The First and Second World Wars affected the careers of many great players from the cricketing powers of Australia and England. Individuals such as Don Bradman and Walter Hammond missed out on the opportunity to play many more test matches during their peak performing years, however they were still lucky enough to live in a country that played test cricket regularly before and after these interruptions. Players from countries such as the West Indies had even fewer chances to play internationally, being penalized further due to the lack of tests that their country played at that time. Possibly the best player who was most affected by this unfortunate combination of the intervention of the war and birthplace was a New Zealander, Martin Donnelly, whose test career consisted of only seven test matches over a period of twelve years.
Martin Paterson Donnelly was born to Louis and Jane on the 17th of October, 1917 in Ngaruawahia, in the province of Waikato. He had a twin brother, Maurice, who unfortunately died in 1918 from influenza. Martin’s father Louis was a keen farmer, and when Martin was young, the family moved from Ngaruawahia to a Taranaki dairy. Louis encouraged all of his children to play sport, especially in his own loves of rugby and cricket. Martin went to the local Eltham Primary School, where he immediately impressed the teachers with his skills at cricket and tennis. Former Lancastrian player George Percy acted as his main coach in these early years, and provided a grounding was to prove invaluable. Martin was a natural left-hander, playing all sports in this manner. He very soon was showing the genius that separates the truly gifted from the merely very talented, and it is of great credit to his coaches that they didn’t try to limit his natural style.
Martin moved to New Plymouth Boys High School in 1930. Throughout his school years, Martin continued to shine in all ball sports. He was selected in the school first XI for five straight years, captaining the side in 1935 and 1936. He was also excelling in tennis, and led the school’s First XV Rugby team in 1936. The deciding factor for Martin’s sporting career occurred when he was selected as a schoolboy for a Country XI against Wellington. He scored forty eight, an innings that was noticed by a number of influential selectors. This occurred at an ideal time, gaining him a place in the Taranaki team to play against the touring 1935/36 MCC side. In the first innings, Martin fell to a wrong-un from Jim Sims, a delivery that he had never seen before. English player Joe Hardstaff took Martin aside at the end of the day and showed him how the ball was bowled. Martin showed an immediate appreciation for this assistance, top scoring in the Taranaki second innings with 49. This performance convinced Martin that he had the ability to perform against any opposition, and he was now committed to his cricketing career.
Wellington gave him a chance to make his first class debut in the New Zealand provincial Plunket Shield against Auckland at Eden Park in the game starting on the 5th of February, 1937. He was immediately identified as a precious talent, being selected to tour England with the New Zealand time in May of that year, solely on the basis of this one first class game. New Zealand were not blessed with a number of great batsmen in the thirties, and the selectors of the time deserve credit for the early identification of his abilities. It thus transpired that in Martin’s second first class game he represented New Zealand. He was still only a nineteen year old in this game against Surrey at Kennington Oval in London.
Martin’s form in the eight first class games prior to the start of the test series ensured his selection to make his debut at Lords in the First Test. He had the most unfortunately possible start to his international career, falling LBW to the English opening batsman J.H. Parkes for a duck, batting at no. 6 in the order. He did better in the second innings when he batted at no. 10, scoring 21 before falling to a catch by wicket-keeper Les Ames off the left handed paceman Bill Voce. He had however done enough to ensure that New Zealand would manage to draw the game, his wicket falling on the final ball of the game. In the Second Test at Old Trafford, Martin again struggled in the first innings, falling LBW to Wellard for 4, before finishing 37 not out in the New Zealand second innings collapse of 134 all out. The Third Test at Kennington Oval saw Martin’s first ever test fifty, top scoring with 58 in New Zealand’s first innings of 249. He fell for his second duck of the series in the second innings, however the game finished in a draw. Martin finished the tour of England with the very healthy first class figures of 1414 runs at an average of 37.21. The English commentators were very impressed with the young man, praising him as the hope for the New Zealand team over the next decade. Ironically, this series of three tests for the teenage Martin was to be his last for another twelve years.
New Zealand only played five test series during the 1930’s. They contested four series against England in 1929/30, 1931, 1932/33 and in 1937, and a one-off series against South Africa in 1931/32. This paucity of test matches meant that Martin was not expecting too many games, however the breakout of the Second World War meant that all international cricket was postponed. In the four domestic seasons in New Zealand from 1937/38 to 1940/41, Martin played only eleven first class games as he had started studying at Canterbury University, where he was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree. Playing for Canterbury in the Plunket Shield in 1940/41, Martin was officially recognized as the best batsman of the season. He was now twenty three years old and averaged 75.50, however this was to be his last first class game in New Zealand for over two decades. The Second World War saw Martin join the army in 1941 as a private, and he reached the rank of major by the time the war ended in 1945. His military service included being a Squadron Commander in the historic tank charge into the port of Trieste.
Martin recommenced his first class career in 1945, playing for the Dominions against England at Lords in a game starting on the 1st of September. Martin had travelled to England with the New Zealand Services XI, playing games all across the country from small towns to a match at Lords. In spite of the fact that he had not picked up a bat for almost four years, apart from a few pick-up games in Cairo, he was quickly back into form. Along with other New Zealand test players such as Stewie Dempster, Martin was picked to play in the combined Dominions team with individuals of ilk of Australian Forces players Keith Miller and Lindsay Hassett. He scored a hundred in his return to first class cricket, finishing with 133. One of his opponents, Wally Hammond, described the innings as the best seen that summer. Martin himself later rated it as one of his five best knocks.
Martin was discharged from the armed forces in October 1945, however he chose to stay on in England, being accepted into Winchester College at Oxford to read history. Martin was now twenty eight years old, and in the peak of his batting form. He won his Blue for Oxford in his first year, dominating the university’s batting. Over his years at Oxford, he scored nine first class centuries and also captained the team to five successive victories. One of the highlights of his initial season in 1946 was 116 not out against the touring Indian team. Martin’s efforts for Oxford in 1947 resulted in his selection for the Gentlemen in their annual game against the Players at Lords. He responded to this new challenge by scoring 162 not out, and then followed it with 113 for the South of England against the North of England. Martin was also picked to play for the MCC against the touring South African side. Wisden recognized his achievements by naming him as one of their five cricketers of the year.
During this time, Martin had also shown his continuing versatility at other sports, gaining his blue for Oxford in Rugby. This led to him becoming a dual international, being selected to play in the centres for England against Ireland in the test in Dublin in 1947. Players who represented their country at two different sports was more common in the past, however being selected at two different sports for two different countries is a remarkable achievement. He retired from competitive rugby following this test however, preferring instead to concentrate upon his cricket. In 1948, Martin played for Warwickshire in the County Championship, and finished the season with selection for the MCC in a match against Yorkshire. He again showed his abilities at the highest level, scoring 208 not out. During 1948 he also played twice against Bradman’s all conquering Australian side, for the Gentlemen of England and for the HDG Leveson-Gower XI.
As a consequence of his studies, Martin had not been available for New Zealand in their inaugural test match against Australia in 1946 and also in their home tests against England in 1946/47. He was however an automatic selection for the New Zealand team when they toured England in 1949. Martin underlined his value to the team by playing in twenty nine of the thirty two first class games on the tour. The tour was a great success for New Zealand, in which they won thirteen games and only lost one. All four of the test matches were drawn, however they were only three day games, rather than the more traditional five. Martin made his return to test cricket in the first game at Headingley on the 11th of June, 1949, almost twelve years after his last match. He held the team together after they slumped to 4 for 80, scoring 64 before being caught off Trevor Bailey. This was his only innings in the match that ended with New Zealand at 2 for 195 chasing 299.
The Second Test was Martin’s great triumph. At Martin’s favourite ground of Lords, he scored New Zealand’s first ever test double century. His 206 included 26 fours and took three hundred and fifty five minutes. The next best score in the innings was only 57 by Bert Sutcliffe, however Martin’s efforts took New Zealand to a first innings lead of one hundred and seventy one. Time ran out for New Zealand however, limiting any chance they had to push for a victory. This was the trend for the final two games, which also petered out with neither side really in the position to win. Martin finished the series with 462 runs at an average of 77.00. Noted English writer R.C. Robertson-Glasgow summed up Martin’s influence over the test series with the following statement “in the tests between England and New Zealand this summer one man above all others stood between England and victory; Martin Paterson Donnelly.”
New Zealand were not scheduled to play another test until 1951, and this 1949 series was sadly to be the end of Martin’s test career. He was now almost thirty two years old, and common to many non-professional cricketers, he could not commit to the amount of time away from paid employment that international cricket required. It was almost the end of his first class career as well, as he only played another five games. Martin had committed to a business career back in New Zealand, and his retirement from cricket was almost complete. Four of these matches were for Warwickshire in 1950 prior to his return home, however his final first class game was eleven years later in 1961, when he was brought back due to public pleading at the age of forty three for the New Zealand Governor-General’s XI against the touring MCC side. He did not play any games of note between 1950 and 1961, apart from a few benefit matches in the mid 1950’s.
Martin’s career at test level was very limited, due to a combination of the Second World War and New Zealand’s restricted schedule. Whilst he averaged 52.90 in test cricket, the high esteem that his teammates, opponents and commentators held him in underlined his greatness. Neville Cardus once stated that Martin was the finest left-handed foreign batsman to play in England since the Second World War, putting him in front of other greats such as Neil Harvey and Arthur Morris, who were both recently named in the Australian team of the century. Cardus also lamented the fact that Martin was not available to play for England in 1948, as he felt that he may have significantly bolstered the team struggling against Bradman’s side. Martin was inducted into the New Zealand Sporting Hall of Fame and also named as one of New Zealand’s eight cricket legends along with others like Richard Hadlee, Bert Sutcliffe and Martin Crowe. Martin died on the 22nd of October, 1999 in Sydney Australia, five days after his eight second birthday.
Martin played in 7 test matches from 1937 to 1949. He batted 12 times, scoring 582 runs at an average of 52.90. His highest score was 206 against England at Lords in 1949.
First Class Games
In his 131 first class games, Martin scored a total of 9250 runs at an average of 47.43. This included 23 centuries with a highest score of 208 not out for the MCC against Yorkshire. Martin also took 43 wickets at an average of 39.13, with a best bowling performance of 4 for 32.