BRADMAN WAS THE DOMINANT FORCE,
NOT A MERE RUN MACHINE
Don Bradman was slotted as a run machine by some who were annihilated by his rampaging blade, and others who were simply mesmerised by the unprecedented, and still unparalleled, free-scoring ways. That betrays a lack of understanding of the Bradman phenomenon, and at times intends to dissipate the aura around his magical batsmanship. No matter what the pundits and self-professed connoisseurs of the art of batting might have us believe, Don Bradman was not just the dominant force of his times, but the ultimate benchmark against which to assess the abilities of other top-class wielders of the willow, before and since.
Since the advent of Test cricket in 1877, the only real contests were between England and Australia, which after 1882 came to be known as The Ashes. The entry of South Africa in 1888 made little difference. Right through the Victorian era, and cricket’s golden age from about 1894 till the beginning First World War in 1914, England were invariably the superior team, despite the inroads made by Fred Spofforth. The war proved a turning point, for when the sides met again Warwick Armstrong’s Australian team decimated England at home in 1920-21 and away in 1921. Then began a tremendous battle for supremacy with the imperial power determined to stamp its authority over its dominion even on the cricket turf.
England retained the Ashes in awesome fashion in Bradman’s debut series in 1928-29 with Wally Hammond in imperious form. The young Don provided glimpses of things to come with two centuries and two fifties in the four Tests that he played. The world sat up and noticed when he smashed the first-class record with his unbeaten 452 in 1929-30. Even so, some English players dismissed Bradman as a cross-batted slogger and were cynical about his prospects in the swinging and seaming environs of England.
How wrong they were! The tour of England in 1930 was the watershed. Bradman swept everything before him like a hurricane. He slammed a hundred in the first Test, a double hundred in the second (which Bradman himself rated as his best innings), and a record-shattering triple hundred in the third. In that defining knock at his favourite English ground Headingley, Leeds, Bradman hit up over 300 runs in a day, a feat that continues to elude all the giants of the Test arena. He went on to surpass Andy Sandham’s mark of 325 set the previous winter, notching up 334 runs of his own. A brief lull at Old Trafford, Manchester, the only venue in England that did not host Bradman’s heroic exploits, was followed by one more storm in the final Test at The Oval. Bradman carved out another double century to wrest back the Ashes. He knocked up nearly a thousand runs – 974 to be exact – in the series, another astounding deed that none has even contemplated challenging. His career batting average breached the nineties in his seventh Test and crossed the hundred mark in the ninth, never ever to fall below 89. The Bradman legend had unfolded in a most stunning manner. He piled up 2960 first-class runs, the most a visiting batsman has scored in an English season. Don had left his unmistakable imprint and established Australia’s supremacy.
The Bradman saga continued to grow in the next two series against the West Indies in 1930-31 and South Africa the following season. Double centuries became his hallmark, Australia continued to steamroll and Bradman’s Test career average reached its zenith at 112.29 at the conclusion of the South African series in which he scored 201.50 per innings, a figure still unsurpassed in a five-Test series. By now he had 2695 runs to his credit in 19 Tests with twelve hundreds, including five double centuries and a triple ton.
So thunderstruck were the English that they devised a diabolical method, that became infamous as Bodyline, to knock Bradman over. Without holding any brief for Bradman, it has to be argued that he coped with Bodyline much better than has been portrayed. True, when he returned for the second Test of that 1932-33 series at Melbourne, after missing the first due to a dispute with the Board of Control, he was bowled first ball, under-edging a short of a length delivery from Bill Bowes as he attempted to play his favourite pull shot. But thereafter he acquitted himself extremely well. He had decided to counter-attack Bodyline, even though his methods were less aesthetic than his compatriot Stan McCabe, who had hit up a scintillating 187 not out in the first Test at Sydney.
Bradman slammed an unbeaten 103 in the second innings at Melbourne and at least a half-century in each of the other three Tests. He would invariably step away to the leg-side and crash the ball through the vacant off, and at times even run across his off-stump to evade the rearing deliveries and blast them to the on-side. It was not a pretty display but was as effective as it could be against the most vicious form of bowling the game has ever witnessed. Douglas Jardine’s team snatched back the Ashes in the most ruthless fashion. Bradman’s series average ‘plummeted’ to 56.57, but it was still the highest for his country by a long way – McCabe was second with 42.77 – and about as good as any other great batsman has ever achieved in a complete career. Only England’s Eddie Paynter finished with a higher average in that series at 61.33, but he had two not outs in five innings.
That was the lowest point in Bradman’s Test stint. Not long after, the demon of Bodyline was interred. The protagonist of that attack, Harold Larwood, never appeared again for England, and the abettor Jardine only briefly. Bradman returned to his triumphant mode and Australia never lost another rubber till the end of his career.
The 1934 series in English was one of retribution. Even though ill-health and poor form dogged him, Bradman fired when it mattered. With the teams level at 1-1, Bradman scored his second triple century at Headingley and only the rain gods saved the hosts. Even so, The Don was relentless in his pursuit – the regaining of the Ashes. In the final Test at The Oval Bradman won back the coveted little urn for the second successive time in England with another of his magical double centuries. His ally in monumental partnerships in the last two Tests was Bill Ponsford, who was seen for the last time at the highest level. Yet again Bradman played a vital role when it was required the most. He had won the day for his country as he always did, before falling grievously ill on the eve of departure for home.
The next scene was enacted in 1936-37, Bradman having undergone a long period of convalescence and missed the domestic season of 1934-35 and tour to South Africa the following year. The Don was now captain of Australia, but it was a depleted outfit with several of the stalwarts of the past decade and more having departed the scene. He was himself treading the Test arena after more than two years. Bradman registered ducks in successive innings in the first two Tests, both of which his team lost. Here was another challenge and the champion rose to meet it yet again. His response was double centuries in consecutive Tests at Melbourne and Adelaide to square the series. That was also the key to Bradman’s iconic average, mind-boggling comebacks after brief relatively lean spells. Then with the series poised on a razor’s edge in the deciding Test, Bradman led the charge with his 169, overpowering the English one more time.
The 1938 series in England was a bit different. Still leading an inferior side, Bradman did not score a double century, but notched hundreds in each of three Tests that he batted in, and helped take a slender lead in a battle of attrition. Then in the final Test on a flat track, Len Hutton ground the Australian bowling into the Oval dust with his record innings of 364. Bradman cracked his ankle in his effort to relieve his weary bowlers, could not bat in either innings and England squared the series. Australia kept the Ashes as the world went to war. It was a decade in which Bradman had held sway for the most part, having already crossed the milestone of 5000 Test runs.
Never again was Bradman to lose a Test and he established his suzerainty with big knocks right at the outset in each of his three series after the war, now at the helm of a brilliant combination. In the 1946-47 Ashes series he hit up 187 and 234 as Australia won the first two Tests and retained the urn 3-0. When the Indians came calling the next season, The Don recorded his hundredth first-class century, an achievement unheard of for a batsman not playing regularly in the busy English county circuit. He knocked up 185 in the opening Test at Brisbane, a hundred in each innings of the third Test at Melbourne, and his final Test double century at Adelaide as the series was won at a canter.
Came the ultimate face-off in England in 1948 and Bradman’s Invincibles were simply unassailable. The Don churned out an innings of 138 in the opening Test at Trent Bridge, kept up the momentum with scores of 38 and 89 at Lord’s and once again established ascendancy with a 2-0 lead. He turned that into a decisive result in the fourth Test, inevitably at Headingley, as he allied in a superb partnership with the left-handed opener Arthur Morris, achieving the impossible by scripting a dramatic victory as Australia scored more than 400 runs on the last day. Bradman’s enthralling unbeaten 173 was his 29th hundred. His brief last Test innings is well chronicled but he had left such an impact that the world of cricket was left marvelling, awe-struck.
Don Bradman was much more than a run-machine, for his strong, cool mind, a brave heart and peerless self-belief. He scored copiously, but crucially when most required. As long as Bradman was around Australia could not lose. His team ruled the world just as later West Indies combinations under Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards, and Australian outfits led by Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting did later, but with one difference. The modern sides were a collection of brilliant talent. In the 1930s and 1940s Bradman bestrode the scene like a colossus, marching at the head of players of two different generations, without doubt the dominant force of his times.