April 23, 2014

The cricket tragic who bowled Bradman

The former Australian PM Bob Hawke was a wicketkeeper and loved cricket and Bradman. But he once left the Don speechless with the force of his political convictions

Bob Hawke: a "bloody marvellous" keeper © Getty Images

Few deliveries got past Don Bradman's guard.

As a cricketer Bob Hawke was a competent wicketkeeper-batsman and he didn't bowl, but a verbal delivery by him to Bradman in 1970 had the legendary batsman floundering.

"The 1970 Springbok rugby team had just flown home and Bradman rang me," Hawke said when I spoke to him last week. Then head of Australia's most powerful collective of trade unions, the ACTU, Hawke had led opposition to the visit by the South African rugby side, and Bradman had seen for himself how difficult it had been for officials, security staff and police to prevent protesters from damaging the ground and disrupting play. However, the Australian cricket board wanted to host South Africa and months earlier had issued an invitation for the South African cricket team to tour Australia in the summer of 1971-72.

To that end, he invited the ACTU president to Adelaide for a secret meeting.

"I went out to his home in Kensington Gardens," Hawke said, "and he said, 'Bob, I don't think politics should come into sport.'

"And I said, 'I couldn't agree with you more, Don. We haven't brought politics into sport; it is the government of South Africa which has brought politics into sport, because the government of South Africa has a policy that no person who isn't white is allowed to represent their country in sport. That's bringing politics into sport."

"He looked at me for about 30 seconds and then he said, 'I've got no answer to that, Bob.'"

Hawke, in a sentence, had managed to get Bradman to see the light. On September 9, 1971, the board met and decided to withdraw the invitation for South Africa to tour. Bradman informed the press and that announcement was the start of more than 20 years in isolation for South Africa's cricketers.

As with a couple of legendary politicians - Robert Menzies and HV "Doc" Evatt - before him and John Howard after him, Hawke is what is known as a cricket tragic.

"With blood streaming from the wound I collapsed on the outfield of James Oval, where the visiting South Africans were playing a match. Roy held my leg together in a vice-like grip until an ambulance arrived"
Bob Hawke on how Roy McLean saved his life

Born in Bordertown, South Australia, in December 1929, one of Hawke's earliest cricket memories was listening to the 1938 Ashes series in England. "I'd go to sleep very early, so I could wake and listen to the simulated wireless broadcast of the Test matches.

"[Don] Bradman was god. I can still feel the world falling apart when Len Hutton hit the world-record Test match score of 364, overtaking Bradman's 334."

Hawke remembers the Australian 1948 team playing a game against Western Australia before sailing to England from Fremantle.

"Keith Miller was bowling and WA batsman Basil Rigg drove him majestically for four. Next ball was a vicious bouncer and down went Rigg and he was stretchered off the ground. WA lost three or four more quick wickets and back came the injured Rigg, and there was Don Bradman, after calling back Miller to bowl, rushing to meet the incoming batsman and showing him how to hook!"

Hawke's parents, Clem and Ellie, travelled from Bordertown to Perth at the start of the Second World War, and the youngster was soon revelling in his studies and sport at Perth Modern School. There he was for two years the wicketkeeper-batsman for the school's first Xl.

"One game I particularly recall was in the annual Boys versus Masters match. Traditionally any boy hitting a hundred was given a brand new cricket bat and this day I had reached 93 when the physics teacher, a slow legspinner called Cyril Calcutt, had his lbw appeal upheld for a ball which pitched a mile outside leg stump and I was given out. So I missed getting the new bat. I will never forget the bastard."

Young Hawke excelled in his studies and his great interest in student affairs and in pursuing a political career inspired him more than the prospect of becoming a top-flight cricketer did.

"I did have a lot of fun playing with university in the WA grade competition. I began in the A grade team same day as John Rutherford, but I didn't have the same almost-obsessive passion for the game which he had. He was the hardest-working player of my experience."

Rutherford toured England in 1956 and Keith Miller dubbed him Pythagoras, because "he was ever trying to work things out".

"I caught up with Jack at the Perth Ashes Test this year and he looked in good shape," Hawke said. "I cannot think of any cricketer who possessed such absolute dedication."

As a wicketkeeper Hawke was no mug behind the stumps. Once when Ray Strauss, the star swing bowler of University of WA, was operating, eagle-eyed Hawke noticed the batsman, Bill Alderman (Test player Terry Alderman's father), tended to drag his back foot forward when attempting to glance a ball that strayed down leg side.

"I approached Ray and said, 'Now, see if you can slide a big swinging inswinger down leg side on the second ball of this over.' Sometimes in a sporting life you just do something perfectly and that's what happened. Strauss bowled the perfect delivery; Alderman went forward and he got a faint nick which I caught, and in the same instant I whipped off the bails and yelled to the square leg umpire, 'Howzat?'"

The square-leg umpire, who no doubt looked like an old-time version of David Shepherd, said in a booming voice: "Bloody marvellous!"

Cricket has been Hawke's greatest sporting love, and a Test cricketer once saved his life.

Early in the summer of 1952-53, the very year the South African Test team was touring Australia, the 23-year-old Hawke was working as a gardener at the University of Western Australia.

"I was filling in time getting some cash together before heading to Oxford. I had the noble task of spreading shit [manure] around the trees. Then came the time to refill the cart.

"The horse was reluctant to move, so I went to the front and pulled hard at his head, only for the shaft to somehow spring free. The point of the thing cut into my leg, causing a huge gaping gash from above the knee to below the groin. With blood streaming from the wound I staggered out from the trees and collapsed on the outfield of James Oval, where the visiting South Africans were playing a match against the Governor's XI."

South Africa Test batsman Roy McLean dashed to Hawke's side. "Roy held my leg together with his big strong hands and my leg remained in his vice-like grip until an ambulance arrived. No doubt, Roy McLean saved my life that day in 1952."

Hawke was elected Australian prime minister in 1983. When South Africa were finally readmitted to the international cricket family, their board chief Dr Ali Bacher invited Hawke to be guest speaker at a function celebrating the first Test in the republic in the post-apartheid era.

"I told them the Roy MacLean story and added, 'I guess some of you people would have hoped Roy didn't do what he did', and a couple of blokes in the crowd yelled, 'Yeah, yeah!'"

Round the time of the Centenary Test between Australia and England at the MCG, Hawke was invited to play in a charity match at Drummoyne Oval. I didn't know about the talks he was having with former Test players, including Ian Chappell and Bob Cowper, about helping them form a players' union, so I was surprised when Chappelli indicated that he would like me to go easy on Hawke when he came in to bat.

He got 30-odd and batted well. And the players' union idea fell away pretty smartly when Kerry Packer took on the establishment with World Series Cricket.

Hawke loves the cut and thrust of top-flight cricket, just as he revelled jousting with the opposition at question time in parliament. For him the joy of cricket has long been the enduring humour in the game's characters and their stories.

"I suppose you've heard the one about Joel Garner," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "The West Indians were in Australia for a Test series and there were some girlies hanging about at the ground. One girl sidled up to Joel and said, 'Is it true what they say, that you are built in proportion to your height?' 'Young lady, if I was built in proportion I'd be 8ft 10in.'"

Hawke's parting shot: "I'll tell you a very interesting sociological fact. I can keep you entertained for a couple of hours telling cricket and golf stories, but I have not heard one funny story from any code of football."

Ashley Mallett took 132 wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson, Ian Chappell, and most recently of Dr Donald Beard, The Diggers' Doctor