Was Bradman vulnerable on wet wickets? : Excerpt from Indra Vikram Singh’s book ‘Don’s Century’

Bradman

It was after this that Bradman experienced perhaps the leanest spell of his career. He went 13 innings – two unbeaten – without scoring a hundred. Though in good touch in the first innings of the Trent Bridge Test, having struck six boundaries, he was caught by Hammond off Geary for 29 off 32 balls at a run-a-minute. Arthur Chipperfield was unlucky to miss a century on Test debut, caught behind for 99 off paceman Ken Farnes, who claimed five wickets.

Splendid leg-spin bowling by Grimmett (five for 81) and O’Reilly (four for 75) earned Australia a first innings lead of 106. In the second innings, Bradman tried to dig himself in, but lost his wicket again when well set. He edged Farnes to Ames behind the stumps for 25. Bill Brown and McCabe took the game away from England with a stand of 112. Farnes again bagged a five-wicket haul, finishing with match figures of ten for 179. Faced with a target of 380, England were never in the hunt, capsizing for 141 in 107.4 overs. O’Reilly, this time, was devastating, capturing seven for 54 off 41.4 overs with 24 maidens. Grimmett was a splendid foil, picking up three for 39 from 47 overs, 28 of which were scoreless. Australia’s Ashes campaign was on track.

In the second Test at Lord’s, fine centuries by Leyland and Ames, and their 129-run association for the sixth wicket enabled England to log up 440 runs. Bradman was again shaping well in the company of opener Brown, having cracked 36 off 37 balls with 7 boundaries when he hit back a catch to the left-arm spinner Hedley Verity. At stumps on the second day Australia were 192 for two, with Brown having reached his century.

Then rain and Verity took over. Australia collapsed from 203 for two to 284 all out, Verity bagging seven for 61. He was one of the most dangerous bowlers on wet wickets, like another latter-day English left-armer Derek ‘Deadly’ Underwood. Verity exploited the wicket to the hilt. Following on, batting was a hazardous vocation on this sticky pitch. Brown was dismissed cheaply but McCabe, promoted to no. 3, defended grimly in the company of Woodfull. Verity removed McCabe, and Bradman joined the skipper in the mission to save the Test.

Learie Constantine wrote lucidly in his The Young Cricketer’s Companion about Verity’s ploy to dismiss Bradman: “It is a Tale of Temptation, like so many of these stories of dismissals of famous bats. Verity asked for a new field setting, with a deep mid off and deep mid on ….. but leaving the long-field empty. Bradman had always been famous for his sizzling boundaries beyond long-field, and that is the first hole that most bowlers stopped against him. The Lord’s stand began to buzz like a beehive. People thought that Verity had suffered an extraordinary lapse. But Don Bradman, frowning at that great gap wide open to his favourite stroke, knew the diabolical nature of the plot against him. Verity was crying out to all who understood the arts of cricket: ‘Look! The greatest batsman in the world – and he dare not hit me into that open gap. No leading batsman could allow such a flaunted challenge to pass because he would be establishing a mental superiority in the bowler’s mind, and such things matter and have their effect on personal supremacies. There is only one retort in cricket, to such a taunt, and it is: ‘I’ll make you sorry for that.’ For a quarter of an hour, while all the spectators were almost afraid to draw breath, Verity quietly trundled them down from the pavilion end, the gap stood wide, and Bradman mercilessly and unhurriedly measured the bowling. Few runs were scored; time was ticking away and a draw for Australia began to look hopeful. Having settled down and seeing the ball big, he waited till a ball came spinning along that he thought he could measure, and then, like a goaded panther, he sprang at it and slashed – and stared through the far outfield where he thought it would go. But instead it flicked up right over his head, and the Bank-of-England hands of Les Ames, encased in their big leather gloves waited patiently beneath and finally safely enclosed it. After the catch, Don looked in a hunted way round the field, first at Verity’s expressionless face, then at Woodfull, the Australian skipper, making his last tour of England. Woodfull’s expression of anger and disappointment was so keen that Bradman instantly looked away as if he could not face it. He knew that Verity had tormented him into losing the Test. “

Indeed, Australia lost the Test by an innings and 38 runs, Verity running through their line-up, capturing eight for 43 this time. Verity’s match haul was fifteen for 104. Till then four other bowlers, all Englishmen, Johnny Briggs (1888-89), George Lohmann (1895-96), Wilfred Rhodes (1903-04) and Colin Blythe (1907) had taken so many wickets in a Test. Only Sydney Barnes had taken more, seventeen for 159 for England versus South Africa at Johannesburg in 1913-14. Not since the First World War had a bowler dominated a Test match so decisively. Appropriately, it came to be known as ‘Verity’s Test’.

From this dismissal sprouted much talk about Bradman’s inability to bat on sticky wickets. The English, accustomed to dead-bat defence in such conditions, were vociferous in their condemnation of Bradman’s lashing out at Verity. They said he could not handle the breaking and spitting deliveries, ever so frequently walking down the pitch to tap it in order to show to the world how venomous it was. Perhaps more valid is the theory that Bradman wanted to dominate the bowler, rather than allow him to first shackle and then inevitably dismiss him. Constantine’s story lends credence to this belief. Raymond Robertson-Glasgow went a step further in defending the Don: “If Don Bradman had been a regular batsman in English county cricket, he would have killed the myth that he could not bat on wet or sticky pitches. It is interesting that this criticism was born from a failure against Verity at Lord’s; more interesting that Verity himself considered Bradman great on any pitch and I suppose Verity bowled more overs to him than any English cricketer.” Verity had certainly won one battle, in conditions loaded heavily in his favour, and treacherous for batting, but the war was still on.

With the series level at 1-1, the high-scoring third Test at Old Trafford ended in the clichéd tame draw. The forty-five-year-old veteran Patsy Hendren, returning to the English team one last time, scored a vintage hundred, and added 191 for the fifth wicket with another centurion, Maurice Leyland. With even the tailenders getting among the runs, the home team declared at 627 for nine. O’Reilly took seven for 189. In a reshuffled batting-order, Australia opened with their third combination of Bills, Brown and Ponsford, the latter falling early. Brown and McCabe put on 196 before Woodfull came in. Bradman made his appearance only at no. 6, and played yet another uncharacteristic cameo of 30. Australia just about avoided the follow-on, putting up a total of 491. England declared after an unbroken century opening stand between Cyril Walters and Sutcliffe, but there was no time to obtain a result.

This had been the least productive span in Bradman’s Test career. Including the last three Tests of the previous 1932-33 series, he had gone through 6 Tests and 11 innings without a century. When one considers that The Don scored a hundred every 1.8 Tests and 2.75 innings, including not outs, this was a travesty, baffling and surreal. In his first 20 Tests before this sequence, Bradman had never gone more than 2 Tests and 3 innings without a ton. Even worse, his scores in the three Tests of this series were 29 and 25; 36 and 13; and 30. Was Bradman jaded, was he a spent force? Had he finally been found out in England? We know that he was not feeling perfectly well. But could this unmatched run-scorer have run out of steam abruptly?

(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email singh_iv@hotmail.com).

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.

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