Was Don Bradman the greatest batsman of all time? Excerpt from Indra Vikram Singh’s book ‘Don’s Century’.

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(‘Don’s Century’ is a book on the cricket career and life of Don Bradman, paying tribute to him in 2008, the year of his birth centenary. It is also a panorama of batting from the 1860s onwards featuring 35 of the greatest batsmen and discussing whether Don Bradman was indeed the greatest of them all).

Len Hutton himself wrote at length about Bradman. He described his wide-eyed admiration when as a boy he saw The Don score his triple century in a day at Leeds in 1930. Later he wrote in his Fifty Years in Cricket: “During his first visit to England in 1930 it was fashionable to say that The Don was unorthodox, a law unto himself, and that his bat was not as straight as it ought to have been. A genius to confound all theory, but not one to copy. Yet from Headingley onwards, and certainly later when I was better able to judge, I never saw any part of his technique which could not serve as a model for any batsman from school age upwards. His movements were so right and so emphatic. To the straight good-length ball he would either go forward or back with precise judgement, never across the pitch, and at the crucial moment, his bat would be as straight as a Scotch fir.”

Someone who played against Bradman at his zenith in 1930, and then watched him through his career, K.S. Duleepsinhji, summed up his batting in Indian Cricketer Annual 1954: “Will there be another like him? I doubt it – in our life time. They come so rarely. What is the secret of his success? Cricket sense, extra quickness of eye, footwork, suppleness of wrist, looseness of shoulders and correct timing. His highly developed cricket sense helped him to make up his mind regarding the stroke in a split second, after the ball left the bowler’s hand. Bradman was seldom at fault in judging the correct position to play the stroke he intended to play. The suppleness of wrists, looseness of shoulders and correct timing gave his strokes the great speed with which he dispatched the ball to all corners of the field. The hook shots, square-cuts, leg-glides off the balls on the leg-stump and pushes to the on off balls on the wicket which he could execute with safety were due to the combination of the above gifts. With his large repertoire of strokes, he always found gaps in the field. The opponents always found eleven fielders too few.”

On Bradman’s impact on the game, Duleepsinhji reflected, “Bradman during his career caught the imagination of the public as only three others – W.G. Grace, Ranji and Victor Trumper – succeeded in doing in the past. Where W.G. Grace reeled off centuries, Bradman reeled off two and even three hundreds. Nearly every batting record was smashed. Huge scores came off the modern factories with Bill Ponsford setting the target. Where Ponsford left off, Bradman took up. Totals of four hundred were considered not only safe but match-winning in four-day Tests in England up to 1930 when Bradman first came to England. How quickly that summer we had to change our ideas, as Bradman began to reel off double centuries and once 309 in one day! No other country could produce a cricketer to match not only his big scores, but the fast rate of his scoring which gave his bowlers plenty of time to dismiss their opponents. ‘Bradman is batting’ – at those magic words people would rush to the ground. More than once I noticed in Australia that if Bradman was not out at lunch, five to ten thousand extra spectators would be on the ground when the game was resumed.”

Alec Bedser, who dismissed Bradman six times in Test matches, bowled to him only after the war when the great man was past his prime, but still a rungetter beyond compare. He wrote in the April 2001 issue of The Cricketer International: “My one regret was not to see him at his peak when, as the great Test umpire Frank Chester told me, Bradman had to be seen to be believed. Fielders were wont to whistle with astonishment at the sheer brilliance and audacity of his stroke-play.”

“One of his striking attributes,” added Bedser, “was the way he made full use of the space from the popping crease to the stumps. At times when he played back he almost trod on his wicket. When executing his deadly pull shot there were two distinct movements: his right foot moved to outside the off-stump and his left foot would move across to end in a perfect position to hit the ball on the ground. It goes without saying that he kept his head perfectly still and appeared to pick the length of the ball quicker than anyone else I was pitted against. To add to his abundant gifts was a nerve that did not know the meaning of the word temperament.” And that, one may repeat, was in the twilight of Bradman’s career.

For a true understanding of the Bradman phenomenon, it would be prudent to go back to the First World War. Before 1914 England fielded their best team only at home, where they won nine of the thirteen series. Australia’s four triumphs were only by the odd game. In Australia, despite the depleted English touring teams, the honours were even. England were the dominant force until then.

The war changed it all. As Peter Hartland wrote in The Balance of Power in Test Cricket 1877-1998, “The war had claimed not only a million lives from the British Empire, but also much of the energy, confidence and optimism of the period before. In 1921 people were already looking back to a Golden Age which could never return. They still are.”

Warwick Armstrong’s team whitewashed England in Australia in the first series after the war in 1920-21, but what the English could not reconcile to was the three straight defeats at home in 1921, before the last two Tests were drawn. On that tour, for the first time since Test cricket began, Armstrong used a tactic which since then became routine: opening at both ends with fast bowlers. His pacemen Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald settled the issue for the all-conquering team.

There was further humiliation for the English when Arthur Gilligan’s 1924-25 touring side was trounced 4-1 by the Australians, now led by Herbie Collins. Just as the sun had begun to set on the British Empire, so also was their pre-eminence on the cricket field coming to an end. England were no longer the paramount power in cricket either.

The other feature was that advance in technology had put heavy rollers and mowing machines in the hands of groundsmen, producing wickets that were over-prepared, perfect for batting and not liable to deteriorate. Australian tracks were rock hard with scarcely a blade of grass, which would remove the shine off the ball very quickly. For three decades upto around 1950, batsmen revelled on these pitches. It was a period of high scoring when all but the best bowlers were rendered innocuous. Only when it rained, could they exact retribution on the uncovered surfaces. Before the war three days of fair weather were adequate to produce a result in a Test match. By 1930, the increasing number of high scoring draws caused the duration of Tests to be increased to four days in England, with the last Test played to a finish if the series was undecided at that stage. In Australia, all Tests continued to be played to a finish.

Bradman was brought up on wickets he could trust, and that bred confidence. This is what Len Hutton emphasised, “Bradman had the considerable advantage of learning his cricket on matting surfaces with a concrete base, and later to play on bulli surfaces.” Duleepsinhji elaborated the point: “Bradman as a rungetter on a good wicket had no superior. But he never made an effort to master the difficult technique which is required to play on a sticky wicket. I can only guess the reasons. Owing to the practice of covering wickets (during county matches to cut losses), sticky wickets are rare and Bradman may have come to the conclusion that perhaps no more than five per cent of his innings may be played on sticky or wet wickets. Would it be worth his while to change his style, successful on fast wickets, to suit a small number of innings on wet wickets? The change in technique may easily reduce his phenomenal run-getting powers on hard wickets. Taking some such argument into consideration, he must have decided not to worry about a few failures on wet or sticky wickets and keep to the technique which had brought such rich dividends on hard wickets.”

The argument against Bradman was indeed that he was not as good a player on nasty pitches as Trumper or Hobbs were. It was also contended that he did not face much of genuinely fast and hostile bowling as batsmen of the 1970s and 1980s did. Peter Hartland was of the view that, “Whenever he did face it, notably during the Bodyline series, he did not handle it as well as McCabe, nor as imperiously as Viv Richards has done in more recent times.” It was even suggested that Bradman was not as far superior to his contemporaries as W.G. Grace was at his peak.

It can be nobody’s case that Bradman’s technique was ideal for any kind of wicket. That honour can be taken by ‘the original master’ Jack Hobbs and ‘the little master’ Sunil Gavaskar. In this category one could also include two other fine opening batsmen, the Yorkshire technician Len Hutton and the first ‘little master’ Hanif Mohammad of Pakistan.

Yet one look at the scorebooks, rate of scoring, and the combined effect of the two on results of matches and series, only emphasises the point that such an argument can at best be academic. To turn Wilfred Rhodes’ argument around – Hobbs averaged 56.94, Bradman 99.94! Sir Neville Cardus put forward his argument with customary finesse: “People say ‘Oh, but he hasn’t the charm of McCabe, or the mercury of MacCartney, or the dignity of Hammond; the objection is a little unintelligent, as though a lion was criticized for lacking the delicacy of the gazelle, the worrying tenacity of the terrier and the disdainful elegance of a swan or a camel.” Raymond Robertson-Glasgow had this to say, “About his batting, there was no style for style’s sake. His aim was the making of runs, and he made them in staggering and ceaseless profusion.”

Those who point at Bodyline, and how Bradman’s average ‘plummeted’ to 56.57, it may be said that it was the least he averaged in any Test series, but it was still by far the best for Australia, and second only to England’s Eddie Paynter’s 61.33 with two not outs in five innings. It must also not be forgotten that even in that series Bradman scored at almost 40 runs an hour, and 3.7 runs per over, scoring a hundred in one Test and half-centuries in the other three. McCabe might have been the more aesthetic while dealing with the scourge of Bodyline, but Bradman was just as effective, and certainly more prolific and consistent. And it should be noted that Bradman’s worst series, in trying circumstances, was equal to what was normal for Hobbs and every other great. This fuss over technique is purely theoretical. It reminds one of a case of recent times when Sanjay Manjrekar got so obsessed with technique that he forgot that what mattered more was the number of runs on the board, Geoff Boycott had a similar fetish and even made himself unavailable for Tests to iron out certain flaws in his play, ruthlessly exposed by the gentle left-arm slow-medium lollies of Eknath Solkar.

Technique was what the MCC coaching manual professed. Yet how many batsmen attain copybook perfection, or even excellence. Vivian Richards did not, neither did Brian Lara, but they were certainly far better batsmen than Geoff Boycott and Sanjay Manjrekar, and more exhilarating by miles. Why, even the technically challenged Virender Sehwag has a far better output, two Test triple hundreds and an average over 50 in Tests.

Further, what about those batsmen who commit the sacrilege of playing the upper cut, or under cut if you prefer to call it that, the lap shot or the reverse sweep. These shots have been developed, and played expertly, in modern cricket to dominate bowlers and counter their ploys.

There is no such thing as perfect technique. A good batsman’s technique varies with the conditions, and no two batsmen have identical techniques. A technique is like one’s fingerprint, patently one’s own, that complements one’s natural ability to produce the best possible results. That is what Bradman did and it yielded results like nothing seen before, or since. He was, as Raymond Robertson-Glasgow put it, “The rarest of Nature’s creatures, an artist without the handicap of the artistic temperament, a genius with an eye for business.”

Bradman would sometimes say that just as Walter Lindrum needed good billiards tables to make his biggest breaks, so do good batsmen need good wickets to put up big scores. If the wickets were flat, they were so for everyone, not Bradman alone. They certainly produced higher averages – men like Hobbs, Sutcliffe, Hammond, Headley and Hutton averaged between 56 and 61. Bradman averaged nearly 100. This was the single-most important factor in the regaining of the Ashes in 1930, and the dominance of Australia after the Bodyline series till the end of Bradman’s career in 1948.

Why only technique, let’s talk about grace as well. Mark Waugh was arguably the most elegant batsman in history, and a top quality Test player. But it was his twin Steve, functional, even ungainly at times, who was the more effective and successful, a folk hero. In textbooks, verse or  canvas, Hobbs and Mark Waugh may, for some, be the best batsmen. At the crease it would have to be Bradman. Ian Peebles once wrote in The Cricketer International: “A first impression of Bradman was one of great speed of action. This was epitomised in the extraordinary rapidity of his advance to the pitch off slow bowlers. The move would be made late in the flight of the ball but was firm and unhesitant and the feet twinkled. These qualities characterised the whole performance. It was not the graceful flow of Woolley or Hobbs, but a sure, crisp and above all commanding exercise.”

Was W.G. Grace better? Certainly, for a period between 1864 and 1873 at his very best, he was reckoned to be twice as good as the next man. That, though, was only in first-class cricket in England, in the pre-Test match era. Later too he was one of the best, if not no. 1, of his times, and he batted on wickets that even club players would recoil from today.  But those were the conditions then, and he coped with them, just like men rode horses over mountains and meadows before the age of automobiles that roll on roads of tarmac; and wrote letters with pen and paper before the invention of e-mail.

There is no ambiguity over the fact that right through his career, Bradman was nearly twice as good as anyone else in Test matches as well as in first-class cricket, in youth and in middle-age, on the hard bouncy wickets at home, and the swinging and seaming conditions of England. The searing pace of Larwood and Voce, the testing fast-medium wiles of Maurice Tate and Alec Bedser, and the guile of top-quality spinners like Hedley Verity, Jim Laker and Vinoo Mankad came alike to him. True, he batted a bit differently. Perhaps that is why he also got far superior results. As Sir Pelham Warner, who in 1937 became the first cricketer to be knighted, once quipped, “I believe Bradman would make a hundred in a blackout.”

He flayed not only English bowlers, but also those of the West Indies, South Africa and India. There is nothing to suggest that he may not have scored as heavily had he played in these countries too. For all we know Bradman might have been even more unfettered, as Lala Amarnath averred. To dub The Don as merely a run-machine is simplistic for the simple reason that machines do not have minds. They are switched on, and they do their job efficiently. That’s it. Among Bradman’s several attributes was a very strong mind. Cast your own mind back to the 1936-37 Ashes series at home. He was returning to the Test arena after a near-death experience. He had just been appointed captain of a weak team that had lost several stalwarts of the past decade. And England won the first two Tests. For most others it would have been too much to endure. But The Don did something, well, Bradmanesque. He scored 270, 212 and 169 in the remaining three Tests, winning all of them and retaining the crown. That for me sums up Bradman, not just a run-machine, but the best batsman ever in every conceivable way. Nothing daunted him, and his story is so hugely inspirational as much for the massive odds he battled so successfully, as for the phenomenal number of runs he made.

Or let us fast forward to 1946-47, to the first series after the war. Unwell and ageing, he carved out 187 and 234 in the first two Tests, winning both, establishing ascendancy and breaking the English back. Maybe we can rewind at bit further, to 1934. This was the first series after the Bodyline mayhem. The Ashes had to be reclaimed and Bradman was not in good health. He still got his customary double century in the opening match against Worcestershire. Then, after having a lean run in the first three Tests and with the series precariously placed at 1-1, The Don scored 304 and 244 in the last two Tests, crucially winning the final one and wresting the Ashes. That was character, a very tough mind and great skill, something far beyond the capability of any machine ever invented. C.L.R. James put it succinctly, “The one thing that strikes me – and I have seen Sir Donald play many times and make many hundreds of runs – is the scientific, systematic manner in which he analyses the danger.”

At the end of the day, when the stumps are drawn, every cap around the arena has to be doffed at this billionaire among millionaires, emperor among kings. He shall remain that one guiding light for all succeeding batsmen to follow, the ultimate benchmark against whom all great champions of the willow will be judged.

One of them, Sir Garfield Sobers made a telling observation: “A great player will get the bowler to do what he wants him to do by his genius. He will improvise and play unorthodox shots to defeat the field. Don Bradman did that and he was the greatest of them all.” It was sometimes said of Bradman that he knew what kind of delivery the bowler was going to send down. That was because he was dictating to the bowler just what he wanted by the way he had dealt with the deliveries before. Jack Fingleton said exactly that: “I heard prominent batsmen of his era, cast deep into the shadows that Bradman got more full tosses and long hops than anyone else. They were trying to suggest that Bradman was fortunate. He wasn’t. The point was that bowlers were made by Bradman to bowl to him as he wanted. He dictated that. His footwork, his abounding confidence, his skill pulverised the bowlers and mesmerized them. They just didn’t know where to bowl to him to keep him quiet.” Ray Robinson referred to Bradman’s “knack of stopping bowlers from bowling well”.

“He towered above his fellows,” wrote Fingleton in his book Cricket Crisis on the Bodyline series, “he dominated the stage so much that at one period it almost seemed that the game of cricket was subservient to the individual Bradman…..”

What was that one quality that made Don Bradman such a champion? Perhaps the one most qualified to shed light was his wife Jessie, who once told the celebrated writer and former editor of Wisden, John Woodcock: “More than anything, it was his single-mindedness; the ability to concentrate on any innings from the moment he woke up in the morning.” The key word here is focus, and who better to emphasise it than his own spouse. Let that remain the last word as well.

(Author Indra Vikram Singh, erstwhile Prince of Rajpipla, can be contacted on email singh_iv@hotmail.com).

Follow Indra Vikram Singh on Twitter @IVRajpipla.

Don's Century cover (front)Indra Vikram Singh’s latest books published by Sporting Links :   A Maharaja’s Turf  ISBN 978-81-901668-3-6,    The Big Book of World Cup Cricket  ISBN 978-81-901668-4-3,   Don’s Century  ISBN 978-81-901668-5-0, Crowning Glory  ISBN 978-81-901668-6-7.

Distributed in India by : Variety Book Depot, AVG Bhawan, M-3, Middle Circle, Connaught Circus, New Delhi-110001. Tel. (011) 23417175, 23412567.

Indra Vikram Singh’s books are available in leading bookstores and online on many websites.

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