Edward Liddle looks back at the career of Robin O'Brien
Robin O'Brien, slightly built and fair haired, was a good upper order batsman who usually opened the innings. Favouring the front foot, he was an elegant looking player with cover and off drives his trademark shots, though, when playing back, he also revealed a sweetly timed late cut.
He was born in India, the second son of Brian Palliser O'Brien, an Indian Army officer who finished his service as a Brigadier having been decorated for distinguished service in the Second World War. He had been born in Co Clare and educated at Dublin's Masonic School before beginning his military career. His elder son, Timothy, born in India in 1928, preceded Robin to Wellington and Cambridge, opening the batting for the School 1st XI in 1947. Subsequently perusing his studies at Harvard, he became a theatre designer of international reputation, sought after from Sadler's Wells to Sydney via Broadway and the Bolshoi. He did not, however, play serious cricket after leaving Wellington. Robin proved himself an outstanding sportsman at Wellington excelling at golf, probably his strongest suit, and hockey as well as cricket.
He was four years in the College 1st XI from 1948 being captain in his final season, when he also played in the Public School' Trial at Lord's. In all at he totalled 2166 runs at 39.38 with a highest score of 154. Only once, in the long hot summer of 1949, did he fail to head the averages, even then he was still the leading run scorer. His best season came in 1951 when he aggregated 782 runs at 55.85 and captained the side well, though poor fielding by other members of the XI tended to let him and his leading bowler, future Oxford Blue the medium pacer DK Fasken down. He always produced good performances in the annual match with Haileybury, passing the half century mark in each of the four games he played in and never being on the losing side. For example in the 1950 encounter he made 97 and 30 which, together with Fasken doing the hat trick in the first innings and taking six wickets in the second, was enough to secure a decisive 120 runs victory. The following season he made 96 in a match won by 3 wickets. Unfortunately he made only 18 in the rain affected Trial at Lord's and thus was left out of a strong Public Schools XI for the annual match against the Combined Services. EM Wellings in Wisden thought that he looked weak against a leg spinner who was "quite an ordinary bowler."
As a National Serviceman, Robin rose to the rank of sergeant besides, of course, playing a great deal of cricket, though he never appeared for the Combined Services in a first class match. His best innings in Services cricket came for the Army against the BOAR at Aldershot in July 1953 when, batting at No 5 he made 109, with 18 fours, rescuing his side from a disastrous start as they faced a score of 304 in a 2 day match. Robin's innings ensured a draw. The strength of Army cricket, thanks to National Service, may be seen from the fact that the side also included two future test players in Doug Padgett and John Mortimore and two other very useful ones in Cambridge and Lancashire paceman CS Smith and Glamorgan off spinner David Ward. Smith, who died in 2013, was later to be knighted for his services to architecture, while Padgett, apart from his distinguished career for Yorkshire, would as county coach, spot a 14 year old Michael Vaughan playing casual cricket and realise what was on offer. Robin also had a good match for the Combined Services against the Public Schools making a stylish 51 in the first innings. However his old failing against leg spin was once again evident as he fell twice to a young purveyor of the art, an all-rounder from Ruthin School in North Wales, who had done the double in school cricket that summer. Three years later they would open the Cambridge batting together and nine years after that the leg spinner now seen mainly as a batsman would open for England with Geoffrey Boycott. His name was Bob Barber.
Robin was also to appear for the Army against the RAF where he made 27 in the first innings before being caught fending off a rearing bouncer from Aircraftsman (Second Class) FS Trueman. Up at Cambridge, where he began by reading Economics but later switched to Law, Robin had an extended run in the XI in 1954, the season in which he also made his Irish debut, but found the going tough, managing an average of only 19.39 with 93 of his 193 runs coming in one innings. This was against Yorkshire, complete with FST now also a civilian. Wisden described Robin as having been, "especially strong on the leg side, " which was unusual for him and "checking the threat of an early Cambridge collapse with a dogged innings." He batted in all for five hours before being caught at the wicket off 19 year old left arm medium pacer Brian James thus providing him with one of the 8 wickets of a brief first class career.
In terms of averages, Robin did little better the following season when he gained his Blue, partly because of loss of form of the captain DRW Silk, who had to drop down the order, though he and Robin had a century opening stand against Gloucestershire. Robin, who totalled 429 runs at 19.50 passed 40 on three occasions with a 49 run out against Sussex in a drawn match at Hove his highest innings. He also batted well in the University match when his scores of 34 and 24 seemed to have helped Cambridge to victory before MJK Smith made a match saving century for Oxford.
1956 was to prove very different, though Wisden's Cambridge correspondent was somewhat ungenerous. Robin scored 796 runs at 26.53 with 2 hundreds and 3 fifties. While he finished 7th in the averages his aggregate was second only to that of a 21 year old Freshman called Ted Dexter. Furthermore Robin and the future propounder of such forgettable phrases as, "Who could forget Malcolm Devon", were the only batsmen to score two hundreds in the University season. In only the second match, Robin made what Wisden described as a "resolute" 59 against a Yorkshire attack, including not only his old adversary Fred Trueman, but also Bob Appleyard, Johnny Wardle and Brian Close, none of them lovers of "Fancy Cap" undergraduates. A defiant second innings 68 from Barber, now his opening partner, saved the match. In the next match, against Lancashire, Robin batted for 285 minutes, hitting 12 fours, in scoring 107 against an attack led by Brian Statham and also including Roy Tattersall and Malcolm Hilton. He was sixth out at 215, falling to the medium pace of the big hitting all-rounder Peter Marner, whereupon the remaining wickets all fell at the same score. Barber made a half century in the second innings but the county won by 10 wickets. With further half centuries against Middlesex and Sussex, as well as passing 40 in the matches with Leicestershire and MCC, it was hardly true to state, as Percy Piggot of Wisden did, that Robin had done "little else" apart from the 107, until the Oxford encounter.
However at Lord's on 7 July he came into his own with some style. Cambridge won the toss and Robin and Barber put on 53 for the first wicket. Though only Dexter (46) offered him much support, he went on to make 146, the highest score by a Cambridge batsman at Lord's since Denys Wilcox's 157 in 1932. It was, declared Wisden, "a splendid hundred" which" made the first day's play notable." The Almanack continued to describe the innings as "Stylish and sound." In all he batted for just less than 5 hours and hit 18 fours, cutting and driving in graceful style. Cambridge should have gone on to win the match but were foiled once again by the batting of Mike Smith who hit his third successive century in this contest. Incidentally Robin's 146 did not survive long as the highest post war hundred for Cambridge, the following season the Sri Lankan Gamini Goonesena, their best bowler in the 1956 match, made 211. Robin played a few matches for Kent 2nd XI in the Minor County Championship later in the season but, largely thanks to the weather, achieved little.
He had also been prominent in other sports at Cambridge winning blues for golf and hockey. As already mentioned, golf was, arguably, his best game; in fact EW Swanton, when writing about his 146 in the University match, said that he "was really a golfer."
He was able to play only 9 matches for Ireland between his debut against Scotland at Paisley in 1954 and what proved to be his finale against MCC at College Park in 1958. His highest score, a highly praised 76 came on debut. Ireland had batted first and totalled 330, largely thanks to a century from Larry Warke, Robin making only 9 at No 3. The hosts were then allowed to escape from 288-7 to 489 all out and Ireland were left to save the game. Coming in at 4, after two quick wickets had fallen, Robin proceeded to save the game, batting 168 minutes for 76. Missed on 60, his batting was otherwise flawless and, though he concentrated on defence, he also rolled out his full array of strokes. He was out at 139-7 but Jimmy Boucher and Joe Burke batted out time to save the day. Robin was again to the fore against the Scots in College Park the following season when his second innings 49 was the only worthwhile score as Ireland collapsed against the slow left arm of Oxford Blue, Jimmy Allen to lose by an innings.
He again played almost a lone hand in the first innings against MCC at Lord's in 1957 as Ireland folded for 92 against the leg spin of former West Indian Test player CB "Bertie" Clarke and the off spin of Gloucestershire's "Bomber" Wells. Robin made 35 and, old problems against leg spin set aside, was in full command when he was run out following a risky call from Kevin Quinn. Facing a formidable MCC total, based on a fine 143 from John Dewes, an almost complete failure in Test cricket but a very good player at lesser levels, Ireland did much better in their second attempt, reaching 264, Robin, missed twice, making an elegant 62 before Clarke bowled him.
He was again seen to advantage against good bowling when Ireland faced the New Zealanders in a two day match at Ormeau in the rain bedraggled summer of 1958. He managed only 2 in the first innings, bowled by Jack Hayes, one of the few bright spots in a weak Kiwi Test side, but in the second again saved the match with a top score of 52, before being caught off John Sparling, an off spinner who made a name for himself in the Third Test that year by a long defensive innings that almost secured a draw. Robin also made several appearances for MCC that summer with useful innings at Lord's against the Dutch side De Flamingos and Scotland.
Robin O'Brien had left Cambridge without a degree in 1956 but was employed in the City. However in 1959 he was struck down by leukaemia, which rendered further work or cricket out of the question. He died at his parents' home in Kent in late August widely mourned not only as a fine all round games player but as a cheery and much liked personality.
I am grateful to Lucy Hughes, Modern Archivist of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge for her help with details of Robin's time at Cambridge.
Have you any comment to make on any aspect of this article? What are your views on any of the opinions expressed in it? Have your say on the CricketEurope Ireland Forum.