Sir Donald Bradman
In the 20th Century Australians have been able to boast, with great justification over three treasures renowned across the globe: “Our ‘arbour, our bridge, and our Bradman.” When a 19-year-old boy from Bowral stepped onto the world stage in 1929, cricket changed forever and gained an icon whose figure has towered across continents for 70 years.
A slightly built youngster, Bradman possessed a superb eye, and honed his skill further by bouncing a golf-ball off a rain-water tank near his home using a stump for a bat. In the bush outside his small town, he would spend hours throwing down a single stump, fetching the ball or stone if he missed and having another shy.
He moved swiftly through grade cricket, and made his debut for New South Wales at 18. Test cricket was just a year away, but this seemed inevitable as he carved up Australia’s attacks.
Bradman’s run-scoring feats early in his career made him a national celebrity – a sporting goods firm for whom he worked in Sydney soon had his likeness on their advertisements – but it was the astonishing consistency of his batting that began to suggest that the young man with the self-deprecating smile was more than another talented flash in the pan.
A stellar start in Tests, with two centuries against England in 1929, cemented his place in a young Australian team. But the floodgates were only just opening. His eleventh innings, at Lord’s in 1930, produced 254 runs, while two innings later, at Leeds, he made a then record 334. The legend had begun.
Bradman’s method was simple if unconventional. Almost entirely uncoached, he settled on a technique that he claimed helped him to avoid fatal outside edges. The bat was held with the face pointing almost to square leg, and it came down to meet the ball from somewhere near point. The closed face required sublime timing, but in return it made Bradman utterly merciless off his pads, and prevented him from following balls outside the off-stump.
There were more attractive batsmen that Bradman – Bill Ponsford, and the young Neil Harvey – but none could score with such apparent disdain for the skill of the bowler. Bradman later attributed much of his success to the speed with which he scored his runs: his 452* for New South Wales against Queensland – still the highest score made in Australia – took just 377 minutes, while in 1931 in a minor match against the touring South Africans he blasted a century off 22 balls. 309 of his 334 at Leeds were made in a single day.
And yet he never slogged; Bradman’s talent was to hit the ball along the ground, often. He was an excellent hooker and puller, keeping the ball down as he tumbled out of the shot into a quick run. But his play on either side of the wicket was his trademark. Nobody could cut like Bradman, as he sent ball after ball through gully or past point.
As Bradman’s celebrity grew, so too did his value to Australia. In the harsh years of the Depression, he provided his countrymen with a sporting hero they could admire both on and off the field. He did not drink or smoke, and eschewed the sometimes frantic socialising of his colleagues. In the following economic recovery, he helped debunk the image of Australians as crude country bumpkins: at stylish functions in English longrooms and hotels, he spoke with clarity and a simple charm that made him one of his country’s best ambassadors.
The war obliterated what would have been the prime of the great batsman, and at the same time his health went into decline due to fibrositis. He was discharged from the army before the end of hostilities, but his return to the cricket field was a glorious affair: his first Test innings for eight years produced 187 against England at Brisbane, while his next outing seemed to show his intent to make up for lost time, as he made 234 at Sydney.
In 1948 he played his last series, retaining the Ashes with a 4-0 win in England, and English crowds queued up to see the great man. The tour was a whirlwind of fan mail and functions for Bradman, then 40 years old, and yet he still managed to score two centuries. In his last innings, at the Oval, he was given a standing ovation as he walked out to bat. The innings was infamously short, legspinner Eric Hollies bowling him for a duck, and Bradman was never able to deny the legend that his eyes were full of tears as he took guard. But there is no doubt about the ovation he received on his way off the turf.
After retiring, Bradman became the first Australian cricketer to be knighted, and spent the next two decades administering cricket, being both president of the South Australian Cricket Association and a long-time convenor and chairman of the national selection panel.
Bradman and his beloved wife Jessie retired to Adelaide and lived a reclusive life out of the public eye.
Sir Donald Bradman, Australian icon and international sporting treasure, passed away peacefully in his sleep on 25 February 2001 at the age of 92.