September 6, 2010

The poor boy who came to walk among kings

Bradman was cricket's first modern hero, a man who transcended his game, embodied the modern Australian journey, and became a symbol of mastery over fate

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.

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

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Billy on September 9, 2010, 22:50 GMT

    jay57870, thanks for mentioning the article: Hadlee said "We didn't see at that time and you cannot visualise 20 years down the track what the player is likely to do in the context of the history of the game. When you score as many runs as he has in Test and one-day cricket and score as many centuries and half centuries as he has done, it makes him arguably the greatest player ever in the history of the game. Statistics speak volumes of his contribution to Indian and world cricket. He is a phenomenal player". About Bradman/Tendulkar: "Well, Sir Donald Bradman has been regarded as the greatest player ever. He played just Test cricket. He hasn't played any other forms of the game. Clearly, that is understandable. But to see Sachin and other players actually adjust to different forms of the game and different conditions all around the world, even though the average is fractionally more than half of the Don's is itself incredible

  • Billy on September 9, 2010, 20:55 GMT

    TheOnlyEmperor, the point is simple, without a helmet, Bodyline becomes extremely difficult to play. In fact, trying to score off Bodyline with the fields set would also be extremely difficult. Is it so hard to give credit where it is due?

  • Jay on September 9, 2010, 20:44 GMT

    With all the name-calling (fools, apes, etc), this debate is sadly turning into a circus. One of the respondents called somebody a fool for naming Sachin the greatest. This information is meant to educate those who do not know that somebody: He is Sir Richard Hadlee - (1) One of the first great cricketers to be inducted into the ICC Cricket Hall of Fame for his contributions to cricket: one of the best bowling all-rounders in the 1973-1990 period; (2) He is from New Zealand, not Australia or India, and so can be expected to be objective in his views; (3) He is one of the select few authoritative figures featured in the Legends of Cricket videos on Bradman where he pays a special tribute to the Don. With these unquestionable credentials, Hadlee is widely regarded as a keen and balanced observer of the game. Please read his statement carefully (in my earlier post below) on Tendulkar and Bradman. It may be different from yours, but please respect it and engage in a civil debate. Thanks.

  • Rajeev on September 9, 2010, 14:47 GMT

    @Harmony111 Problem with people like you are that you are only interested with personal milestones and achievements and team performance can go to hell.May be you are a match fixer by profession.Why do people play cricket?To win the match for their team and country and not just for personal statistics.And please do not mislead people by posting wrong statistics on Ponting because he averages more than 60 during the period 2003 to 2009. Any patriotic sportsman would be proud to be in a winning team rather than scoring thousands of runs in a losing cause.Definitely it is not Sachin's fault that he has not won any world title but you may ask him today and even he admits that the most valuable thing missing in his long career is a world title.Look at Australia.They have players who don't care whether they score 99 every match but the paramount aim is whether they win the match. And Australia have won hands down for the last 20 years as no one else in the history of the game of cricket

  • Ahmad on September 9, 2010, 12:44 GMT

    Maco and Waseem are considered as two best fast bowlers since 1950 and they are not separated by much but still, there was not even a single comment published on the articles written on them proving one above the other. Everyone was all praise for both of them so everyone remained on the point, admired their genius and didn't write any shit. But whenever it turns to batting all Sachin fans start making their hero look biggest of all. Either the article is written on Lara or Ponting, they always drag Sachin there. And now they are proving themselves fools by comparing him with Don.

  • Michael on September 9, 2010, 11:20 GMT

    If anyone seriously thinks that anyone is better than Donald Bradman then they have absolutely no idea. The only rival is Garfield Sobers, averaged 60 with the bat, could bowl pace and spin, and was an outstanding fielder. But as this article points out (did the emperor read it i wonder), Don's legend is about more than just cricket. Don is the only cricketer with claims to be the greatest sportsman, in any sport, that has ever lived. In cricket it's Bradman who's the best, then the rest can fight for second. Other sports have arguements over the best ever, Ali has frazier etc, Jordan has kareem and wilt etc, i'm sure babe ruth has someone (baseball, pfft), athletics has heaps, swimming heaps, soccer heaps, motor sport heaps other sports heaps. Ps. best horse ever is Phar Lap, but that's open for debate ...

  • natmastak on September 9, 2010, 11:05 GMT

    its well known that don liked & admired Sachin . & the fellow readers hav ensured that don too would have wondrered how easily Sachin hijacked article dedicated to himself . & when talking abt these two there is no need to bring mortals like lara,punter .

  • Kannan on September 9, 2010, 10:30 GMT

    @BillyCC: People played without helmets for over 100 years of cricket, so the Don playing cricket helmetless was no big deal. Gavaskar faced many of the WI quicks without a helmet and he was puny! Now what was your point?

  • Harmon on September 9, 2010, 7:20 GMT


    Not sure you took my 1990s vs 00s batting avg point correctly. Can you pls post the query string used? My point was bout the average batting average, taken as an aggregate.

    Here are the query strings I used:



    And of course, it was a subjective batting order. You will have a diff order as per your opinions.


    I think anyone will agree to it that as a batsman, Sachin & other modern ear batsmen have been analyzed and tested more thoroughly than Bradman. Other than the bodyline, what other special strategy do you recall that was used to test Bradman? So ur point isnt ok.

  • Harmon on September 9, 2010, 7:09 GMT


    Enough dear. You just keep on blabbering against Bradman as if you got a feud against him. Some of the points made by you are interesting and valid to an extent but still, the tone taken by you in some of your posts is very questionable. Pls don't try to prove Sachin's greatness over Bradman or any one else. The sun doesn't need to tell us that he is the brightest. Let Sachin finish his career first. There is a good chance that Sachin will end up with an avg of ~60. Then we can see how an avg of 99 in 52 compares vis-a-vis 60 in 180 tests. Over time we have seen Sachin overcoming the imposters. Once it was Anwar in ODI's, then Lara and then Ponting (who's lost steam at plenty). Sachin is peerless anyways in the ODIs. Let's see where his curve reaches.

    At the very least, try to use some positive words for Bradman in your posts. He definitely wasn't as bad a model as you paint his portrait to be.

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