I not?’ so it all just started to play on me. My wife and I started talking about a family, and I didn’t want to be a guy who was busy touring internationally with my family at home. All those things started to culminate, and I decided it was my time.”

He finished his career with a total of 423 wickets in all First Class and List A cricket; if he’d sometimes had a marginal record for New Zealand, he was outstanding for Otago. But despite having one of the country’s top strike bowlers in their midst, Otago never managed to win a trophy during his time with the side.

“I think that Otago team we had, on paper, was one of the best Otago’s had. We had Paul Wiseman, Matt Horne, Mark Richardson, myself, David Sewell, Martyn Croy, Rob Lawson, crikey – we had a heck of a team. It’s a huge disappointment that we never won a trophy. […] To not be able to sit down one day with those boys and look back on the trophies we won will be a bit of a disappointment. But there’s no doubt we’ll sit back and look back on the great times we had, that’s for sure.”

At 29, the transition from sport to the outside world was stark. To that point, cricket had been O’Connor’s life: but early nerves were soon calmed.

“I’m not going to lie to you, I was terrified. I knew I was giving up probably the best income I was ever going to earn, I knew I was giving up a heck of a privilege, I knew that I was giving up on something that I had dreamed about. […]

“So I was terrified, but then you get here, and all of the things that I pined for while I was cricketing – being able to come home at the end of each day, and being able to sit down and hang out with friends or family, rather than going to the hotel room and then going hunting for anyone that wants to go for dinner, and where are we going to go for dinner tonight.

“All of those things – not having to take the bags to the next hotel or airport or whichever, those sorts of things started to sink in. I could get out and go shooting or biking or do whatever I wanted to do, as opposed to being told. I guess having someone else organise my life for me, the management saying this is where you’ll be and this is when you’ve got to be there. I quite enjoyed having my own life.

“Now I look back on it and say ‘well, I probably made the right decision’. And as anyone who has stepped away from cricket or international sport or anything like that will know now, you look back and say ‘it was a wonderful part of my life, but life does move on’. It’s great to be able to reflect on it, but now it’s the new things in life that you enjoy. I’ve got four kids and we live in a great part of the country.”

Family and business are balanced, and cricket is still a part of O’Connor’s life – now through coaching: “I guess I try and coach as if there’s a young Shayne O’Connor in there somewhere. And if there’s a kid who perhaps doubts that he’s actually good enough, or doubts that he’s actually going to get there, but has huge ambition – I want to help that kid to aspire and learn and get better, and be the best they can.”

O’Connor might not have reached the heights of some of the great fast bowlers of the 1990s – no one is going to utter his name in the same breath as Curtly Ambrose, Glenn McGrath, Wasim Akram or Allan Donald – but he’s balanced family, business and cricket. It’s a trifecta few manage. We’ll give the final say on the Shayne O’Connor story to Sir John Graham – All Black captain, two-decade Headmaster of Auckland Grammar, Chancellor of the University of Auckland, Knight Companion of the New Zealander Order of Merit:

“He’s got real all-round qualities. He’s running a very successful business. He’s got a lovely family – that’s a real quality in New Zealand today, to bring up a family in a quality way, and his family are outstanding; my wife and I have met them. Lovely kids, a loving environment, and structured enough to make sure they grew up in a very positive and moral way. I could see that as soon as we met them all.

“That reflected the father and mother to a tee. He’s one of the best people that I’ve known over my 81 years.”


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

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