March 23, 2008

Diamond anniversary

Sixty years later, the legend of the Invincibles lives on

The most famous zero: Don Bradman is bowled by Eric Hollies at The Oval © Getty Images

It is no surprise that Don Bradman's farewell to international cricket went almost perfectly. From the start of the 1948 tour Bradman was on a mission to finish his fourth visit to England with an undefeated trip.

Five months after arriving at Tilbury on the Strathaird the Australians boarded the Orontes as history-makers, having won the Test series 4-0, including a world-record chase at Headingley, been victorious in 19 tour games and experienced eight draws. Fifteen of the wins were by an innings. They would soon become the Invincibles.

The 20th Australian tour to England departed in March 60 years ago and the magnitude of the performance has grown with every year. At the time Bradman and his band of conquerors were followed up and down the country. Since then they have been romanticised like no other team.

It was not quite a gallop through the countryside for the 17 men in what were oversized flannels by modern standards. The only serious trouble in the Tests came in Manchester, where they were helped by rain when only three innings were possible, but a couple of times in matches against the counties there was big trouble. Unfortunately for Lindsay Hassett, the vice-captain, the problems occurred when Bradman was resting.

In a low-scoring affair against Yorkshire in Bradford, Australia, seeking 60 for the win, were a disastrous 6 for 31 and needed the 19-year-old Neil Harvey to seal the tense success - he did it with a six. With the perfect record in danger when the team was struggling against Hampshire a month later, Bradman interrupted his break to wire Hassett. "Bradford was bad enough but this is unbearable, heads up and chins down." The message got through and Australia turned a 78-run first-innings deficit into an eight-wicket victory.

In between the sporadic bouts of discomfort there was plenty to toast on the field, including singing "Happy Birthday" to Bradman for his 40th celebrations during a game at Lord's. The Headingley Test, which included Bradman's 29th century and the pursuit of an unlikely 404 for victory, was the highlight of the tour, but there were no popping corks at stumps. They had only 45 minutes to make the train to Derby for the next day's tour match. A dinner was held the following night to mark the Ashes success and Bradman said, "You couldn't have seen a happier band of chaps."

Rations were still in force as England recovered from World War Two, and half a piece of toast and a mushroom often counted as breakfast for the Australians, who wanted no special treatment. However, there was no on-field charity for any of the home teams

Bradman's smiles turned briefly to tears at The Oval when he was welcomed with three cheers for his final Test innings. A duck from an inside edge to Eric Hollies' googly added to the legend. England had already been dismissed for 52 and the tour finished on a collective high. The home team may have been demoralised but the performance of the Australians was responsible for lifting the spirits of both nations.

Rations were still in force as England recovered from World War Two, and half a piece of toast and a mushroom often counted as breakfast for the Australians, who wanted no special treatment. However, there was no on-field charity for any of the hosts, from Norman Yardley's Test team to the various county and first-class collections. By the second half of the tour Bradman saw them all as threats. Even in the final two festival games in Hastings and Scarborough he refused to stop accelerating.

Bradman demanded the opposition not field a team full of internationals and then put out almost all of his main men. As dusk approached on the 1921 tour, Warwick Armstrong's side stumbled twice, giving up a £100 bonus for an untainted trip. Rain helped Bradman's team avoid any severe troubles and the aim was achieved, even if it left those outside the Test side underused throughout the tour. The spare players had a song about being the ground staff - "At the nets, we bowl all day; in a match, we're never asked to play" - but Bradman's focus was unwavering.

"I freely admit to the great pleasure of achieving one ambition - to lead an Australian team through an English tour undefeated," Bradman wrote in Farewell to Cricket. "History may decide whether it was the greatest Australian team ever. I can't. For me, I'm satisfied to say it was a really great team, whose strength lay in its all-round ability, versatility and brilliance allied to bulldog courage. You can often get some of these things, to get the lot is a rarity."

Australia has been trying to find a squad to match the Invincibles ever since, and the unbroken record has developed almost mythical qualities. Steve Waugh's excellent team of 2001 lost four times, including Mark Butcher's Headingley Test; four years later Ricky Ponting arrived with Australia hoping for a clean sweep and he returned with the country's first Ashes defeat in 16 years. Both men's drive is unquestioned, but none had the desire or superstar qualities of Bradman. No Australia captain probably ever will.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo