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Sir Donald Bradman: Greatest of All Time

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Sir Donald Bradman: Greatest of All Time

Perhaps the greatest curse any commentator or spectator can place upon a budding batsman beginning to hit their peak in international cricket is to use a particularly unfortunate adjective to describe them: Bradmanesque. Though of course drawing a comparison with the great Sir Donald Bradman is meant as the highest praise, and indeed should be construed as such, even the most talented batsman would come out of such a comparison unfavourably. So good was Bradman that his name is invoked as a by-word for the pinnacle of batting ability, and anyone who reaches ‘Bradmanesque’ heights is doomed to enjoy them fleetingly at best. For even the finest batsmen of a generation may only reach Bradmanesque levels a handful of times in their careers, even the greats can only occasionally be considered somewhat comparable to cricket’s most towering presence.

In almost no other sport is a player who began playing at the highest level over 90 years ago still universally considered the greatest in his or her discipline. The nature of records is that they are there to be broken, and the greats of any sporting era seem destined to eventually have their records toppled by those that succeed them. Yet the fact is that Bradman’s statistics, most notably his scarcely-believable Test average of 99.94, stand not only ahead of anyone else who has played even a handful of Tests before or since, but an almost farcical margin ahead. Bradman was a statistical anomaly, someone who cracked the sport of cricket like nobody else, and the likes of whom we are incredibly unlikely to ever see again.

The boy from Bowral

Donald George Bradman was born on 27 August 1908 in Cootamundra, New South Wales. In his youth, he is rumoured to have been a prodigious talent in a number of sports, from tennis to golf, as a result of his tremendous natural sporting ability. However, it was cricket that had always been his passion. Famously, the young Bradman was such a keen cricketer that he invented his own version of the game to play alone at his home. He would hit a golf ball with a cricket stump into a water tank, the angle of which would send the ball flying back to him at varying trajectories for him to try and strike again. As well as being an entertaining pastime, this game clearly worked wonders for his technique, concentration, and most importantly how well he saw the ball. After all, if you have a good enough eye to hit a golf ball with a solitary stump, you’ll start seeing a cricket ball as though it were a beach ball when you’re out in the middle.

Bradman’s cricketing ability was obvious to all from a young age. He made his first century at the age of 12 while playing for his school side, before making his debut for Bowral, his local adult team, at age 13. Though he would take a couple of years away from the game to focus on tennis during his teenage years, he could not resist the call of cricket and eventually returned to become a regular for the Bowral team by the age of 17, making a number of impressive scores in the process. Notably, he made a double century against a team from Wingello, New South Wales, that included the leg-spinner Bill O’Reilly, who would later go on to play alongside Bradman for Australia.

As the young Bradman’s fledgling cricketing career developed, he regularly made immediate and lasting impressions on those willing to give him a chance, grasping every opportunity he was afforded with both hands. He performed well at open trials put on by the New South Wales Cricket Association, earning an offer to go to Sydney to play grade cricket for St George. He made a century on debut, a feat he emulated when, the following season, he was selected by New South Wales to play in their first-class team at the age of 19. He began his first-class career with a century against South Australia in Adelaide, and continued to score prolifically for his state side throughout the 1928-29 season. Significantly, this included a century against the touring England side who had come to Australia to contest the Ashes. Bradman had proved that he already had what it took to go toe-to-toe with the top players in Australia and beyond. The meteoric rise of the young man nicknamed ‘the boy from Bowral’ was well under way.

The Don and the Ashes

Unsurprisingly by now, Bradman had earned the full attention of Australia’s national selectors. Despite being young and inexperienced, he had proved that he was a young man with an abundance of cricketing talent. In particular, the fact that he had just dominated with the bat against England, who Australia were about to take on in the Ashes, served him well – there was no reason he could not repeat this feat but in the baggy green of Australia. As a result, Bradman, at the age of just 20, was called up to play in the first Ashes Test against England in Brisbane.

Given all that had gone before and would go on subsequently in his career, Bradman’s Test debut was something of an aberration. Facing an England side containing the now infamous Douglas Jardine and Harold Larwood, two men Bradman would see a lot more of during his Test career, the Australians experienced a match they would sooner forget. The home side were trounced by the huge margin of 675 runs by England, with their turmoil ending in the ignominy of being bowled out for just 66. Though the debutant himself could hardly shoulder a great deal of the blame for the heavy loss, as far more experienced players failed to deliver with bat or ball, his returns of 18 and 1 were certainly disappointing for a player who promised so much. Perhaps harshly, Bradman was dropped from the team, in what would be the only such occasion in his Test career.

The hiatus in Bradman’s Test career, though, was to last only one game. After spending much of the second Test in the field as twelfth man for another bracing defeat at his home ground, the SCG, Bradman was recalled to the playing XI for the following match in Melbourne. Here, he more than made up for missing his first opportunity, following up an accomplished 79 in the first innings with a century in the second. To permanently quieten any remaining doubters, he finished the series with a fifty and a century in the final two matches of the series to emerge as one of the few shining lights in what had otherwise been a bracing 4-1 series defeat for the Australian side.

Bradman continued this stellar form for New South Wales over the following year, making an unbeaten triple century against Victoria at the SCG to set a record for the highest score for the ground. The record, though, would stand for less than a year, naturally to be eclipsed by Bradman again in January 1930. Here, in a match against Queensland, he followed up a disappointing 3 in the first innings with an unbeaten 452 in the second in what was cricket’s highest ever first-class score at that point. If this were not impressive enough on its own, Bradman made the score in a mere 412 minutes, meaning he scored at more than a run a minute. To give that scoring rate some context, the 400 Brian Lara made in a Test against England in 2004 came in 778 minutes, taking almost twice as long as Bradman’s effort. His exemplary record during the 1929-30 season as a whole, in which he averaged 113, meant he was one of the first names on the list to take the boat to England for the Ashes in 1930.

Bradman in England

A regular feature in many international cricketers’ careers is an inability to reproduce strong home form when playing abroad. The conditions differ so wildly from country to country that to be able to perform well on a variety of pitches, whether in sweltering heat or under heavy cloud cover, is one of the greatest challenges for any player to overcome. As was so often the case, however, Bradman proved to be a major exception to this particular rule, as he showed during the 1930 Ashes, where he enjoyed perhaps the most dominant series any batsman has ever had in the history of the game.

He began the tour with a kind of warning shot, in the form of a double century in a tour match against Worcestershire, which he swiftly followed just days later with an unbeaten 185 against Leicestershire. It would be fair to say England knew what they were up against by now, not that it did them much good. Bradman made a century in the first match of the series in what was once again a losing cause, but thanks to their key player things began to look up for the tourists as the series progressed. In the second match of the series at Lord’s he made 254, and in the third at Headingley he made 334. Records tumbled around Bradman as he played the latter innings, a devastating assault on the English bowling attack which became Test cricket’s highest ever score, and involved his reaching a triple century before the close of play on the first day, making 100 runs in two consecutive sessions.

Although he suffered a rare failure in a rain-curtailed match at Old Trafford, Bradman was back on song for the final Test of the series at The Oval. With the score tied at 1-1 going into the Oval Test, Bradman made yet another double century to see his side to an innings victory, regaining the Ashes in the process. On his first ever overseas tour, the Don had what remains the most productive series for any batsman ever, scoring 974 across just 7 innings. His landmark innings at the Oval also marked the first time that his Test batting average went beyond 100, a mark around which it would remain for the majority of his 20-year career.

Bradman followed up this historic performance with two more stellar series against touring sides from the West Indies and South Africa. Against the former he scored 223 and 152 in consecutive matches, and although he finished the series with a duck – the first of his Test career – this most certainly did not lead to a drop in form, as he made 806 runs in just 5 innings against the South Africans. England’s bowlers would surely have felt some relief looking at those scorecards, knowing that it was not only they who toiled against the might of Bradman. He may have only played four Test series at this point, but the Don had convinced everyone who had seen him play that he rivalled the likes of Jack Hobbs and Wally Hammond as a candidate for the best cricketer in the world.

Bodyline

After a swift detour in 1932 that involved touring North America with a private team which, predictably, yielded a great deal of runs, Bradman returned to Australia to take part in what would go on to become one of the most controversial Test series of all time. England’s new captain Douglas Jardine had been tasked with finding a whole new approach to the game to overcome the Australian side that had been so successful during the previous Ashes, with Bradman a particular target. The tactic he and the team’s management settled upon involved aggressive short-pitched bowling and packed leg-side fields. It went by the name of ‘fast leg theory’, although an outraged Australian press were soon to rename it ‘Bodyline’.

Bradman missed the first Test of the Bodyline series amid rumours that he was suffering from stress, and was conspicuous by his absence as Australia lost heavily. This only increased the weight of expectation upon his shoulders, as he bore the burden of an entire nation’s hopes that he could singlehandedly defeat the English and their underhand tactics. Yet his return to the side for the second Test was met only with a stunned silence from spectators, after he was bowled first ball attempting a hook shot. Undeterred, however, he more than made amends in the second innings, scoring a match-winning century as his side levelled the series.

If anything, though, England’s defeat only made them intensify their Bodyline tactics, as their pace bowlers – of which Harold Larwood became the most infamous – bowled increasing numbers of short pitched deliveries throughout the series, many of which struck the batsmen painfully. Even Bradman struggled against such tactics, enduring by far his leanest spell in Test cricket to date as his side fell to a 4-1 series loss amid much anger from spectators and commentators. Despite Bradman’s apparent struggles and Australia’s defeat, some perspective is necessary: Bradman still averaged 56.57 for the series, excellent numbers by anyone else’s standards. It also spoke volumes about his reputation that an opposing side had entirely altered their tactics just to be in with a chance of dismissing him.

This disappointing run carried through to the following year for the return Ashes series in 1934. Bradman went 5 innings without making even a fifty – a run-of-the-mill patch of bad form for any other batsman but a severe departure from the status quo for him. Whispers abounded that he was suffering from health problems, and that he had been rattled by Bodyline. Such gossip was answered in the best possible way, though, as Bradman made the second triple century of his career in the fourth Test at Headingley, which he followed up with a double century in the very next innings at The Oval. Yet in an unfortunate twist of fate, having just put paid to rumours about illness affecting his form, he then contracted serious peritonitis from an operation on his appendix. At one stage looking close to death, he fortunately began to make a recovery, missing around a year of cricket in the process.

Leading by Example

Bradman’s return to the Test side over two years later coincided with his being awarded the captaincy, though this was not without controversy. Having already served on selection boards, many of Bradman’s team-mates were uncomfortable around him, often considering him responsible for dropping their friends and colleagues. His difficulties were compounded when his side fell to defeats in the first two Tests of the 1937/38 Ashes, with the captain himself being dismissed for successive ducks for the first and only time in his Test career. Yet as all should have come to expect by this point, Bradman did not give in, instead making two double centuries and another ton in the remaining three matches as Australia turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 series victory. When he retained the urn 18 months later with a 1-1 draw in England, scoring another 3 centuries in the process, it seemed clear that he would have an illustrious career as a captain as well as a batsman – it would certainly take something monumental to stop he and his side.

Unfortunately, two such monumental events took place. First, bowling in the final match of the 1938 Ashes, Bradman broke his ankle, ending his tour. Second, and far more seriously for reasons that go far beyond cricket, 1939 saw the outbreak of the Second World War. All senior cricket was naturally put on hold, meaning Bradman and his team would not get to play Test cricket for another 8 years. Bradman joined the Australian army for the war effort, but was discharged due to serious muscle problems, which lasted for several years and jeopardised any hopes of returning to cricket in peacetime.

Following years of treatment, Bradman eventually struggled back to cricket when peace broke out. Unsure whether he would be able to play the 1946/47 Ashes, he eased himself into batting, turning what had been a painful endeavour into the kind of cakewalk to which he was more accustomed.  He made 187 in his first innings back, and 234 in his second. Clearly, illness was no better at stopping him than were opposing bowlers. He led Australia to a 3-0 victory, and was undoubtedly back to his best.

It was 1948, Bradman’s last year playing cricket, that brought his greatest achievement as captain, however. He began the season by leading Australia to a 4-0 victory in its first ever series against India, with the skipper predictably in the runs again with 715 in 6 innings. After the series, he announced that the 1948 Ashes series would be his last. Sparking a mass outpouring of celebration both at home and in England, the Don led his side to an unprecedented 4-0 victory. In doing so, his side became the first ever to tour England without losing a single match, leading them to be dubbed ‘The Invincibles’ and recognised ever since as one of the greatest Test teams ever to play the game. Bradman himself made two centuries on this farewell tour, going into the final match of his career with a batting average of 101.39. Yet in a final twist that was both underwhelming and endearing, he was bowled for a duck when only needing to score 4 runs for an average of 100. England then lost the match by an innings, depriving him of the chance to reach the famed milestone. Bradman bowed out of his cricketing career by proving that he was – just about – human after all.

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