Colin McDonald obituary

Peter Mason
·4-min read

The cricketer Colin McDonald, who has died aged 92, was a fine opening batsman for Australia and a more or less constant force for his country during a 47-game stretch that ran from 1952 to 1961, covering 14 Test series at home and abroad.

He was widely admired for his courage and tenacity and, although there was much more to McDonald’s game than mere grittiness, he was undoubtedly at his best when conditions were testing. The strongest evidence of that came with an outstanding performance in the “Laker Test” against England at Old Trafford in 1956, when Jim Laker took a world record 19 wickets in the match and McDonald was one of the few Australians to offer any measure of resistance, making the top score in both innings with 32 and 89.

Given the conditions – McDonald complained that the Manchester pitch was “like Bondi beach” in the first innings and “a mud heap” in the second – he justifiably regarded his five-and-a-half-hour 89 as the best knock of his life. “All we could do was get beaten, which we did, but I almost got Australia into a position where there was a vague chance that we might save it,” he said. Peter Richardson, an opponent in that match, later maintained that McDonald’s 89 was “one of the best innings that has ever been played in Test cricket”.

Australia lost the series that year, but when they hosted England on their own soil two seasons later McDonald’s dependability at the top of the order was a key factor in his side winning back the Ashes. Amassing 519 runs at an average of 64.87, he had his highest Test score of 170 at Adelaide, and made 133 and 51 not out in the final match at Melbourne, setting up comfortable Australian victories on both occasions. It was the high point of an admirably consistent career that ended owing to injury just two years later.

McDonald was born in the Glen Iris area of Melbourne, the younger son of Arthur, a librarian, and Violet (nee Dyall); his brother, Ian, also became a first-class cricketer. From Scotch college he went to Melbourne University, playing for Melbourne cricket club before making his debut for Victoria at the age of 19 in early 1948.

It took only four years for Australia to call on him – in the final Test of the series against West Indies at Sydney in early 1952, alongside Richie Benaud, a fellow debutant. McDonald impressed immediately with scores of 32 and 62 and then played all five Tests in the subsequent 1952-53 home series against South Africa, averaging 48.55 and scoring 154 in the fourth Test at Adelaide.

On the Ashes tour to England in 1953, his form took an alarming dip in the early warm-up games, and as a result he failed to feature in any of the Tests that summer. But after returning to the side at home against England in early 1955, he scored 186 runs at 46.50 in the last two Tests and became an automatic selection thereafter.

Averaging 64.14 against the West Indies at home in 1955, he stood out in the Ashes series in England the following year as one of the few players who could get to grips with Laker. Classically side-on, favouring the back foot and with a short backlift, he was a natural opener who could stand up to fast bowling with determination. But as he demonstrated at Old Trafford, he was also a skilful player of spin.

Retirement came prematurely in 1961, while McDonald was still in his early 30s. On tour with Australia in England that year he had bought a small van to get himself around the country; it had a horribly stiff gear lever, and after having played three Tests of the series he ended up badly damaging his wrist through repeatedly trying to crunch the stick into action.

An operation improved matters slightly, though not enough for McDonald to resume his Test career, and after three valedictory matches for an International XI on tour in Rhodesia and Pakistan, plus a final match with Victoria in 1962, he bowed out altogether. He had a batting average of 39.32 in Tests, including five centuries and 17 half-centuries, and 40.48 in the first-class game.

After a short period as a schoolteacher, McDonald worked as an insurance broker while also doing TV cricket commentaries for ABC. Eventually, he became involved in sports administration, serving as executive director of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia from 1976 to 1987 and playing a significant role in the creation of a new national tennis centre in Melbourne, which hosts the Australian Open. He became secretary of the National Tennis Centre Trust from 1987 until his retirement in 1990.

Always interested in politics – “I used to be enthusiastically Liberal, now I’ve gone a long way down the leftwing track,” he said in 2010 – he served as a Melbourne city councillor from 1963 to 1973. He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 2014.

He married Lois Ahlston in 1956, and they had a daughter, Karin.

• Colin Campbell McDonald, cricketer, born 17 November 1928; died 11 January 2021