History from the maker
Sir Donald Bradman's Farewell to Cricket would be a book of significance had the author misspelled his own name and credited himself with 333 in Headingley in 1930. It is what it is: the testament of batting's most effective practitioner, and cricket's foremost Australian. Yet it is surprisingly little perused today, having gone through only three editions, the last of them a tatty paperback almost 15 years ago - surprisingly, because Bradman the writer is as precise, comprehensive and analytical as the batsman so revered.
One of its most interesting features is the title. For Bradman was far from bidding cricket farewell when he wrote the book in 1949, at the encouragement of his literary agent David Higham: he was settling in as the guru of the Australian game, which he would remain for more than a quarter of a century. Yet he clearly regarded active participation as the key to involvement in cricket: no continuing to speak about his career in the present tense a la Geoff Boycott, or in the third person a la Viv Richards. Unlike Richards, and also Garry Sobers, whose autobiographies flourish their knighthoods, Farewell to Cricket is credited simply to "Don Bradman". I can't imagine that this is not considered: little about Bradman was not. Indeed, Bradman comments in the book: "No man ever had less ambitions in that direction. I neither desired nor anticipated any recognition of my services." The writer is intent on keeping his head when others all about are losing theirs; much is offered, but little, in the end, is truly divulged.
A cricket life is usually, in the main, a sum of its stories, and Bradman has some of the best in history - precisely because he made history so reliably, and was perforce there when it happened. Bradman's first-ball duck at the Melbourne Cricket Ground during the Bodyline series has been redescribed countless times, including rather well by the bowler, Bill Bowes, in Express Deliveries (1958). But Bradman's is the essential telling; likewise there is delight in the sequel.
Before an enormous crowd, I listened to a most inspiring ovation as I walked to the wicket. Herbert Sutcliffe, whom I passed on the way, commented on this wonderful reception and I replied, "Yes, but will it be so good when I am coming back?' In a matter of seconds I was returning in deathly silence. Bowes' first ball pitched short and well outside the off stump, but aided and abetted by a faulty pull shot, hit my leg stump.
Fortunately, I was able to make amends in the second innings by scoring 103 not out in a total of 191. It was amusing in the second innings when our last batsman, Bert Ironmonger, came in with my score in the nineties. The story is told of someone telephoning the ground to speak to him. On being told that Bert could not come to the phone as he had just gone in to bat, the enquirer said, "Well, I'll wait."
I walked to meet Bert but he got in first with "Don't worry, son, I won't let you down." Hammond was bowling and never have I seen two balls go closer to any man's stumps. But Bert did not let me down.
Bradman brooks little sentiment in his cricket views. He asserts rather than speculates, rationalises rather than romanticises, and the logic is brisk. "Has cricket improved?" he asks, then answers in the next breath: "Unless we believe that cricket has improved we do not believe in progress." Bradman's faith in nature over nurture, apparently superstitious, is actually explained in terms of a rational process. Advised to interfere with his grip as a colt, Bradman ignored the kibitzers:
I experimented - worked out the pros and cons - and eventually decided not to change my natural grip. Throughout a long career my grip caused many arguments but I think it is sufficient to prove that any young player should be allowed to develop his own natural style, providing he is not revealing an obvious error. A player is not necessarily wrong just because he is different.
One of the reasons he cites for giving the palm to Bill O'Reilly as the greatest bowler of all time is that the mighty legspinner stuck similarly to his instincts: "O'Reilly did not hold the ball in the fingers quite like the orthodox legspinner. It was held more towards the palm of his hand. He was advised by certain 'experts' to change his grip but fortunately refused to be advised."
Cricket was not, however, solely an exercise of will and reason, even for Bradman. There are hints of the high-strung psychosomatic make-up behind the game's broadest bat, the nervous energy harnessed, the dread staved off. "I always felt anxiety prior to the start of a big game," he explains. "Once action commenced, I lost the earlier sensation. It was replaced by a sort of tense exhilaration which, at the conclusion of a match, often gave way to a severe reaction." The solitary nature is explained by reference to that temperament: "I always obtained best results by seeking quietness. Music is a tonic to jaded nerves." Bradman acknowledges misgivings even on the eve of his greatest triumph, Australia's pageant of 1948: "I had returned to cricket in 1946-7 against the advice of my doctors and now I was going to England against my own better judgment - risking personal failure and other possibilities." Not only was Bradman's book a farewell, then, but it revealed a sense of some relief that his active day was done.
Farewell to Cricket
by Don Bradman
Hodder and Stoughton, 1950
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer