Wisden Cricket Monthly - August 1998

Invincible

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Were the 1948 Australians the best team of them all? Frank Keating, then an impressionable Hereford schoolboy, recalls heady days of hero-worship and heavy scoring - and the one and only Don Bradman. The following article appeared in Wisden Cricket Monthly in 1998


Crowds queue outside The Oval ahead of the start of the final Test © Getty Images
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Fifty years on and I still resent the well-meaning funk of Father Fabian, a black-cowled Benedictine monk, who before Easter had promised to take a few of us Hereford prep-school oiks to see Don Bradman's Australians begin their tour on the lush winter-flooded green grass of springtime at Worcester. On the eve of the great day, the pathetic pastor cancelled. Too crowded; he might lose us, he said, cruelly unaware with what fevered expectancy we had been ticking off the days.

So I never saw Bradman bat. Perhaps the priest was right, because 14,000 packed the ground, and they tell you at Worcester that just as many were turned away. Cardus was there for the Manchester Guardian: `Everybody breathed on everybody's neck, and pushed and trod and elbowed. The congestion was acute: it spoiled the graciousness of the piece ... in spite of a clean, cold day we became spoiled as the hours wore on, and sticky. Only the Cathedral kept aloof.'

Three times at Worcester Bradman had hit a double-century to start his pre-war tours; now the dapper demon, in his 40th sprightly year, made only 107, and by all accounts the local Berrow's Evening News ran bills trumpeting `BRADMAN GOES CHEAPLY'.

Disgruntled back at school, this 10-year-old did the next-best thing. I posted my autograph book off to Worcester, with an SAE for safe return. It contained a few Gloucestershire heroes from the summer before, and I addressed it to Mr Donald Bradman himself. By return came a single sheet. The whole touring party had signed. What awestruck privileged joy. Half-a-century on, I see them still, headed by the captain's neatly rhythmic joined-together writing: ` D. G. Bradman'- both full-stops meticulously in place.

I drooled over the neat upright ` W. A. Brown' and the cack-handed, more squiggly ` A. R. Morris' and his fellow leftie apprentice, schoolboyish ` Neil Harvey'. School-masterly and precisely formed was ` R. A. Hamence', but ` Colin McCool' and ` D Ring' were almost illegible hieroglyphics, as you might expect from leg-spin tweakers.

And the mesmerising allrounder hero stood out, of course, seeming to sign `eith iller' in a readable sub-copperplate, and then adding the capitals K and M in a couple of gorgeously bold and flowery flourishes. The two wicket-keepers' hands were both trim, straight-forward and standing up: ` Don Tallon' and ` R. A. Saggers'.

Bradman's team was Lindsay Hassett (vice-captain), Arthur Morris (co-opted selector), Sid Barnes, Bill Brown, Ron Hamence, Neil Harvey, Ian Johnson, Bill Johnston, Ray Lindwall, Sam Loxton, Colin McCool, Keith Miller, Doug Ring, Ron Saggers, Don Tallon, and Ernie Toshack. They won 25 of their 34 first-class matches, and were undefeated. They won four of the five Tests (drawing the third at rain-ruined Manchester) by, successively, eight wickets, 409 runs, seven wickets, and an innings and 149 runs. Their batsman failed to accumulate 200 only twice on the entire tour, while their bowlers dismissed the opposition for less than 200 an astonishing 37 times, and seven times for under 100. They exceeded 350 in 24 innings, while the highest score against them outside the Tests was 299 by Notts, when Joe Hardstaff and Reg Simpson batted well. Bradman's men won half their 34 matches by an innings - Essex by an innings and 451. The team's 50 centuries were shared by 11 players, seven of whom passed 1000 runs.

They played with a swagger and a style that grey, war-torn, still ration-booked old England had never seen the like of before. At several grounds, there were as many clamouring to get in as made it through the gates before they were locked for safety reasons.

Were they the best ever, the finest bunch of cricketers to visit England? In a perpetually developing game, comparisons are dotty. But good fun. In 1948, the home challenge was certainly laid to waste, but England's Test XI - Hutton, Washbrook, Edrich, Compton, Crapp (or Dollery), Yardley, Evans, Bedser, Pollard, Laker, Young (or Wright) - remains a glisteningly good one in any romantic's reverie of grandeur.

A coincidental parallel stared England in the face - the Ashes hammering by Warwick Armstrong's side in 1921, also three years after a world war. Bradman's men would surely have beaten Armstrong's three out of five times - although pedants will point out that the 1948 team had no voraciously specialist first slip, whereas the 1921 side had Jack Gregory. Then there's Joe Darling's side of 1902, who took on a gilt-edged and vintage England team, and handsomely prevailed. And even then, greybeards scoffed that no team could possibly be better than Billy Murdoch's 1882 tourists.

There was an almost impeccable balance about Bradman's ruthless 1948ers. A batting order of Morris, Barnes, Bradman, Hassett, Miller (plus Brown, Harvey or Loxton) would certainly give Messrs Lindwall, Miller, Johnston, Johnson and Toshack something to bowl at.

It goes without saying that they fielded with panache - the more so when the swooping young Harvey played in the last two Tests - and if they lacked that prehensile first slip, well, at second, third, or in the gully, they had Miller. Mind you, for all the presumption of the gaiety of his impact and input, Miller had a bitty series - only 13 wickets and 184 runs, each at an average of just 26. Lindwall took 27 wickets (at 19), and so did the tall, willing country-boy left-armer Johnston, with his swerve and cut; the other leftie, the swarthy bush-bowler Toshack (who became John Arlott's particular drinking buddy through the tour) took only 11 Test wickets, but his steadiness (70 maidens in 173 overs) was crucial to Bradman's screw-turning.

But the greatest of all sides? Well, there's the spinner? Johnson (seven Test wickets with offbreaks, at a whacking 61) and the leggie Ring (one Test, 1 for 44) were no shakes at all. Can you be a truly great side, in a cricketing sense, without a half-decent spinner?

To be sure, Clive Lloyd's irrepressible 1984 `black-wash' side had offspinner (and ace fieldsman) Roger Harper slipping in with 13 wickets - a potent bonus to add to 29 from Garner, 24 by the slippery whippet Marshall, and 15 by the classicist Holding. Useful, after a resplendent batting order: Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Lloyd, Gomes, Dujon. Yep, the 1948 Australians could well have been Big Brothered had they played in 1984.

Mind you, Clive Lloyd's team might have been pushed by their 1961-63 compatriots - Hall, Griffith, Gibbs, and Kanhai and Sobers in youthful pomp, all paternally clucked over by Worrell. And how would they have done against Mark Taylor's best Australian XI of the 1990s? On the other hand, what if the Australian Board had given Bradman's mighty cadre one or both of the mystical spinners mighty cadre one or both of the mystical spinners playing county cricket that summer of 1948, Jack Walsh and Bruce Dooland?

All conjecture now, all trickles under Trent Bridge. Enough to say that Bradman's men were the utter monarchs of their time. Red carpets were unrolled for them all over, in dingy provincial hotels or at bleak town halls. At railway stations, great throngs would gather just for a glimpse, particularly of the little emperor and captain, of course, but otherwise of Lindwall or Miller or Morris or Barnes, any one of them.

Ah, Barnes, Sid Barnes... after Bradman and, I suppose, the laconic dasher Miller, it was Barnes we took to. `We'? Well, I was at once the school expert on Australians. Hadn't Don Bradman himself sent me the sheet from Worcester on which each man had inscribed his autograph? I almost quaked with glee and gloat and fame. I was king of Hereford.

Many years later, I was feverishly scrabbling around the attic, searching for that same autograph sheet. I had read that on the liner Strathaird coming over, captain Bradman and manager Keith Johnson, both hot on PR, had given each player a huge sheaf of these blank sheets headed by the Australian crest and told them to sign each one and then pass them on. In all, 5000 were filled. It was a fearful chore, and only the ferret-sharp Barnes had been ready for it. Before embarking he had made a rubber stamp bearing his signature, and when his turn came, he apparently paid a pocket-money pittance to a youthful shipmate to stamp his 5000.

At last I found the precious, parchmenty crisp sheet. Sure enough - and I hadn't noticed as a boy those heady 30 years before -` S. G. Barnes' was indeed a rubber-stamp autograph. Barnes the card. There was something brash and Hollywood about him; he was cricket's Walter Hagen. He fielded at `suicide corner', forward short leg. Always yapping, always on the make.

Barnes looked like WC Fields in his fifties, when he took a massive overdose of pills and lay down on his Sydney sofa to die in 1973. His Test batting average of 63 was left for posterity - and so was this summary of his 1948 tour by his friend, the grand journalist Jack Pollard: `Sid arrived home with trunks laden with cashmere sweaters, tartan socks and golf shoes, all scarce in Australia, along with rolls of suiting and Harris Tweed and sports coats, and the latest cricket bats and pads and gloves. He had traded constantly through the tour to might have had tears in his eyes with the emotion of it all. `Get away with you,' first slip and close witness Jack Crapp told me years later, `that bugger Bradman never had a tear in his eye throughout his whole life.'

Australia 389 (the greedy fresh-faced Morris run out for 196); poor ruined England 188 ( Hutton, rehabilitation secure, 64). I arrived at Paddington to be met by Uncle Jack and told the game was all over.

So I never did see Bradman bat. I have only got Arlott's words to go on for guidance. At the end of his tour account, Gone to the Test Match (the first cricket book I ever bought) Arlott summed up with a terrific descriptive paragraph: `In 1948, 40 years old, Bradman was still playing strokes impossible to any other cricketer in the world. He stood at the crease perfectly immobile until the ball was on its way to him, then his steps flowed like quicksilver out of trouble or into position to attack. He could still pull the ball outside the off stump accurately wide of mid-on's right hand to avoid a packed off-side field. He still played the ball off his back foot past mid-off before that fieldsman could bend to it. He still hit through the covers with the grace of a swooping bird. He could cut and glance, drive, hook, and pull, and he could play unbelievably late in defence. Those who had never seen Bradman bat until 1948 saw a great batsman; those who knew his batting saw a new greatness.'

At least I could see him, in person. In the 1970s, armed with an introduction from David Frith, I arrived at Adelaide and telephoned the precious number. `Sorry,' said The Don, `if I give you an interview, I'll somehow insult all the previous fellows I've refused down the years.' But he was charm and courtesy in the extreme - till he had to break off my miserable and tremulous conversation, saying, `Now excuse me, I've a car hooting outside, I'm off for a round of golf.'

It was all I needed. I called a taxi: `The Royal Adelaide Golf Club, and step on it.' He came out of the clubhouse with his friends. He was in baggy grey flannels. I lurked botanist, watched him chip, I saw his iron-play long and short, I saw him putt - the forward defensive. He middled everything, a satisfying, clean ping to each shot. So, more than a quarter of a century on, I had been given a ghosted outline, and twigged the general idea of his cricket.

`Oh bad luck,' sneer some, `you never saw Bradman bat, eh?' I pull myself to my full height and scoff back: `Well, cleverclogs, have you ever seen Bradman play a full round of golf?' In the circs, it makes for a terrific touché. And anyway, 50 years ago, he posted me a personal communication from Worcester. So there.

© Wisden Cricket Monthly

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