The “cyclone from the north”: How Dell made Barry Richards rewire the software

Greg Milam’s And Bring the Darkness Home is a haunting exploration of how the mental scars of war destroyed the international cricket career of Tony Dell, the only Test cricketer to have served in Vietnam. In our second extract, Dell, who appeared in an Ashes match in 1970 and opened the bowling for Queensland with Jeff Thomson, shakes up one of the most sublime batsman of his age.

ON A sunny, breezy Friday morning, less than three years after returning home from Vietnam, Tony Dell stood at the summit of sporting achievement. Twenty-five years old, he was about to make his debut for Australia against their oldest cricketing enemy. The Test match against England at the Sydney Cricket Ground would decide the Ashes series of 1970/71, the latest chapter in the sport’s oldest contest.

In the week leading up to the match, Dell’s face had filled the front and back pages. It was a sporting nation in desperate need of a new cricketing hero. The series had been a disappointment for the home crowd and Australia had to win that seventh and final game in Sydney to tie the series and retain the Ashes.

Dell’s height seemed to especially excite the newspapers. On the front page of the Sydney Sun-Herald sports section was a photo of Dell, dressed in a suit, shirt and tie, hands reaching towards the camera, fingers spread, under the headline: ‘The biggest grip in the game’. The story read: ‘In these massive hands of Australia’s new Test opening bowler Tony Dell, the fate of the Ashes could lie. He says he probably has the biggest hands in the game and as they measure nine inches few would argue.’

Hands aside, the selection of ‘the cyclone from the north’, as The Age in Melbourne dubbed him, was judged a risk. ‘Giant paceman is a gamble for the Test’, warned one headline. Another called him an unknown quantity, whose elevation was a ‘silent prayer and a gamble’ by selectors who felt desperate measures were necessary to salvage a miserable Australian summer. Not all of the coverage was so hopeless: ‘Dell may or may not succeed. Whatever he does he is sure to be a prominent figure among Australian bowlers for many years to come,’ wrote one correspondent.

He had been chosen largely on the back of a performance for his state Queensland against South Australia a month earlier. Remarkably, it was only his eighth match in first-class cricket but he did enough to catch the eye of a notable opponent. Barry Richards, one of the most sublime batsmen of his age, told reporters that Dell’s ‘first five or six overs are as good as I’ve seen and his bumper can be frightening’. The Australian cricket world sat up and took notice. Neil Harvey, a former Australian batting hero who had become national team selector, was at that game on the hunt for fresh talent. They wanted a fast bowler who could put the wind up the English batsmen – and Tony Dell was their man.

Greg Chappell can remember standing at the non-striker’s end as Richards faced up to Dell. At 22, Chappell had been closely observing the South African legend that season, eager to learn everything he could from such a cricketing colossus. What he saw was Tony Dell causing problems for Richards. ‘It was the only time I saw Barry’s footwork change. He found him more awkward than most because of his height and the left-arm swing and bounce.’ Even to two masters of the science and art of batting, the messages between hand and eye, tuned to the millisecond, could be thrown off by a bowler like Dell. ‘You had to rewire the software,’ said Chappell.

Remember, this is the same Barry Richards who, a month before facing Dell, had scored 325 in a day against a bowling attack including Dennis Lillee, Graham McKenzie and Tony Lock, three men who would clock up 180 Test caps between them. Greg Chappell saw Dell as offering Australia’s bowling something different. Cricket often enjoys the language of warfare to stir the spirits. The novelty of someone who had served his country in a real war stepping up in a sporting one did not go unnoticed. ‘Dell knows all about the war zone,’ wrote Phil Wilkins in the Sydney Morning Herald. ‘When the hot lead starts flying at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Friday, he could be grateful for the experience. It promises to be better than the gunfight at the OK Corral.’

For years, Greg Chappell says, he had no idea that Tony Dell had been to war.

Dell was happy to play along as the warrior-cricketer ready to do battle again. He said his time in Vietnam had prepared him well for cricket’s highest level. ‘If I hadn’t had to do two years’ National Service, I don’t think I would ever have had the chance to play Test cricket,’ he said at the time. From the distance of decades, his next words seem prescient: ‘A couple of years in the army changed my outlook on everything – life, cricket, people.’

The main benefit of his two years in the military was physical fitness. ‘One of the perceived problems I had was that I wasn’t fit enough for first-class cricket. I came back from Vietnam and in Chapter 2 31 one of my first games back I bowled all afternoon and got seven wickets. So, I guess I was fitter after I came back.’

Tomorrow: Five years back from Vietnam, he could sense that something inside him was unravelling

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Yesterday: Dell had seen veterans turn to drink and drugs: You weak bastards, he would think