September 2, 2008

Stephen Gelb

Why Gelb doesn't worship the Don

Stephen Gelb
Sir Donald Bradman walks out to bat for the final time Australians PM XI v England, Canberra, February 3, 1963
 © Getty Images
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On Wednesday last week, August 27th, our Cricinfo ‘handler’ Avi sent us four ‘Different Strokers’ a message asking “No Bradman tributes?”, and reading in full “I must say I’m a little surprised.” Fox has now admirably filled the gap, but my first reaction to Avi was surprise of my own, as it had never occurred to me to write something about Bradman, that day or any other. Avi’s message made me wonder why I had not thought of it – as a cricket-obsessive with a cricket blog, should I have written a tribute, or at least thought of it? The result of my self-reflection is my own small and indirect tribute to the Don.

Bradman has been a legend to me for over 40 years, since I started reading Wisden at age 10 or 11. Of course I’ve only ever seen him bat in some film footage, but I own several auto- and biographies and have read dozens of articles. I can reel off a list of his achievements, and just recently was amazed to learn from "The List that he was top run-getter in only 6 of his 11 Test series. He was outscored five times? By whom? But until last week I would not have been sure of his birth-year, let alone his birth-date.

In fact, the only cricketers whose birthdays I do know are Wasim Akram – because he shares mine – and the Waugh twins, because they’re the day before. I admired all three in different ways, so I enjoy this coincidence. But in general cricketers’ birthdays seem irrelevant, even if their age is not.

On the other hand, I do remember the birthdays of my two lodestars as an economist – Marx and Keynes – and also the years of their birth and death. Every year on May 5 and June 5 respectively, I figuratively tip my hat. And earlier this year, the celebration of Mandela’s 90th birthday, outside South Africa as well as within, felt entirely appropriate.

So why no Bradman tribute? I think it has to do with ‘identity’, about how I see myself, and particularly about the ways in which icons shape identity and vice versa. There is a difference between heroes and icons. Heroes – like Steve Waugh – are people whom one can aspire to emulate, because for all their qualities and achievements, they are flesh and blood, with human imperfections and limits. (And in the TV age are not limited to one’s own nation, as Fox correctly pointed out.) Icons have transcended all that, and moved into the realm of mythology and faith, as the repositories of our hopes and fears, and via their reflected glory, of how we want to be seen by ourselves and especially others.

The iconic realm is where we find Mandela of course, whose iconic status is a core part not only of our South African national founding myth, but also of the global myth of harmony between races. For me as fundamentally a left-leaning political economist, it is also the realm of Marx and Keynes, but this is far from a universal view, to put it mildly.

The iconic is also the realm of Bradman. But not for me. Bradman seems to be iconic for Australians in the way Mandela is for South Africans, a central player in the national founding myth. (The Charles Williams biography is a brilliant discussion of that point.) And as the greatest player who ever lived, he is iconic for the ‘cricket world’, in the way that Mandela is for the human race, or at least for humanists and non-racists.

After the Mandela moment last July, I did not feel that Australia went over the top about Bradman last week. But since I’m not Australian, any piece I might have written would have been because cricket is a core part of my identity. So I conclude that not autonomously writing a Bradman tribute means that I do not see myself as entirely within the cricket world. I may be a cricket-obsessive and I may be helping in a very marginal way to produce the ‘cricket world.’ But I am not a cricket fanatic or fundamentalist, it is not a religion for me. This little self-discovery, about something I think about every day, is rather comforting.

So, Avi, I hope that explains it. It’s not about the Don, he’s right up there in the pantheon.

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Posted by robert on (March 6, 2009, 23:53 GMT)

Sure, I guess helmets are safer. But what I miss is the spectacle of one man against another - I miss the old unhelmeted photos of batsman like Keith Miller, Clyde Walcott, Denis Compton, Garfield Sobers and the like, and the nostalgia of actually SEEING the faces of these great players - in real life, as real characters that you can actually see = check out the old photos, - not just as anonymous people behind iron or plastic masks. Masks i.e. helmets have taken the nobility and humanity out of the game, and the artistry and individuality of characters. Now you can't see them until they walk back into the pavilion, and often even then, they leave their unbloodied helmets on. Like robots.

Posted by mike of cnbra on (September 11, 2008, 23:00 GMT)

Marcus. Another thing. The best bowlers of recent times are considered to be Murali and Warne. Look at their records against the best batting sides of their time, India and Australia. Murali averages 30 v India (mainly boosted by a recent home series against a declining side) and 36 v Australia. Warne averaged 47 v India! Yet these 2 are the best bowlers of recent times. Yet neither had to face a Bradman. Now if you look at the list of bowlers I gave and took out runs conceded to Bradman their averages against Australia fall by another 3 or 4 runs a wkt. Actually in Allen's case it falls by abt 7! Verity, for eg, goes from 28 to a 24 average. Interesting isn't it? So when you compare the bowlers he faced they are on every statistic more than comparable with the challenges batsmen face today.

Posted by Marcus on (September 11, 2008, 8:39 GMT)

Mike's given a list of impressive bowlers that Bradman faced, and I just want to add something to put them into context. The English bowlers he faced had averages ranging from 22 to 29. Of the most prolific English bowlers of the last five years, Hoggard has the lowest average of 30.5. And I doubt that Edwards, Taylor and Powell are as good as Constantine, Francis and Griffith were.

As an indication of Bradman's ability against spin- check out his performances against South African Cyril Vincent. I don't think anyone would see Vincent's record and doubt that he was an extremely competent spin bowler, but Bradman averaged 200 against South Africa in the only series they played, and Vincent took his wickets at 54- double what he averaged against England. So the criticism that he didn't do well against quality spin doesn't hold water either.

Posted by mike of cnbra on (September 10, 2008, 23:25 GMT)

Nandun Senanayake. Which of these bowlers do you consider poor? Larwood, Tate, Voce, Allen, Farnes, Bowes, Geary, Verity, White, Bedser, Laker, Constantine, Francis, Griffith? These are the men Bradman faced. All of them exceptional performers. These are the men he averaged close to 100 against. While all others struggled in a range of 20 to 50. Its the modern players who have feasted on poor bowling. Zim and BD for a start. SL is only Murali. India stuffed themselves on Aussie bowling that was weakened over 2 series. Another thought for you Bradman bashers. Imagine if today's players were born to play in Bradman's time. Do you think they'd be as good as they are now? If SRT was born in 1910 he'd only been as good as the standards were then. He couldn't have brought all his modern training and knowledge into play. Yet give him those advantages we see that he is a batter player than he ever could've been if born in 1910. Why wouldn't the same apply to Bradman?

Posted by Geoff Plumridge on (September 7, 2008, 13:56 GMT)

Leartiste2001 by your reckoning people like Hutton, Hammond & Compton would be averaging 25 with the bat? Don't believe it.

I remember hearing a story about David Steele a regular County player in the days when England County Championship still had uncovered wickets. He came out to bat against Lillee & Thompson and although he had a County average of 32.47 he averaged over 50 that series against the best fat bowling attack we've ever had.

Asked what the secret of his success was he just said "well the wickets are so good"..

Someone like Barrington or Dexter would monster a modern attack on the flat dead tracks they call test wickets these days. And with the railway sleepers they use for bats and the boundaries yards further in than they were years ago, I'd say the Don would average over 100 with the pitches so good.

Posted by hylian lynk on (September 6, 2008, 12:06 GMT)

leartiste2001 you are making the same mistake again. Why are you putting Tendulkar and Lara with their current modern training in the 1930 - 1940 timeframe. If you did this they could never average 99, they would never have batted on uncovered wickets. Given their records on the modern Brisbane track I would bet they don't average 30.

Posted by Noelene on (September 5, 2008, 19:20 GMT)

I looked at howstat.com.au to see Bradman's stats after you said he was outscored because I was curious myself. I had to do it all again to answer your question,but I din't mind.Looking at the stats reinforced how good he was. Here is the list 1928-1929 v Eng-Hammond 905(Bradman 468) 1930-v Eng Bradman 974 1930-1931 v West Indies Ponsford 467(Bradman 447) 1931-1932 Aus v South Africa Bradman 806 1932-1933 Hammond-Sutcliffe 440 each (Bradman 396) 1934 Eng v Aus Bradman 758 1936-1937 Aus v England Bradman 810 1938 Eng v Australia Brown-512 (Bradman 434) 1946-1947 Australia v England Bradman- 680 1947-1948 v India Bradman-715 1948 v England Morris-696(Bradman 508)

When he top scored for the series,he sure top scored.Today we talk about batsmen who score a 1,000 runs a year.

Posted by Michael Jeh on (September 3, 2008, 22:58 GMT)

Nice piece Stephen. I think Geoff Plumridge puts into nice perspective. The appreciation of Bradman is a very Australian thing and it's almost heresy to not love his legacy. What Geoff also manages to convey is a dignified Aust viewpoint which doesn't seek to necessarily bag anyone that doesn't share his opinion. I always enjoy reading comments from people who don't shy away from their preferences but equally, don't feel that everybody else is obliged to agree with them. Much of what we discuss in this blog is a matter of opinion, not irrefutable fact so it's great to read a wide variety of views without the nasty put-downs or angry ant syndrome. After all, we all seem to share a love of cricket in common, even if Philistines like you don't remember Bradman's birthday (only joking mate!).

Posted by leartiste2001 on (September 3, 2008, 22:52 GMT)

So hylian thinks I am downplaying Bradman's achievements. Not at all! I coach cricket. The footage of Bradman's technique, timing, and placement are still the best I have ever seen in any era. I think that players like Tendulkar and Lara would have had similar averages to Bradman if they were playing in his time as well. I emphasised that the game was different then. I contrasted the athleticism, fitness, and fielding of today's test cricketers with those of Bradman's era. The overall standard is much higher today. I would expect that as the game evolves further, tomorrow's champions and cricket lovers will be debating about whether Ponting, Warne, or McGrath would have been selected to play for Australia in their time as well. I think that based on his technique alone Bradman would certainly average 50+ in today's game, but not 99.94. Why do Bradmanites insist on making him sound immortal as though he transcends time? For mine, Bradman is the best batsman Australia has ever produced.

Posted by Geoff Plumridge on (September 3, 2008, 13:11 GMT)

OK.. to understand Don Bradman you have to understand Australia & Australians and I suppose as a South African you are already at a disadvantage.

Here was an uncoached and agricultural cricketer because of his up-bringing and his freakish self taught (golf-ball against a round brick water tank) hand eye co-ordination went on into the cricket stratosphere.

His story IS the story of our country. Someone from a town no-one outside Australia would have ever heard of playing in a peculiarly Australian style that was scoffed at by the English showing everyone the full nature of great batting.

We judge ourselves internationally on the quality of our sportsman. They earn more than our scientists & politicians. Bradman gave Australia during the depression a reason to be proud internationally. And he still does. We know that we as a nation have spawned the greatest batsman ever and Bradman has given every young Australian a very high yardstick. If you aren't Aussie, you won't get it.

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