Not so long ago I found myself at a trivia night, when a round was announced with the designation "Famous Faces": this involved a sheet of paper featuring the images of 20 allegedly famous persons. My table gathered to brainstorm and banter. After a pause, looks were exchanged. We reviewed the evidence again. Hmm, nope - not one figure did any of us recognise: they were faces, it transpired, from reality television we'd never watched, pop music we'd never heard, sport we didn't care about. Few things today date you so reliably as that group of people you consider "famous".
What we honour today, on the centenary of Sir Donald Bradman's birth, is his defiance of that modern trend to a fame of instant perishability. There's the cricket, too - but that can be savoured any day, and has been for the 60 years since Bradman's last Test innings in the endless recapitulations of his career. Centenaries are celebrations of continuity: they are tributes to the figure concerned and to ourselves: statements of stability, recognitions of our abiding priorities.
Bradman remains capable of remarkable feats, if today's dinners and DVDs, speeches and specials are anything to go by. After all, how many cricketers have their centenaries marked in any significant way? It was WG Grace's bad luck that when his fell in 1948, all Englishmen could talk about was Bradman.
By present trends, too, the legend survives on precious little. As a surgically-enhanced Sachin Tendulkar emerges from his cryogenic deep-freeze in the multimedia megalopolis BCCI City on 10 November 2067, worshippers will probably be able to watch holograms of every ball of his career - a career plied in every cricket country of the world as the champion of the most populous. Representing a nation in his time of only six million people, Bradman played cricket in two countries, and bar the fragmentary footage that remains and the words he inspired, left behind traces only of his runs. Yet he is known to every cricket fan - and most of them know his batting average too.
Bradman's feats, then, are only the half of it. A grasp of the phenomenon of fame enhances appreciation. In his pioneering study The Image, Daniel Boorstin explained fame as an outcome of technical innovation in the mass media: the telegraph, linking continents, the rotary press, allowing print on both sides of a newspaper, and the roll film, which made having your photo taken less like sitting for a portrait and more like signing an autograph. Studying content in popular newspapers and magazines in the US, Boorstin found the most marked change around the First World War: before it, three-quarters of the subjects of stories were from politics, business or the professions; after it, more than half came from entertainment, thanks to the explosion in the popularity of cinema, the dissemination of radio, and the advent of the wire photo. There emerged a shadow form of fame, with the style rather than the substance. "The hero" shared public space with "the celebrity", who was "well-known for their well-knownness".
|Bradman was a source of enormous national pride, and bore a crushing burden of sporting expectation. His public activities were somewhat restricted, and he was never comfortable with being a object of curiosity. But few famous persons can have lived, and also been permitted to live, so close to an ordinary life|
A different kind of fame
The 1920s then saw the first frenzies of public acclamation, where the hero and the celebrity merged into one. The American aviator Charles Lindbergh went aloft in May 1927 a relative unknown, and landed across the Atlantic a divine. The classic biography by A Scott Berg describes a life turned inside out. Matrons in St Louis fought over a corn cob Lindbergh had chewed. He could not cash or send a cheque, or send shirts to the laundry: neither would be returned. He married in secret, leaving the ceremony hunched in the back of a friend's car, while a decoy led the press off to a false destination. Honeymooning on a yacht a week later, he and his wife were buzzed by a seaplane with a photographer dangling out the window. When their first son was kidnapped and killed, photographers stormed the morgue, ransacked the coffin and took pictures of the mangled corpse, then sold them as postcards on the streets of New Jersey for $5 each; later, photographers trailing a car taking the Lindberghs' second son to nursery school forced it off the road.
And yet, nothing like this befell Bradman. To be sure, he was a source of enormous national pride, and bore a crushing burden of sporting expectation. His public activities were somewhat restricted, and he was never comfortable with being an object of curiosity. But few famous persons can have lived, and also been permitted to live, so close to an ordinary life. He held ordinary jobs, as a seller of sporting goods and a dealer in stocks. He was married once, to his childhood sweetheart, and raised children in the only house he bought.
It could have been otherwise. Nobody who wished it, for instance, could not find Bradman's address, and you knew you were guaranteed a response if you wrote to 2 Holden Street in the Adelaide suburb of Kensington. Bradman, too, scorned the template reply: he gave even his plainest letters a personal, humanising touch. But out of this developed a stable, sustainable, long-term, arm's-length relationship between Bradman and his public, in which both sides, consciously and unconsciously, honoured their sides of the bargain. Thus was a pre-modern fame nurtured into a post-modern age; a compromise classically of Australia, a country that exalts the common man. Consequently Bradman eluded some of the wages of fame. In his What Price Fame?, American economist Tyler Cowen presents detailed calculations suggesting that the famous tend to have far lower life expectancies than the non-famous, and to suffer disproportionately from heart disease, kidney failure, alcoholism and drug addiction. "Fame tends to be bad for the famous," he concludes. Not for Bradman. Perhaps it even kept him going: despite a relatively frail constitution, he lived to 92.
England's embrace of Bradman was not foretold, nor was it immediate, but it was wholehearted. Richard Holt argued plausibly in the 2002 edition of Wisden that the summer of 1934 was "the turning-point of Bradman's relationship with the British". Before his form came flooding back at Headingley, Bradman's batting was unexpectedly fallible that summer; his life-or-death struggle with peritonitis then spellbound the British public.
It sometimes eludes modern readers just how serious Bradman's predicament was. It was 50 years since the first successful surgical removal of an appendix, but infection remained a deadly possibility in an age before antibiotics. In the most thorough study from the time - compiled in a Massachusetts hospital between 1929 and 1939 - three per cent of appendicitis patients died, the mortality-rate rising to 13% where perforation occurred. As Holt observes: "The public suddenly saw this remarkable run-making machine in a new light, as a young man with a new bride, whose dash from Sydney to Perth to get the first boat caught the popular imagination."
Four years later, like a good son of empire, Bradman apprehended the unfolding European crisis as an affair for Australians also, writing to a friend from Naples: "From the dock of our ship we counted 36 destroyers. Eight cruisers and seventy-two submarines. I guess they were not built to rust." He was a popular, patriotic ambassador for his country, and would be more popular a decade later, when on his fabled final tour he was made an honorary life member of both Yorkshire and Lancashire. "To the middle classes, Donald Bradman, batsman and stockbroker, stood for suburban virtue rewarded," argues Holt. "To the working man, his blend of virtuosity and grit struck a chord, especially in the North, where his professionalism was more appreciated than in the South." If that's true, mind you, it can only be by an almost imperceptible margin. He was assuredly revered at Lord's, where he became, on his 50th birthday, the first honorary life member of MCC not a member of the royal family or to have held high political office. His appeal to toffs, of course, was in the way his rise validated social hierarchies, suggesting that the man of talent would always be recognised.
Big all over
Bradman's influence is concentrated around cricket's Anglo-Australian axis but not confined to it. In March 1976, for example, his image was used on a postage stamp issued in South Africa to mark the centenary of the Champion Bat Trophy, forerunner to the Currie Cup.
Among the most famous Bradman stories of all, meanwhile, concerns Nelson Mandela, recently sprung from Robben Island, breaking the ice with former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser by asking: "Tell me. Is Donald Bradman still alive?" On his visit to Australia in September 2000, Mandela vouchsafed: "In the 30s and 40s, at least in our country, we regarded Sir Donald... as one of the divinities, so great was he and such an impact he made."
|Bradman was the first honorary life member of MCC not a member of the royal family or to have held high political office. His appeal to toffs, of course, was in the way his rise validated social hierarchies, suggesting that the man of talent would always be recognised|
Then, of course, there is Bradman's reputation in Asia, with its many exhibits - from the schoolboys in Bombay in the mid-1930s who founded the Don Bradman Cricket Club to the starstruck Ceylonese port policeman who had his newborn son christened Bradman Weerakoon after an encounter with the homeward-heading Australian. It is also a fame that has stood the test of time. More Indians than Australians watched Bradman's funeral service - in fact, more Indians watched (50 million) than there are Australians.
It's an exaggeration to report Bradman as feeling particular kinship with cricket in Asia. He made landfall on the subcontinent only in June 1953, on the way to reporting an Ashes series for the Daily Mail, stopping off in transit with BOAC at Calcutta then Karachi. Interestingly, his wife probably spent more time there than he did, solicitously looked after by Vijay Merchant when she paused there on her 1934 mercy dash to England.
Otherwise, Bradman remained aboard the Strathaird when it docked at Bombay's Ballard Pier in 1948, and declined all the many subsequent invitations, including one from the Board of Control for Cricket in Pakistan to a series of one-day matches in November 1976 to mark the centenary of Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Keith Miller went instead and, 20 years after his retirement, was actually game to play). Vasant Raiji puts his claim that Indians regard Bradman as cricket deity rather elegantly, turning the absences into an argument for ineffability:
God is perfect. In the eyes of the Indians, Bradman is the perfect batsman. God is unseen. Indians have not seen Bradman play. God's ways are inscrutable. Indians cannot comprehend why, in spite of numerous pressing invitations, Bradman never came to India. Whatever happens is God's will. So if Bradman avoided India, it was Bradman's will. Disappointment but no ill-feeling or rancour.
Of course, Indian cricketers have partaken directly of the legend, forming the opposition when Bradman scored his 100th first-class hundred, and his only brace of Test hundreds. But Bradman's role in Indian cricket seems to have been less that of an individual figure and more as a kind of yardstick or gold standard. He offered records to be aimed for, which at first seemed far-off: BB Nimbalkar came famously close with his undefeated 443 for Maharastra against Kathiawar in December 1948, within a boundary or two of surpassing Bradman's record first-class score. It was evidence of Indian cricket's maturity when Sunil Gavaskar made a few of the Don's records his own, surpassing Bradman's record number of Test centuries, and underwriting the successful pursuit of 406 in the fourth innings in Port-of-Spain to improve on the feat of Bradman's Australians at Leeds 28 years earlier.
An idealised Bradman has also been a personification of good conduct. During his struggle with the BCCI's great poobah Anthony de Mello, for instance, Lala Amarnath was strengthened by a description of himself in Bradman's Farewell to Cricket as "charming in every respect and a splendid ambassador". "De Mello has done me a lot of harm," Amarnath told the Times of India. "But my reputation has been fully vindicated by no less a celebrity than Bradman in his memoirs."
Bradman's acceptance of honorary life membership of the Cricket Club of India was front-page news; likewise his lofty praise for the methods of Sachin Tendulkar. More recently, he has been used to represent the lofty estate from which cricket has fallen. In November 2000, he made an improbable appearance in the Central Bureau of Investigation's report into cricket corruption: "Cricket, as it is played at present, does not appear to be the same game played by Sir Don Bradman or [the one] Neville Cardus wrote about. The romanticism associated with the game has perhaps gone forever."
That, in fact, is a possible next development of the Bradman legend: a symbol not of continuity but of dislocation, of what is bygone, of what the game has sacrificed. For it will be difficult to sustain a legend of the Don if the form of the game in which he excelled, Test cricket between countries, is destined for permanent eclipse. Were Francis Fukuyama an analyst of cricket rather than geopolitics he might at the moment be writing The End of History and the Last Bradman.
History is surely full of ironies: India, which never saw Bradman, will be the country that chiefly shapes how he will be seen by future generations: whether he continues to provoke instant recognition, or becomes one of those faces in a trivia quiz that you can't quite place.
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer