THE DON OVERCAME ODDS UNFAILINGLY
The transformation from Don to The Don did not come easy to Bradman. That a boy from Bowral, in the Southern Highlands of Australia, traversed a mighty journey to scale peaks hitherto unknown to the world of cricket, and unconquerable even today, was by itself an accomplishment that overcame huge odds. Sure, he was a supremely gifted athlete, but he also had the single-minded determination, will to put in hours of toil, and incredible self-belief that are pre-requisites for super success. Importantly, he had the support of his family right through his life. His early feats caught the attention of people in Sydney, and thus began a journey that still has us transfixed.
Bradman’s ascent from district to club, and on to first-class and Test cricket was smooth. He scored a century on first-class debut, hundred in his second Test and two in his debut series, hit up a triple century in his second first-class season, and broke the record for the highest first-class score in the third season. That was the prelude to his maiden voyage to England in 1930, and it was there that he astounded the world with deeds that are still light years away from being emulated. There were cynics who decreed that Don would flounder in alien English conditions. The Kent leg-spinner ‘Tich’ Freeman had spoken disparagingly about his “cross-batted shots”, and the Surrey captain Percy Fender about his tendency to play across the line. The great Sussex medium-pacer Maurice Tate had clearly warned the youngster that he would be “found out” in England.
There was a huge buzz around him. Everywhere, he was spoken and written about, photographed and filmed, yet no one was sure how he would perform when the ball swung and seamed on wickets that did not have the same bounce and carry as those back home in Australia. Young Don, as always, let his bat do the talking. In the traditional opening fixture against Worcestershire, Bradman hit up 236. In the next match he carted the Leicestershire bowlers around in his unbeaten 185, and so his rampaging blade went on and on. He completed 1000 runs before the end of May.
In the first Test at Trent Bridge, Bradman scored a century; in the second at Lord’s he played what is rated as his finest innings, a brilliant 254. In the third Test at Leeds he hit up 309 runs in a day and smashed the record with his 334. Even so, the series was level 1-1 after the rain-curtailed Old Trafford Test. It was at The Oval that the series would be decided, and Bradman responded with a superb 232 and won back the Ashes for Australia. He had met the challenge like a true champion. His 974 Test runs were more than anyone in a series, and 2960 first-class runs more than any batsman visiting England, before or since. That was the young, unfettered Bradman, physically in his prime, uncluttered in mind and playing purely on natural ability and instinct.
That was also when troubles began to knock on his door. Even as he was being feted, hailed and rewarded, and he penned his first book Don Bradman’s Book of Cricket, came the first of his brushes with authority. Sydney’s The Star newspaper published extracts from his book before the tour was over and the Board of Control imposed a fine on him. As early as 1931 he felt listless due to what he said was the stress of playing too much cricket and thinking about the game all the time. Bradman fought through his first little crisis and marched on against the feebler opposition in the form of the West Indies in 1930-31 and South Africa the following season. His tally of centuries and double centuries was three each in these two series put together, the aggregate more than 1250 runs, and Australia won nine of the ten Tests.
Then came the very public wrangle with the Board of Control over the issue of his writing for The Star. As a result he missed the first Test of the Bodyline series in 1932-33. After a compromise was reached, Bradman was back for the second Test at Melbourne, but ran headlong into Bodyline, the most vicious form of attack ever known, that was devised solely to decimate him. The Empire had struck back. After an initial stutter he coped well enough, devising his own method of backing away from the line of the ball and banging it through the vacant off-side. He would also at times run across his off-stump and thump the ball on the leg-side. But Bradman’s way of handling Bodyline was always shown in poor light when weighed against Stan McCabe’s tremendous exhibition of hooking, cutting and pulling in his exhilarating 187 in the first Test at Sydney. Certainly, McCabe’s brilliant knock was the more aesthetic, Bradman’s series average ‘plummeted’ to a more human 56.57, and Jardine’s team sailed away with the Ashes in emphatic manner, wresting the rubber 4-1. But what is often overlooked is that Bradman scored a scintillating, if unorthodox, unbeaten hundred in the second innings of the Melbourne Test, which Australia won, and at least a half-century in each of the other three Tests that he played in that controversial series. He still topped the averages for Australia, way ahead of McCabe, and was second overall only to Eddie Paynter’s 61.33, who had two not outs in his five innings.
The odds against Bradman were huge in this series. Harold Larwood was lightning fast and had superb control. The big left-armer Bill Voce posed a different problem with his angle, and when the two deployed Bodyline with a packed leg-side field, the batsman was cornered. Bradman counter-attacked valiantly and still managed an average that was about as good as any other great batsman has ever achieved in a complete career. But the crucial factor was that Bodyline did not finish Bradman. It shook him, made him wary for the rest of his career, but it did not curb his inimitable run-scoring ways nor the dominance that he exercised right through, and he turned Australia into the major force in Test cricket for a long, long time.
He began the 1934 tour of England complaining of a feeling of being unwell, wanted to opt out of the opening fixture but was persuaded by skipper Bill Woodfull to play. Bradman scored 206. Soon he went through a prolonged period of poor form and when the fourth Test at Headingley began he had a total of 133 runs in his kitty in five innings, with a highest of 36. This was hardly Bradmanesque, and crucially the series was tied 1-1. The cynics were at their game again. Had Bodyline finished Bradman? As always, The Don struck back in emphatic manner. He hit his second Test triple hundred, both at this ground, and put on 388 for the fourth wicket with Bill Ponsford. Rain robbed Australia of a certain victory. So much physical discomfort did he suffer that Bradman did not appear in each of the five first-class matches between the fourth and fifth Tests. The fate of the series once again hinged on the final Test at The Oval. This time Bradman and Ponsford put on 451 for the second wicket. The Don scored 244 and 77 and Australia won back the Ashes, this time for the rest of his career.
Then came the biggest crisis of his life. That feeling of ill-health finally culminated in severe abdominal pain on the eve of departure for home. He was operated upon for appendicitis, but suffered complications and lay critically ill with peritonitis. For several days he hovered close to death. Slowly he recovered, spent months in convalescence, missed the 1934-35 domestic season and did not tour South Africa in 1935-36. It was, then, reassuring to the public and himself when he hit up two first-class triple centuries that domestic season.
But would this peerless batsman ever be the same again at the highest level? He was appointed captain of a depleted Australian team for the 1936-37 Ashes series against good friend Gubby Allen’s touring side. Bradman scored 38 and 0, and 0 and 82 in the first two Tests as Australia went 0-2 down. The knives were out, his critics bayed for his blood demanding that he be stripped of the captaincy. Even religious issues cropped up. But Bradman’s self-belief did not desert him. As the third Test at Melbourne began in wet conditions, Bradman was dismissed for 13 in the first innings, but Australia took a vital lead in a low-scoring first innings. Then in a re-jigged batting order, Bradman took command as the pitch began to dry out. He put on 346 for the sixth wicket with Jack Fingleton, and carved out a tremendous innings of 270. Australia registered a huge win.
Again in the first innings at Adelaide, Bradman played a cameo of 26, and this time England gained a 42-run lead. There was a huge task ahead of Bradman. He now dominated the innings with an awesome knock of 212 runs. England were faced with an impossible task and the series was squared. Bradman had turned the tide as only he could. The English were a demoralised lot and Bradman led the final assault with his 169 runs. England were annihilated and the series was won as a result of Bradman’s Herculean efforts. It was a heroic saga that continues to stir the senses even today.
The 1938 series in England was a battle of attrition right through. Bradman scored hundreds in all the three Tests that he batted in and Australia took a slender 1-0 lead in the fourth Test. The wicket was rock-solid at The Oval, Len Hutton dropped anchor and amassed his record-breaking 364. Bradman injured his foot towards the end of that innings and was unable to bat in the match. The series was squared but the Ashes stayed with Australia.
During the war, curiously, Bradman’s eyesight was found to be defective and he also began to suffer terrible back pain. On the family front, the Bradmans had lost their first child within hours in 1936, but were blessed with a son, John, in 1939. There was, however, more anguish ahead as in 1941 their daughter Shirley was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth, albeit mild, and she recovered. When Bradman took the field after the war, he was still suffering from fibrositis and was in considerable agony with muscular pain. He walked to the crease in the first Ashes Test at Brisbane in 1946-47 with much trepidation. Gradually he found his feat and managed to score 187. In the second Test he knocked up 234 runs and added 405 for the fifth wicket with Sidney Barnes. This time it was Australia that went 2-0 up, and the fightback never came from the tourists. Bradman had battled through his physical woes and the limitations imposed by advancing age to stamp his authority once again.
The Indian team did not offer much of a challenge in 1947-48. Bradman scored a century in each innings of the third Test and his last Test double hundred in the fourth. His brilliant team continued its dominance over England in 1948. In a final display that was a microcosm of Bradman’s ascendancy through his career, he combined with Arthur Morris in a superb partnership of 301 for the second wicket at Headingley, as they went about achieving a seemingly impossible target of 404 on the last day.
Even after his career was over, health issues continued. Son John contracted polio in 1952, but thankfully made a complete recovery. Bradman himself had to give up business at the early age of 45 due to matters of health, and later both he and his wife Jessie suffered much on this count causing him to withdraw completely from public life. But no matter what odds he faced, The Don invariably fought back successfully on the field, as cricket administrator and businessman, and as a family man. It has become a cliché but one has to repeat that there will never be another like Don Bradman.