Dimly fades the Don
Don Bradman's final Test innings at The Oval in 1948 remains one of cricket's most famous. What is not as well known is that it was another 15 years until he played his last game of cricket, and fittingly it was again against England.
After the Oval Test, the last of that summer, the Australian tour, as was the norm then, rumbled on for another month before concluding with two matches in Scotland. Bradman, the man everyone wanted to see, played in all but one of the games. He bowed out at Lord's with 150 against the Gentlemen of England and centuries in his last two outings in England, the festival matches in Hastings and Scarborough. His farewell appearance in Britain was a whirlwind 123 not out in 89 minutes against Scotland in a non-first-class contest in Aberdeen.
To all intents and purposes he retired at the end of the tour, but he did play three more first-class matches in the next Australian season. On the boat back from England he was offered a testimonial at the MCG, which he accepted. He captained one XI while Lindsay Hassett led the other. The game ended in a crowd-pleasing tie, Bradman scored his final first-class hundred (dropped diplomatically on 97 by Colin McCool) and more than 53,000 turned up, enabling Bradman to pocket close to £9000.
The other two games did not go as well. He felt he ought to play as they were testimonials for old team-mates. In the first, at the SCG, he made 53 and was cheered from the middle by more than 40,000 spectators, but in his last game he made 30 and was unable to bat second time after he twisted an ankle treading on a ball in the field and had to be carried off. It was an ignominious end to the most glorious of first-class careers.
That should have been that. Knighted in the New Year's honours list, he settled down to a life of business, family and golf, retaining strong links with cricket as a selector.
A few attempts were made to lure him out of retirement but he was never tempted, playing in a handful of low-key games as favours to friends. He had also faced the 1952-53 South Africans in the nets. But late on the England tour of 1962-63 he found himself donning his whites on a bigger stage once more. However reluctant he might have been, he found himself backed into a corner, largely by Robert Menzies, the Australian prime minister and a cricket obsessive.
In between the fourth and fifthth Ashes Tests, England played a one-day game against a Prime Minister's XI in Canberra. Menzies, who had formed a friendship with Bradman, by this time chairman of the board, worked his charm, the icing on the cake being that a new pavilion in Bradman's honour would be opened on the day. Bradman agreed.
As soon as the news broke the press and public interest in the match rocketed. While there was a realisation that at 54 he was unlikely to work miracles, the hope was he might. "Unless he felt he had a chance of making a few runs he would not, I think, have agreed to play," wrote John Woodcock in the Times. "The fast bowlers could no doubt find him out if they let fly. Yet [Jack] Hobbs was scoring first-class hundreds when he was over 50 …"
All the attention was on Bradman, but England had an old timer of their own back for the day. The 44-year-old Alec Bedser, who had retired in 1960 but was still playing regularly, had also agreed to play.
The match itself was wonderfully informal. It started ten minutes late because the tourists' flight had been delayed. There was no toss, merely a discussion and an agreement that MCC would bat. The timing of the intervals was generally ignored. The 10,000 spectators crammed into the ground did not mind at all.
MCC scored a breezy and politely received 253 for 7, Bradman orchestrating his side from first slip, but their batting was not really what most in the ground wanted to see. Bradman's return was further delayed by a bright start by the Australians, who raced to 101 for 2 in an hour. Then, ten minutes after tea, the third wicket fell and all eyes turned to the pavilion.
"The little man stalked stiffly down the pavilion steps, pulling the collar of his cricket shirt closer round his neck," wrote Brian Chapman in the Daily Express. "It was a gesture that for many rolled back the years. The photographers circled round him as he walked towards the wicket and the MCC players saluted him with three cheers. As he took guard, the crowd roared again and he lifted the green Australian cap he wore in 52 Tests."
His stance was unchanged, albeit showing slight stiffness. Tom Graveney, bowling inoffensive legbreaks, tossed one wide of off stump to allow Bradman an single to get off the mark, but it was so wide he just watched it pass. The next was a straight full toss that Bradman clipped back past him for four.
In the next over Bradman had to face Brian Statham, who, with Fred Trueman, formed England's new-ball attack. Statham bowled properly but only off half his run. Bradman patted the first ball, which kept a little low, into the off side. He played back to the second but was fractionally late; the ball spun from his bat into the top of his pad and dribbled into the stumps with only just enough force to dislodge the off bail. "It mightn't have happened one in a thousand times," Bradman said.
Some reports suggested that Statham indicated to the umpire that a no-ball might be called. But Bradman was on his way and received as big an ovation as he headed off as he had minutes earlier on his arrival.
Perhaps harshly, Crawford White in the Daily Express wrote: "So instead of an exultant return for Australia's Sir Cricket it was a sad one. Sad because hundreds of schoolboys who saw it will for ever wonder how this stiff little man could ever have been the lithe ruthless killer their fathers remembered." As Bradman's old adversary Wally Hammond had said after his own ill-fated return in 1951: ""What did they expect? Not a hundred from me as well?"
The rest of the afternoon was inevitably an anti-climax, even if the game went to the wire with the tourists winning by three runs, the close finish aided by some routine catches spilled to keep the Australians in the hunt. David Allen took 5 for 68, but Bedser, despite only returning 1 for 80, won the plaudits. "The bones creak a little now," Woodcock noted, "but even blindfolded he could bowl on or near a length."
In the evening there was a dinner party for teams and others at Menzies' official residence. "I have just played my last game of cricket," Bradman said. "The cricket bat has seen the last of me."
Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa