Sir Donald Bradman
Sir Donald Bradman

 by Colin Fraser

In modern sport, people are growing used to the arrival of new champions. The margins that make the difference are often in hundredths of a second in sports such as running, swimming and cycling, in centimetres in the field sports, or in single goals in football or hockey.

It seems that for every sport there is a kind of natural barrier. The athletes group behind it, then someone edges just a fraction further forward and temporarily takes the lead.

Don Bradman was not restricted by such limitations.

Can any boy with a dream become another Don Bradman?

The young Don began with a number of advantages. He grew up in a country town, population around 2,000, not a lonely child, but often with hours to fill after school when he'd chopped the wood or gardened or completed small household chores. None of his school friends lived near him. There was no organised after-school sport.

He filled the hours playing his own games, kicking any ball that would serve as a football and playing tennis against a garage door. But his favourite game was cricket and he played long, solitary "Test matches", in which he took the part of every player of both the English and Australian sides.

In later life he said that his mother, when she called him to tea, probably never imagined how many high cricket dramas she interrupted.

In his absorbing and deeply researched book Bradman, Lord Williams of Elvel describes the scene: "The game, in essence, was simple. The boy threw a golf ball at the base of the water tank with his right hand while holding a cricket stump in his left. The ball flew off the brickwork at an unpredictable angle. While it was fizzing back at him he gripped the stump with both hands; the point was to hit the ball before it could get past him and strike the laundry wall or door. The feat is difficult at the best of times, but such was the speed of eye and co-ordination of eye with arm that the boy, even at the age of nine or 10, managed to hit the golf ball with his stump, as he said (during a radio interview in 1988) 'more often than not'."

Bradman did not sense that his skills were remarkable; he had no basis of comparison and expected that his strike rate was probably much the same as many other boys would achieve. The truth was that the long hours of practice were developing natural gifts which were well beyond the ordinary. His physical deftness and balance were complemented by intense concentration and application.

George Hele, the Australian umpire, was later to marvel that Bradman, standing at square leg, hit the one stump visible to him with three successive throws.

But in Bowral, a Boy's Own Annual adventure was unfolding:

  • At Bowral High he made 55 not out in a match on a football field, without a pitch.
  • Next match, against Bowral High's main rival, Mittagong High, he made 115 not out, of Bowral's total 156.
  • He was invited to act as scorer for the Bowral Town team for the 1920-21 season. One Saturday, at Moss Vale, Bowral was a player short and Don Bradman, scorer, became Don Bradman, team member. He batted at number 10 and scored 37 not out.
  • Sidney Cupitt, one of the team, thanked him by giving him an old and battered bat, the first he had ever owned. Don's father, George Bradman, cut three inches (some 7.6 centimetres) off the bottom and Don carried it with him wherever he played.
  • In the summer of 1920-21, George Bradman took Don to see Sydney for the first time.

At the Sydney Cricket Ground, one of a crowd of 30,000, he watched Charlie Macartney making 170 and vowed, "I shall never be happy until I play on this ground." Don later said his father smiled "with affectionate tolerance".

  • In the 1925-26 season his mother gave him his first new bat (after he had made 300 against Moss Vale, aged 17).
  • In October 1926, a letter arrived from the NSW Cricket Association inviting him to attend practice at the SCG.
  • At the beginning of the 1927-28 season, after a successful year with St George, he was selected to join the New South Wales team to tour the southern States. In his first Shield cricket innings, in Adelaide, he made 118.

The dream had come to life.

But the excitement was just beginning.

Bradman's Australian scores made his Test selection inevitable. With two centuries in his first four Tests during the Australian series of 1928-29, he had served notice to England of ominous things to come.

In the 1930 tour of England, his talent exploded and he broke the hearts of many English teams on many English fields.

In his first English innings, he made 236 (28 fours) against Worcester, then 185 not out in the second, against Leicester.

Understandably, Australians everywhere felt a great pride in his fairy-story rise. But equally heart-warming was the extent to which England's crowds flocked to him and rejoiced in his greatness. Perhaps the best way to understand this is to look at the following small sample of the things people have said about him, taken at random from various periods of his career:

"When Bradman batted, attendances almost doubled ... as soon as the word went around that Bradman was making runs, crowds began to pour through the turnstiles." - Keith Dunstan

"I well remember, when he reached 250, the people around me expressing their amazement, and dismay, very volubly, when what must have been a Cockney retorted: 'Blimey, what are you worrying about? It's only a quarter of a thousand!' " - H.F. Mathews

"Everybody talks about Bradman. People who don't know one thing from the next in cricket all talk about him." - Jack Ingham

"Street urchins clambered onto the running board of Bradman's car just to catch a glimpse of him, and to greet him with their shrill tribute." - London newspaper

"It was a pleasure to His Majesty to meet him, to see them play, and to have the opportunity of watching Mr. Bradman play." - statement authorised by King George V

"Some teams are so anxious to see Bradman bat that they willingly send Australia in to bat just to watch him." - Daily Pictorial

By the time the third Test was due to start at Headingley, Leeds, on Friday 11 July 1930, a huge wave of excitement and anticipation was sweeping England and Australia. It touched not only cricket-lovers. A kind of national gladiatorial contest was developing which reached out and stirred people in all walks of life in both countries. Considering what was to come, it was still good-natured, and fuelled by a sense that a remarkable talent was unfolding.

An English newspaper dubbed it "Bradman versus England" and the 33,000 who overflowed the ground hadn't long to wait. With Jackson out for 1 in Tate's first over, Bradman's name went onto the scoreboard.

His slow, almost casual walk to the wicket hardly indicated what was to come.

By lunch he was 105 not out - only the immortals Trumper and Macartney had scored Test centuries before lunch in England.

  • He raised the pace after lunch and had added another 115 by tea.
  • By stumps he had added 89 more - and went back to the dressing room 309 not out.
  • Next morning, caught behind at 334, he had made the then-highest score in Test cricket.
  • He had made the highest number of runs in a day's play in Test cricket.
  • He had become the youngest batsman to make 2,000 runs in an English season.
  • He had become the first batsman to make double centuries in consecutive Tests.
  • With Kippax second-top scorer at 77, Bradman also had established the largest gap ever between top scorer and next highest.

Arthur Mailey, former Australian Test cricketer, wrote, "His batting today was almost indescribable. I was sitting with the Yorkshire Cricket Committee in the pavilion. When Larwood bowled ineffectively at Bradman, P.F. Warner turned around to Lord Hawke and said, 'This is like throwing stones at Gibraltar.' "

Bradman was only 21 when he began the 1930 tour of England.

Innings after innings, his stature grew. By the time the tour was over he had scored 10 centuries, five of them over 200 and one over 300. On May, just before rain stopped play, he hit a ball to the leg boundary and took his tour aggregate to 1,001 runs - the only Australian ever to reach four figures before June.

On and off the field, his demeanour and behaviour began to reveal a young man not only superbly gifted but thoughtful, analytical, modest and utterly committed. Australian opener Bill Ponsford said Bradman saw the ball two yards before any other batsman. Team-mates said that no batting error was ever repeated.

In England, the view was forming that the only way to beat Australia was somehow to beat Bradman. Douglas Jardine, who was to become England's next captain, studied film of Bradman playing Larwood's 90-mph (144-kph) deliveries on a wet wicket in the last Test at The Oval and, according to his daughter, declared "I've got it! He's yellow!" It was, as the record books show, a quite incorrect diagnosis; but it was to start an upheaval like nothing the game had seen.

In Australia, the team came home to extraordinary adulation. Radio had brought the Test series to life over the seas for the first time, virtually into every household. The country was deep in the Depression. It needed a shining star and, though he was uncomfortable with it and felt it unfair to his team-mates, Bradmania had been born and he was the symbol of hope.

The England captain Douglas Jardine conceived "fast leg theory" specifically to stop Bradman's "unstoppable" run-getting.

It consisted of using a team of extremely fast bowlers who aimed the ball at the batsman's body, pitching it so that it kicked high, often toward the head, from the sun-hardened Australian pitches. Up to seven fieldsmen were positioned on the leg side, many close to the batsman, to catch the ball as he tried to defend himself.

It was openly intimidatory. And, largely, for that one series, it worked. But it almost destroyed Test cricket. It shook the long-standing relationship between the peoples of England and Australia and, to a significant degree, changed it forever.

It also proved to be an eventful moment for Australia, a nation undergoing great hardships and still striving to define its identity.

In the process, it imposed an extraordinary burden of responsibility on Australia's key batsmen, especially Woodfull, Ponsford, McCabe and Bradman. They were Australia, and how they behaved in the face of this adversity symbolised the nation's character.

In 1932-33 Australia was suffering hardships and self-questioning which are difficult to imagine today. In every country town, the avenues of trees commemorated whole families of young men who had died at Gallipoli or in France, fighting for the Empire. The Depression was deep and lasting, with nearly half the working population unemployed. "Sussos" worked in road gangs to repay the meagre government sustenance provided to feed them and their families. Commodity prices were at rock bottom. Governments were bankrupt. The ties with England did not produce the reciprocal help which was sentimentally expected. The Bank of England sent Sir Otto Niemeyer to Australia to administer stern public warnings about the consequences of deferring interest payments on its loans.

Now came Jardine, a cold implacable patrician, given to wearing a silk scarf and harlequin cap, and used to walking through the gentlemen's gate while his professional team members entered by the players' gate.

As bodyline took over, both wickets and batsmen began to fall - Woodfull twice hit over the heart, Ponsford's bare back carrying eight huge bruises (he sometimes turned to take the force of the ball rather than risk a dangerous shot). Bradman, until the second innings of the second Test in Melbourne, had made a top score of only 36 in seven innings against the touring side. Then, before 68,000 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, he characteristically reclaimed his supremacy. Especially, he used his speed to move to the leg and crash the bowling through the empty off field. The English captain, Walter Hammond, wrote, "He ran to the off or out to leg to get away from those head-high whistling balls, and he played golf shots and overhead lawn tennis shots, and from one after another the ball went crashing to the pickets. That was sheer courage. Those who said Bradman was afraid of bodyline don't know cricket as it was played on that tour."

Still, Jardine's tactics were winning. The huge crowds seethed and booed the English attack. When Oldfield, Australia's wicketkeeper, was hit on the head while batting in Adelaide, police, officials and players believed a riot was imminent.

Finally in Sydney, as England moved to a 4:1 series win, Bradman hit so many shots through the empty off field that Jardine was forced, to the cheers of the crowd, to move one after another of his leg field across to stop the runs.

Bradman had topped Australia's averages with what, in the circumstances, was a truly great 56.57. But cricket had lost some of its innocent charm. In the aftermath, bodyline was banned and England's Marylebone Cricket Club committee pronounced it "an offence against the game". Jardine announced that he never wished to play against Australia again.

Buy the Bodyline Mini Series starring Gary Sweet and Hugo Weaving on DVD

Cricket at its highest level demands character. Like few other games, it also exposes much about the inherent strengths and weaknesses of those who play it.

Probably no cricketer had to come through so many daunting and searching tests as Bradman did during his long career.

His exciting ability made him a national hero in his twenties, in a country undergoing great struggles and self-doubt. He did not enjoy the adulation and lack of privacy that resulted, but he handled it with grace and dignity. His mail overflowed, yet he reasoned that he had a duty to respond, and gave up hundreds of hours to do so.

In the 1934 series in England, he showed his extraordinary courage. He was ill when the series began, ill and injured during it, and unable to play when it ended. Before it began, the commentators had been predicting that he was finished. He did not want to play in the first match at Worcester, but Woodfull persuaded him that it would encourage the critics if he did not. He scored 206, at considerable physical cost.

Later, he failed in five innings in the first three Tests. The night before he batted at Leeds, he decided that he needed to score "at least 200" to help ensure that Australia would win. When told that this was against the law of averages, he replied, "I don't believe in the law of averages." He scored 304, but he was to say, "It took a great deal out of me."

Next Test match at The Oval, he and Ponsford scored 451, the highest partnership ever for the second wicket.

Subsequently diagnosed with appendicitis which degenerated into peritonitis, he almost died. That incident underlined the strength of his "best partnership" - his marriage to the friend of his childhood, Jessie.

"Perhaps it is not too much to say that, had he not found a wife who supported him unfailingly through the bad periods, Bradman might have found it altogether too much, and given up cricket for good in the 1930s," observed Charles Williams.

Bradman was resilient and durable. In 1936-37, two Tests down, he led Australia to a 3:2 Ashes win. One cricket historian called it "The greatest turnaround ever in a Test series."

More than a decade later Bradman captained the undefeated 1948 Australian side, widely regarded as the best team ever to leave Australia.

When Test cricket had fallen into the doldrums in the late 1950s, Bradman, as Chairman of the Australian Board of Control, worked hard to restore its popularity. His own play had always been attacking and he understood that defensive habits were killing the drama and suspenseful uncertainty that brought crowds. He spoke to the Australian players and quietly suggested that the selectors would in future look with favour on those who played "attractive, positive cricket." In 1960-61, the West Indies tour of Australia offered a chance to rekindle the flame. In Brisbane, with Australia six wickets down and facing defeat unless it could score an unlikely 123 after tea, Bradman went during the break to drink a cup of tea with the Australian captain Richie Benaud, still not out. Bradman to Benaud: "What are the tactics?" Benaud: "We're going for a win." Bradman: "Pleased to hear it."

The crowd of 4,000 saw the game end in a breathtaking tie, the first in Test history. At the next Test in Melbourne, 90,000 went to the MCG on the Saturday to see the two teams play again.

In February 1949, Bradman walked out to bat for the last time at his favourite ground, his beloved SCG.

It was where his dreams of playing for Australia had really begun, an 1l-year-old boy in short pants, sitting with his father and catching for the first time the excitement and drama of a big game before a big crowd.

This was where he had played some of his greatest innings, including his world record of 452 (not out) in 415 minutes in a Shield match against Queensland.

The 41,575 crowd gave him "one of the most emotional farewells in Australian sport."

Bradman scored 53, caught after 65 minutes. He walked off, slowly as usual, amid continuous applause, as loud as any that had greeted his past centuries. The entire crowd stood in tribute.

He had recently been knighted, and newspaperman and author Don Whitington said, "Sir Donald Bradman again rose grandly to the big occasion to score one of his finest fifties."

Bradman, modest as ever, wrote later in his book, Farewell to Cricket: "There was a good deal of satisfaction in knowing that my final innings on the ground I loved so well contained a few strokes of the old vintage."

He was to play one last serious match, a testimonial for Arthur Richardson in Adelaide. Twenty-one years of breathtaking, glorious batting were at an end.

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