Frith's encounters: Sir Donald Bradman

Discussions with The Don

David Frith
David Frith remembers meeting one of the game's great names



Sir Donald Bradman: no fan of birthday cards © Getty Images
"So, David," said Don Bradman, leaning menacingly across the lunch table, "you think you know better than me and Dennis Lillee and Richie Benaud and the Chappell brothers?" Yet again we were debating the front-foot no-ball law, which Don hated. I believed - and still do - that a reversion to the old back-foot law would be retrograde. Bradman was exasperated. His face had reddened. I suppose mine had too. Then his delightful wife Jessie, for surely the umpteenth time in their lives, eased an awkward situation. "David," she said sweetly, "have you written Don's obituary yet?" No, I hadn't. I wasn't that well organised. And anyway, he was going to live to 100, wasn't he? We all laughed.

The lively disagreements we sometimes had through 30 years' friendship were probably a source of sustenance for Don who, in his own estimation, was never wrong. And, like most great men, he found himself spending much time with fawning yes-men. Yet he was forever essentially a boy from the bush, gifted with an extraordinary mind and reflexes, fired by ambition and fierce determination, the key to his insistence on always being right. The keen-eyed young man with kookaburra features was still discernible in that ageing face.

He once took me to task for writing that he bowled Wally Hammond out with a full-toss at Adelaide in 1933. "It was not a full-toss!" But five or six participants in that Test match, including Hammond himself, had declared it a full-toss. And I discovered - too late - that Don himself had spoken of it as such in his radio summary very soon after the incident.

Amazingly, all these years later, he seemed to regard the bowling of a full-toss as a symptom of defective character. I loved him for it. Somewhere in the 100-plus letters I received from him is his reaction to my costly acquisition at auction of Victor Trumper's fob-watch. He kidded that he was now going to hunt through his cupboards: "I reckon I could dig up a couple of wrist-watches."

He was very generous, contributing forewords to two of my books, with scant concern for remuneration, and giving me all kinds of things he no longer needed, such as early New South Wales yearbooks with his personal rubber-stamp on them. Maybe the one thing we truly shared, the red-and-white cap of the St George club, counted for something. Bradman, who revered cricket's traditions, was a man of adamant opinions. He was laughingly dismissive of a purported history on video, declaring that compiler Ian Chappell's knowledge of history "would fit on a postage stamp". He was content only when he had had the last word in a debate. I suppose it was some sort of substitute for 20 competitive years of habitually carving up bowlers of all descriptions.

Tireless correspondent though he was, he became impatient with birthday cards. "I know I'm 84," he wrote in August 1992. "I don't need reminding. It means I'm one step nearer to the grave." Speaking of which, after one long session at his Adelaide home, he kindly offered to drive me back to the hotel. Just after midnight, as he was steering the car out of Holden Street, a vehicle came speeding towards us from the right. Don Bradman seemed not to have noticed it. Whiteknuckled, I cried out. He rammed his foot on the brake pedal and we were saved. Calm as ever (apparently), he continued driving, saying not a word about our lucky survival.

I once tried to entertain friends with an imagined newspaper headline had the worst happened: 'Cricket writer killed in car crash.' And in smaller letters beneath: 'Driver (old cricketer) dies too.' Just imagine.

David Frith, author and historian, was the founding editor of Wisden Cricket Monthly.