In June 1948, Don Bradman was nearly 40 and had no more worlds to conquer. He had played 47 Test matches, and scored 6488 runs. Had he decided to call it quits then, he would have finished with a Test average of 100-plus. Yet he chose to lead an Australian team to England one final time. Why? The famous second-ball duck against legspinner Eric Hollies cut his average to a more romantic 99.94, but The Don led what many consider to be the finest Test team on an unbeaten tour. Had Hollies played in the fourth Test of the series - where Australia chased 400-plus to win in the fourth innings - England would surely have won the match, according to Bill O'Reilly.
Writing in typical no-nonsense style in Cricket Conquest, O'Reilly says, "Had the selectors given Norman Yardley (the English captain) one legspin bowler to use on the fifth day, I honestly believe the game would have been over before tea ..." It was a bad time for spinners in general because of the recent rule by which a new ball could be claimed after 55 overs. It played into the hands of Australia who had in Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller two of the best fast bowlers to have graced the game. Speaking of that famous Hollies over to Bradman, O'Reilly writes: "In one over Hollies had repaired all the damage that an ill-advised innovation to the rules had done to the slow-bowling fraternity... he had re-established the importance of spin."
On that tour, the Australians played 31 matches, won 23 (15 by an innings) and drew eight. They averaged 50-plus per wicket throughout (against their opponents' 19.66). They made 47 hundreds to their rivals' seven. The statistics are provided by Jack Fingleton, a journalist on the 1948 tour, in his Brightly Fades the Don. Yet he seems to be trying hard to convince. O'Reilly and Fingleton (friends both, and non-acceptors of the Bradman Infallibility Theorem) seem to be saying the same thing: look at the opposition. Though 18 years had passed since he first set the cricket fields of England alight with double- and triple-hundreds, Bradman still led the averages for the tour. This to O'Reilly was a commentary on the English bowling, for according to him Bradman had appeared "quite human" and had completely lost his "killer instinct". This loss wasn't too obvious in the tour figures; Bradman made 2428 runs.
"I was more sedate," he writes in his Farewell To Cricket. "I relied more on placing than on power and could not maintain for very long a period of solid aggression. On numerous occasions I threw my innings away rather than take the risk of breaking down. I did what I thought was more important at 40 - saw the tour through. (I realised) it was time to make way for a younger man."
As a plethora of ghost-written autobiographies and semi-literate tour books crowd the shelves today, it is useful to realise that Bradman wrote his own words, as did O'Reilly, a schoolteacher by profession, and Fingleton, a journalist.
A slim volume by a non-participant, John Arlott (Gone to the Test Match) has this description of the most famous Bradman duck: "Bradman played his first ball from Hollies firmly in the middle of the bat. The second was a googly: Bradman played outside it and was bowled - was his eye a little misted at his reception, I wonder? After such a reception a man could hardly do other than score a duck or a century - and a duck did Australia no harm."
Spare, practical, with the touch of sentimentality just right. How many of our modern writers will be able to control themselves if Sachin Tendulkar should be bowled second ball in his final Test innings?
We must turn to Irving Rosenwater's biography, Sir Donald Bradman for an answer to the question we began with. Talking of leading another team to England, Bradman said, "I feel reluctant to accept - but I feel this would be my final opportunity to serve the game which has played such a big part in my life." In short, the lure of the game won. The rest is history.
Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore