August 25, 2008

The Don and I

Bradman was supposed to be cold and aloof, but that's not how he came across to a pilgrim from India 15 years ago


The Don did become a house decorator of sorts, adding lustre to the house of cricket © Dimpy Menon
 

Sir Donald himself came to the door. That, from the best-known recluse on the Australian continent, was the first surprise. In the brief moment before a carefully turned key overcame the lock's resistance and the mesh door swung outwards to reveal the world's greatest living cricketer, came the first moment of self-doubt. Perhaps the legend was his own best protector, reducing intruders to a blob on the pavement with a withering stare.

The gentleness was the second surprise. He received the bouquet of flowers with a half-smile and words of genuine warmth. Years of saying it hadn't reduced "Thank you for your thoughtfulness" to a cliché. As Bradman extended the hand that had ruled the world, he had only one question. It was more of a statement, really: "You are from India."

Bradman was 84 then. In many Indian families it is believed that by that age one would have seen a thousand full moons. I doubt if Bradman had. He hardly stepped out of his house. Just across his Kensington Park residence in Adelaide was a bookshop, the proprietor of which, George Lieschke, had been in business for two years. He hadn't seen Bradman yet.

"He doesn't walk around much. He has withdrawn from the trusteeship of all the local bodies. Although I haven't seen him - and there must be lots like me - we do tend to take him for granted around here."

At one time Bradman's ambition had been to become a house decorator. He did become one, in a sense, adding lustre to the house of cricket, where his records take up many rooms.

There was no fence around his own house. No nameplate. A short gravel pathway led to the ten-room luxury property, complete with a squash court, swimming pool and a hall for billiards.

Bradman might have stepped out of a photo frame, so clear were the details: the neatly groomed hair, the white shirt, the grey trousers, and the slip-on black shoes (size six, if you go by the pair of boots he donated to the Lord's museum in the 1950s). He looked like a stockbroker, which is what he once was. The footwork that broke the hearts of bowlers was accompanied by a suppleness of body quite remarkable for a man of his age.

Without any effort he quickly lowered himself onto the steps. I brought the two-volume Bradman Albums out of their casing. "I am sorry; my wife is not well and I don't want to disturb her," the great man apologised. My mind went quickly to the hundreds and thousands in the past decades who had waited at railway stations, hung around in hotel lobbies, clung from water pipes, balanced themselves on moving trains, fought through stampedes, bluffed, begged, grovelled, crawled, and occasionally threatened, to be in the presence of this man.

 
 
It was a gesture, a statement from an elderly man to a youngster but it went against everything one had heard about Bradman. I was touched
 

"I don't watch too much cricket these days. I don't talk too much about it either," he said conversationally as he dug into his jacket for a pen.

"Hope you like Australia," he continued, as he memorised the spelling of my name to inscribe in the books. It was a polite way of steering the conversation away from cricket. The writing was firm, the inscription warm, the running hand didn't falter once.

And then, suddenly, surprisingly, a greeting: "God Bless you, son."

It was a gesture, a statement from an elderly man to a youngster but it went against everything one had heard about Bradman. I was touched.

As a youngster I knew the Bradman stats rather better than I did my geography or history lessons. I knew, for example, that Bradman's average score after a century was 174; that if you eliminated his 43 unbeaten innings, his career average would still be 83, better than anyone else. Without his 117 centuries, he would still average 58.20, better than Jack Hobbs and Walter Hammond, their centuries included. Bradman made just 16 noughts in 338 innings, scored over 200 in a day 27 times, and took all of 253 minutes for his slowest hundred. According to one researcher, he gave just 93 chances that went abegging. Only eight of his centuries were scored for the losing side.

All this I knew. I also "knew" that he was a cold, aloof figure who would not take kindly to a youngster landing up on his doorstep. The stats have been confirmed by the statisticians; not the coldness or the aloofness. "God Bless you son." Gratuitous benediction that I continue to dine out on.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore

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