The poor boy who came to walk among kings
Some day in our lifetimes, the last person to have seen Sir Donald Bradman bat in a Test match will pass away. It may not be marked, like the deaths of the last survivors of the Titanic or the first day of the Somme, but in cricket's terms it will be as significant.
Of no cricketer has it been truer to say that their every innings was an event, in both the anticipation and recollection too. Only Sachin Tendulkar since has been accompanied to the crease by such uniformity of expectations, and even then these seldom ramify far beyond India. In fact, while assertions of Bradman's uniqueness usually concentrate on the phenomenon of his record as a statistical outlier, it's the combination of his level of performance with the fascination of his society that makes him not only a one-of-a-kind batsman but a one-of-a-kind cricket hero.
Cricket in the 1930s and 1940s enjoyed a cultural primacy in the Anglosphere, since rather diminished, and a status in Australia enhanced by the country's general modesty in other senses. "Who will write a biography of Sir Donald Bradman," noted CLR James, "must be able to write a history of Australia in the same period."
Here was a nation of unparalleled emptiness, of more than one square kilometre per person. At the outset of Bradman's career Australia's population was about the same as that of Jordan today; when his cricket ended, Australians were still less numerous than modern Austrians. Bradman filled that hollow, made it echo, made it resound, throughout an Empire still worth the title, and a world that grasped mastery if it struggled to wrap its mind around cricket - the subject, on receipt of his knighthood of an editorial in the New York Times. "There is no other kind but cricket in the British lexicon," the paper concluded. "Bradman was the unchallenged shining light for almost twenty years."
The tightness of the fit between Bradman's feats and his public's fancies was exquisite. His was the contemporary Australian journey. Still fewer than half Bradman's fellow Australians lived in cities; Bradman himself was off the land, as it were. But he also embodied the country's transition to an urban, white-collar future, and its belief in social mobility: he was the country boy who became an estate agent, retail assistant, stock broker and finally company director; he was the poor boy who came to walk among kings and prime ministers, and to enjoy an (unostentatious) wealth and (merited) honour; he was the ordinary man, small, compact, anatomically commonplace, prowess deriving not from fast-twitch fibres like a sprinter, or flipper-like feet like a swimmer, but from something about him, something in him, generally concealed, but when he came to the crease on show for the world to see.
As a representative of Australia's prevailing white Anglo-Saxon monoculture and its Protestant majority, Bradman grew into democratic privileges not really earned, and a dominant culture mainly imported. In the speech he gave at the Empire Theatre in February 1930 before departing on his first Ashes tour, Bradman faithfully espoused the values not of the bush frontiersman or the Anzac warrior but those of the English public schoolboy and muscular Christian:
"First my parents taught me to be a cricketer off the field as well as on. It was not 'did you win' but 'did you play the game' that made the man… I have no doubt that it [cricket] moulds in an individual the right type of character better than any other sport. If that can be substantiated, no other recommendation is required, because character must surely be one of the greatest assets any nation through its citizens can possess."
The acute sense of national identification with cricket's new hero, however, sprang from a deep and broad hankering for indigenous accomplishment. His feats, in their widely visible, verifiable and quantifiable nature, spoke not just of progress but of possibilities. In his lively 1951 memoir, Don Bradman, the poet and novelist Philip Lindsay, son of the artist Norman, provides one of the best descriptions of the particular pang of watching him.
Reading poetry and watching cricket were the sum of my world, and the two are not as far apart as many aesthetes might believe; and when into this world came talk of a young phenomenon from Bowral, a lad of near my own age, I began to look towards him with nervous hope as though he were myself.
Most of us need an ideal. Nor is it necessary for that ideal to symbolise one's particular ambition. An actor can prove to be the spur, rousing one's spirit to a realisation of the greatness in mankind and the latent powers within oneself, but more often it is a work of art, the reading of a poem, the hearing of music, the sight of a great painting… and to me Don Bradman became that symbol of achievement, of mastery over fate, all the more powerful because it was impossible for me, a cricketing rabbit, to compare myself with him.
Indeed, while the everyman aspect of Bradman's achievements has been widely attested, his feats in the 1930s engaged the emergent Australia intelligentsia too. The critic Vance Palmer describes a visit to the great novelist Henry Handel Richardson in which the great novelist could scarcely speak of anything but Bradman; the historian Manning Clark reports the frustration of a foreign economist with local professors obsessed by cricket scores. Bradman offered Australians not just a corroboration of their sporting prowess but, to use Thomas Keneally's phrase, a "great way out of cultural ignominy".
The other salient precondition of the rise of Bradman is the coincidence of his career with the diffusion of radio, cinema and wire photographs as forms of mass communication, and the adaptation of newspapers to the role of investigation, interpretation and lionisation. Radio in particular, with its exhilarating immediacy and its free availability, was the ideal messenger for the steady unfolding of feats of scale like Bradman's scores. The merest fraction of those who revered Bradman ever saw him bat in person, yet in the 1930s and 1940s they were able to partake of his records and thereby feel a share in them.
Australian cricketers before him had regarded writing about the game, and themselves in it, as almost taboo: Bradman published his first autobiography aged 21. Australian cricketers had been filmed only from far away for newsreel purposes; Bradman appeared in his own instructional movie, That's Cricket. His captain Bill Woodfull introduces him in the film in terms of another entertainment technology, as having "more records than a gramophone company". Bringing modernity to cricket, he brought it also to the game's promotion and dissemination.
In this way, Bradman became perhaps the first cricket hero to genuinely transcend his game. Watching the thrall he exerted on his English hosts in 1948, John Arlott noted astutely: "More people are interested in Bradman, and not in cricket, than are interested in Bradman and cricket." Arlott summed Bradman's up as a general rather than a cricket-specific remarkableness:
He is the supremely capable man. Satisfied with the terms of his employment, he would make the perfect executive. He prefers, however, to make his efforts on his own behalf… He was given, and has maintained, a good average body and a good average brain; he has directed them with rare, perfect single-mindedness which makes for the attaining of objectives.
Arlott expressed a certain pity of Bradman in his burden of expectation on that tour.
An old-hand county batsman… can have a swish and get out and catch the early train home, or can say, "Don't send me in skipper - give one of the lads a chance and put me down number ten, my feet are sore." But when Bradman rests for one match or an arduous tour of England, the local spectators are hurt and they adduce fifty "good" reasons why Bradman ought to have played. If he moves himself down in the batting order he "insults our players". If he throws his wicket away, he has robbed ten thousand people of the conversational gambit, "When I saw Bradman make his hundred at ________."
But those spectators were on to something: to have been part of the legend at close quarters was something considerable, as perhaps for no other cricketer, in the sense that no other cricketer had so resonated with audiences of his time. To see Bradman bat in a Test match was as ennobling as to have watched Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium and Ali at Madison Square Garden, and perhaps Caruso at La Scala and the Beatles at the Cavern as well. In a choice tribute to the Australian, Michael Parkinson recalls his father, a miner from Barnsley in south Yorkshire, walking 30 miles to see Bradman bat, then wondering why this was thought at all strange.
Upon his return he faced a family who clearly believed he had a slate loose. Who, in their right mind, would waste that much precious shoe-leather to see a cricket match? My father went to his grave unrepentant. Retelling the story - as he did many times - he'd say, "But I saw HIM bat and they didn't."
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer