Brown stars on night of remembrance

Spirit of Bradman lives on

At the Bradman Oration in Brisbane last Friday Bill Brown's 94-year-old charm again showcased him as Australian cricket's greatest living treasure

Famous photo: Don Bradman and Bill Brown on their final tour of England in 1948 © Getty Images

Bill Brown rarely outshone Don Bradman during their playing days. Brown was a cautious accumulator in the 1930s and 40s alongside Bradman's furious adding machine, but at the Bradman Oration in Brisbane last Friday Brown's 94-year-old charm again showcased him as Australian cricket's greatest living treasure.

Waiting in the foyer before the fourth celebration of "the Australian spirit of cricket" Brown wondered why the dress code was black tie. Jeans and a business shirt can cover most functions in Queensland in November but the extra layers were requested on a night for remembering Bradman's unmatchable deeds. During Brown's first two tours of England in '34 and '38 dinner suits were almost standard night attire, but World War II curtailed such luxuries for his final trip in '48.

Bradman's son John was a guest of honour at the function and told how Brown had stayed with his parents in Adelaide and remained a special family friend. "There's a picture in the house of Dad's last first-class game overseas, with he and Bill walking together," John Bradman said. "It's a very moving picture and I look at it a lot."

On a busy night Brown was also called to unveil the rescued Sheffield Shield, which was in ruin until the Brisbane jewellers Hardy Brothers spent more than 400 hours attempting to return it to its original appearance. It had been out of action since the entry of the sponsored Pura Cup in 1999 and had almost fallen apart. When asked what it looked like when he played almost 60 years ago Brown said: "I honestly can't remember. Back then we didn't really know what we were playing for."

While Brown's appearances were the most memorable of the program, the Bradman Oration was delivered by Alan Jones, a broadcaster, former Australia rugby union coach and regular lunch guest of Bradman. John Howard, the prime minister, gave the first speech in 2000 and was followed by Michael Parkinson, the English journalist, in 2003 and Richie Benaud in 2005.

Preferring to talk about Bradman rather than explore a current issue, Jones said his friend "defied comparison". The pair exchanged many letters and Jones would fly to Adelaide for lunch up to ten times a year. "We always ate the same thing," he said. "Vegie soup followed by whiting fillets and dessert. Don always ordered white wine and liked chardonnay."

The pair's closeness did not prevent Bradman from pointing out errors and in 1989 Jones received a letter following his broadcasting of a television story. "It was kind of you to do a piece on me and the praise was more than generous," Bradman wrote. "You have given me more credit than I deserve. I didn't make a hundred in my first Test, but got 18 and 1. I'll die in the belief that the lbw in the first innings was missing leg and in the second it was the first sticky I'd ever seen." He was dropped for the second match against England in 1928-29 but returned with a century in the third.

Bradman's batting "defied comparison" © Getty Images
Jones said Bradman was "quiet, unpretentious, extremely argumentative" and sometimes found the public attention "a nightmare". At the opening weekend of the Bradman Museum in Bowral in 1987 he reckoned he signed 4000 autographs in two days.

Praising Bradman's statistics, Jones recalled numerous quotes about his batting, but none was more powerful than RC Robertson-Glasgow's "poetry and murder lived together". No example of his dominance was better than his 100 in three eight-ball overs during a second-class game at Blackheath in 1931. Wendell Bill, a New South Wales opener, managed two singles at the other end. "Wendell, we've passed their score," Bradman said before the onslaught, "I think we'll have a go."

Despite his occasionally terse letters, Bradman was also generous in passing on his knowledge. And if he could not do justice with his descriptions he found other materials to help make his point. When Jones wondered how good WG Grace was Bradman sent him AA Thomson's book The Great Cricketer.

"Don't keep it too long, I want to read it again," Bradman wrote in the accompanying letter. "One day I want to meet WG, touch his shaggy beard and tell him that I walked through the Grace Gates at Lord's many times and tried to live up to his image."

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo