1931 October 30, 2004

The day The Don got a working-over

Failures with the bat by Don Bradman were not commonplace, ducks even less so

Eddie Gilbert: frighteningly fast but his action was suspect © Cricketer
Failures with the bat by Don Bradman were not commonplace, ducks even less so. In 1931-32 he started his Sheffield Shield season with one, but more than that, it was a rare occasion when he came off distant second-best to a bowler.

New South Wales's first game of the summer was against Queensland at the recently-opened Gabba. Queensland won the toss, batted, and in front of 4000 spectators were bowled out for 109 in a little over a session. Queensland struck back straight away when the fast bowler Eddie Gilbert got his first ball to rear at opener Wendell Bill's throat and he could do no more than fend it to Len Waterman, the wicketkeeper who was making his debut. That brought in Bradman, who had scored 873 runs in the previous season and who had made 452 the last time the two states met, to face Gilbert.

Everything about Gilbert went against the grain. He was an Aborigine, almost unknown then in Australian first-class cricket, and he was alarmingly fast. He was slight - 1.70m tall, less than 57kg, but with extraordinarily long arms - his run-up was a few stuttering paces, but when he was on song he could upset the best batsmen. The problem, however, was that his action was suspect, and many believed he threw. Bradman, on the other hand, was young, fit, starting his fifth season of first-class cricket, and approaching the height of his powers.

The first ball Bradman faced from Gilbert forced him back onto his stumps and he had to play a hurried defensive shot. The second lifted alarmingly off a length but was down the leg side and Bradman was able to duck and let it past. The third beat Bradman's half-hearted jab and thundered into Waterman's gloves.

The fourth was a brute which cut Bradman in two. Some reports say that it struck him in the stomach, others that it hit his bat. What nobody doubted was that it rattled Bradman and, as he later admitted, it knocked the bat from his hand.

Bradman c Waterman b Gilbert 0
Bradman c Waterman b Gilbert 0 © Cricketer
Bradman needed time to recover from the blow before he could resume, and when he did Gilbert produced a carbon-copy of the previous delivery - Bradman sparred, the ball took the edge of his bat and flew to Waterman. "The keeper took the ball over his head," Bradman recalled, "and I reckon it was halfway to the boundary." The crowd roared and then almost immediately went silent, as if awed by what they had witnessed.

If Bradman had a weakness, it was believed to be when facing genuine pace. Against Harold Larwood at The Oval in 1930 he had been seen by England players to look unnerved by Larwood's speed on a wet wicket, and in his previous innings before he faced Gilbert - against West Indies in March 1931 - he had been clean-bowled for 0 by Herman Griffith, another out-and-out quick. As for Gilbert, Bradman said that the five balls "were unhesitatingly faster than anything seen from Larwood or anyone else."

At Brisbane, Gilbert bowled Alan Fairfax to have 3 for 12, but had given his all and the match thereafter went according to the form-book. NSW rattled up 432 thanks to an unbeaten double-century from Stan McCabe, and then bowled out Queensland for 85 to win by an innings and 238 runs.

The NSW players were unhappy with Gilbert's action, but kept their views to themselves. Al Rose, the team's manager, had no such reservations and told the press at the end of the match that Gilbert was a chucker. Bradman himself later recalled that Gilbert "jerked the ball ... and it was very hard that way to generate such speed with a legitimate delivery."

Unlike Bradman, Gilbert did not go on to greater fame, partly because of his dubious action, partly because of discrimination. In 1930-31, his debut season, Frank Gough, his Queensland captain, refused to travel if Gilbert accompanied the team. Other team-mates refused to speak to him or tried to run him out. "It's all right to be a hero on the field," he once said, "but a black man can be lonely when he is not accepted after the game." He was repeatedly no-balled for throwing - 13 times in one match at Melbourne in 1931-32 - and slipped into obscurity and a life of alcoholism and mental illness.

Bradman faced Gilbert twice more. On Christmas Day in 1935 he hammered 233 on a pluperfect Adelaide pitch, but less than three weeks later, on a more sporting Brisbane surface, Gilbert again rattled him. Bradman made 31, only four of which came off Gilbert who finished with 5 for 87. Some even claimed that Bradman had dropped himself down the order to No. 4 to avoid facing Gilbert at full steam.

Is there an incident from the past you would like to know more about? E-mail rewind@cricinfo.com with your comments and suggestions.

A Farewell To Cricket - Don Bradman (Hodder & Stoughton, 1950)
Bradman the Great - B J Wakley (Mainstream Publishing, 1999)
The Don - Roland Perry (Virgin Books, 2000)
Eddie Gilbert - Mike Coleman and Ken Edwards (2002)
Wisden Cricket Monthly - Various
The Cricketer - Various