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Sir Donald Bradman at 100
In 1980, the editor of the Age, Michael Davie, was introduced by a colleague to the record-breaking Australian batsman Bill Ponsford. Davie, biographer of LBJ and editor of Evelyn Waugh's diaries, was as excited as could be: he loved cricket, wrote expertly about it, and Ponsford, as a team-mate of Sir Donald Bradman, had sat, as it were, at God's right hand.
The interview went swimmingly. Ponsford needed little persuasion to discuss his career and contemporaries, Bradman included. Turning a page in one of his scrapbooks, in fact, Ponsford let something slip with reference to their former captain: "Bill Woodfull never forgave him for a couple of things." There was a pause. Davie awaited elaboration; Ponsford, perhaps, awaited further inquiry. Neither man spoke further. Conversation moved on.Davie lived to rue his failure of nerve, describing it as one of the chief regrets of his editorship. Woodfull, generally thought one of Bradman's staunchest admirers, was already dead; the same is now true of Ponsford. And when 27 August marks the centenary of Bradman's birth, it will highlight a permanent but static exhibit in the museum of national memory, shored up by generations of just such deferential incuriosity.
Still the most compelling aspect of the legend is The Average. One hundred is not the maximum possible arithmetic mean score in cricket, but 99.94, with its tincture of human fallibility, its hint of Oulipian constraint, could not have been more exquisitely contrived. To a generation addicted to measurement and saturated in numbers, The Average is monolithic, unassailable, totemic.
Yet by The Average, it would seem, are we largely to know him. There is a certain comfort in calling Bradman great and leaving it at that; there is a certain contrarian glee, too, in deeming him an old dead guy, especially given his unwitting implication in the Howard ascendancy, and the unevolving bien-pensant snobbery about sport. If only he'd been less popular, one is left to conclude, Bradman might have occasioned deeper interest.
On one level, Bradman's story concerns not so much sport as success. He performed a particular task more effectively than anyone before or since; more effectively, perhaps, than any other Australian has performed theirs. The task was, to be sure, narrow and highly specialised; yet Bradman sustained a gargantuan superiority over a period of 20 years. One of the most elegant appraisals of his standing is in the memoirs of GH Hardy, the outstanding English mathematician of the first half of the last century. Hardy ranked mathematical brains by reference to cricket; into "the Bradman class" he admitted only Newton, Archimedes, Gauss. "It is a tiny minority who can do anything really well, and the number of men who can do two things well is negligible," he noted. "If a man has any genuine talent, he should be ready to make almost any sacrifice in order to cultivate it to the full." Hardy was unillusioned about cricket's significance, but also unmoved by it: "Poetry is more valuable than cricket, but Bradman would be a fool if he sacrificed his cricket in order to write second-rate minor poetry." Not to be intrigued by Bradman's attainments, then, is a form of philistinism.
The Bradman story is also about fame, for the Australians currently being lionised for their Olympic accomplishments experience a limelight diffuse and fleeting by comparison with the one that shone on the cricketer. Bradman spent his entire adult life yoked tightly by expectation, more broadly famous and for longer than any other Australian, while his posthumous fame will shortly be sold us again in XL value-packs of nostalgia. All the more reason to return to the story of Bradman's becoming famous, in his formative years between 1930 and 1934, when he changed the course of sport utterly, and his own life irrevocably.
Many distinguished individuals bequeath literary and epistolary estates to institutions. Bradman's paper monument, a project that he oversaw at South Australia's Mortlock Library between 1967 and 1972, comprises 52 superbly bound volumes of newspaper clippings, diary entries, correspondence and photographs that fill almost five metres of shelf space. It is a time capsule - albeit of a very particular kind, being compiled up to 50 years after the events described, and with the tenor of an authorised version.
Bradman famously first represented Bowral in October 1920 as an emergency replacement: usually scorer, the precocious twelve-year-old scored 37 and 29 not out when the team found itself a man short. By his own account, he then reverted to scoring; thus, his preliminary commentary for the scrapbooks:
Leaving school at the age of 14 I gave up cricket and devoted a whole summer to tennis, largely due to the influence of a favourite uncle. At the end of the following summer I was persuaded to play cricket again but only batted twice, making 0 and 66. My serious cricket career began in season 1925-26 and this volume commences at that point.
Biographers have taken this at face value, preferring to dwell on the singular image of the boy Bradman learning to bat by the solitary discipline of stump and golf ball. But two years ago, the industrious statistician Alf James self-published a remarkable chronicle of Bradman's ‘minor' cricket: his 350 club, invitation and practice matches. The Don v The Rest shows that in the seasons from 1920-21 and 1924-5, Bradman actually represented Bowral 30 times, with utterly unremarkable results: only two half-centuries. Was Bradman sensitive about having been so ordinary, so human? Likelier is it an index of his attitude to the game: cricket counted only when it was "serious"; thus did he wish only to be judged after having put away childish things.
Once Bradman became un homme serieux, his ascent was steep: he represented St George in 1926-27, New South Wales in 1927-28, Australia in 1928-29, and finally took England by storm in 1930, vaulting the perils and pitfalls said to await every fast-rising youth. And it is by seriousness, I think, that Bradman is first to be understood. Sent off on his first Ashes tour by well-wishers at Bowral's Empire Theatre, he described cricket in terms not so much as recreation, or even patriotic expression, but as a moral education: "First my parents taught me to be a cricketer off the field as well as on. It was not ‘did you win' but ‘did you play the game' that made the man." To Bradman, cricket was a peerless builder of character: "I have no doubt that it moulds in an individual the right type of character better than any other sport. If that can be substantiated, no other recommendation is required, because character must surely be one of the greatest assets any nation through its citizens can possess."
He never budged from this conviction. Addressing the ‘Bradman: Insights at Lord's' conference seven years ago, the venerable English cricket administrator Doug Insole described Bradman as almost more English than the English: "Right up to the end of his life he was determined to preserve the overall integrity of the game, its entertainment value and its sporting traditions in an almost amateurly English public-school way, in many respects." (The emphasis is mine.) Bradman confided in Insole that the honour he most valued was the offer of the presidency of the Marylebone Cricket Club: the unashamedly elitist private-members' club that occupies Lord's and has traditionally served as the game's lawgiver.
In all seriousness I did on more than one occasion have the opportunity to be president of MCC, and gave it serious consideration because of the honour it would have conferred on Australian cricket. But in the end my personal inability to physically cope with the demands made me rule it out. As a compliment to my services to cricket, I thought it in many ways would have been a greater honour than my knighthood which I never sought or wanted.
His attitudes faithfully reflect the deeply English roots of Australia's sporting culture, to which homage is still paid in the interminable debates about athletes behaving as ‘role models' and ‘bringing the game into disrepute'. Belonging to an era in which these were more than mere parrot cries, Bradman tackled cricket with an earnestness as much moral as mechanical.
Yet there is equally no doubt that he was a genuine people's champion - a phenomenon abetted by the mass-communication miracles of talking pictures, wire photos and wireless. From 1930, Ashes Tests in England were covered ball-by-ball on Australian radio stations, reconstituted in the studio from cablegrams. With each of Bradman's scoring feats came bails of telegrams that now savour richly of an old Australia: "Congratulations from a boy admirer of Bradman's for breaking world-record score"; "Congratulations to Don Bradman from a blind soldier at Kurnell"; "Congrats breaking record marvellous keep it up Don", signed by "the Girls, Hotel Windsor"; "Give Don huge embrace unique performance behalf Taralga Girl Admirers."
Nor was this admiration merely about runs and records: John Howard was far from the first to mingle praise of Bradman the cricketer with generous estimates of Bradman the individual. Commentators on the Ashes series of 1928-29 were as enamoured of his character as his talent. "Australia has unearthed a champion, self-taught, with natural ability," stated former Australian captain Clem Hill. "But most important of all, with his heart in the right place." The selector Dick Jones gushed: "It is good to watch him talking to an old player, listening attentively to everything that is said and then replying with a modest ‘thank you'."
This modesty was unfeigned. The English journalist William Pollock, who came to know Bradman well, found him quaintly self-effacing: "He is not at all swell-headed. On the contrary he has almost a horror of saying or doing anything that might lead people to say that he is conceited or putting on side. He is very nearly fastidiously sensitive in this matter." Yet this was not so much graceful self-deprecation as an almost preternatural self-control: "He accepts the position he has achieved just as any sensible man who gets to the top of any particular tree should accept it. He is remarkably free from affectation ... He is a calm person, and one thing I have noticed is that he can sit still."
There is something of this affectless calm in the sentiments Bradman expressed after passing Ponsford's world-record first-class score of 437 in January 1930 - sentiments so nonchalant that one needs reminding that they were uttered by a country boy of limited education barely old enough to vote:
On 434 ... I had a curious intuition ... I seemed to sense that the ball would be a short-pitched one on the leg stump and I could almost feel myself getting ready to make my shot before the ball was delivered. Sure enough it pitched exactly where I had anticipated, and, hooking it to the square-leg boundary, I established the only record upon which I had set my heart.
Many people have asked me to describe my feelings when I realised that I had accomplished this performance. The best description I can offer is that I felt as a man who had achieved a specific task which he had set himself to do, and having done it was satisfied. I was not excited, and I cannot say that I suffered any reaction. My feeling was one of complete satisfaction.
No wonder that some already regarded Donald Bradman as superhuman - and that others, in time, would find him a little less than human.
Bradman approached his first tour of England with characteristic fastidiousness. His diary of the team's progress through Europe is richly detailed, though it is a compilation of things rather than thoughts, facts rather than feelings. "First impression of Rome is one of greatness," he recorded, in a rare qualitative judgement; otherwise, greatness is intimated in quantities and dimensions. Vatican City was noted for its 700 priests, 2000 people and 4000 rooms; St Peter's for its 350 years, 284 columns and four central columns of 284 feet each. At the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Bradman was captivated by the memorial to Victor Emmanuel: "Statue of Emmanuel on horse in centre. 20 journalists had a dinner inside the belly of the horse on conclusion. Moustache 3 feet long. Sword 11 feet."
Nor did the custom change when Bradman arrived in England. One entry concerns a visit to a munitions factory owned by Vickers Ltd.
Saw machinery juggling a big piece of red hot metal as we would a penny. From a piece 4' long and 12'' square it turned out a piece 20' long and 3'' square. Another machine cut 12'' metal as though it was butter. 15'' guns, 50' long ordered for Spain, 18 of them at £30,000 each. 1927 order not yet delivered.
The quantities concerning him chiefly by this stage, though, were runs, which poured torrentially from the first, without ever affecting his temperateness of expression. In his hotel room after the first day of the Leeds Test, he noted simply: "Archie [Jackson] out for 1. I followed and at stumps was 309 not out, breaking the previous highest score in Anglo-Australian Tests. Reached my 2000 runs for the season. To hotel in evening for dinner and wrote letters, thence to bed."
Bradman pursued off-field ends with the same calm-browed deliberation. His diary is packed with business appointments as well as social engagements: meetings with men of means at long-ago companies, from the batmaker William Sykes to the soap magnate Arthur Whitelaw. The English cricket writer RC Robertson-Glasgow left behind a delicious vignette of Bradman in his Folkestone hotel methodically scaling a mountain of mail: "He had made his name in cricket. He was fresh from triumphs against England at Lord's and at the Oval. And now, quiet and calculating, he was, he told me, trying to capitalise his success."
His most time-consuming task was producing a book - a course in which he was probably inspired by the example of team-mate Clarrie Grimmett, who had dashed off a short, cheap instructional text en route from Australia. Soon after arriving, Bradman agreed terms with the literary agent David Cromb, with the work to be overseen by the former Daily Telegraph sports editor Ben Bennison. "A more serious young man or one richer in power of concentration I have not met," Bennison recalled in his memoir, Giants On Parade. "To the last ounce, he knew his value, not only as a cricketer but as a man." Certainly Bradman's voice can be heard in such remarks as: "It is a trait in my make-up which it is quite impossible to explain, that I am an almost total stranger to that species of nervousness common to most people whenever involved in an unusual happening."
Perhaps Bradman's most poignant encounter was one that no biographer has noted. While the Australians were playing Hampshire at Brighton, they found themselves at the same hotel as Amy Johnson - perhaps the only non-royal more famous in the Empire than Bradman - not long after her 19-day Gypsy Moth flight from London to Darwin. Johnson was on an exhausting tour of England under the direction of a bullying publicist from her sponsor, the Daily Mail, and finding public life an exquisite torture. Her identity as ‘Amy Johnson', she complained privately, had become "a nightmare and an abomination" to her; she would shortly admit herself voluntarily to the care of a Harley Street surgeon, saying she was "on the brink on insanity".
The 27-year-old aviatrix was one of very few who left a personal impression on Bradman. "Was introduced to Amy Johnson and during the course of a drink together I had quite a long chat to her," he recorded. "Charming, unaffected girl." He noted her presence again at a dinner the following night. It is tempting to wonder whether their conversation traversed the wages of fame, on which Johnson was already expert, and Bradman would become so.
On 4 August 1930, London's Star commenced publishing advance extracts from Don Bradman's Book, which at that stage was still being written, and not scheduled to appear until the end of November. This was the initiative of Cromb, to whom Bradman had, somewhat naively, sold serial rights for a lump sum. But to the manager of the Australian team, Bill Kelly, the serialisation represented a breach of Clause XI of the tour contract, which forbade "any work for, or in connection with, any newspaper", or "any member, servant or agent thereof". According to a confidential report to the Australian Board of Control for International Cricket, Kelly "immediately interviewed Bradman" and advised that he "did not approve of the article appearing", and by implication would disapprove of subsequent articles. Bradman replied merely that it was "too late to prevent them". Nor did he show any trace of annoyance with Cromb, gifting his agent the bat with which he scored his Ashes-winning 232 at the Oval.
Bradman's return to Australia was awkward. Since January 1930, he had worked in the sporting-goods outfitters Mick Simmons Ltd in Sydney, his presence a promotional drawcard: "His charming personality ... his happy smile and expert advice are entirely at your service." Now their public-relations man wished to lever the relationship further, involving General Motors in a homecoming pageant that ushered Bradman to Sydney through Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Goulburn: a pageant similar to Amy Johnson's in Australia and England. Civic receptions were interspersed with appearances on the General Motors Family Party Hour on 5AD, 3DB and 2UW, in recognition of which the cricketer was presented with a red ‘Don Bradman Model Chevrolet'.
Biographers have noted indications that the spectacle did not endear Bradman to team-mates already inclined to view him as a man apart. To be fair, it also perturbed Bradman. The serious young man always gave an impressive account of himself, but found public scrutiny as strenuous as Johnson - particularly when the scrutiny turned critical. This it became when the board summoned him on 30 December to explain the serialisation of Don Bradman's Book. The board, then as secretive and censorious as a conclave of cardinals, docked him £50: a third of the "good conduct" bonus of his £600 tour fee.
Bradman seethed about the reprimand. "Had I thought for one moment I was violating my contract with the board I would not have written that book," he stated. "At the time I did not think I was committing a breach. I am still of the same opinion." He would brood on the episode, revisiting it at intervals, complaining 20 years later in his autobiography, Farewell to Cricket, that "the board had given consent for Clarrie Grimmett" to write a book. By then a board member himself, Bradman preferred to deplore press sensationalism than administrative intransigence: "There was no need for any fuss but the incident was seized upon to try and magnify an alleged breach between the board and myself." Yet there was nothing alleged about the breach, and the old hurt returned in 1993 during an unpublished interview with his friend Bob Parish:
There was no appeal against it but I was very distressed because it portrayed me as a person who broke a contract and I'm not the sort of person who would ever break a contract. It also distressed me because I understand that Clarrie Grimmett did exactly the same thing as I did, but he had written to the board and asked for permission and they gave him permission ... Surely to God I'm entitled to tell the press what happened when I went to school at Bowral when I was 12 years of age.
The clause was, of course, a pettifogging restriction; it was also poorly worded, bringing "matters connected with the tour" as a prohibited subject into a secondary clause. But it is fairly clear that the board was right on the letter of the contract, and that Bradman's complaint about Grimmett was weightless. Grimmett's book, Getting Wickets, was published before the Tests in England; nor had anything prevented Bradman emulating Grimmett in seeking the same permission.
This was another dimension to Bradman's seriousness: when the willpower he brought to cricket was applied in controversy, it could heat grievances to incandescence. He admitted that, although his Test average for the summer of 1930-31 was 74.50, "my mind was most disturbed," and "my concentration ... fell away because of these extraneous matters." And while Bradman professed himself a stranger to nerves, between his feats he was coming to need reasonable rest, preferably in seclusion. "I always felt anxiety prior to the start of a big game," he explained in a revealing passage in Farewell to Cricket. "Once action commenced, I lost the earlier sensation. It was replaced by a sort of tense exhilaration which, at the conclusion of a match, often gave way to a severe reaction." Where his recovery was compromised, then, his efforts levied a heavy tax. There is a direct connection, moreover, between this first of Bradman's brushes with the board, in 1930, and the second, which occurred two years later.
The cause of the second disagreement was again Bradman's commercial entanglements. Between August and November 1931, a public courting took place between Bradman and the Lancashire League club Accrington: the leagues were then the world's most lucrative professional circuit, and had attracted several Australian players. Through Bradman's 1930 tour contract stretched another visible tripwire: Clause VII forbade the signatory, on pain of disqualification, from playing in England within two years of touring with the national team. But Bradman, amid grave public forebodings in Australia, evinced considerable interest in Accrington's enticements. A journalist from the Manchester Evening Chronicle was with the club's secretary when the terms were discussed with Bradman by telephone.
This latest offer made to Bradman impressed him. There is no doubt about that. This is not surprising. It is the biggest fee a cricketer has ever been offered ... No, Bradman is not "kidding". They are all fuming about it in Australia, but the voice at the Sydney end of the line was that of a cool, calculating young man who is out to hit the iron while it is hot.
Bradman remained in Australia thanks to a consortium offer from the sporting-goods retailer FJ Palmer & Sons, Associated Newspapers and the radio station 2UE. The moving force was almost certainly Kerry Packer's grandfather Clyde, newly installed as Associated's managing editor and anxious to make over its dowdy morning tabloid Sun; Bradman was to broadcast an eponymous "Cricket Talk" twice weekly on 2UE, as well as being "heard often on the piano". The sums were considerable: in a later court case, 2UE's general manager disclosed that Bradman's annual fee for broadcasting alone was £1000 - about five times the basic wage. But if radio was so new that it had yet to attract the usual Board of Control prohibitions on anything that smacked of commercialisation, it was obvious that Bradman's writing for a newspaper would again incur administrative disapproval - and Bradman was evidently prepared to forbear that displeasure.
For friction there was, and the tables were exquisitely turned. The board's unambiguous position was that only those players whose "sole occupation" was journalism could write for newspapers, and then only after obtaining permission and while avoiding specified subjects like selection. Thus Bradman, previously penalised for breaking a contract with the board, now faced board exhortations to break a contract with Associated Newspapers. In September 1932, he signalled his intention of doing no such thing: "I have signed a contract to write newspaper articles and I intend to carry it out. I must earn my living, and if cricket interferes with my living then I must give up cricket."
Breaking a contract now seems a relative triviality; three-quarters of a century ago, following forced alterations to terms of Australia's debt to cope with depression, it loomed larger. Political conservatives like the silver-tongued Victorian MLA Robert Menzies deplored the violation of "the sanctity of contracts", without which there was "no hope for our salvation" - sentiments he reprised again and again. Bradman repeated himself with like insistence, even obduracy, for no employer would have dared hold him to a contract that prevented his playing - it would have defeated the purpose of securing an association. He dug in to such an extent that he rejected the company's offer to waive its rights - effectively insisting on writing for a newspaper that didn't wish him to write. "I have made a contract with Associated Newspapers which I intend to honour," he explained. "I am sorry but I cannot accept your offer of release." The inference must be that he was bent on proving wrong the board's decision of two years earlier by demonstrating that he was "not the sort of person who would ever break a contract".
For Bradman these were dark and hurrying days. While his future was weighed in a bureaucratic balance, he crossed the Nullarbor with state team-mates to play a tour match in Perth against the newly arrived English cricket team. Team-mate Jack Fingleton recalled:
Piping little voices travelled the length of the train calling "Bradman, Bradman, Bradman" when infrequent stops were made ... at Coolgardie hundreds of enthusiastic miners flocked to the station calling for Bradman. His patience was worn thin by this time. He locked himself in his cabin, but the miners were determined to get a glimpse of him. They began to ransack the train, several windows were broken ...
Out twice in a day for the only time in his career, Bradman left the record crowd desolate. The local leg-spinner Teddy Martin thought him a "very quiet" team-mate who "did little but sit in the corner and keep to himself". Perhaps Bradman was mulling over the inducements coming his way as a result of his stand-off with the board, like the Australian company offering to buy the Associated contract out so he could play, and the English newspaper dangling £3000 so he could write.
In the end, according to Bradman's close friend Johnny Moyes, it took Clyde Packer's personal entreaties to ensure Bradman's availability for the Ashes.
"You must play, Don," said the chief.
"You can force me to write but there is nothing in the contract which allows you to force me to play," returned Bradman.
"Well, Don, we are asking you forget writing for the time being."
"If you put it that way, I will accept and play," said Bradman. "But I want it understood that at any time I am prepared to give up playing and honour my contract with you."
Even then, Bradman was anxious to emphasise that he had not repudiated the contract. The statement announcing his availability for the series deplored "that the Board of Control continues to prevent me from earning an honourable and permanent living from the occupation of journalism", while his summary in Farewell to Cricket was little less withering:
My disagreement with the Board of Control developed into a public wrangle. This was due to no fault of mine ... All these things disturbed me tremendously when in fact I only wanted to my duty. Finally the newspaper requested me to play cricket and forgo my writings during that summer. Thus the decision was taken out of my hands.
The dramatic use of the word "duty" in the context of a straightforward commercial agreement is perhaps his own homage to the Menzian faith in the "sanctity of contracts".
A larger drama was now in the offing, for the next match of the English team's tour involved the first fast, short-pitched sallies of what became known as Bodyline bowling. Bradman, unsettled, skittish, was dismissed cheaply again, and shortly sent word to the selectors he would prefer to bat lower in the order during the Tests. The request became moot when, on the eve of the series, Bradman was examined at the board's behest by doctors in Sydney and declared unfit to play - "organically sound" but "seriously run down".
What this meant has never been explained. The most original hypothesis has been advanced in Quadrant, by Frank Devine, who interviewed Bradman at length 15 years ago for an unpublished biography; although, like Michael Davie, Devine confessed disappointment at his own tact.
His neglected teeth were giving him hell at the start of the Bodyline season and distracting pain may have contributed to a series of low scores against [Douglas] Jardine's team in preliminary matches ... I have long suspected that Don had all his teeth extracted during the final day or two of the first Bodyline Test, which he missed through "illness", and that he spent the following week alone with his wife, Jessie, at a remote beach cottage, getting used to dentures. I regret that I didn't press Don harder on this in a series of interviews I had with him in 1993. He was evasive (conceivably not wanting to be thought a whinger or alibi-maker) and shushed Lady Bradman quite crossly when she attempted to contribute to the conversation.
Yet if Bradman was "organically sound" on the Test's eve, the doctors must have reached some conclusion regarding his psychosomatic condition. A Bradman presenting no physical indisposition and desperate to take the field would hardly have not; this suggests a deeper malaise, a man surfeited by cricket, with the hounding and now the hostility coming in its train. For Bradman certainly experienced presentiments about the summer, confiding in the board member to whom he was closest, Frank Cush of New South Wales, that England's early tactics boded ill for the good conduct of the Tests.
When finally he did play, Bradman's batting average was halved. His methods, moreover - forsaking his wicket in favour of fevered strokes from outside leg stump - spread dismay through his own ranks, while bolstering English morale. "Don Bradman made some incredible shots," wrote the English fast bowler Gubby Allen to his parents after the final Test. "But he is a terrible little coward of fast bowling." Such aspersions still cause squeamishness. When the writer Brian Rendell was researching Allen's correspondence in the Mitchell Library, from which comes the foregoing quote, he was told initially that access to the letter in question was restricted because it contained "references which would cause pain and embarrassment to a living person".
Yet Bradman's response to the physical threat of Bodyline may be less interesting than his intellectual one. Probably no great sportsman has been so invidiously placed. Without Bradman, there would have been no Bodyline; through no doing of his own, he was the cause of a crisis endangering the reputation of the game he identified with all that was good in the Empire, and relations between countries to whom his loyalty was scrupulously even-handed. Perhaps this is why Bradman interpreted Bodyline from the first in emphatic terms. A key artefact is a letter he wrote the Lancashire League club Rochdale, then seeking his services, while the Second Test was underway.
When my present contract expires ... I cannot say with any certainty that I shall receive any further offers to remain in Australia. In view of recent happenings, there is nothing definite as to the future of cricket.
The Australian team [scheduled to tour England] in 1934 may not eventuate if conflicts continue or bodyline bowling may kill all cricket under MCC control unless they ban it.
Composed nearly three weeks before the outbreak of the notorious paper war between Australia's Board of Control and the MCC, these are exceptionally prescient lines. But unlike Jack Fingleton, who famously felt "the crashing of an ideal" in his experiences at the brunt of Bodyline, Bradman essentially doubled his investment in the relevant institutions. He regarded the board's cables to Lord's, which provocatively described Bodyline as "unsportsmanlike", as an "awful" miscalculation. His personal contribution to diplomatic relations - a two-page typewritten letter to the secretary of MCC, proposing a change to the LBW law - lies strangely neglected in the Bradman Collection. Dated 30 January 1933, it is couched so humbly that the effect would be cloying were it not so obviously genuine.
Only after considerable thought have I dared to write this letter to the controlling body in cricket. In doing so, however, I have but one thought in my mind, which is "the betterment of our glorious game of cricket". I have taken the liberty of presuming my letter will be read to the members of MCC. Should my presumption be correct then it is quite possible that, after hearing the contents, the members will think it presumptuous of me to have the temerity to even dream of making a suggestion to them. Should they take this view no harm will be done. On the other hand if they are prepared to listen to my suggestion I would feel very honoured.
Bradman perceived Bodyline as a bowlers' attempt to redress the imbalance between bat and ball - for which he was, of course, partly responsible. Here he offered a careful exposition of how extending the LBW law to the off-side might obviate the need for such extreme bowling countermeasures: "Unquestionably teams would make less runs. To my mind it would be in the best interests of the game if this was so." He concluded: "Compared with the members of your club I am but an inexperienced youth but in a short space of time I have learned to love our grand game and if I have taken up your time with an impracticable idea I apologise."
The letter is fascinating not least because the recipient at the time was at loggerheads with the board; the implied contrast is between Bradman's abiding contempt for Australian cricket's own governors and his serene faith in British good sense. He underestimated British tactlessness: the MCC did not reply. But two years later Bradman had cause to renew his allegiance, when the MCC changed the law broadly along the lines he had advocated. No evidence connects Bradman's recommendation with the reform, but none refutes it, which may account for his keeping faith with the ideal that Fingleton found "crashed". It may also explain why Bradman preferred in future to blame Bodyline on Jardine alone, while Fingleton, whose Cricket Crisis remains the essential inside story of events, was more broadly critical of an administrative class too hidebound to intervene.
In the events of 1932-33, Bradman had displeased Australian administrators and alienated some comrades; the character so widely praised did not so naturally invite sympathy. Some in Sydney now thought him a little too thrusting, a little too determined to have his way, a little lacking in metropolitan polish; Bradman himself would later assent that "it was a handicap that my education had been of limited character," while proclaiming that it was "no disgrace to come from humble parents of modest means in a small and somewhat parochial country village". Here his story comes to involve intersecting strains of Australian snobbery: the Anglo disdain for the native, the urban for the provincial. Inclined to the former, Bradman incurred the latter.
Bradman - recently married to his childhood sweetheart, Jessie - was ever anxious about his financial security; he also had a taste for commercial life. "The thing that most interests Don Bradman in life is work in business," noted his friend William Pollock. "He is methodical, he has a mind for figures, he is keen on making money. He may never be a very rich man, but I feel sure he will never be a very poor one. His head is screwed on the right way. He is a clever little devil - and I mean that affectionately." Trouble was that in Sydney, the opportunities available almost always involved being even more public than appearing on the sporting field, like the partnership he forged with the general manager of FJ Palmer & Sons: Don Bradman Ltd, planning to "carry on the business of tailors, men's and boys' outfitters, and sporting-goods dealers", issued a prospectus offering 35,000 £1 shares in September 1933. In return for its blessing, Bradman licensed "the exclusive use of his name, photograph, likeness, signature and replica of same for the use by the company in New South Wales in connection with goods or merchandise which the company may offer for sale". He does not seem to have been devastated when not a quarter of the shares were subscribed, and the venture was abandoned.
Momentarily, Bradman was perplexed. As Johnny Moyes recalled, he simply "did not know what he would do" - a rare quandary for a man so organised and decisive. On behalf of the Sun, Moyes offered Bradman a job as a full-time journalist, but the cricketer had had his fill of writing, and the inevitable squabbles. The local cricket authorities also seemed disinclined to assist. When it was put to the secretary of the NSW Cricket Association that their star attraction was unsettled, Harry Heydon huffed that Bradman was morally bound to the people who had "made him". Bradman was thus susceptible to the inducements of a South Australian member of the Board of Control, Harry Hodgetts, while New South Wales was in Adelaide a week before Christmas. In return for relocating, Bradman became Australia's best-paid junior sharebrokers' clerk: Hodgetts, whose eponymous firm was one of the city's most prestigious, offered Bradman a lucrative six-year contract.
Publicly, the NSWCA blessed the move, on the grounds that perennially unsuccessful South Australia needed all the help it could get. Privately, they were wounded. Treasurer Ted Tyler wept at the news, as well he might have, for Sydney gate takings would next season be 55% lower, while revenue from New South Wales' annual derby against Victoria would shrink 96% in the next three years. And vice-president ‘Doc' Evatt was so embittered even five years later that he weighed in unbidden when the committee of the Melbourne Cricket Club was considering Bradman, Harry Heydon and Vernon Ransford for the club secretaryship. His unsolicited letter to the chairman of the ground's trustees, WA Watt, has not previously been published.
From the point of view of social charm and general prestige, Vernon Ransford clearly overshadows Bradman. The latter, despite his genius as cricketer ... would be an utterly unsuitable successor to Hugh Trumble. He is intensely suspicious and has never quite outgrown his country boy complex. I have seen a great deal of him and yield to none in admiration for his many gifts. These gifts do not include those for which the MCC secretaryship has been renowned. Therefore I would say that either Heydon or Ransford has infinitely superior claims to Bradman.
Watt, perhaps surprised to receive advice from Evatt on matters of charm, replied coolly that "some of the views you have seen to express in regard to individual candidates do not quite accord with my own" - though the club committee would finally favour the local man, Ransford. And Bradman's move paid off: within the year, he would be deeply grateful for cultivating a life beyond cricket.
Bradman was named vice-captain to Bill Woodfull for Australia's diplomatically sensitive tour of England in 1934. In hindsight, the logic seems irrefutable, a step in his inevitable succession to leadership. At the time, the burden on Bradman's health and privacy was a source of legitimate concern. He skipped games en route in Hobart, Perth and Colombo, on the advice of Sir Trent de Crespigny, the University of Adelaide's renowned dean of medicine, that he was again "run down"; dogged as always by well-wishing strangers, he seldom roamed the deck of the Orford. There was acute apprehension about the possibility that England, despite assurances from the MCC, would relaunch Bodyline, and the writer Ray Robinson thought that this accounted for Bradman's "comparatively feverish" batting in the tour's opening weeks. Bradman, anxious not to overtax himself, was irked when Woodfull pressured him into playing the tour's opening match: he made 206, but "under considerable strain", and after which he felt an acute "drain on my resources".
Bradman's promotion over New South Wales' captain, Alan Kippax, and South Australia's captain, Victor Richardson, seems to have aggravated tense relations with Woodfull. A stoic in the face of Bodyline, Woodfull had been displeased by Bradman's sauve qui peut methods; now he was unsympathetic to Bradman's complaints of weariness. Sir Douglas Shields, Australian surgeon to the rich and famous, confided in the team's manager, Harold Bushby, that, from "general observation", he felt Bradman would experience "serious trouble before the tour was over". Bushby's tour report, which came to light last year, conveys the anxieties and sensitivities surrounding Bradman in England.
Dr Pope [the team's medical officer], Woodfull and I all discussed the matter with Sir Douglas Shields - Woodfull felt that if the vice-captaincy was worrying him [Bradman] the sooner he realised that he could not captain an Australian side the better. He was not inclined to think he was entitled to much consideration on account of his physical and mental condition. There was certainly a little feeling over his appointment as vice-captain.
Bradman was probably never quite so personally vulnerable as on this tour. Shields' suspicions proved well founded. After Bradman turned his indifferent tour around at Leeds with a resounding 304 and was sent to Shields to recover from a slight groin strain, he was found to be suffering "signs of duodenal ulceration". This was not the Bradman to whom opportunities had surrendered themselves four years earlier, who had appeared on theatre stages and made gramophone records; this was a man in a kind of hiding. Arthur Mailey recalled seeing Bradman "leave by the tradesman's entrance at the back of a seaside hotel and climb down a fire escape when running late for a match in order to avoid being bustled and delayed by a surging crowd at the front door". In an era in which the words were not in common circulation, Bushby described Bradman's "gloom and depression": "He seemed very depressed at times and his condition in this direction was far from satisfactory."
Disaster struck just as Bradman's mood began improving, after the Ashes' recapture: on 24 September, he was rushed to Shields' private hospital for an emergency appendectomy. The struggle to stave off peritonitis became a subject of imperial moment, King George V famously insisting: "I want to know everything." Health bulletins were issued hourly, then daily as anxiety eased. Jessie Bradman sped round the world - insofar as it was possible, for it took 31 days - to oversee her husband's convalescence. Taking Shields' advice to rest entirely from cricket, the couple took a low-key tour of the British Isles, and from this emerged some of the cricketer's happiest and most Anglophilial memories: "Nothing in the world ever appealed to me more than England as nature made her, unchanged for centuries." His sense of freedom - from care as well as pain - was palpable. In his autobiography, Men, Women and Things, the Duke of Portland describes hosting the Bradmans at Welbeck Abbey.
On the day after their arrival I heard the piano being played very beautifully for nearly an hour. When I went into the Gothic Hall there was Don Bradman playing, it seemed to me nearly as well as he batted. I complimented him on his skill and he replied: "I enjoy playing the piano better than anything in the world, and now thank goodness shall have plenty of time for it for I have been forbidden to play cricket."
It would be more than two years before Bradman took the field again for Australia, this time as captain. But he had, in a sense, already experienced every sensation cricket had to offer - the source of his deepest satisfactions having steadily become an ordeal of which it was exhilarating to be spared. With the freedom to review Bradman's life backwards, we regularly overlook that he lived his life forwards, that deeds seemingly inevitable were achievements of flesh, blood and spirit. As a result, his legend has begun to fade, a Pindarian ode recited a shade too often, and too solemnly. While Bradman lived, there remained a sense of wonder that such a small, frail, soft-spoken and self-contained man could cast such a long shadow. Now, as the Australia of which Bradman was part recedes into antiquity, he is at risk of becoming a mere statistical outlier. Succeeding generations have found fresh and deeper meanings in Anzac Day; Donald Bradman awaits rediscovery.
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