Sir Donald Bradman: A Biography November 22, 2008

The first word

Rosenwater's books lacks Bradman's input - maybe that's why it's the best of the biographies of the great man

I was once working at a publishing company when it was on the receiving end of a letter of complaint from Irving Rosenwater. In three closely typed pages, it scaled such heights of indignation and vituperation as I have very seldom seen. The offence it protested was indeed an offence, even if the length and tone of the protest seemed to say rather more about the writer.

Rosenwater's Sir Donald Bradman: A Biography is not so irascible in tone, but there's a similar pedantic fussiness. And to use an annoying phrase much in vogue: it's all good. The book is as superior to all other Bradman biographies as Bradman's average is to those of other batsmen - perhaps, paradoxically, because it is the one that had least direct input from the man himself. The books of AG Moyes, Michael Page and Charles Williams, and the book-shaped object of Roland Perry, had "access", and used it to mainly unenlightening, and sometimes tedious, effect. Rosenwater believed, like Thomas Carlyle, that "genius is ever a secret to itself". He brought to his book, instead, an encyclopaedic knowledge of cricket's growth and diffusion, assembled it with an exhaustive survey of secondary sources plus some tasty primary tidbits, then rendered it in plain, elegant prose.

There is information in Sir Donald Bradman that is still nowhere else, such as the assertion by the Lancashire League president that it was Bradman who approached Accrington about playing there in the early 1930s rather than vice versa, and the airy dismissal of Bradman's leadership prowess by the first-class captain first opposed to him, Leicestershire's AG Hazelrigg: "In fact there was very little he did right as a captain in that match and we all commented how extremely inexperienced he seemed to be." It is one thing to describe Bradman's 232 at the Oval in 1930; another to tell us, as Rosenwater does, that a girl, Dorothy Pickle, scoring the game in Bowral, swallowed the fountain pen when the great man's hundred was posted, awaking in hospital some hours later with the words: "He's a great boy, isn't he!" And if only someone could find the footage of the Don's appearance on What's My Line? in 1953, where he was recognised by Gilbert Harding on the blindfolded panel.

Best known for his statistical and historiographic works, Rosenwater revels in Bradman's scoring feats; the figures are almost musical in his hands. His footnoted forensic examination of the scorebook for Bradman's highest Test score is a miniature masterpiece; his examination of scoring-rates in Bodyline is full of insight; he imparts with delight such observations as the fact that Bradman is the only batsman to reach 1000 in May without being bowled. The lack of a Bradman voice means that the book cannot really he considered definitive: it is Bradman as Bradmachine, as it were. But if it is not the last word on the subject, Sir Donald Bradman should always be the first. Thank goodness for grumpy old men.

From the book (about Bradman's Bodyline duck in Melbourne)
There is a pleasing story - a true one incidentally - how this duck by Bradman almost certainly saved the lives of three young children in Tasmania. Listening to the progress of the Test on the radio in a hotel in Launceston, a Mr P. Hancock stood up and walked out in disgust at Bradman's failure. His brief walk took him past a nearby river, on whose bank three children - the youngest only 2 and a half - were playing and accidentally fell in. Mr Hancock promptly dived in fully clothed to rescue them - and one would like to think that all three (and the gallant gentleman too) are still thriving healthily and fully cognisant of the miraculous powers of a Test match duck.

The whole drama of this immortal stroke is preserved for posterity on the newsreels of Briish Movietone News, who covered that Melbourne Test particularly well, and is held at the Rank Laboratories at Denham. Occasionally television producers make use of it to remind their viewers that Bradman was no robot. It never fails to strike awe into those both familiar with it and fresh to the view. It was the one indispensable piece of film that formed part of the story of England-Australia cricket put out by the BBC in London to mark the centenary of Test cricket in March 1977.

Sir Donald Bradman: A Biography
by Irving Rosenwater

Batsford Ltd, 1978

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer