Jim Swanton followed Don Bradman's progression from his first appearance at Worcester in April 1930 through his four tours of England and MCC's first post-war tour of Australia. After Bradman's retirement in 1948 they developed a friendship and maintained a correspondence that lasted until Swanton's death in January 2000. Written in 1996, this recollection was commissioned to appear in Wisden after Sir Donald Bradman's death.
In estimating Don Bradman's cricket and his personality, one is confronted by a dichotomy between public acclaim and private qualification. Whereas his batting in the English summer of 1930 lifted him swiftly to a pinnacle of achievement beyond compare, he was simultaneously imprisoned by fame to a degree he could not readily accept. His own country, a young nation in search of home-grown idols, found in him something of a reluctant hero.
His impact on the English scene always remained clear in the memory, for in 1930 I was in my early years as a cricket writer, and the Lord's Test that summer was the first I reported. My late-April impression at Worcester was of a dapper little man, well-sweatered against the cold, nimble of foot, amazingly quick between the wickets, tirelessly ticking up 236 runs at almost a run a minute. So his batting continued throughout the tour: prolific, almost chanceless, an ever-growing monument to concentration and fitness. By mid-July, by which time 131 in the First Test had been followed by 254 in the Second and 334 in the Third, the image of a phenomenon without parallel was clear to see. A brief glimpse of fallibility on a damp pitch at Old Trafford was followed in the Fifth Test by 232, ended by a deplorable caught-behind decision: 974 runs in the series and an average of 139.14.
The command performance that hoisted him to a status of his own was without doubt the 254 at Lord's. At half-past three of a sunny Saturday afternoon, with Australia 162 for no wicket in answer to England's 425, King George V in grey bowler hat, with walking stick and buttonhole, inspected the teams lined at the Pavilion gate. Fifth ball afterwards, Ponsford was caught at slip by Hammond off White and in came the 21-year-old from Bowral. He was not normally a spectacular starter, but now he moved swiftly out to his first ball and hit it on the full up to the Nursery seats. As White had pinned down the Australians with marvellous skill in 1928-29, this was a strategic blow as well as the opening stroke of his first 50 in 45 minutes. At close of play Don was 155 not out, scored at exactly a run a minute. On the Monday, and more sedately, he completed what he always rated his finest innings - despite what came next.
His 309 not out on the first day of the Third Test at Headingley not only beat R. E. Foster's 287 at Sydney, hitherto the highest in England-Australia Tests, but also was 95 runs more than anyone (Foster, again) had scored in a day's Test cricket. It commenced with a hundred before lunch. By chance, I shared a cab back to the Queen's Hotel in Leeds that evening with two or three of the Australians and so had an insight into Don's relationship with the rest of the team. "Now we'll be good for a drink from the little beggar," was the comment, but no such luck. At the hotel desk there he was, asking that a pot of tea be brought to his room. I cannot claim to have known him then, but it is well established that he showed no inclination for the company off the field of his colleagues. He was teetotal, a young country boy in a touring party most of whom were not only older but came from the more sophisticated background of the city. Yet, while he did not put his hand in his pocket or in any way court popularity with them, he was alive from the first to the financial opportunities that fame was bringing. Depression was deep in Australia. His ambition was to achieve a degree of security that would enable him to marry his childhood friend, Jessie Menzies.
What turned the coolness of most of his fellow-players to indignation and worse was the decision of his employers, the Sydney sports goods firm of Mick Simmons, to transport their celebrity from Perth to Sydney by rail and air, ahead of the team who continued their homeward journey by ship. Australia had found a hero beyond all imagination, and his arrival in turn at Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney brought scenes of utmost hysteria. Don found himself enveloped in mayoral welcomes, presentations and dinners that had been arranged to greet the team, whose feelings, as they trailed unheralded in his wake, can be easily imagined. It meant nothing to them that in every impromptu speech Don paid warm tribute to his captain, Billy Woodfull, and to the team. He has always stressed in his writings how embarrassing he found this triumphal cavalcade; apart from the embarrassment, the episode permanently damaged relationships with his contemporaries.
When I next encountered the Don, on the Australian tour of 1934, contact between the countries had been scarred by Bodyline, from which he emerged toughened mentally but with his playing reputation almost unscathed. He was the appointed vice-captain, clearly in line for the succession, but his recuperation from a critical operation for appendicitis and peritonitis after the tour kept him out of cricket for a year. Vic Richardson took the Australians to South Africa in 1935-36, and when Don was promoted to the captaincy, for the 1936-37 tour of G. O. Allen's side, he knew that several under his command would have preferred playing for the popular, outgoing Richardson.
This element, headed by Bill O'Reilly and Jack Fingleton, was still with him in the side he brought to England in 1938. The bowling in support of O'Reilly was too weak for Australia to do better than halve the rubber, but with 13 hundreds in 26 innings - one every other! - the captain could well be said to have led by example, until he broke his ankle at The Oval. What richer irony could be imagined than, after congratulating Len Hutton on surpassing his record 334, Bradman should turn his ankle over in the deep bowling-mark dug by O'Reilly? My belief is that he did not have an Australian side solidly behind him until after those two Irish-Australians retired.
Don Bradman's war is an unhappy chapter in his life, not only because he suffered a health breakdown that culminated in his being invalided out of the armed forces after 12 months. His transfer from the RAAF, in which he volunteered as an observer, to a physical-training job in the Army soon became the subject of criticism. The MCC party were made aware of this feeling on arriving in Australia in 1946-47. On the face of it, he had opted to exchange a non-commissioned combatant role for one carrying a commission supposedly behind the lines, although his unit was shortly due overseas. In fact, Don had privately sought the advice of Lord Gowrie, the Governor-General, who, he told me, strongly advised him to accept the Army offer. His lordship should have known his Australians better.
The Bradman who emerged after the war was a more mature citizen with a broader vision than one had known before. His handling of an almost unfledged Test side earned their friendship as well as their admiration. On a personal level, once one had gained his trust he was the most reliable and understanding of friends. He was quick to see the benefit to the game of co-operation with a responsible press when the 14 correspondents who accompanied MCC to Australia in 1946-47 formed the Cricket Writers' Club. It was thanks to his influence, as a member of the Australian Board of Control - inclined in the past to hold the press very much at arm's length - that our club's invitation to the 1948 Australians enabled us to stage their first dinner engagement of the tour; incidentally, it was about the first post-war cricket dinner possible under food rationing. In the presence of the recently married Prince Philip, whose first cricket occasion this certainly was, Don Bradman made a speech rich in sentiment and humour, expressive of shared perils and the renewed fellowship of cricket. It was the speech of a statesman which the nation heard in full because the BBC held back the nine o'clock news.
The only shadow of that summer was that English cricket was not strong enough to extend the powerful side Don had welded together. If he, who celebrated his 40th birthday on August 27 by making 150 at Lord's against the Gentlemen, was a shade less dominant with the bat than heretofore, it was because he did not need to be. When at The Oval, needing just four runs to average 100 in Test cricket, he was bowled by Eric Hollies for a duck, there were two Australians in the press box who nearly died laughing. They were, of course, O'Reilly and Fingleton.
After his retirement, Don retained a perpetual personal involvement in the game, as administrator, selector, author and journalist. He had two spells as chairman of the Australian Cricket Board - the only Test cricketer ever so honoured - and served it almost continuously for 30 years. There is no book of its kind to beat his The Art of Cricket, and his commentaries on the England-Australia series of 1953 and 1956 for the Daily Mail were models of their kind. His only other visits to England were to the historic ICC meeting of 1960 on the throwing crisis, and for a charity dinner for the benefit of the Lord's Taverners Fund in 1974.
Don's influence behind the scenes in the matter of suspect actions was never made public. Convinced by filmed evidence of its seriousness - "the most complex problem I have known in cricket because it was not a matter of fact but of opinion" - he went along with the dubious decision that, for the visit of Australia to England in 1961, there should be a moratorium for the first few weeks on throwing. But he returned to Australia with a personal solution in mind. He obtained from the state captains a confidential list of suspects and was able to see to it that none of them was selected. Finis. As to the Lord's Taverners dinner, he was assured that his presence would produce a £10,000 windfall. It did: there were 900 present, he spoke brilliantly, and he had spent the previous day signing every individual menu. The Don never gave less than 100 per cent.
Nor, as the years went by, did he decline help to any organisation or individual who solicited it. Forewords flowed from his pen, and every personal letter was answered by return post in his own hand. The healthy evolution of cricket depends on old players giving their services to the game in any of the ways open to them. Sir Donald left the field at the peak of his fame: yet in a sense he never retired, for his experience, his intellect and his time were always at cricket's disposal.