May 8, 2013

The Tiger and the Fox

Bill O'Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett were the greatest spin-bowling partnership of their age, and arguably the best in Test history

Between the world wars, Bill O'Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett reigned supreme. They were the greatest spin-bowling partnership of their age, and arguably the best in Test history. O'Reilly, the Tiger, and Grimmett, the Fox, were both legspinners but they approached their art as differently as Victor Trumper and Don Bradman approached batting.

Arms and legs flailing in the breeze, O'Reilly stormed up to the crease with steam coming out of his ears. He believed in all-out aggression, and called himself a "boots'n'all" competitor. Bradman, who reckoned O'Reilly to have been the best bowler he saw or played against, said he had the ability to bowl a legbreak of near medium pace that consistently pitched around leg stump and turned to nick the outside edge or the top of off.

"Bill also bowled a magnificent bosey which was hard to pick, and which he aimed at middle and leg stumps," said Bradman in a letter he wrote to me in 1989. "It was fractionally slower than his legbreak and usually dropped a little in flight and 'sat up' to entice a catch to one of his two short-leg fieldsmen. These two deliveries, combined with great accuracy and unrelenting hostility, were enough to test the greatest of batsmen, particularly as his legbreak was bowled at medium pace - quicker than the normal run of slow bowlers - making it extremely difficult for a batsman to use his feet as a counter measure. Bill will always remain, in my book, the greatest of all."

O'Reilly first came up against Bradman in the summer of the 1925-26 season, when Tiger's Wingello took on the might of Bradman's Bowral. Sixteen-year-old Bradman, who to his 19-year-old adversary was hardly any bigger than the outsized pads he wore, edged a high-bouncing legbreak straight to first slip when on 32. But the Wingello captain, Gallipoli hero Selby Jeffrey, was busy lighting his pipe, and the chance went begging.

Stumps were drawn with Bradman 232 not out, leaving the Tiger snarling in disbelief and raising his eyes to the heavens at the blatant injustice of it all. The game resumed the next Saturday afternoon. Bradman faced the first ball from the wounded Tiger. It pitched leg and took the top of off.

In the year O'Reilly came into this world, 1905, Grimmett tore a hole in his new blue suit, clambering over the barbed wire at Wellington's Basin Reserve to watch Trumper hit a famous hundred. In 1914, Grimmett sailed into Sydney from his native New Zealand, seeking cricketing fame. But it wasn't until a long stint in Sydney and more fruitless years in Melbourne before a last throw of the dice in Adelaide proved to be a haven for an unwanted bowler.

Grimmett began his Test career against England at the SCG in 1925, taking a match haul of 11 for 82. He starred in Australian tours of England in 1926 and 1930, but it was in the Adelaide Test of 1932, O'Reilly's debut, that the Tiger and the Fox first joined forces. Grimmett was the master and O'Reilly the apprentice, in a game that was a triumph for Bradman (299 not out) and Grimmett (14 for 199).

It is virtually impossible to compare spinners from different eras, although most would agree the best three legspinners in Test cricket were Grimmett, O'Reilly, and Warne

O'Reilly was amazed by the way Grimmett bowled: "I learned a great deal watching Grum [the nickname Bill always used for his spinning mate] wheel away. I watched him like a hawk. He was completely in control. His subtle change of pace impressed me greatly."

The pair played two Tests that series and two more in the Bodyline series of 1932-33, before O'Reilly took over as Australia's leading spinner when Grimmett was dropped. They were back in harness for the 1934 Ashes - the Tiger's first England tour, Grimmett's third. Here's O'Reilly on their unforgettable partnership:

"It was on that tour that we had all the verbal bouquets in the cricket world thrown at us as one of the greatest spin combinations Test cricket had seen. Bowling tightly and keeping the batsmen unremittingly on the defensive, we collected 53 [Grimmett 25, O'Reilly 28] of the 73 English wickets that fell that summer. Each of us collected more than 100 wickets on tour and it would have needed a brave, or demented, Australian at that time to suggest that Grimmett's career was almost ended.

"With Grum at the other end I knew full well that no batsman would be allowed the slightest respite. We were fortunate in that our styles supplemented each other. Grum loved to bowl into the wind, which gave him an opportunity to use wind-resistance as an important adjunct to his schemes regarding direction. He had no illusions about the ball 'dropping', as we hear so often these days, before its arrival at the batsman's proposed point of contact. To him that was balderdash. In fact, he always loved to hear people making up verbal explanations for the suspected trickery that had brought a batsman's downfall. If a batsman had thought the ball had dropped, all well and good. Grimmett himself knew that it was simply change of pace that had made the batsman think that such an impossibility had happened."

While O'Reilly was all-out aggression, Grimmett was steady and patient. They both possessed a stock ball that turned from leg. O'Reilly's deliveries came at pace: his legbreak spat like a striking cobra, and his wrong'un reared at the chest of the batsman. For any batsman in combat with the Tiger there was no respite, no place to hide.

In contrast, Grimmett wheeled away in silence. He was like the wicked spider, spinning a web of doom. Sometimes it took longer for him to snare his victim, but despite their vastly different styles and methods of attack they were both deadly. A batsman caught at cover off Grimmett was just as out as a man who lost his off stump to a ball that pitched leg and hit the top of off from O'Reilly.

Bradman once wrote me: "I always classified Clarrie Grimmett as the best of the genuine slow legspinners, (I exclude Bill O'Reilly because, as you say, he was not really a slow leggie) and what made him the best, in my opinion, was his accuracy. Arthur Mailey spun the ball more - so did Fleetwood-Smith and both of them bowled a better wrong'un but they also bowled many loose balls. I think Mailey's bosey was the hardest of all to pick.

"Clarrie's wrong'un was in fact easy to see. He telegraphed it and he bowled very few of them. His stock-in-trade was the legspinner with just enough turn on it, plus a really good topspin delivery and a good flipper (which he cultivated late in life). I saw Clarrie in one match take the ball after some light rain when the ball was greasy and hard to hold, yet he reeled off five maidens without a loose ball. His control was remarkable."

Grimmett invented the flipper, which Shane Warne, at the height of his brilliant career, bowled so well. Like Grimmett, Warne didn't have a great wrong'un, but he possessed a terrific stock legbreak and a stunning topspinner. When O'Reilly asked SF Barnes where he placed his short leg for the wrong'un, Barnes replied: "Never bowled the bosey… didn't need one."

Imagine if Grimmett and O'Reilly had played 145 Tests, the same number as Warne. At the rate they took their wickets, Grimmett would have snared a shade under 870 and O'Reilly 770. In reality Grimmett played just 37 Tests and O'Reilly 27, but what an impact they had on cricket. It is virtually impossible to compare spinners from different eras, although most would agree the best three legspinners in Test cricket were Grimmett, O'Reilly, and Warne.

The Tiger and the Fox were unique in their contrasting styles, but they had one thing in common: they were spin-bowling predators. Their prey was any batsman who ventured to the crease when they were on the hunt.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on May 10, 2013, 16:29 GMT

    To be fair, George Simpson-Hayward, an underarm bowler, is the one most commonly credited with 'inventing' the flipper and Grimmett cited him as his inspiration, although I suspect some obscure farmer in Hampshire or somewhere probably figured it out 100+ years earlier.

    Great article, but Arthur Mailey's still my favourite...

  • Andrew on May 9, 2013, 0:46 GMT

    @FAnon on (May 8, 2013, 10:29 GMT) - I agree with your sentiment about "...never enough due given to Grimmet, O' Reilly and even MacGill..." - I think Grimmett loses out unfairly to O'Reilly & Warne.

  • sitaram on May 8, 2013, 13:27 GMT

    Sounds like Subhas Gupte and Chandra!!!!! In the 70's I remember reading a story about the Tiger meeting Chandra while he was touring Australia. Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall listening in to that conversation.

  • Subramani on May 8, 2013, 13:12 GMT

    With the greatest reverence to the Tiger and the Fox, I would like to point out that in those days the wickets were not covered, which is a line said often in support of the greatness of Don Bradman as a batsman. I believe that this arguement should cut both ways. The point is that there have been many great leg-spinners after the two legends that Ashley talks about. I

  • Mashuq on May 8, 2013, 11:09 GMT

    Wonderful to read these pieces. Before Warne any all time Aus XI would have featured Grimmett and O'Reilly. @HLANGL on (May 8, 2013, 7:31 GMT), I find it odd that McGill and Warne weren't considered for the sub-continent tests: '99; 01; '04. Probably thought McGrath, Gillespie and Lee were more likely to get wickets at a quicker strike rate. Excellent point, @ygkd on (May 8, 2013, 9:37 GMT), about the 'keepers. Although all the talk atm is about the quicks Aus will never get back to #1 without good spinners and a 'keeper. How would guys like Fawad, Agar, Holland, Zampa, etc fare with Wade as 'keeper? Let's hope that someone better keeps to them or we'll never return to the glory days even if a few decent batsmen eventually emerge.

  • rajeendernath on May 8, 2013, 10:52 GMT

    @ HLANGL

    Dont think Warne fancied bowling with MacGill. Stuart outshone Warne on quite a few occasions and sort of demystified the alletrs aura somewhat, I feel. Odd really how the former never got to play as much as he should have subsequently. Dont think MacGill was as popular and certainly not the wily politician Warne was/ is.

  • rajeendernath on May 8, 2013, 10:29 GMT

    Grimmet was from the Sotuh Island in New Zealand. A couple of decades ago, I captained a grand-nephew of Grimmet in a social game in Dunedin, New Zealand. He was an associate prof of Chemistry and bowled pretty decent leg-spin, flighty with a little turn, good enough for senior club cricket at the very least. I saved him for the opposing team's best batsman as bowlers were only allowed a few overs each and sure enough he got his man, caught on the drive at short mid-off where I had stationed myself, with one that was given more air and a little slower. Imagined Clarrie would have had many a batsman caught in similar fashion. Know its sacrilege fro many to say so, but I always thought that Warne was a little overrated and never enough due given to Grimmet, O' Reilly and even MacGill. Australiaaahd a great lineage in leg spinners. Sadly for whatever reason, it seems has come to an end. But who knows, there was a big gap between Benaud and Warne

  • Philip on May 8, 2013, 9:37 GMT

    Yes, but Grimmett and O'Reilly were lucky. They had a bloke called Bert Oldfield behind the stumps, and in Grimmett's South Australia there was a bloke called Chilla Walker for whom multiple stumpings in an innings was an expected part of the job, as Mallett will undoubtedly know. How would the spin-twins fare with one or two of the preferred picks for the position we see today? If O'Reilly swore about that Bradman let-off, he'd be having a say about some of the things that have happened recently if he was still around, that is for sure.

  • David on May 8, 2013, 9:22 GMT

    Come on Devadeep, look at the figures. Of legspinners who've taken over 100 wickets only 4 have bowling averages below 29 - and all happen to be Australian! O'Reilly (22.59), Grimmett (24.21), Warne (25.41) and Benaud (27.03). And the top 3 are clearly the ones Mallett identified here. Just for those playing at home...there's a few with averages on 29: Kumble (29.65), Chandrasekhar (29.74), MacGill (29.02) and Gupte (29.55). I foresee a battle of semantics over who had it tougher, who played weaker batsmen, who played on spinning pitches etc...but on the face of it the numbers completely support Mallett's claim.

  • Dummy4 on May 8, 2013, 8:52 GMT

    A very good article except of the part "best three legspinners in Test cricket were Grimmett, O'Reilly, and Warne". I would like nto feel that Grimmett, O'Reilly, and Warne were the best 3 leg spinners to play Test cricket for Australia.