by Charles Williams.
Little, Brown, 336 pp., £20, August 1996, 0 316 88097 3
Show More
Show More

Don Bradman did poorly by me in my youth: all I saw of him was his parting Oval duck in 1948, the most untimely nought in the history of cricket. It came on the first day of the fifth and last Test, with Australia three-nothing up, so whether our own side won or lost made small difference and we could watch the game as dilettantes instead of partisans, hoping that Bradman would bat, as he nearly always had, lavishly, or even brutally. England batted first and barely made it through to lunchtime: they scored 52 in all, the fewest runs ever in a home Test (46 from the bat; the splendid Ray Lindwall 6 for 20). The Australian openers were past this shameful mark inside the hour. Don Bradman wasn’t needed until after tea, when he came emotively in at his usual first wicket down. Because he had said that this would be his last Test Match here, he got three cheers from the assembled England, which was a nice extravagance on their part. The bowler was Eric Hollies, a down-market leg-spinner. Bradman stopped Hollies’s first ball to him and played on to the second, which was a googly, and a historic party-pooper. We had come to see the unique Bradman bat, not an ephemeral trundler like Hollies bowl. He had no business getting out in so elementary a fashion. His duck was an awful statistical lapse, because when he came in, he needed to hit only four runs, or a single boundary, to end up with a Test Match batting average of 100. This was and remains, run-scoring on a transcendent scale: just how transcendent you can see by looking at one of the tables in Charles Williams’s book, which shows Bradman, with his lifetime Test average of 99.94, almost forty runs an innings ahead of any other player, the run-rich Lara included.

Not that a single hit for four would have done for me that day; I wanted to sit through a hundred runs at the very least, because this was a batsman who over his whole career scored 117 centuries in 338 innings. There was, that is, a better than one-in-three chance that if you went to see him bat he would make another one. That he didn’t do so in this valedictory game was later put down to emotion; he had been moved to tears by being made such an unusual fuss of when he got out onto the pitch. The steely Bradman had been touched: years too late, an England team had hit on quite a sporting way to rattle him.

That brief appearance seemed at the time to be mainly clapping: first, the fielders and the Oval crowd clapped him all the way in, then, a minute or two later, they clapped him all the way out again, the fielders at least relieved no doubt to see him go. I hope one or two of them felt sad, too, that Bradman should have flopped so abnormally at the last. But there were those in the ground who did not feel sad; on the contrary. Two well-known Australian cricketers, I now discover from Bradman, found the whole episode gratifying to a degree. In the words of a nearby source: ‘I thought they were going to have a stroke – they were laughing so much.’ These incongruously merry souls were Jack Fingleton and Bill O’ Reilly, both of whom had played in Test Matches under Bradman in the Thirties and had had their run-ins with him. They were both fine players, O’ Reilly especially, as a bowler of unpleasantly quick leg-breaks, and they had come over the years to resent the huge attention that went exclusively to Bradman, as if the success of Australian cricket hinged on him alone (it all but did). After 1945, both became cricket journalists, and passed some unforgiving judgments on someone with whom, temperamentally, they remained at odds. ‘A little, churlish man,’ according to the sizeist Fingleton, but O’Reilly went a good deal further: ‘I am inclined to think that in a lot of ways Bradman did a tremendous lot of damage to Australian cricket. He didn’t ever come clean as a personal member of the side, he was always a far-distant relative.’

There’s a strong whiff of the old Gents v. Players about this, of the prewar days when the amateurs (Imran Khan, let’s say) came out of the Lord’s pavilion through one gate and the pros (your Bothams and your Allan Lambs) from another, to fraternise, or not, out on the grass. Australian cricketers were in theory all Gents, playing, not day-in day-out for a pro’s wage, but intermittently, for a match fee. They didn’t all make an equal amount of money out of the game, however, because the better you were, then as now, the rosier the prospects of writing in the papers, autographing bats and being patronised in a safe, unexacting job in the off-season. No Australian ever did so well as Bradman, whom the whole of Australia wanted to keep happy, and out there playing, to the extent in 1930 of cabling £1000 (25,000 of our contemporary £s) to him in the field at Leeds after a tremendous innings there. It was entirely reasonable that Bradman should out-earn the others, he added so largely to the income of every cricket ground he batted on. He was good at business, too, when he had to be, alert and well-organised. Having started work at 14, as a clerk in an estate agent’s, he retired early, at 46, as an Adelaide stockbroker. It’s a strength of Williams’s book that, as himself once both a county cricketer and a banker, he follows up the cash as well as the cricketing side of Bradman.

To an extent, the animus that such as Fingleton and O’ Reilly showed derived from their experience of him. Matey the austere Bradman couldn’t be, he was never the man for dressing-room malarkey or laddish roistering; he was as good as teetotal and the nearest he came to high spirits in public was to play jazz on the piano. Nor was it only the cliquier players that he upset: he also went down badly at times, for other reasons, with the ponderous members of the Board of Control in Australia, who tried to stop him writing about the game concurrently with playing it. In 1932-3, Bradman even threatened to drop out of the Tests against England rather than allow the Board to ‘interfere with the permanent occupation of any player’. He knew his worth, and he got his way: the Board, like the team, would have been nowhere without him.

He wasn’t resented on personal grounds alone, however; class, or else race, came into it, too. Bradman was Protestant English, his family having emigrated from rural East Anglia to rural New South Wales halfway through the 19th century; he was born on a smallholding. Fingleton and O’ Reilly, along with others in the Australian teams Bradman played in, were townees and came from Irish Catholic families. Bradman was everything they had learnt to bridle at: reserved, Anglophile, right-wing, whereas honest Catholics made more noise, hated the English and voted Labour. Into O’ Reilly’s bitchy and absurd suggestion in later life that Bradman ‘did a tremendous lot of damage to Australian cricket’ there entered much rooted Anglophobia.

This had got worse in Australia during the Twenties and Thirties, and Williams uses some of his breaks from the field of play to explain why it should have done so. He has read up on the modern history of Australia, and Bradman is all the better for it, a far cry from the one-track Lives of sportsmen we are usually given to read, which are all sport and no society. Williams has wanted to bring the life of his subject into line with what was going on socially, politically and economically in Australia between the wars; in Bradman’s case, there is good reason to do so.

After 1919, the Imperial connection became more contentious than it had been before the war, and unthinking loyalism of the sort that Don Bradman grew up to show less common. Loyalism needed arguing for after the scandal of Gallipoli, when so many young Australian volunteers had been sent to their deaths by what were perceived as ignorant British generals treating the colony simply as a tied source of sacrificial manpower. And then there was the economy, which was in trouble even before it was dragged further down by the Depression of the early Thirties, so that there was chronic unemployment, a flirting with political extremism and an angry conviction that Australia was suffering more than it should because the City of London was too far away and too snobbish to care: that being a Dominion meant being neglected financially, not sustained.

In which climate, to be for King and Empire, as if nothing had changed, meant taking sides whether you liked it or not. Bradman didn’t like it, going out of his way to say he had no politics. This seems to have worked, inasmuch as no one knew what, in any party sense, his politics were: when, after the war, there were rumours he might stand for Parliament, one rumour said it would be for the Liberals, another had him down for Labour. In fact, he was, if not more emollient, then more reticent than those who sniped at him. Though less so now, when he is rising ninety: in a letter to Charles Williams he talked of ‘the disloyalty I had to endure during my early years as Australian captain, a disloyalty based purely on jealousy and religion. Fingleton was the ring-leader. He conducted a vendetta against me all his life.’ ‘Disloyalty’ and ‘religion’ are solemn words for a cricket captain to be using about a few bolshy players, but into them one can easily read the keen social divisions of Australia in the Thirties.

On the other hand, the bad economic and edgy political situation coincided opportunely with the coming to public notice of the phenomenal young Bradman, whose first first-class game for New South Wales (he made 118) was played in the 1927-8 season, when he was just 20. Within a very few years he had become the nation’s most serviceable piece of good news to offset the bad, especially after his first tour in England, when he fell only 26 runs short of making a thousand runs in the five Tests (at an average of 139 plus). As the precocious object of his morose country’s fancy, Bradman had an ideal qualification: he came from nowhere – from the nondescript settlement of Bowral, eighty miles out of Sydney – and he had never been coached. He had learnt to bat on his own, by throwing a golf-ball against a rainwater tank and trying to hit it with a stump as it ricocheted haphazardly back at him. To be the hero of your own life-story, it’s good to owe everything to nature and to no one but yourself. That Bradman was a ‘natural’ was never in question; he was a self-made master in an aspect of cricket, batting, whose best-loved movements – the off-drive, the late cut – are far from simply natural.

The 1930 tour, when the 22-year-old Bradman had scored with such destructive ease off all the English bowlers, led directly to the combustible episode of Bodyline, when cricket got more explicitly drawn into the politics and the social psychology of Empire than it wanted, and when established Anglophobes in Australia felt freshly justified in their democratic views by the dithering between triumphalism and guilt of the titled indecision-makers of the MCC. Bodyline, or ‘leg-theory’, bowling came about because Bradman’s unprecedented scores had somehow to be cut down to size. When it was used, on the MCC tour of 1932-3, he made only a single hundred in the Tests of that series, which England won.

Fast bowling in Test cricket has long been so violent that were Bodyline to be bowled now it would be found insufficient. But it was thought up in order to inhibit batsmen who were believed likely to shrink from it, Bradman among them. Australian bodies were hit, and that could no longer be seen as an accident, though Williams quotes the Movietone News description of Harold Larwood, after he had struck the Australian captain Woodfull in the chest, as the ‘unlucky’ bowler, which suggests that not everyone had yet caught up with what was happening.

In Bodyline, Gent and Player came together to see Bradman off. The Gent was the disagreeable English captain, D.R. Jardine, who had been raised to the ruling class in India and at Winchester. Australian crowds had laughed at Jardine for his snooty ways when he toured there earlier, and all Australians had since to him been ‘bastards’ – Bradman, he had decided, was ‘yellow’; Bodyline would be their national punishment. The main Player to be recruited to it was Larwood, the fastest English bowler of the time and the most accurate.

Bodyline worked on the field for that one tour, but caused ructions off it that escalated to the point where the two Governments had to take a hand. In the end, the MCC, happy though they were to have secured the Ashes by means of Bodyline, climbed down and more or less admitted it wasn’t fair by promising that English teams wouldn’t use it a second time. The principal victim of this devious capitulation, inevitably, was the Player who’d done so very efficiently the thing he’d been asked to do: Harold Larwood. The heroine of a shabby story was Larwood’s Mum. After the official apologies had been wired to Australia, Larwood was asked by his county, Nottinghamshire, to sign a letter saying he regretted having bowled in the unfriendly way he had. He was prepared, as a former coalminer now making his living from cricket, to do so; but his mother wouldn’t let him, and, disgracefully, he was not picked for England again.

Lord Williams has previously written a Life of de Gaulle; he has now written a Life of Don Bradman that makes him seem not so unlike a lightweight version of the General, as the man around whom a whole country rallied in search of self-respect when times were bad. Only a student of Australia could know whether or not Williams has found too much significance in the figure of Bradman in these historical terms. I rather doubt it. Bradman was cast for years by his country in a nationalistic and uplifting role that he would have very much liked to escape from; that he could never do so appears frequently to have affected his health and brought him near to depression.

What print can’t do, of course, is to show what his batting was actually like to look at. Williams does his best, describing Bradman’s strange grip on the bat, his stance, his quick footwork, his commonest shots (mostly to leg). The consensus is that Bradman wasn’t an elegant player: he hit, he didn’t stroke the ball. Had he stroked it, he could hardly have scored at the astonishing rate he did, even in tests; in a State match in Australia he once made 369 in 4 hours 13 minutes. Grudging moderns have been known to say of him that with today’s ‘scientific’ field placings he’d have been slowed down, whatever ‘scientific’ field placings might be. Bradman had, so far as one can tell, an ability, perhaps unrivalled, to hit the ball late, and wide of fielders. If he would be slower now, it would be because of the positively morbid over rates bowlers are allowed. At 15 overs to the hour, he wouldn’t have come close to scoring 309 runs in one day, as he did at Leeds in 1930.

There must be yards of canned film stored somewhere of Bradman batting, but, apart from by now stale clips from the Bodyline tour, little of it ever gets shown. It would be good to be able to watch him at his most domineering, as opposed to his most evasive, and Charles Williams’s publishers might have thought of putting this superior book out in a multimedia version. No cricketer of the past could be better worth re-screening.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 18 No. 18 · 19 September 1996

I too was in the Oval crowd when Donald Bradman was dismissed for a duck in his final test innings. Unlike John Sturrock (LRB, 22 August) – though I stand to be corrected, and Mr Sturrock is backed up by John Arlott’s famous commentary on Bradman’s two-ball innings – I seem to remember that Bradman did not ordinarily ‘stop’ the first ball Eric Hollies sent down. He was beaten by it, appearing not to have the faintest idea what it was doing; and an awed intake of breath travelled round the Oval terraces. With Hollies’s second delivery he was out in the way Mr Sturrock describes. But am I wrong or right about the first? Was anyone else there who can testify?

Alan Brownjohn
London NW3

Vol. 18 No. 20 · 17 October 1996

In response to Alan Brownjohn’s enquiry about Don Bradman’s last innings at the Oval (Letters, 19 September), I can only reply: ‘I was there, but I cannot testify.’ I was only eight at the time and my grandfather, having detected early signs of cricket mania in his grandson, felt it appropriate that I should witness the last innings of this batting phenomenon – so off we tubed to the Oval, a mammoth journey in those days from suburban Wimbledon.

When it came to the Don’s turn to bat, the euphoria that greeted the all-too-infrequent fall of an Australian wicket was replaced by an apprehensive whispering around the ground. Had the Don dropped himself a place in the order? However, the Pavilion door opened and down the steps came this diffident and diminutive figure, hardly taller than the gate opening onto the field of play. By this time the thousands of spectators were on their feet, yelling their appreciation. I could not understand why a batsman should get an ovation before he had scored a run. My memory is of a man who looked as if he had never held a bat in his hand before. I was all the more mystified therefore when the poor man was cheered once again all the way back to the pavilion. After all, he had got a duck!

George Nakely
Yateley, Hampshire

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences