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In the footsteps of the master

Bowral is synonymous with Bradman. An excellent museum makes it worth the visit

Sharda Ugra
Sharda Ugra
One of Don Bradman's homes in Bowral, seen as part of the Bradman Walk  •  Sharda Ugra

One of Don Bradman's homes in Bowral, seen as part of the Bradman Walk  •  Sharda Ugra

Twenty-five years ago, it had raced past on the day train from Sydney to Melbourne. A water-coloured countryside, clusters of gum trees, and was that what they called wattle? The platform was a swiftly retreating blur with a single word: "Bowral". It went off like a flashlight in the face.
So that's where Don Bradman came from. A normal, routine slice of country Australia: not the iconic bush or the cattle stations, no sightings of horsemen from Snowy River under Akubras and long, magnificent coats.
To walk into that "normal" many years later was to revisit a landscape joined and separated by decades. Bowral lies 110km south-west of Sydney, but in some bylanes it could be about a hundred years removed from the glitz of its famous waterfront. A town of moderately sized homes of brick or wood, with trimmings of wrought-iron "lace" on the edges of roofs, not much could have changed in Bowral since a teenage Bradman walked through the streets on his way to Glebe Park in the 1920s.
A century ago Bowral was dairy and beef cattle country. Today it is a polished central hub into the southern highlands, a haven for the well-heeled, retirees or runaways from big city life. The highlight of its year is Tulip Time, a festival marking the onset of the Australian spring in September. The bandstand at the centre of Bowral's 100-year-old Corbett Park comes to life with music, awash in the colours of 100,000 tulips. The festival also includes a "creative sausage" competition, the grand final of which is the "Battle of the Bangers".
But Bowral is far from merely such rustic heartiness. It has award-winning restaurants, country homes with outstanding collections of vintage wine, lovely crafts boutiques and organic local produce to be savoured.
The truth, though, is that many charming parts of Australia offer such delights of local distinction, gastronomie and degustation. But for overseas visitors with cricket in the veins, Bowral has the X-factor. It's called Bradman and it is unbeatable.
Obsessives can follow the Bradman Trail all the way from Cootamundra to Adelaide. For a slice of an extraordinary cricketer's life, Bowral offers a special feasting. A day trip centred around cricket can begin by following the footsteps of Bradman in his teenage years, on a neatly signposted "Bradman Walk" around town.
Central to that wander is the Bradman Oval, which covers one half of what used to be Glebe Park. There are his two homes, his school, his church, the venue of the civic reception to bid him farewell on his first tour of England. The oval makes for a lovely centrepiece, a country ground ringed by trees and grass banks, a white fence that is easily slung over and a picketed gate.
At long-off (or fine leg), is another cricketing gem: a museum now transformed into a distinctive, wide-ranging cricketing experience, in the form of the Bradman Museum and the International Cricket Hall of Fame. An excellent and imaginatively curated space, the Museum and Hall of Fame works for cricket nuts of all ages, as well as for someone trying to understand what the fuss is about.
The visitor walks through the history, diversity and complexity of the game through six interactive galleries: The Game, the Origins of the Game, Bradman Gallery, World Series Cricket, the International Cricket Hall of Fame, and the Greats of the Game. There are surprises lurking around every corner. It is, in short, a place to fall in love with the game all over again.
The charm and affection for players and fans alike are evident everywhere. There are video clips of children talking very seriously about what cricket means to them, there's equipment available to explain the three departments, and a wall for every visitor to compare their height with everyone from Tendulkar to Tremlett.
By the time you enter the Golden Age, you're smitten. Spofforth and Hobbs and Ranji and WG and then, him. Trumper. A short film about the dramas set loose by Bodyline plays itself out in the Bradman Gallery, where Sir Don's first bat is a mere slip of willow when compared to the timber logs in use today.
There are pieces of inspiration to be found everywhere. The first, a corner of the museum that displays a panel of a corrugated iron water tank with a brick base, which is a central part of the Bradman legend. At his home in 52, Shepherd St, Bradman used to hit a golf ball off a cricket stump onto the base of the tank, and then try to strike the ricocheting ball off various angles, with the stump. Its museum replica has a stump and golf ball close by, in case the visitor wants to have a go at this simple reflexes and eyesight exercise.
Then, around another corner, comes an old-style dressing room, where a disconsolate Australian cricketer sits, face buried in hands. (Grinning citizens from other nations are allowed get pictures taken next to him). Lift the receiver of the telephone in the dressing room and hear snatches of commentary from old games.
The museum opens up into a vast open, high-roofed space, whose soundtrack is a frenzied, modern giant stadium game. The Hall of Fame and Gallery of Greats contain more than 150 video interviews with players from around the world.
If you want to go through everything on offer in the Museum and International Cricket Hall of Fame, get a room. If it's only a day trip, when done with the Museum and Hall of Fame, find a small spot on the grass banks of the Bradman Oval and consider this: From these uneventful tree-lined streets covering an area of no bigger than 2sqkm in an indistinct Australian country town came a cricketing hero for millions. Maybe ruminate a little on what brought you to the game and from how far away you find yourself in this place. Then, who cares what happens in the World Cup, anyway?

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo