Having watched epic contests between Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar - the master bowler of the age versus the champion batsman - I have always wondered how Don Bradman would have dealt with the sublime spin of Warne. How I wish Albert Einstein realised that things could go faster than light, and a time machine was potential reality. Perhaps not in our time.
However, in the absence of technology, we can use our imaginations. We can look at old footage of Bradman and film of Warne; we can research and analyse and use part of the large portion of the human mind science tells us we usually don't utilise, to visualise such a contest. Sometimes the unreal melds with the real, but fantasy is fantasy. Or is it?
As the clock struck the hour, fans in their thousands poured into the Sydney Cricket Ground to witness first-hand the greatest cricket battle of them all - Bradman versus Warne.
Sid Barnes, stalwart of the 1948 Invincibles, and Arthur Morris' opening partner, fell to Warne's second ball, a hard-spun legbreak that left the bowler's hand and curved down the pitch in a lovely arc, fit to send Banjo Paterson into poetic song.
As Barnes probed forward, the hissing Warne legbreak ducked swiftly, like a diving Spitfire, and the batsman's failure to cover the length and breadth of spin presented Mark Taylor with a dolly at first slip. Already 50,000 people had packed the SCG, and they rose as one to give the greatest batsman of all time the most magnificent reception.
Barnes tried in vain to mention to Bradman that the ball was dipping wickedly and that the legspin magician had it on a string, but The Don was in no mood to talk to anyone about the merits of a bowler for whom he had great respect but dearly wanted to thrash unmercifully.
On the 1930 Australia tour of England, the brash 20-year-old batting phenomenon told his team-mates: "Plenty of batsmen watch the bowler's fingers, hoping to detect what sort of ball he's going to deliver, but that's no good to me. Let me see the ball coming and then I'll decide the best place to hit it." Never would he stop on his way to the wicket to hear the out-going batsman describe the amazing swing, cut or spin the bowler had achieved to cause his downfall.
Maybe Clarrie Grimmett, the greatest legspinner between the wars, had told Bradman of the Test trial at the SCG in 1925, when Grimmett spun one a good deal to trap Tommy Andrews and then watched the departing batsman and saw how he stopped to chat to the man next in, Alan Kippax. There was Andrews demonstrating with arms outstretched how the ball that got him "spun a mile". Kippax lasted one ball: a fizzing Grimmett topspinner ripped between bat and pad to hit middle stump as Kippax played with his bat away from the pad to counter the excessive turn he expected.
The stage was set. Taylor remembered how Sachin Tendulkar attacked Warne in India and succeeded with big hundreds in three innings. Would Bradman go at Warne in similar vein?
Bradman took guard, looked about the field, and took up his stance. Warne had a slip, backward point, short cover, extra cover and mid-off. To the on side was a man behind square leg, a very straight midwicket, mid-on, and a man in the deep just in front of square. The crowd fell silent. They knew this contest would provide something special, for both players were at the pinnacle of their powers.
While the likes of Victor Trumper came from an era where a batsman, after hitting a century, looked for a worthy opponent to "present" his wicket to, Bradman simply marked guard afresh and went for the next hundred. He was totally ruthless and was said to have targeted bowlers, setting out to destroy them on the field. Once, in a grade match in Adelaide, he went to the wicket late on a Saturday afternoon. The big fast bowler standing at mid-on looked like he might possibly ruffle the champion's feathers if he bowled fast the next over on the green track in bad light. So the Don hit all eight deliveries of his first over just out of reach of mid-on. By the time the over ended and he was expected to bowl to Bradman, the poor man was so exhausted he couldn't scratch himself.
Now Bradman was up against Warne, the man he had said in the late 1990s, was "the best thing to happen to Australian cricket in 30 years". Around that time Bradman invited Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne to his Kensington Park home in Adelaide. It was a pleasant change from having busloads of people - even Japanese tourists - turn up unannounced to snap their cameras in a frenzy of celebrity worship.
Ball three arrives, again dipping menacingly in a lovely curve. Bradman pounces with feline reflexes, his feet moving swiftly, yet with silky smoothness, to reach the ball the instant it strikes the turf
At the age of 16, Len Hutton faced 62-year-old SF Barnes in the nets, and years later he declared that Barnes "was the best bowler I've faced". Bradman considered Bill O'Reilly to be the greatest bowler he had played with or against. He wrote to me in 1989:
"Of all the bowlers I played with and against, I rate Bill O'Reilly No. 1. In my opinion the hardest ball to play is the one which turns from leg to off, and this was Bill's stock delivery. He persistently bowled at a right-hander's leg stump, and when perfectly pitched that ball would take the off bail. There is precious little answer to such a delivery - the batsman actually gets an outside edge or the ball clips the off stump. Bill also bowled a magnificent Bosey, which was hard to pick and which he aimed at middle and leg stumps. It was fractionally slower than his legbreak and usually dropped a little in flight and "sat up" to entice a catch to one of his two short-leg fieldsmen. These two deliveries, combined with great accuracy and unrelenting hostility, were enough to test the greatest of batsmen, particularly as his legbreak
was bowled at medium pace - quicker than the normal run of slow bowlers - thereby making it extremely difficult for a batsman to use his feet as a counter measure. Bill will always remain in my book, the greatest of all."
And how did Bradman rate Grimmett, O'Reilly's great spinning partner? He revealed in a letter to me in 1991:
"I always classified Clarrie as the best of the genuine slow legspinners (I exclude O'Reilly because, as you say, he was not really a slow leggie), and what made him the best was his accuracy. His control was remarkable. I saw Clarrie in one match take the ball after some light rain, when the ball was greasy and hard to hold, yet he reeled off five maidens without a loose ball. That is the problem with young legbreak bowlers - it takes years to develop such control, and in the meantime they are too expensive and get discarded."
As far as I know, Sir Donald never aired in public any comparison of Grimmett with Warne. Perhaps Warne's emergence was too late in Bradman's life to make such comparisons, for invariably it would have led to his being hounded by the press. Who'd want that as you entered your 90s?
Bradman again looks about the field. Warne has Taylor at slip, Matthew Hayden at backward point, Ricky Ponting at short cover, Mark Waugh at extra cover, and Steve Waugh at mid-off. As the keeper, Ian Healy, settles down with a "Carn Shane," Merv Hughes moves in at backward square leg; so too do David Boon at short, straight midwicket and Jason Gillespie at mid-on. At deep square leg Glenn McGrath ambles in a few yards. There is a hush in the crowd.
Warne stands at the top of his mark. His spinning fingers move a little up and down as he caresses the ball, ensuring the grip is neither too loose or too tight, but firm. Bradman's eyes are set on the blond legspinner.
Warne starts on his methodical way to the wicket. When he gets within a yard of the crease his wrist cocks and he drives up and over his front leg with amazing energy and strength. The ball spins so hard it hums, dipping away in a lovely curve. Bradman can't hit this one for six, four, three, two or one, so he goes well forward and meets the ball with a dead bat. No run.
Warne stands at the end of his follow-through and rubs his chin. Bradman avoids his stare, looking about the field. He sees gaps on the on side but knows all too well that hitting those gaps will be risky against hard-spun legbreaks, which if Warne is on song, will arrive in a fizzing, dipping arc.
Warne again. A legbreak. It curves in towards leg stump, and upon pitching it fairly buzzes, spinning past Bradman's forward-defensive stroke. The ball misses off by a whisker, and as the crowd roars in appreciation of the bowler's skill, Healy takes it, throwing his head back.
Ball three arrives, again dipping menacingly in a lovely curve. Bradman pounces with feline reflexes, his feet moving swiftly, yet with silky smoothness, to reach the ball the instant it strikes the turf. There can be no error, for to misjudge the length would be fatal. The cover drive scorches past Ponting at short cover, beats Mark Waugh at extra, and scuttles like a startled rabbit to the boundary.
The battle goes on for an hour. Bradman has scored freely up the other end, and has taken about a dozen runs off Warne. Two boundaries and four singles. In the meanwhile Morris, who was Grimmett's last first-class wicket, falls to McGrath, and Lindsay Hassett, one of the few batsmen to repeatedly play well against O'Reilly, proves a good ally for Bradman. A big partnership looms.
But Warne has other ideas. He has used his full repertoire: the legbreak, fizzing topspinner, back-spinner, zooter, wrong'un and flipper. Just one wrong'un to Bradman, which he latched on to, as he so often did when Grimmett bowled that ball. Bradman always said Grimmett's wrong'un was easy to pick, and he found it the same with Warne.
The flipper too made little impact. Bradman was alert to the delivery, which Grimmett invented and Warne bowled so well to many, especially South Africa's Daryll Cullinan, who once told me he always "picked" Warne's flipper but, alas, kept getting bowled by it.
Some 75 minutes into the match, the Invincibles' score stood at 94 for 2: Bradman 49 and Hassett 17. Warne decided to go back to relying on his stock ball. He would concentrate on bowling hard-spun legbreaks and varying, ever so slightly, the pace of those deliveries.
Bradman had batted with assurance and skill but found Warne's bowling to be an extraordinary mix of O'Reilly and Grimmett wrapped up in one amazing bowler. Warne had the spin and the guile of Grimmett; in fact, he spun it harder and the ball dropped more dramatically than when Grimmett bowled it, and Warne also possessed O'Reilly's "unrelenting hostility".
Warne moves in again. He bowls a hard-spun legbreak, but with a slight, almost imperceptible change of pace. Fifty thousand people watching at the ground, plus millions on television, are fooled, so too is Bradman. Although his footwork is swift and sure, the balls dips suddenly and wickedly, and lands well short of where the Don expects it to. Too far into his stroke to check it, his lofted drive goes straight into the hands of Ponting at short cover.