The cream rises to the top - Bradman's 254 is voted best ever

Sir Donald Bradman's career involves many totemic numbers. In a cricket publication it is almost superfluous to mention the contexts in which 99.94, 6996, 334 or 974 arise. But no number resonates quite like 254, because no innings held for its maker quite the same significance.

The first of Bradman's great Ashes innings, at Lord's in June 1930, was like his very own Operation Shock and Awe, with English cricket's dismay as its objective. It commenced at 3.30pm on the second day of the second Test with what remained Bradman's fastest Test fifty, in 45 minutes. What Neville Cardus called "the most murderous onslaught I have ever known in a Test match" finished at 2.50pm on the third day, after 341 minutes, 376 deliveries and a century in boundaries.

The particular significance of the 254 derives, however, from Bradman's own estimation of it. While controversy attaches to other choices posthumously ascribed to him, Bradman left no room for doubt about where he ranked this feat, volunteering in Farewell To Cricket that it was technically the best innings of his career. "Practically without exception every ball went where it was intended," he opined - and "practically" is, with Bradman, not an inconsiderable word.

This is not merely a premium endorsement either, but an insight into Bradman himself. In his restless quest for perfection, this exploit was the pinnacle of efficiency to which he himself always aspired: speed without noticeable haste, risk without obvious recklessness. If Bradman's feats now seem scarcely human, the self-scrutiny that singled this innings out implies they cannot have been altogether unconscious. By the same token, it is interesting that Bradman made his distinctions on a technical basis. In echoing him since, critics have been inclined to let the inning's specifications and dynamics efface its circumstances.

At the time Percy Chapman's Englishmen had Bill Woodfull's Australians very much under the cosh. The hosts held the Ashes, led 1-0 in the series and had compiled 425 in their first innings on the game's most venerable ground. The trail to a Test double century, moreover, had been blazed by only three Australians in more than fifty years of international competition.

The stage was set by Woodfull and his opening partner Bill Ponsford, whose 162 for the first wicket survived every challenge save a teatime visit from King George V. Indeed it was Woodfull whom Bradman credited with his approach: he was "playing so finely ... that I could afford to go for the bowling".

Despite being "naturally anxious to do well" in view of the occasion and audience, Bradman surged for-ward to meet his first ball from England's Jack `Farmer' White, punched it to mid-off and sauntered a single. The stroke was as clean and clear as a proclamation. "It was," wrote England's former captain Pelham Warner, "as if he had already made a century."

White, a famously parsimonious left-arm spinner, could not curb him. Nor could Maurice Tate, still probably the world's best medium-paced bowler. The young Gubby Allen and Walter Robins were harshly manhandled.

Yet what was striking about Bradman's batting was less its power than its poise. He already held the record for the biggest first-class innings: his 452 not out for NSW against Queensland. But this was more than humdrum accumulation of runs. It was calm, carefree, precocious; as if nobody had explained to Bradman why the occasion should daunt him and whose were the reputations he was trampling. "Young Bradman," said Cardus, in one of his crispest phrases, "knocked solemnity to smithereens."

That Cardus was present as cricket correspondent of the Manchester Guardian is history's good fortune; in cricket terms, it's as if AJP Taylor had been around to report the signing of Magna Carta. "The bat sent out cracking noises; they were noises quite contemptuous," wrote the dean of English sports journalism. "When he batted eleven men were not enough. Lord's was too big to cover; holes were to be seen in the English field everywhere. Chapman tried his best to fill them up, but in vain."

After tea, everyone appeared to become a spectator. To cut off Bradman's scoring seemed like trying to cap a Yellowstone geyser or a Spindletop gusher. He barely paused for the applause that greeted his 105-minute century - his third hundred in consecutive Tests - and ploughed on to the more remarkable landmark of a century in a session. Despite Woodfull's 78-run and 170-minute head start, Bradman had caught up with his captain by the time their 160-minute partnership of 231 was ended. England's impressive total was in sight by stumps, and now being judged according to an entirely different scale: suddenly no score, no statistic, no history was safe.

Given the curious queasiness that has emerged in recent years about Bradman's records, it's worth noting that the man himself knew no such taboo. Resuming on Monday at 155, he cast intrepid and covetous eyes on the benchmark Test score of 287 by England's RE `Tip' Foster. He even thought there might be something appropriate about his consigning it to oblivion: he would seize for Sydney the record set at its cricket ground 27 years earlier.

With this in mind Bradman introduced a note of care to his play before lunch, allowing Tate to bowl him a maiden. Still he overhauled a double century in 245 minutes - becoming, at 21 years and 307 days, the youngest to achieve the feat. His lunchtime 231 was already the highest score by an Australian, the highest against England and the highest at Lord's - and still it wasn't over.

Foster's citadel, in the end, did not fall. The elastic Chapman stuck his right hand aloft at extra cover to arrest a screaming drive - "a magnificent piece of work," wrote Bradman admiringly - with the batsman 34 shy of his goal. His 254 had been made from 423 added while he'd been at the crease, and his third-wicket partnership of 192 with Alan Kippax was another Lord's record.

Perhaps the only aspect of Bradman's innings as remarkable as the number of records is their brief durations. The cause, of course, was Bradman himself. His 254 was the Australian Test best for precisely one match; his 334 at Headingley two weeks later put everyone in the shade, including himself. Bradman's 974 runs in the five-Test series, including another 232 at The Oval in August, remains a record seemingly beyond challenge.

It was the beginning of a sporting monopoly so unsparing it should almost have been dissolved by anti-trust regulators. To break a record is one thing; to break one's own is quite another. To make big scores is one thing; to compile them so memorably that they become associated with you forever is a mark of genuine greatness.