The image of Don Bradman exercised almost a mesmeric hold over the imagination of my generation, i.e. of those born in the 1930s, in (then) Ceylon. The dominion he exercised was so absolute that even now, sixty something years on, most of that generation would claim that there never was and never will be anyone like the Don taking guard at a batting crease. Speaking for myself, having watched cricket in England during the past thirty summers that I have been living here, I can vouch that no batsman I have seen ever came nigh Bradman. Neither in run getting nor in amassing statistics, neither in the capacity to concentrate nor in the fleetness of foot, neither in the murderous power of driving and pulling nor in the single minded devotion to the pursuit of perfection, and least of all, as a captain, did any batsman challenge Bradman. In all these and in much else besides, he remains unique and without a peer. During those thirty years, I have watched every great batsman who played Test cricket in any part of the world, put his batting prowess on display on England’s green fields, and none amongst them can even remotely claim to have played the same game as Don Bradman. The only batsman who even hovered over the horizon was perhaps Viv Richards, and that too in his heyday in the late 1970s tours, but even him, on a scale of 100, where Bradman would be graded at 95, I would rate only in the 60s.
Ceylonese from all walks of life watching the Aussies play in Colombo, 1937 — see https://thuppahis.com/2016/07/18/social-history-within-cricket/
However, while much is very rightly made of Bradman the batting genius, there are two other aspects to the Bradman phenomenon, which discerning critics have written about and to which I shall return towards the end of this article.
A Michaelangelo Masterpiece
I first heard the name of Don Bradman about 1937 when I was only seven, and attending the Lower School of S. Thomas College Mt. Lavinia. Every boy in class collected cricket photographs and every young collector’s ambition was to boast of the largest number of Bradman pictures in his collection. There were two pictures of Bradman that every boy wanted to possess, one of him executing the straight drive and the other of him executing his fabled pull shot.
As I recall it even now, the picture of him executing the straight drive had almost a mystical quality about it and it was not just the quality of the photography either. It presented the Don almost as a demi-god. What was distinctive about that picture was the sense of imperious authority, fluency and power it communicated. One could imagine the ball speeding like a rocket between the bowler and mid-off and lodging in the fence before either fielder could move. Here was no mere batsman. Here was a man who seemed in total command, a be-medalled field-marshal on horseback, a demi-god condescending to grace a cricket field.
The picture of him playing the pull was equally mesmeric. It showed him shouldering his bat vertically close to his let ear, having carved a crescent through the air from above his right shoulder downwards as opposed to the hoik or cross bat which often passes for the pull with ordinary mortals. Obviously J. H. Fingleton, one time Bradman’s partner in run scoring and later his biographer, must have been equally impressed by this photograph because he used it on the front cover of his book, “Brightly Fades the Don.”
For all the symmetry, perfection and poise these two pictures portrayed, they could have passed for masterpieces in marble sculptured by a Michaelangelo or a Rodin or to switch to another metaphor, the cricketing equivalents of Yehudi Menuhin displaying his virtuosity.
A Family Heirloom
With such fantasies of the great man crowding our minds, it was with the greatest excitement and wonderment that early in 1938, we learnt that Don Bradman and his team would be passing through Colombo on their way to England and would be playing a one day match on the SSC ground. To my inexpressible joy, my father, who was himself a fan of Don Bradman, agreed to take my brother Stanley, who was eleven then, and me, to see the great Don arrive with his men at the Colombo jetty. What was more, my father even purchased a brand new bat from Diana and Co. for my brother to take with him, in the hope of getting the Don’s autograph.
I recall the events of that hot steamy morning as if they happened only a few years ago. We were not allowed into the lower jetty where passengers disembarked from launches but had to watch over the railing as the team arrived. As the players climbed up from the lower jetty to the upper floor where the public had gathered, the crowd surged forward. My brother Stanley, with me trailing behind, his new bat in his left hand and my father’s Parker Dufold pen in the other, went to the first Aussie he saw and thinking he was Bradman, thrust the bat under him with a polite, “ Please sir, may I have you autograph”. Whereupon the Aussie smiled, took the bat and scrawled right across its middle, “ Sydney G. Barnes”. Somewhat disappointed that he had missed the Don, Stanley took the bat to the next man in a blazer coat and he in turn signed, a few spaces above the name of Barnes, his own name, “Stan MacCabe”. Thereafter, hoping to get Bradman, Stanley kept running to whoever was wearing an Aussie blazer and was rewarded with the following signatures, Lindsay Hassett, W.A Brown, J.H.Fingleton, W. J. O’Rielly, W.G Fleetwood Smith, C. L. Badcock, B.A.Barnett, E.L McCormick, A. G. Chipperfield, F.A.Ward and M.G.Waite, more or less in that order. Sadly, there was yet no signature of Bradman. By that time the team had already climbed into their cars to be driven to the Galle Face Hotel, when my father spied policemen crowding round one particular car right opposite the Grand Oriental Hotel across the road. Sensing that Bradman was in that car he urged my brother to hurry towards it, which Stanley did with great speed, with me trotting along behind him. Just when the car was about to start off Stanley thrust his bat under the nose of yet another Aussie who was standing with his foot on the running board. He turned out to be W.E. Geanes, the manager of the team. Geanes signed at the bottom, under all the other names, but noticing that Bradman himself had not signed it, inquired smilingly, “ Son, but you haven’t got Mr Bradman’s (sic) signature” and handed the bat to the great man who was already seated in the car. Up to that moment, at the request of the management, the police cordon around Bradman had denied access to anyone who sought his autograph. So it was that purely through the chance intervention of manager W.E. Geanes that we had all the signatures of the 1938 Australian team to England, with the great Don Bradman and his vice-captain Stan McCabe, heading the list.
My father intended the bat to be an heirloom. So it was that, taking it home that evening, with great care he inscribed across it, just under the splice, the rubric “Australian Cricket Team to England – 29th March 1938.” The bat belonged to Stanley and had he held on to it, it would have fetched over £25,000 at Sotheby’s today. However, that was not to be, and as to how Stanley squandered that inheritance is another story.
The following day, the 30th of March, the Australians played a one-day match against an All-Ceylon team at the SSC. The SSC ground of those days is now the Colombo Municipality cricket ground, which by the standards of MCG and SCG must have looked to the visitors like a postage stamp. Although Bradman had played once before in Colombo in 1930 and had scored 40 runs, he did not play in this match and it was memorable therefore only for the extraordinary display of batting fireworks by Badcock and Hassett who compiled 116 runs apiece. Their runs came mostly in sixes and fours, most of the sixes being executed almost parallel to the ground, either between point and cover or between square leg and mid-wicket.
The match was also memorable because schoolboy Pat McCarthy, the captain of Royal College team that year, was included in the All-Ceylon team, much to the chagrin of us Thomians who fumed over the exclusion of our own captain R.B. Wijesinghe. In hindsight I should say that the Thomians’ dismay was completely ill founded because Wijesinghe’s performance that year had nothing to show to that of McCarthy. However, in later years Wijesinghe did represent All-Ceylon in several international matches. I do not recall who captained All-Ceylon that year but the names of F.C. de Saram, one time Oxford Blue, and Sargo Jayawickrema, dominated the sports pages of those times, day in day out, year after year. According to the score card of the match given in Michael Roberts’ Crosscurrents, de Saram had scored 31 runs and in reply to an Aussie total of 367 for 9 declared, compiled by tea, Ceylon replied with 114 for 7 by stumps, with de Saram the highest scorer and Pat McCarthy scoring 24. I believe that in later years Pat McCarthy migrated to Australia and played for West Australia.
The next time I had the opportunity to see Don Bradman was in 1948 when he lead his famous Invincibles to England and himself played in Colombo. We had already had a taste of what was in store for us because three years earlier we had seen two of the Invincibles, Keith Miller and Lindsay Hassett, belt the daylights out of our bowlers when an Australian Services X1 played an All- Ceylon team at the Colombo Oval in November 1945. I recall a six that Miller hit, went soaring over long-off and almost knocked out the clock on the brand new Oval scoreboard. In that match Miller scored 132 runs and Hassett 57.
The 1948 Australian team’s reputation had already been established during the 1946/47 Ashes tour down under. Australia had won four of the five Tests with one Test drawn and Bradman had made 187 in the First Test and 234 in the Second, winding up the series with an average of 90 something. Furthermore, several of the new team had also compiled centuries, among them, Sydney Barnes, Arthur Morris, Keith Miller, Lindsay Hassett, Sam Loxton, Ian Johnson, Ernie Toshack the spinner, Don Tallon the wicket keeper and Ray Lindwall the fast bowler. Almost every member of the team a centurion was indeed a formidable record. However the deterioration of his fibrositis, which had plagued Bradman throughout the war years and had caused him to be invalided out of the army, had continued to hamper him and reduce him to a mere shadow of what he had been in the thirties. While Bradman’s appetite for runs had not abated and his instinct for excellence and perfection remained undiminished, most observers had begun to notice a definite waning of his skills and an impairment of felicity at the crease. We were to see it confirmed at the Colombo Oval on the 28th of March 1948.
That day in March 1948 I remember vividly. I was 18 then and could undertake the expedition to the Colombo Oval without being escorted by my father! In those days, if one did not have a car, there being no bus service to Borella from Colombo South, access to the Oval was very difficult. So it was that, dismounting from the train at Bamabalpitiya, I walked all the way to the Oval along Bullers Rd, a distance of over three miles. The roads were choked with the young and the old streaming towards the cricket ground. By the time I reached the grounds, the paid stands and the standing spaces were all full and the police were turning the public away. Not being adroit enough to climb a tree, as thousands of others seemed to be, I crept through the barbed wire fence and found myself about twenty rows behind the boundary line. Very soon, all that was reversed when a mass of people broke down the fences, overran the police cordon and surged forward, carrying me with them. By the time the police had restored a semblance of order I found myself seated on the ground, this time not twenty paces behind the boundary line but about six paces inside it, at the edge of a sea of people, and the game had not even started! The tension and the excitement was terrific and some spectators amused themselves by pelting my hat with banana skins and calling me “ado thoppi karaya” (Hey, you hatter!), a small price to pay for watching Bradman!
The sky was already overcast when sharp at ten, M. Sathasivam, captain of Ceylon and the Don walked out to toss. The toss was a formality because whoever won it, the Aussies were meant to bat. So it was that at 10.15, Sydney Barnes and W.A.Brown went out to open the innings. For a description of the day’s play I have had the advantage of two eyewitness accounts, from the Observer and from the Times, the latter written by J.H.Fingleton, and included in Michael Roberts’ splendid book Crosscurrents.
The Australian innings was notable for five things. First there were the breezy innings by Barnes and Miller the former scoring 49 in as many balls and the latter scoring 46 in even a shorter time, with some mighty hits all over the ground. Second there was the excellent bowling by Sathi Coomaraswamy who got four wickets for 45 runs and by B.R.Heyn who kept the batsmen pinned down with some accurate off spin. Thirdly, there was the stunningly good fielding display put on by our men in the field, which drew rounds of applause from the crowd of over 25,000. In particular the fielding of Heyn in the covers was quite exceptional. Fourthly, there was the magical display behind the stumps by our keeper Ben Navaratne, and finally, there was the distressingly disappointing batting display put on by the great Bradman.
Embers that went cold
Everyone had come to see Bradman bat and as he walked out to the crease after the fall of the first wicket the atmosphere was electric. We all expected that Bradman’s arrival at the crease would be like throwing inflammable stuff on embers that had been smouldering while Barnes and Brown were at the crease. Sadly however, that was not to be. If anything, the embers went cold and died. For over an hour and a half Bradman scratched and scraped, pushed to cover or point and ran singles. There was none of that legendary pulling or any of the ferocious driving that we had all come to see and in all that time, he scored not a single boundary. This was a ghost of the Bradman we had read about, a legend drained of all credibility. Just only an year and a half back, we had sat enthralled by our short wave radio sets listening to the great man compile 187 at the Gabba and 248 at the MCG, his driving and pulling resounding like rifle shots as the ball sped in all directions to the boundary, every shot accompanied by thunderous applause. It was partly the deadly accuracy of our bowlers, principally of Coomaraswamy and Heyn and partly Bradman’s sea legs, and not least his fibrositis, which were perhaps to blame.
While Bradman was batting, an eerie silence had settled around the ground. There were no scoring shots to cheer and it was as if the crowd was waiting with bated breath for Bradman to ignite and did not want to miss the critical moment. I recall distinctly, amidst this tensed and overpowering silence, a spectator unable to suffer the tension any longer, chimed in, in Sinhala, “Oi, Bradman! What is the karanawa?” (I say! Bradman! What is the problem?) As the cry rippled across the ground, the nervous tension snapped, and the crowd burst out laughing as if to a man.
Shortly thereafter, when Bradman was on 20, he spooned an easy catch to Kretser at point, off Heyn. Normally, anyone taking Bradman’s wicket would be applauded for extraordinary skill and rare excellence, but that was not to be here at the Colombo Oval that morning. The fall of Bradman’s wicket seemed to have cast a deathly pall over the ground and the darkening clouds overhead seemed to suggest that even the heavens had gone into mourning. In the enveloping silence, as the great man walked off the ground, there was a distinctly funereal touch to the atmosphere, and as hundreds of silent spectators flooded over the field to see him at close quarters, play had to be suspended for 10 minutes until order and sanity were restored again .
At tea, with the sky darkening with rain, Bradman declared their innings at 184 for four. When Ceylon went in to bat, the rain was already falling but it held long enough for Mahes Rodrigo, formerly of Royal College, to give the crowd a display of classical batting that was every bit as good as anything the Aussies had put on show. So much so that Fingleton singled him out for special mention for smart footwork and for his straight bat. When the score was 46 for 2, the rain came down in torrents and that was the end of the match.
Fingleton in his review says that the Ceylon team played much better cricket than the Indian team that had toured Australia the previous summer. It had included Amarnath (captain), Hazare, and Mankad, but lost all their Tests. In particular, he thought that our fielding was quite exceptional and exceeded anything the Indians had put on. Sadly however, he failed to mention in his review the wicket keeping by Ben Navaratne who was in my view the most outstanding of the Ceylon team. I thought his work behind the stumps was quite remarkable.
Bradman the Captain
A great deal has been said about Bradman the batting genius and the records and statistics place his prowess beyond cavil and debate. However, there is Bradman the captain and Bradman the man to consider and here it is not to statistics that we turn to so much, as the opinions of men. In order to sketch out the fairest possible profile of the great man I have conflated the views of W.J.O’Reilly and Jack Fingleton, both of whom played with him, of two outstanding cricketing journalists of his time, John Arlott and Arthur Mailey and of one politician connoisseur, Sir Robert Menzies, Prime Minister of Australia .
As a captain, Bradman emerges with some very distinctive characteristics. In an age when computer statistics and video replays were not even a distant dream Bradman’s extraordinary brain was more than a substitute. Before he took the field he had already retrieved from his prodigious memory the strengths and weaknesses of every player in the opposing side, data which he had stored away for future use. He worked to a strategy and was never ruffled even when his set plan seemed in disarray. He stayed absolutely cool under fire, and even on the rare occasions when he had to retreat, he regrouped quickly and regained the initiative. As a captain he was always taciturn on the field and rarely interfered with his bowlers preferring to let them get on with it. He was also rarely known to reprimand players for errant fielding, but his very presence on the field was such an overpowering influence that every defection soon corrected itself. On the other hand, he also rarely advised or coached his colleagues, overtly. Neil Harvey recalls that when, at the age of 19 he scored a century on debut in England and returned to the dressing room, let alone receiving a pat on the back from the great man, he did not get even a nod of the head in acknowledgement. He merely expected other members of the team to learn by watching him and there was indeed a lot to learn there.
Three driving motives provide keys to understanding the dynamics of Bradman the captain. One was the passion for excellence in every department of the game. There was nothing called second best in his vocabulary. Next, there was the desire to win. Be it a benefit match or even a festival match, he had to win. Thirdly, at least after the ill-fated Jardine tour, he seemed to be driven relentlessly by a dislike for the “Poms”. It was a dislike which developed mainly out of the bodyline series but also partly from final test at the Oval in 1938, where a mediocre Len Hutton broke his record. The bodyline series set the seal on his dislike for the English. He never fully recovered from the trauma of that series and he never forgave Jardine. Bradman post-bodyline was never the same. He no longer danced down the wicket nor improvise in mid-stroke as he used to. The total effect was to produce in him an incurable dislike for the English.
Bradman the Man
As a man, by all accounts, Bradman emerges as unfriendly, taciturn and a recluse. He rarely fraternised even with members of his team. Upon returning to the dressing room, even on completing a big score, which was often, he would not exchange banter or hang around to receive accolades but would retire to a corner and be by himself. In the hotel where the team lodged, he would dine privately in his room and would rarely join in the fun and the banter downstairs. He hated signing autographs and often left his hotel stealthily by the back door simply to avoid being mobbed by the hundreds who were waiting outside. O’Reilly would explain Bradman’s taciturn and reclusive manner as an aspect of his desire constantly to keep his mind focused on the game. He did not want to let his concentration flag, even off the field, but kept turning over in his mind the flaws of his opponents, the lessons of the day and the plan for the morrow. Bradman neither smoked nor drank, except to propose a toast and socially, at a cocktail party or at a formal dinner. He disliked the press and rarely gave interviews but he was very sensitive to criticism and went to great lengths to clear himself, even on trivial matters, as one can gather from his autobiographical Farewell to Cricket.
Critics and Detractors
Bradman had several critiques and detractors as well, and principal amongst them were Fingleton and O’Reilly, both of whom played with him. The former is quite adamant that at the first Test at the Gabba in 1946, Ikin caught Bradman at point and that in standing his ground without walking, Bradman cheated. However, in his Farewell to Cricket Bradman denies this vehemently and insists that the ball had bumped. O’Reilly in particular was very severe on Bradman and while conceding without reservation that he was a batting genius who would perhaps never be equalled, also thought that he was pathologically ego centric and played only for himself. On the other hand, others explain O’Reilly’s ill-concealed personal dislike for Bradman as merely a manifestation of an Irish Roman Catholic’s incurable hatred for an English Puritan!
For a more balanced view we may perhaps turn to John Arlott and Arthur Mailey. Arlott’s critique of Bradman might as well have come from the pen of a philosopher. He had this say of the great man, “
Wide-reaching as Bradman’s activities have been, they have all been on one level of consciousness. If I were faced with a task, on a materialistic plane, I would sooner have Don Bradman to work with me than any other man …. I feel he is able to achieve almost anything within his physical compass with utter competence and with an intensity rare in the human race. [However] …. upon what level of mind or soul he argues with himself about his aims I have no means of knowing. I do know however that he is capable of setting himself a semi-tangible target which is not in any record book …. how I wonder would Bradman define happiness.” – (quoted in Fingleton’s Brightly fades the Don).
What Arlott is suggesting here in a somewhat convoluted or mystical language is that Bradman was a one-dimensional man who could excel as no other man could, on a particular plane of his choosing, but that his character lacked complexity and completeness. Which I think is itself somewhat incomplete as a critique, considering that Bradman was also a model family man, a superb after dinner speaker with an ability to speak on almost any subject relevant to the occasion and a very successful administrator and financial manager as well. Admittedly he was a very private person, an introvert, even a recluse, and was clearly out of place among men who measured out their lives, when off the field, with beer mugs and shovels of wearied reminiscences. If anything, that should suggest complexity and a vertical dimension to his character, rather than a lack of it, as Arlott seems to suggest.
Arthur Mailey of the Sydney Telegraph, who had known Bradman from his days in Bowral, had this to say. “ Bradman is an enigma, a paradox; an idol of millions, yet, with a few, the most unpopular cricketer I have ever met. … There are at least two major reason why some dislike him without compromise, forgiveness or tolerance: jealousy and this great cricketer’s independence….Bradman has a very acute brain. But there are some aspects of his mental outlook which lack the benefit of finer thinking. He is dogmatic on subjects or opinions, which even an expert, or a master would treat with great care and discretion….Bradman was brought up the hard way, the lonely way. That’s why he practised as a boy by hitting a ball up against the a brick wall, and when he felt the cold draught of antagonism within the ranks he kept counsel, remained unperturbed, and knew his greatest weapon was centuries and more centuries” (quoted in Fingleton’s Brightly fades the Don).
Finally let me quote from Robert Menzies, one time Prime Minister of Australia, an ardent admirer but an honest critic. “ Bradman is of course not without critics; he has succeeded too gigantically to escape them. He has his faults, no doubt, but they are merely the defects inherent in those positive qualities which have given him pre-eminence …. He believes in the virtue of concentrating all his mind upon the job in hand. He therefore plays to win. Once or twice I have thought that this ruthless quality might have been tempered with a little mercy; but reflection has almost always brought me back to the recognition that intense concentration IS a cardinal virtue, so rare that for its sake even much might be forgiven” (quoted in Fingleton’s Brightly fades the Don).
The Complete Bradman
Any true assessment of Don Bradman must go beyond merely harking upon his extraordinary batting statistics and his prowess at the crease, which almost all, admirers as well as critics, consider to be unrivalled yet, and as likely to remain so or ever. We may also dispose of, as wanton speculation, the question whether he was as good on wet wickets as he was on hard bouncy wickets, by pointing to his sensational feats on wet summer wickets in England. We may with equal disdain ignore suggestions that he could not cope with fast bowling, by recalling his 50 plus average against the fastest and meanest bowlers of his day. All that we can safely put away as carping, born of envy.
However, there is this other side of Bradman which cricketers, being who they are, tend to miss and which only a discerning few like John Arlott and Robert Menzies seem to have detected. I refer to Bradman the thinker, to Bradman the man with extraordinary powers of concentration, whose inerrancy of eye and co-ordination of limb were only the outworking of a particular level of consciousness. Bradman was more than just a great batsman or a successful captain of cricket. He seems to have had qualities of character, which would have won for him pre-eminence in any walk of life he chose to follow, and by any classical standards of assessing greatness Bradman was also a great man.
I haven’t read many biographies on Bradman but according to Gideon Haigh, whose excellent and well balanced article on Bradman appears in the Picador Book of Cricket, edited by Ramachandra Guha, the best Bradman biography is one written by an Englishman, Irving Rosenwater, titled, “Sir Donald Bradman”. Among other things, Haigh’s article is notable for an exceptional paragraph with which he concludes his article, (with apologies to C. L. R. James, he says) which I would like to quote here, “What do they know of Bradman who only cricket know? Surely it is possible in writing about someone who has lived for ninety years to do something more than prattle on endlessly about the fifteen or so of them he spent in flannels- recirculating the same stories, the same banal and blinkered visions- and bring some new perspectives and insights?” Haigh goes on, “ Where are the home-grown biographies of Charlie Macartney, Warwick Armstrong, Bill Woodfull, Bill Ponsford, Lindsay Hassett, Keith Miller, Neil Harvey, Alan Davidson, Richie Benaud, Bob Simpson, even Denis Lillee, plus sundry others one could name? Such is the lava flow from the Bradman volcano, they are unlikely to see daylight.”
To wind up my own tribute to the great man, I would like to draw attention to the standards of behaviour and conduct that Bradman set for himself and his team, on and off the field. The latter day culture of sledging, which is perhaps, after Bradman, the single most noteworthy Aussie contribution to the world’s cricketing culture, would have been unthinkable under Bradman. Some of his successors, notably Ian Chappel, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh, have sought with extraordinary disingenuousness, to justify rowdy, coarse and boorish behaviour on the field by calling it sledging and claiming it as a legitimate strategy for unsettling the opposition. By whatever name they may seek to varnish it, rowdy, coarse and boorish behaviour would never hav been countenanced by Bradman, on or off the field. There was no need to have recourse to such weapons to unsettle the opposition. In Bradman’s cricket culture the only way to unsettle the opposition was through recourse to batting and bowling prowess and through intelligent field placing and skill in catching and throwing. Sledging was the invention of mediocre men. It was their way of confessing that true cricketing greatness was beyond them.
** Article taken from Essaying Cricket. Sri Lanka and Beyond, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa Publishers, 2006, pp . 268-76 …. retyped by Albadur Cader …. with Pix added.