Don Bradman turns 110 on Monday. Yes, I know he’s dead, but the legend lives on.
As an Historian, The Don is one of those fascinating figures. One of the reasons I study cricket is because it is such a well-documented and powerful cultural force. Many people think History is about just saying what happened in the past, but it’s actually a system of constant rediscovery and re-evaluation of the past. It’s more like the scientific method than it is about writing chronologies.
When he died thousands attended his funeral. Hundreds of thousands watched on TV. The list of dignitaries looked like a royal wedding. Listening to the eulogies from his family spoke of a generous, kind hearted man. His son John spoke of changing his name to escape the shadow of his father’s reputation. There’s an analogy for Australian cricket in there.
There is no disputing that Bradman is the greatest batsman of all time – the statistics are clear on that, although I’m not sure you can use the same argument to say Adam Voges is the second greatest. Bradman is arguably the most outstanding athlete of all time. Statistician Charles Davis in Best of The Best gave statistical weights to the greats across many sports – Michael Jordan got a 3.4, Pele came in second with 3.7, Bradman is 4.4. It’s a debate that will fill many hours at the pub for the rest of eternity.
But if we’re talking about the legacy of the Don, then we’re not really all that interested in what he actually did. Definitionally, a legacy is something contemporary occurring as a result of past events – not the past events itself. The myth around Bradman is more important than the man.
Bill O’Reilly famously said of Bradman “you don’t piss on monuments” – and this is the attitude that most Australians have taken to Bradman. We’ll happily overlook his refusal to have a beer with the team following a game, preferring to dine in his room with his wife – the only wife allowed to tour with the team. We ignore that in an era of Amateurism he earnt hundreds of thousands of today’s dollars in sponsorships and journalism contracts in defiance of Australian Board of Control policies – and when confronted he threatened to take his bat and ball and go to Lancashire. We forget that he spent the war as an invalid – too sickly to fight in the big game. The man who is widely regarded as the pinnacle of Australian manhood is hard to square with the Australian values of mateship, egalitarianism, and the fair go. And that’s without going into his role in the collapse and rebirth of HW Hodgetts and Co. or the player dispute of the 1970s.
To many this will be heresy; speaking ill of the dead, tarring a national icon. But Historians don’t get to ignore inconvenient facts. But because the Don was a flawed human, does not mean we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because he is not the greatest man who ever lived, does not mean we can’t appreciate what he means to cricket and the Australian public. The 99.94 is something that boys and girls will be emulating in their backyards forever as they dream of one too putting on the baggy green.
When I was at the British Library a few years back researching the AIF XI team from the First World War, I ran into an old fella also looking at old cricketing articles on the microfiche machine next to me. We got to chatting, and as could be naturally expected when an English cricket historian gets to talking to an Australian one the conversation soon turned to the Don.
This was in Yorkshire, which as those from Gods Own Country will tell you, is the real home of cricket. Old mate told me of a game he attended as a young lad. He’d managed to save his pennies enough that he was able to get the bus into Leeds, and walk up to Headingley to see some cricket. It was July 27, 1948. The fifth day of the fourth test of the Ashes. Declaring after two overs, England sent Australia in to bat needing 404 in 345 minutes. England, of course, needed ten wickets to win their first test against Australia in 9 years and 11 months. On a tricky day 5 wicket, openers Arthur Morris and Lindsay Hassett could only manage 6 runs in 6 overs. An hour in and the total had only shrunk by 44 runs. English bowler Denis Compton took Hassett caught and bowled and Bradman strode out to join Morris. Australia needed 347 in 257 minutes.
My library buddy had come just for this. Bradman’s last innings in Yorkshire. He wasn’t concerned about the result so much as getting a good look at the legend. He wasn’t disappointed. Over the following four hours he would see Morris and Bradman deliver an absolute masterclass in a partnership of 301 in just 217 minutes. Morris would depart, but the Australians were ascendant by then, and would take the win – the highest successful run chase of all time at the time. As my friend told me this story, he spoke of it as being a seminal moment in not just his lifelong love of cricket, but of his life. 68 years later, it still brought a tear to his eye. Even though the home team lost, that day he learnt something about guts and resiliency. He was not alone. The 158 000 that attended those five days at Headingley remains an English crowd record.
This is just a microcosm of Bradman’s legacy. He was something supernatural, a myth and legend in his own time. The sheer greatness of his feats on the field were enough to inspire anyone to anything, regardless of his activities off it.
This is where we should look to understand Bradman’s legacy. In particular the 1932-33 Ashes. In England, this is remembered as the series that Jardine successfully deployed leg theory to bring the Urn home. In Australia, we remember it as bodyline, or that time the English tried to kill us. Australia was a tough, uncompromising, and win at all costs team – something Bradman would epitomize when he became captain. Yet when given a bit of our own medicine we shouted “it’s just not cricket!” Bodyline has had an impact on the Australian cultural psyche that is way out of all proportion for the actual events – not least amongst is the role it played in making Bradman a cultural icon. It was his worst series, although it says everything about his batting prowess that he finished that series with an average of 56.57, with 1 century and 3 50s. Yet even at his worst, Bradman was the best in the team, and finished with the second highest average of either team for the series.
But this is about Bradman’s legacy, and not his achievements. So it’s necessary to give some cultural context to this series. 1932 was the height of the Great Depression. The Australian economy was in the toilet, unemployment had hit 32%, GDP had dropped 20% in two years, and the politicians seemingly had no answers – the infighting, factionalism, and leadership challenges would be familiar to contemporary audiences. The Statute of Westminster had been passed in the U.K. in December 1931, moving Australia from a dominion to an independent nation. Whilst for most countries, the granting of independence is seen as the greatest day in a nation’s history, in Australia, it felt like abandonment. With the economy in shambles, and a rising Japan, which had just undertaken invasions of both China and the Soviet Union, looming as a threat, Australians were fearful of a future without the British Navy to defend their expansive coastline.
Bodyline cannot be considered outside of this context. But the summer of 1932-33 was arguably the worst time to be an Australian. There was a good chance you were out of work, had lost all faith in political leadership, and could feel the brewing of war on the horizon. There was little hope in Australia. But there was cricket.
An average of nearly 30 000 a day went to watch that series. At least one day of the first three tests in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide had over 50 000 show up. To put this in context, that’s 1 in 6 Adelaidians, when 1 in 3 of them were out of work, rolling up to a day of cricket. This is the day Larwood struck Woodfull in the heart – the English players surrounded him in concern, the crowd booed, and Jardine called to Larwood “Well bowled Harold!” Jardine was the ultimate English aristocrat – he famously always played for England in his Oxford cap. Bradman scored just 8 that day.
First the English abandoned us in our hour of need. Then they came out and cheated at cricket! Then the walking embodiment of English aristocratic arrogance had mocked us! The ties to the old country were strong, but this stretched them to their limits. Revenge had to be had, and the cricket field was where to take it. This is what makes Bradman’s 758 runs in 1934, and 810 in 36/37, along with the 1948 whitewash so important. Bradman was the man who gave Australia its identity as an independent nation who could stand up to the Motherland. It’s this that really makes the average of 99.94 so much more meaningful than Smith’s 64.02 – Smith’s battles against England take place in the context of cricket, not as a proxy for a wider battle of identity occurring throughout the culture. For the same reasons Graeme Pollock’s average of 60.97 and George Headley’s of 60.83 are better analogies. Pollock is the symbol for what might have been for Apartheid South Africa, and Headley an icon for black consciousness in the West Indies.
It was Bradman’s batting that made him great, but more importantly, it was when he batted that turned him into a monument for Australian identity.