JLT One-Day Cup 2018
Teenager tops Warne, White on debut
Tom O’Connell insists he’s ready for state level after becoming youngest Aussie male leggie to play one-day cricket
18 September 2018, 04:34 PM AEST
There aren't many Year 12 students who can say they've handled the strain of their final year of school quite as well as Tom O'Connell.
While his classmates around the country are gearing up for exams and the celebrations that will follow, O'Connell on Sunday quietly became the youngest male leg-spinner to ever play a domestic one-day game in Australia.
At 18 years and 95 days old, the Adelaide product eclipsed the likes of wrist-spinners Shane Warne (who was 21 years and 360 days on his one-day debut), Steve Smith (18 and 193 days) and his own teammate Cameron White (18 and 113 days) by earning his maiden Victorian cap in Townsville for their JLT One-Day Cup season opener.
He looked right at home as well, claiming a tidy 2-42 from 10 overs - including the wicket of Test discard Joe Burns - and adding 12 with the bat as Victoria hung on for a nervy win.
Until a semi-permanent smile had been etched on his face on match eve after coach Andrew McDonald told him he’d make his debut, it's an achievement no one foresaw.
Not the state team that poached him from his native South Australia months before he could legally drive, nor his English teacher at Adelaide's Brighton Secondary School who initially had doubts about his ability to combine his studies with the start of a professional cricket career in Melbourne.
"It all unfolded pretty fast," O'Connell told cricket.com.au ahead of his debut.
Barely six months ago, the only cricket O'Connell had on his mind was the final of South Australia's Premier competition.
Sturt, the side he'd played for since the Under 12s, lost to a Tea Tree Gully team featuring Travis Head but O'Connell, then only 17, claimed his 47th wicket for the season – 14 more than the league's next best.
It capped off a tremendous summer, but his sights hadn't extended much further than another solid season of grade cricket in the 2018-19 season.
So O'Connell was stunned when Victoria came calling with the offer of a three-year senior contract, significantly outbidding SA who had put forward a rookie deal. After weeks of deliberation, he accepted the Vics' surprise offer on the proviso he could delay a move to Melbourne in order to complete his final year of school.
"It all happened really fast and I was bit shocked when I found out about the offer over here and from the SACA as well," said O’Connell.
"It was a massive decision – I spent a couple of weeks umm-ing and ahh-ing and wasn't really sure what to do.
"It was a big decision and I had to move away from home, but I'm really excited and think I made the right decision."
O'Connell spent a few months going back and forth between home in Adelaide and Victoria's pre-season training and warm-up matches.
"It was very intimidating” he said. “I was very nervous, especially for my first session at the MCG.
"I wasn't sure what to expect. I didn't really know anyone in the squad. I'd played against a few of the younger guys but I didn't really know anyone.
"But once I got stuck into it, all the boys were really welcoming and made me feel at home pretty fast."
Victoria's selection chief and talent manger Andrew Lynch had flagged that O'Connell was seen as a long-term prospect rather than an immediate replacement for outgoing leggie Fawad Ahmed.
But the youngster impressed so much with his bowling nous and composure during his early interactions with the squad that a berth in the JLT Cup to begin the summer became a distinct possibility.
At the same time, O'Connell was juggling a mounting Year 12 workload.
"A lot of people said I probably couldn't do it, but I just used my time wisely – if I got a spare half an hour, I'd just smack out some schoolwork instead of playing PlayStation," O'Connell said.
"I actually got a lot of my work done when I was sitting at the airport when I was waiting for flights. I managed to do most of my work there, which was handy.
"All my teachers have been really supportive as well. When I've been away I've emailed them back and forth as well. They've supported me heaps.
"At the start, my English teacher wasn't too sure how it was all was going to go. But I was actually the first one in my English class to finish all my work.
"She was really happy and sort of proud of me for getting it all done."
Fittingly, his final academic hurdle is a physical education exam.
Now living with fellow Victoria squad member – and ex-South Australian – Wes Agar in Melbourne’s west, O’Connell will head back to Adelaide in November to complete his last test before he can concentrate solely on cricket.
Given his encouraging debut in Queensland's far north and his status as the sole specialist spinner in Victoria’s JLT Cup squad, more opportunities look likely to beckon.
And while the opportunity is coming right when his school mates will be letting off steam after wrapping up their exams, O'Connell insists he has no regrets about how early everything has come together.
"I'm really happy – some people say, 'I reckon he's too young' but personally, I reckon I'm ready," he said. "It's all played out pretty well."
YOUNGEST AUSTRALIAN MALE LEGGIES TO MAKE LIST A DEBUT
- Tom O’Connell (Victoria) - 18 years and 95 days
- Cameron White (Victoria) - 18 years and 113 days
- Steve Smith (NSW) - 18 years and 193 days
- Ryan Bulger (ACT) - 18 years and 350 days
- Kerry O’Keeffe (NSW) - 20 years and 12 days