By Tyler Lewis
Tom Donnell is the beating heart of the Dandenong Cricket Club.
He has amassed 7,964 runs at an average of 34, 11 centuries, 45 half-centuries, three red ball premierships (two as captain), two white ball premierships and three Team of The Year appearances in what has been a fine career.
It didn’t all begin for Donnell down at Shepley Oval, but his home club, before a brief stint at one of Dandenong’s rivals.
“Cheltenham Cricket Club was where it all started,” Donnell said.
“My family is pretty heavily involved down there, started playing there with my older brother and continued on from there.
“It was a main part of my life, down at the Cheltenham Cricket Club, mucking around with my mates and my brothers.
“Back when it was South Melbourne I played Dowling Shield there and I think the second year of Dowling, I was 15 or 16 they asked me to come down and play.
“I started the season there and I think I just turned 16. I think there was a couple of reasons (I moved), the fact they were going to move out to Casey Fields was going to be a fair effort to keep going out there and I would have got sick of it, and the environment there was different at the time.
“I didn’t feel like it was the right fit for me and where I wanted to go, I knew a lot of players at Dandenong and the mates I played under age stuff were at Dandenong.
“I made the move and have been happy for it ever since.”
Leading has been ingrained in the left-hander’s career, from a young age he captained a representative side on the Melbourne Cricket Ground and belted 100, before notching another big score against Xavier College in the Lord Taberner’s competition for his school side.
“I never really aspired out to be a captain, it sort of happened,” Donnell said.
“I am not one who goes out there and takes control of everything, I like everyone to sort of be involved and make their own decisions, more of a guidance role than someone who makes all the decisions.
“It was a funny day, I think we played against Xavier College and they turned up in their BMW’s and we just rocked up a half-hour before the game, not much of a warm up, I think we batted first and got a few runs.
“We ended up winning, it was good because we were all mates, Brett (Forsyth) played in that team as a little year 10.”
Donnell’s second premiership in 2010/11 against Frankston Peninsula was considered one of the greatest grand finals of all time; unsurprisingly, he whacked 83 and 50 in a low scoring affair.
Although one of the more incredible grand finals played in the modern era, Donnell believes it would have been easier to watch than play in.
“If you were playing it wasn’t the greatest grand final, three days of just non-stop nervousness for both sides,” he said.
“It was just a really tight game that ebbed and flowed either way and we were lucky enough to have Darren (Pattinson), James (Pattinson) and Sidds (Peter Siddle), you know along with Demps (Darren Dempsey) as well – we had a good side.
“They had Nick Jewell, Jon Holland, Scott Boland and Matt Chasemore, it was just a really high quality game – the nervousness never stopped for the whole three days.
“It was more a relief than anything to win that game, just, and we enjoyed that for the next couple of days.
“I was more disappointed in both innings to go out after setting the game up, I felt like both times I went out we were in decent positions but weren’t in front of the game.
“If I could have stayed in and be the guy that was set I could have made it a lot easier to win the game.
“In the second innings we only needed about 130 and when I went out we were three or four for 90 something, if I hadn’t had gone out we would have been able to get there easier but the game wouldn’t had been so memorable I think.”
Donnell and performing in finals has become synonymous – in finals he has collected 974 runs at 44, including two centuries and six half-centuries, including his highest score of 152 last year against Carlton; although it seems like he steps up a gear on the big stage, Donnell believes it is just trusting what has got you there.
“It is just a matter of backing what you do week in week out,” he said.
“There is a lot more on the line, I just enjoy the big games playing against quality opponents.
“It is more of a challenge to play in those finals, there has been finals where I haven’t made any runs, but those times is what you play sport for.
“There is no better place than out in the middle amongst it, there is a lot more on the line but the end of the day it is just another game.
“It is just all about realising what it is all about, taking it into perspective.”
With 11 scores over triple-figures, one would think Donnell’s most prolific knock according to his teammates would be one of those where he has taken off his helmet and saluted to the pavilion.
But his most rated knock amongst his Dandenong teammates is one of 90 against Carlton, on a spicy wicket against a rampaging Carlton attack; Donnell put away his trademark shots for the sake of his side to reduce the risk of getting out, wearing balls through a frightening spell from Ryan Sidebottom.
“I remember that day pretty well actually,” he said.
“Carlton made a few the week before, 300 I think, Brett and myself got us off to a good start and I think were 0/100 or around the mark.
“On a wicket that was doing a bit, I think Stevenson as well as Sidebottom were bowling pretty fast and hostile.
“To get through that, wear a few, you don’t realise in the moment what’s going on.
“I suppose you go by reactions and reaction time; it makes it more enjoyable in some aspects because you don’t face it that much anymore.
“There isn’t as many quicks as there used to be around the teams, it is something different now but a while ago it happened every week, as I get older it is not as much fun but it was enjoyable.”
While forging a brilliant career in the navy blue and red of Dandenong, Donnell also pulled on the navy blue threads of Victoria, and despite averaging nearly 50 at the top of the order he was removed from the squad. Many would have been disappointed and bitter with their exit given the record at the level, but Donnell is just pleased he got the opportunity to pull on the big V.
“I just got a bit too old I think, I had plenty of chances,” he said.
“I think it was a good two or three seasons where I played a lot of games, I had a lot of chances but couldn’t make a big enough score to crack in.
“I enjoyed it thoroughly, I think I made a lot of scores between 50 to 70 or 80, but couldn’t crack a 100 or a big enough score to push forward.
“I did a lot of training throughout the winter with squads in there, I got a bit too old for where the state was looking.
“No hard feelings or anything, I had my fair chances up there.
“I know a lot of people become better players in that age bracket, the late 20s early 30s where you could still have a good six, seven or eight years of good cricket in you where you are ready to go to that next level.
“You sort of look back and see there are a lot of good players who never got a chance, and there is a lot who did so I am not too bitter or disappointed by it.
“A lot of it is to do with timing I suppose, a lot get lucky with timing and some don’t.”
In 2016 against Melbourne Uni, Dandenong were chasing 150 in a one-dayer. In the first over, Donnell clipped one off his pads down to fine leg and took the easy single instead of pushing for two.
The Uni XI decided to let Donnell know there was definitely two in it, he met Brett Forsyth half-way down for a brief chat at the end of the over, and he asked ‘Do you hear what they are saying?’, Forsyth confirmed yes, before Donnell let his good mate know what they were calling him ‘wasn’t very nice’.
Donnell proceeded to take the next 12 overs for well over 10 an over, bringing up the win inside 18 overs, with 114 not out to his name off just 60 balls, which included 16 boundaries and five sixes.
In typical fashion, Donnell said while there may be truth to it, he tested his friendship with Forsyth by starving him of the strike before running him out in a game where he was ‘lucky’.
“There is a bit of truth to it.,” he said.
“They are always up and about, Melbourne Uni, we had bowled pretty well and they made 140 or 150.
“Brett and I don’t try to run each other out or anything and if there is one that is an easy one or a hard two, we will take the easy one most of the time.
“They were fired up a bit about that, things fell our way, we got a few away and got over the line, I think I ran Brett out when we needed only one or two to win.
“At the end of the day it didn’t work out that well for Brett because I stitched him up.
“You don’t listen to the fielders most of the time, but I think they just got a bit excited for where they were situated in the game and they wanted to try fire us up a bit.
“It happened pretty quickly, I remember the day was pretty windy, one end was really easy to bat from, the short boundary with the wind was easy so it was the plan to target that end and it came off well.
“We got a bit lucky that day.”
Donnell’s absence at the start of the year was felt by the Dandenong Cricket Club on and off the field; his return one of an extremely emotional nature as he fought through a personal battle.
“I had surgery early September to remove a tumour from my groin area,” he said.
“That took a fair bit off my pre-season which wasn’t ideal but it was all sort of fine, I had the surgery which took a bit to recover from.
“I probably rushed back too soon to be honest, I am not a good watcher, and I probably should have missed a bit more time.
“It wasn’t easy at times, it was a bit more stressful than what I let on – more so for my family then myself, it is all good now and (I am) back on track.
“I think it’s just getting back into normality, I think I spent two weeks where I couldn’t move off a recliner chair, I was sleeping on it, and I couldn’t move or walk.
“I think it’s just getting back into normality and what you do day in day out that was the main thing, to try and move on from what happened to get back into life.”
While humility and outlook already runs deep through Donnell, the moments in recovery were a time that changed the way he looks at a lot of things in life, including cricket each week.
“I think it has a little bit, it sort of puts a lot of things into perspective of what is important and what isn’t,” he said.
“I saw a lot of things throughout that time in hospitals and places like that that you don’t realise when you have never been in that situation.
“You sort of sit back and think about a lot of that and it does put life into perspective of what is important, really we are just out there playing a game of cricket.
“It’s not the end of the world if you win, lose, do well or don’t do well.
“You see the affect it has on your family and I was pretty lucky my partner looked after me, probably too well, and my family were really supportive which made it easier for me.”
Donnell is knocking on the door of 8,000 Victorian Premier Cricket runs and only half a season from Australian champion Bill Ponsford (8,452).