Don’s carpenter father George was a keen cricketer, an allrounder who played regularly in local matches around Bowral. He spurred Bradman junior’s interest in the game, and it is reckoned that the youngster played a proper match in 1919, showing his prowess by scoring 55. He hit his first hundred the next season, when he was a little over 12 years, for his Bowral Public School against Mittagong School. It was, in fact, a brilliant allround performance, an unbeaten 115 out of a total of 150, and eight wickets to his name.
A two-day trip in February 1921 to Sydney with his father to watch his first Test match was in every respect a cricketing pilgrimage. It must have been enthralling for the impressionable mind to see Australia’s awesome side led by the imposing Warwick ‘Big Ship’ Armstrong hand out a drubbing (the series ended 5-0) to Johnny Douglas’ touring English team. That Test witnessed hundreds by home heroes Charlie ‘Governor General’ Macartney, Herbie Collins and skipper Armstrong, whose power-packed knock was reckoned to be his best. Also in action was the greatest batsman of the time Jack Hobbs. Don must have come away satiated. He vowed that he would never be satisfied until he played on this magnificent ground. Armstrong next led his team on a triumphant tour of England the same year. Little was Bradman to know then that this champion Australian side would be compared to his own ‘Invincibles’ 27 summers later.
Young Don was the designated scorer for Bowral Town Cricket Club (BTCC), also responsible for getting match scores to the newspapers. In a game in 1922, a player did not turn up, and Don got the opportunity to play his first club match at the age of 13. It was a side for which not only his father, but two uncles and brother Victor also played, so Don already had role models to emulate, and the team could now easily be called Bradman and Associates. Even in those early days, Bradman was hard to dislodge. He was unbeaten in both the innings, having notched up scores of 37 and 29. In appreciation of his performances, and to encourage the lad, one of the Bowral players presented Don his first cricket bat. His father George sawed off three inches to enable the youngster to handle it comfortably. Don used this bat through his first full season with the senior team, and then preserved it. The historic bat can now be seen in the Bradman Museum at Bowral. Soon, at the end of 1922, he secured his Intermediate Certificate, left school and began working as ledger-keeper with a real estate agency owned by Percy Westbrook.
He had stepped into a man’s world at an early age, and it was at this time that Bradman was faced with a dilemma. Like his great predecessor at the crease from the land of his ancestors, W.G. Grace, Don Bradman was a gifted allround sportsman. He was as good at tennis as he was at cricket, and if W.G. had taken time off from a cricket match to win a 440-yard race at Crystal Palace more than half a century earlier, Bradman at this stage was not certain which of the two sports he should pursue earnestly. Easy access to a tennis court owned by his uncle enabled him to enjoy the game for hours, to the extent that he did not play cricket an entire summer. A knock of 66 for Bowral against Wingello convinced him that the thrill of the willow striking a leather ball was more exhilarating. It was obviously a wise decision, and if any reassurance were needed, it came very soon.
No one would have realised that the seeds of the Bradman legend were sown when Bowral again took on neighbouring Wingello the next season of 1925-26 in a home fixture in the Berrima District (Southern Tablelands) cricket competition one Saturday afternoon. Wingello, if anything, was an even smaller country town than Bowral. The yardstick to decide such things in those days was quite simple, and Bowral had conclusive evidence in its favour. It boasted of three pubs while Wingello, which was further in the distance into the outback, had none. Seated in a train pulling into Bowral station just before the start of the match was a yet unheralded undergraduate from Sydney University who answered to the name Bill O’Reilly. The young man, contemplating a quiet weekend at his railside home at Wingello, was shaken from his reverie by frantic calls for him from the platform outside at Bowral. It was the voice of the Wingello station master, who was also captain of the sleepy little hamlet’s cricket team. The Wingello skipper had taken care enough to fetch the budding leg-spinner’s cricket gear from his home, and he hauled his prized eleventh man from the train to the Bowral ground.
It is sometimes providence that has a hand in the blooming of great careers. If Bradman’s stint with Bowral had begun because a player did not turn up, O’Reilly turned out now for Wingello because they had nobody else. For different reasons each was filling up one last vacancy. And so the two faced up to each other. Who could have imagined then that both would become masters of their craft, the best in the world, and the nondescript ground would become famous as the Sir Donald Bradman Memorial Oval?
Bowral won the toss and batted on what was at that time a hard concrete pitch topped with matting. This is a story recounted by O’Reilly himself, and more than five decades later he reminisced in an article in The Hindu: “Perhaps to get full value from the trouble he had taken on my behalf earlier in the day my station master and captain handed me the new ball. I got a wicket quickly – nice going. It was pleasantly reassuring to see the replacement batsman making his snail-paced diffident approach from the shade of the age-old gum tree which served as the shelter shed. This had all the signs of an easy job. How was I to know that I was about to cross swords with the greatest cricketer that ever set foot on a cricket field.”
O’Reilly had the better of the early exchanges with Bradman, then seventeen years old, and may have even bagged his wicket on a couple of occasions. But once Don settled down, he launched a stupendous attack on the hapless trundlers, or at least that is what they looked. When the day was done, Bradman was unbeaten with 234 and O’Reilly had realised that hopping off that train had been “a very grave tactical blunder.” As the game was to resume the following Saturday afternoon, O’Reilly had enough time to grieve. He need not have fretted, though, if he knew at that nascent stage of his career that this game can indeed be a great leveller. On resumption O’Reilly bowled Bradman first ball “with a leg-break which came from the leg-stump to hit the off bail. Suddenly cricket was the best game in the whole wide world.” One of the balls of the century had been bowled in this then-obscure settlement several decades before a frenzied media marked out another much-celebrated delivery in 1993 as the ball of the century! With his first hand knowledge, this was one of the first reasons why Bradman anointed O’Reilly as the greatest-ever leg-spinner. It is indeed but one illustration of a couple of talented lads from remote little towns going on to be counted amongst the most famous names sport has ever known.
Having notched up his first double hundred, Bradman went on to score 105 and 120. Then came the final of the Berrima District competition against Moss Vale. Don’s mother Emily, devoted as she was, promised him a new bat if he scored a century. Imagine her surprise, and delight, when her son scored 300 in the match held over five successive Saturdays. Don earned his gift with ease, and this was really a prelude at the local level to his exploits on the highest stage in the period 1927-30, and thereafter till 1948. The Sydney newspapers sat up and began reporting his prodigious feats. Bradman now went rapidly through the mill. At 18, during the 1926-27 season, he was called up for a junior trial at the Sydney Cricket Ground and he scored an unbeaten 37. He was invited to play cricket as well as tennis for the Southern Team in the Country Cricket Week in Sydney. As his employers could not spare him for too long, Don once again chose cricket.
(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email firstname.lastname@example.org).
Don’s Century’, published by Sporting Links, ISBN 978-81-901668-5-0.
Distributed in India by Variety Book Depot, Connaught Place, New Delhi – 110 001, Phones + 91 11 23417175 and 23412567.