August 26, 2008

Custodian in chief

Bradman's image may be that of a stodgy, almost puritanical man, but his grand love and care for the game's well-being were undeniable and would be useful now

We are fools if we forget Don Bradman - especially now, at the moment of massive upheaval © AFP

Tell you one opinion we haven't heard in the whole Twenty20 debate: Don Bradman's.

We haven't even heard anyone wonder what Bradman would have thought about Twenty20 were he around to blow out his candles, unflashily but effectively, for a hundredth time. He's Out, all right, out of our minds. Nowadays if an Australian under 65 offers to show you his Bradman impression, chances are he won't fetch a hunk of wood and feign to tickle the first ball wide of mid-on for a single. More likely he'll impersonate Ian Chappell's impersonation of Bradman, as aired on the Cricket in the '70s doco, a stern man uncrossing his arms and leaning bolt forward in his chair, a picture of weaselly unlisteningness, answering suggestions that players get paid a fairer share of the gate-takings with a gravelly whine. "Oh no, son, we can't do that."

Almost as much as we remember him for 99.94, we remember him for what he didn't do and wasn't. Wasn't a punter, wasn't a beer drinker, wasn't a joker, a swearer or a spinner of coarse dressing-room yarns. Wasn't a human, almost - the 1931-32 South Africans believed he did not sweat. Unflattering is the image we now see emerging. A boy who'd sooner knock a ball against a rainwater tank than tramp Bowral's streets with his pals and a kerosene tin for a wicket. A Masonic Lodge-going man, tirelessly meticulous, not unlike Australia's last prime minister in his tastes and fancies, a man who too often for comfort used words like behoves.

"It behoves all of us to realise we are the custodians of the welfare of cricket and must guard its future even more zealously than its present." Bradman wrote that, in 1939, a plea for cricket to adapt to the "quickening of modern tempo" and "more Americanised" way of life. What makes the most famous 30-year-old in the Empire write an essay like that? What makes him go to meetings? Cricket offers young men an outdoorsy alternative to the desk-bound drudgery of meetings. Bradman was 12 when he attended his first, the annual general meeting of Bowral Town Cricket Club. At 17 he was appointed the club's honorary secretary. Honorary - that is, unpaid - was the nature of his four or so decades as a state and Test selector, as a national board delegate, as a two-time board chairman, as a state association president and vice-president, as an immovable fixture, like an old white sightscreen with flat tyres, on the Adelaide Oval's ground and finance committee.

What persuades a man to endure all those phone hook-ups, all those meetings? Care for the game's well-being makes a man do that. It was Bradman's overriding characteristic. It is not noticeably the overriding characteristic of the current lot of administrators.

Bradman was not always right, but he was always there. He was there for chucking and the South Africa question. He was there the last time an undersized newcomer walked in and took over, confessing his love for 50-over cricket, for its faster running, nimbler throwing, readier risk-taking. It was not so grand a love as his love for Test cricket. And it was not a blind love, for he fretted about the easy singles in the middle overs - "one can get bored to death" - and about the easy money too: "With so much money at stake I doubt if the modern professionals enjoy their cricket as much." But love it was.

What persuades a man to endure all those phone hook-ups, all those meetings? Care for the game's well-being makes a man do that. It was Bradman's overriding characteristic. It is not noticeably the overriding characteristic of the current lot of administrators

Ideas hit Bradman - and stayed hit - long before most others. Night-time Tests seemed sensible. Television assistance for umpires seemed practical, except on lbws. Lbw rules needed to be loosened to make the batsman's life harder and the bowler's plight less thankless. The emphasis on averages was a "curse". (Easy, perhaps, for someone averaging as near as heck to 100 to say.) Back in the early sixties, when batting slugs were making the game a chore and scaring crowds away, he addressed the Australian players on Gabba Test eve. "The selectors," Bradman told them, "will look in kindly fashion on players who play aggressively."

Four-and-a-half days of dashing strokes, daring field settings and mad haring between wickets followed. Then, at tea, with Australia 6 for 109 in pursuit of 233, Bradman asked the captain, Richie Benaud, what his intentions were. Win or draw?

"We're going for a win," Benaud said.

"I'm very pleased to hear it," Bradman said.

Two hours later a Test was tied and cricket seemed like fun again.

Maybe, years after, he missed the coming menace of rising player dissatisfaction. Probably Chappell's depiction of whiny, weaselly unlisteningness is about right. But once change bashed the door down, Bradman did not flinch. Bradman did not sledge Kerry Packer or his World Series Cricket or the couple of dozen Australians who signed up to play it. His first thought was to protect Test cricket's brand, and one way of accomplishing that was to recruit a long-retired 41-year-old captain of upstanding character and limitless devotion. Bob Simpson went to lunch with Bradman feeling unsure. He left feeling honoured, flattered and largely persuaded.

Even when Bradman was an old man, a selector of no one and chairman of nothing, cricket felt his caring hand. Players who met him memorised every second of it. Captains scoured his words for special meaning, and found it. Dining with Australia's Test players in his eighties, unflustered by their raised hands and staring eyes, he urged them to do what they could to make cricket better, and proposed: "We are all custodians of the game we play." Mark Taylor, as chivalrous a leader as any Australian captain of old, thought often of that.

Steve Waugh went round to 2 Holden Street, Kensington Park a fortnight before Bradman turned 91. The same conversational traits that used to settle arguments and silence fellow boardmen struck Waugh: the knowledge, the opinions, the aura, the inquiring mind. Waugh made special note of the lack of Bradmanarama on display, just a painting above a fireplace, and the state of the old man's hands - never once hit, apparently, in all his Test days.

"How is that possible?" Bradman replied: "You only get hit on the hands if you miss the ball."

Steve Waugh, seen here mourning Bradman's death in Mumbai with Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne in 2001, was impressed with his predecessor's knowledge, opinions, aura and inquiring mind © Getty Images

Nineteen months later Bradman was dead, and Waugh was in Mumbai for the beginning of a Test series. Rather than cancel it, Waugh suggested they play it - and play it in the spirit Bradman would have wanted. India won 2-1, and the series, we now know, was as gripping and unpredictable as any since Australia hosted West Indies in 1960-61, another grand drama played out in the spirit and shadow of The Don.

No shame to say we miss him. We are fools if we forget him - especially now, at the moment of massive upheaval. If he were still here, Twenty20's rows of cheery spectators would surely please him. He'd see the enjoyment on the players' faces, and he'd probably like that too, although he might wonder, as he did once before, whether people playing for such loot could possibly have as much fun as people playing for the pure love of it. Bradman himself, in 11,000 minutes at the Test batting crease, hit six sixes, a tally equalled in the 57th minute of the first Twenty20 international and overtaken in the 58th. Even so, you suspect he'd relish the risk-taking, the shots seemingly invented with a tennis racquet, or a meat cleaver, in mind.

But Bradman's favourite thing of all was Test cricket's cut and thrust. Clout and tonk, which is the Twenty20 way, he'd perhaps find less fulfilling. Bradman was ever awake to the struggles of bowlers. So the trawling in, in, in of boundary ropes might irritate him. No matter how bedridden he was, for he'd have turned 100 this week, you fancy he would do something to stop today's supersonic bats, a curse that makes bowling feel more like fetching and which no living administrator seems to have noticed.

And if a cricketer ever demanded the wages of the European soccer pro, or wished that his board might stop sending him to places unglamorous and un-lucrative, like Pakistan, or decided that he preferred biff-and-pocket to cut-and-thrust so could the board please stop scheduling so much of the quaint five-day stuff... Well, if the day ever came when a player said that, you imagine Bradman might have seven words for him: "Oh no, son, we can't do that."

It would be kind of refreshing, wouldn't it, to hear an administrator tell a player that.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne