Tradie secret: How Vics' Commodore sped to Shield dominance

He rocks a Dustin Martin hairdo, marks his run-up with 'A$AP' and was told he'll never be a Ferrari. Fergus O'Neill is hardly your typical Bradman Young Cricketer

All 67 of Fergus O'Neill's Sheffield Shield wickets

Fergus O'Neill is never far away from being reminded that if he was not playing cricket for Victoria, he might be digging holes for a living.

Take his peculiar affinity for calling literally anything a 'Brownless', after the former Australian Rules footballer, and fellow loveable larrikin, Billy Brownless. 

The origin story behind that stems from O'Neill's days as an apprentice landscape gardener working with his father, Peter, when Brownless and James Brayshaw's afternoon slot on Melbourne radio station Triple M was the soundtrack to their hard yakka.

"Everything is a Brownless," O'Neill tells when asked about the in-joke that has simultaneously become a nickname, a bankable source of amusement for state teammates, and an accompaniment to most of his social media posts.

A picture of O'Neill wearing a floppy hat on his Instagram feed? That's a wide brim Brownless. O'Neill pleading for a wicket? An appealing Brownless. O'Neill running? Usain Bolt Brownless. O'Neill generally being occupied with life? Busy Brownless.

When he took his maiden first-class five-wicket haul, Melbourne Cricket Club simply tweeted: "Congrats Brownless".

It's the gag that keeps on giving. It also explains a bit about O'Neill's unique path from tradie to Bradman Young Cricketer of the Year, the gong he took out at last month's Australian Cricket Awards.

"When I was working, you listen to the radio 24-7," explains O'Neill, who was himself a talented junior Aussie rules footballer at Under-18 side Calder Cannons before he knuckled down on playing cricket.

"I would be at work and Billy would be going on a rant about something, like he does, and 'JB' (Brayshaw) would go, 'Here he is, old rambling Brownless'. He (Brownless) would give a tip – 'Geelong Cats to win by 24 this week down at Skilled Stadium' – and JB would go, 'Here he is, old tipster Brownless'."

O'Neill took out this year's prestigious Bradman Young Cricketer award // Getty

Marcus Harris started calling him 'Brownless', and O'Neill was not all that displeased it stuck. "That will be my nickname until the end of my career," he says.

These days O'Neill spends equally long days working in the sun, only with a cricket ball in his hand instead of a shovel.

The right-armer cuts a distinct figure among the ranks of Australian cricketers.

It's not just that he marks his run-up with 'A$AP' (after the American rapper, A$AP Ferg) spray-painted onto the turf, nor the fact he boasted a rat's tail when he made his Marsh One-Day Cup debut at the end of the 2021-22 season.

'You play with a bit of a point to prove and you play like it might be your last game, especially early doors' // Getty

These days it's his Dustin Martin-style do, a gold chain bouncing up and down on his chest as he bustles into bowl, plus two silver earrings in his left ear glimmering in the sun as he tilts his head back in an exaggerated follow-through, that make him stand out.

O'Neill rarely misses his mark and nibbles the ball both ways by relying on the wobble seam delivery that has made him a nightmare to face on seam-friendly Shield pitches. One Victorian teammate describes him as the most feared bowler in the Sheffield Shield.

His first 55 Shield wickets have come at a remarkable average of 21.16. Only three bowlers (Trent Copeland, Jackson Bird and Joel Paris) this century have taken 50 Shield wickets faster and with a lower average.

All 67 of Fergus O'Neill's Sheffield Shield wickets

Just as his knockabout persona masks a more articulate side, O'Neill is self-aware enough to know the traits that have made him such a force are not immediately apparent.

Even after a late-teens growth spurt that helped him graduate into Premier Cricket first XI ranks at the beginning of the 2019-20 Melbourne club season, the 23-year-old now stands roughly six foot.

As he tells it, he is also not particularly fast, nor has he ever been able to swing the ball that much. O'Neill wears these handicaps like a badge of honour.

O'Neill finishes with 10 in match-winning display

"If you're six foot 10, you get five years to develop and five years of (people saying) 'he's raw'. But when you're 183, 184 centimetres, you've got to perform," he says.

"Maybe someone like me might get the opportunity earlier than those big guys, but I definitely understood that I would be judged based off performance more than potential.

"I feel like that's actually a positive in ways. You play with a bit of a point to prove and you play like it might be your last game, especially early doors.

"Whereas subconsciously I'm sure some of the other guys have heard their whole lives, 'You'll figure it out, you're developing, you're raw'. I never heard that."

It seems unlikely there could have been a better mentoring combination to recognise and nurture O'Neill's potential than the combination of Adam Dale, the ex-Australia bowler who was his first coach at Melbourne, and Cameron White, whose stint captaining the Demons after finishing his first-class career overlapped with the then 18-year-old's ascension to the club's first XI.

White drilled into him a tactical nous to match his blossoming ability to land the ball where he wanted. Dale instilled him with the belief he had a future beyond club level.

"He would speak about the big, tall guys, saying 'these are the Ferraris; they come in, bowl the sexy stuff for four or five overs. We're a bit different to that'," O'Neill says.

It was with his best intentions that Dale, who took 245 first-class wickets at 20.75 bowling a similar pace to O'Neill, told his protégé he had more in common with a less luxurious vehicle.

O'Neill in his early days in Victorian Premier Cricket // Melbourne Cricket Club

"'We're the Commodores and the Ford Falcons, they're the Ferraris'," Dale recalls saying. The two-Test former swing king laughs at the memory, but turns dead serious, even protective, when talking about O'Neill's prospects.

"When you are a Commodore, your journey is different," he says. "You've got to always perform. Fergus will have that all the way through his career, because there will always be people comparing him to that six-foot-six left-armer who bowls 140(kph)-plus."

White impressed on O'Neill that simply hitting the top of off-stump more often than others was all he needed to do to succeed, while Dale emphasised the power of durability.

"(Dale) just said, 'We're not going to look as good, we're not going to be as flamboyant, but late on day four, someone's got to bowl the overs and it tends to be us, not the 6"10 bloke who bowls 150'," O'Neill says.

"That was his message in his own funny way, just trying to reinforce there's still a place for us and we're still very important."

It proved a strong grounding as O'Neill won a state contract for the 2021-22 season after taking 57 wickets at 18.14 over the two preceding Premier campaigns.

He made his Shield debut at the beginning of the following summer, and O'Neill was hard-wired to know he did not have the luxury of much time to find his feet at the level.

A nervy opening spell at Karen Rolton Oval in his first match meant he already felt he had spent some credits by the time he collected his maiden wicket courtesy of a Travis Head slash that landed in Peter Handscomb's hands at slip.

O'Neill received his Victoria cap from Travis Dean in October 2022 // Getty

"I was probably going to get dragged at the end of that over and I would have had 0-30 off six overs," he says. "It could have been a different story.".

But O'Neill's true sink-or-swim situation came in his fifth match. 

Victoria arrived at the MCG in February last year to face a Queensland side who had beaten them inside two days only months earlier, when Mark Steketee and Michael Neser took 15 of the 20 wickets between them.

With the Bulls' experienced pace pair again staring them down for their first game after the BBL break, the Vics were without their lead quick Scott Boland and forced to pick a strikingly youthful pace attack; newly-installed captain Will Sutherland was the oldest at 23 along with O'Neill, Mitch Perry (both 22) and Cameron McClure (21).

O'Neill responded with his best performance to date, decimating the hosts with the new ball in the first innings before returning 2-28 in the second, including an extraordinary 11 maidens out of 20.2 overs.

With five wickets and going at just 1.81 runs per over, it was the sort of miserly, incisive performance of which Dale would have been proud, and it helped the baby Vics notch the first of four consecutive wins that vaulted them into an unexpected Shield final appearance.

'We all looked around and realised it was up to us' // Getty

"That was when I thought, 'Yep, I'm starting to contribute now and I'm starting to be the player that I hoped I could be'," O'Neill says.

"It was a product of looking around and going, 'I don't have Scotty around to take five-for like he usually does – it's my turn to stand up'. I think (the other young bowlers) felt the same.

"We all looked around and realised it was up to us."

That match was a turning point for Victoria's young brigade (they would eventually go down to Western Australia in the final), and the numbers back up O'Neill's sense it was a watershed moment for him as a bowler as well.

His 45 Shield wickets since puts him among the top handful of bowlers in the Sheffield Shield; in that time, only Nathan McAndrew has claimed more victims and only Boland has been more economical.

O'Neill is bullish that Victoria's youthful core can now drag them to not only a third consecutive Shield final this season, but also a first title since 2018-19.

Some are wondering what the future might hold for him personally, too.

"Of course he can play Test cricket," Dale says. "We're lucky we've had three big wonderful fast bowlers in Cummins, Starc and Hazlewood that have had great performances. But there will come a time when those guys aren't playing and selectors will need to make some decisions.

"He seems to be one of those bowlers that the higher standard he plays, the better he bowls."

Dale isn't the only well qualified judge impressed. O'Neill's first taste of the Big Bash last summer with the Melbourne Renegades allowed him to pick the brains of their overseas wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock, who saw aspects of his former South Africa teammate, Vernon Philander, in the young seamer. 

For now, he remains realistic about his international prospects having seen how scant opportunities have been for even for the leading Shield bowlers Boland and Neser, whom he respects for their sustained dominance at domestic level.

Philander's effectiveness as a Test bowler is a worthy blueprint, however, and O'Neill insists his pace need not be a hindrance, particularly in England or South Africa where control and accuracy often tend to be more important.

"There's always going to be a place for people who take wickets," he says. "If I'm doing that bowling 150 (kph) or bowling 105, it doesn't really matter, does it?"

A Baggy Green Brownless? It has a nice ring to it.

Sheffield Shield 2023-24 standings

Matches played
No results
Batting Bonus
Bowling Bonus
Total points
1 Western Australia Men Western Australia Men WA 10 5 2 3 0 0 5.53 9.4 47.93
2 Tasmanian Tigers Men Tasmanian Tigers Men TAS 10 5 2 3 0 0 6.06 8.3 47.36
3 NSW Men NSW Men NSW 10 4 3 3 0 0 6.31 9 42.31
4 Victoria Men Victoria Men VIC 10 4 4 2 0 0 4.74 8.2 38.94
5 South Australia Men South Australia Men SA 10 3 6 1 0 0 5.19 9.3 33.49
6 Queensland Bulls Queensland Bulls QLD 10 2 6 2 0 0 3.54 8.3 25.84

M: Matches played

W: Wins

L: Losses

D: Drawn

N/R: No results

Ded.: Deductions

Bat: Batting Bonus

Bowl: Bowling Bonus

PTS: Total points