Shattering the Don Bradman myth

Monash University academics David Dunstan and Tom Heenan are writing a new study on the life and legend of Don Bradman, whom they describe as an acquisitive, ruthless, and self-interested loner. In short, “an extremely peculiar Australian”.

Don Bradman.

Don Bradman. Photo: Library of South Australia

· ‘Scabrous attack’ on Bradman 

It used to be said that the Australian people were a tough-minded lot who made heroes of none, and raised no idols, except perhaps an outlaw, Ned Kelly, and Carbine, a horse.

The historian Brian Fitzpatrick who said it died in 1965. Perhaps he overlooked the cricketer Don Bradman. He could not have foreseen the myth-making that churns his memory on.

Another shrine to ‘The Don’ is being completed. Bradman’s childhood home in Shepherd Street Bowral in the NSW Southern Highlands is being restored to the days when young Donald reputedly honed his batting skills by knocking a golf ball into the now famous tank stand.

A more fitting testimony to The Don’s greatness, however, was the way Michael Clarke’s Australian team clean-swept the Poms in the recent Ashes Test series. It was cricket the Bradman way: clinical, ruthless, and detached with a touch of the school bully about it.

Simply, there is not much about Bradman that was great, or deserving of the adulation heaped upon him.

Bradman would not have stooped so low as to threaten to break a tail-ender’s arm. He was too shrewd for that. But he loved nothing more than intimidating and dominating the opposition.

Like Clarke, he loved to make runs and frighten opposition batsmen with a bit of ‘chin-music’. Clarke has Johnson, but Bradman had Lindwall and Miller whom, with great relish, he unleashed on the Poms after the War.

As England’s 1948 captain Norman Yardley suggested, Bradman was not the nicest opponent. He was unrelentingly tough and not above gamesmanship or letting loose a bumper barrage from his quicks.

But he was the greatest batsman of all time. His Test average of 99.94 far exceeds all others. It is one of the most recognisable numbers in Australian history. The national broadcaster, the ABC, even used it for its post office box.

Donald Bradman

Don Bradman at the crease, NSW, 1932. Photo courtesy of State Library of New South Wales.

When you dig for greatness in The Don, you keep coming back to that number. Simply, there is not much about Bradman that was great, or deserving of the adulation heaped upon him.

Myth would have it that Bradman was a lonely but gifted kid, good with numbers and better with the bat. Other than his mum and future wife, Jessie, his only childhood mates seem to have been the stump, the golf ball and the tank stand.

In reality, Bradman was more comfortable with adults who indulged him. He chose to have few childhood mates of his own age. Whether or not Bradman was in the autism spectrum is open for debate. He certainly lacked empathy and had a near obsessional ability to concentrate intensely for long periods on repetitious tasks.

He learned early that his uncommon batting ability could advance his job prospects. By his mid-teens he was managing Percy Westbook’s Bowral real estate office. By 19 he was a shareholder in a Sydney property development company. In the interim he had scored headline-grabbing mountains of runs for Bowral, Sydney club St George and New South Wales.

Myth has it that Bradman left the real estate game because the Sydney property venture went broke. The fact is he threw it in for cricket. The venture was still going when Bradman was piling on the runs against the Poms in 1930.

A feature of the Bradman personality seen early was an intense acquisitiveness. Cricket enabled him to climb the social ladder and accumulate more money than by selling industrial sites for housing on Sydney’s outskirts. From the 1930 tour he obtained over ₤1600 from endorsements, publishing contracts, and a hefty gift from a wealthy Australian admirer.

On returning to Australia, he left the team in Perth and set off on a promotional romp for his sporting goods employer, Mick Simmons, and General Motors. Again, he was showered with money and gifts, including a new Chevrolet Roadstar car.

He was never one of the boys. Instead, he had an obsessional self-regard which made him unpopular with many of his teammates. Cricket was a means to an end, and he used it to secure employment, which caused problems with Australian cricket’s governing body, the Board of Control.

Ahead of his time

In many respects Bradman was more a sportsman of our age than his. He realised there was more money in journalism and radio commentary than cricket. But the Board had strict controls on players writing for papers during tours, which Bradman breached during the 1930 series.

When fined by the Board, Bradman threatened to take his services to the lucrative Lancashire League, and he threatened to withdraw from the 1932-3 Bodyline series. The matter was only resolved when Associated Newspapers released Bradman from his contract to write a column for the Sydney Sun.

He used this ploy often. It got him a job as a clerk with the Adelaide stockbroker and Board of Control member, Harry Hodgetts.
According to myth, Bradman joined Hodgetts to learn the stockbroking game. In reality, Bradman’s job was cricket. Most of his wage was not paid by Hodgetts, but by the South Australian Cricket Association.

Myth also has it that Bradman was the greatest destroyer of bowling the game has ever seen. In reality, he was its most ruthless destroyer of ordinary bowling.

Bradman was a part-time stockbroker’s clerk and full-time professional cricketer. In a world that still celebrated sport for the love it, Bradman was a ‘shamateur’.

Myth also has it that Bradman was the greatest destroyer of bowling the game has ever seen. In reality, he was its most ruthless destroyer of ordinary bowling and may have struggled against the great West Indian attacks of the 1980s. When the going got tough, Bradman often got out.

It could be argued that his contemporaries, the Englishmen Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe were better all-wicket batsmen, and Bradman had little liking for the fast leg theory of Harold Larwood. On a sticky Oval wicket Larwood had struck Bradman in the ribs in 1930. He took a month to recover physically and was determined not to get hit again.

During the Bodyline series, Larwood and Jardine considered Bradman scared of the quick stuff. So too did some Queensland journalists and players who’d seen him bat against the Aboriginal fast bowler, Eddie Gilbert.

Bradman campaigned against Gilbert and Bodyline. He branded Gilbert and Larwood ‘chuckers’ and Bodyline a blight on the game. He may not have leaked to the press details of the famous Warner-Woodfull exchange during the Bodyline series, though he had good reason for doing so.  But he did inform Australian Board members of his views and even wrote a letter to Lord’s; and once again threatened to take his bat to the Lancashire League.

Cashing in

Bodyline may have halved his average, but it cleared the way for Bradman to cash in on his batting ability. By the mid-1930s bodyline was barred and Larwood had been forced from the Test arena. Against far more docile attacks than Cook’s Englishmen faced, Bradman plundered runs.

By 1936 he was Australian captain, selector and considering a move into in cricket administration. He applied unsuccessfully for the plum job of Melbourne Cricket Club secretary in 1939, but was pipped by Vernon Ransford. Not all considered Bradman ideal for the job. As noted by the NSWCA vice-president, Bert Evatt, Bradman lacked the “social charm” and was “intensely suspicious”.

He campaigned to keep white South Africa in the international game against the groundswell movement in favour of a boycott over apartheid.

When the war came, Bradman enlisted but was quickly pensioned out with a bad back. Myth has it that Bradman was almost an invalid, but he used his war years wisely. He campaigned for war bonds and followed in Hodgetts’ footsteps, securing seats on the Adelaide Stock Exchange and the Australian Board of Control.

But Hodgetts was a flawed mentor. For years he had been drawing illegally from his clients’ scrips to stay afloat. In mid-1945 his business collapsed and Bradman was unemployed and out-of-pocket.

Within days, however, he opened his own business from Hodgetts’ premises. For Adelaide’s close-knit establishment, many of whom had lost money in the crash, Bradman was seen to be cashing in on Hodgetts’ demise and their misfortune.

Confronted with their hostility, and the prospect of protracted legal proceedings as Hodgetts’ former clients sought recompense in the courts, Bradman returned to cricket.

Donald Bradman

The Don playing Sheffield Shield cricket in 1937. Photo courtesy of State Library of NSW

Myth has it that he selflessly gave of his time to almost single-handedly resurrect the game here and in England. Bradman was too self-regarding for that. He returned to the crease to resurrect his reputation after the Hodgetts’ affair.

He was now captain, selector and Board member, and batting with his old ruthlessness against depleted English and Indian attacks. But he was determined to leave his mark as captain. In 1948 he drove his Australian team to be the first to go through an English tour undefeated.

He retired at the end of the ‘48 tour and was knighted in 1949. With his last Test innings in mind, one of Adelaide’s matrons was heard after the event to utter cattishly: ‘Arise Sir Donald Duck.’

Howard made knowledge of The Don a pre-requisite for citizenship and passed legislation to stop the commercial exploitation of Bradman’s name.

He also published his memoir Farewell to Cricket, a retort to those critics who acknowledged his batting genius but considered him self-obsessional and fearful of fast bowing. Old English foes – Wally Hammond, Bill Edrich and Norman Yardley – joined the chorus, writing critically of Bradman’s win-at-all-costs attitude.

A conservative administrator

In the ’50s, Bradman’s attention turned to the game’s administration. He was best in dealing with changes to the rules, and less adept at confronting the challenges posed by decolonisation. Cricket was the most colonial of games and Bradman sought to maintain its white, Anglo-Australian hegemony.

He campaigned to keep white South Africa in the international game against the groundswell movement in favour of a boycott over apartheid. As he explained in the 1990s, one of his great regrets was buckling under to Australian government policy which supported a boycott.

Bradman didn’t see the Packer revolution coming. As Board chairman in the early seventies, he was against paying players their full market value. He was also slow to recognise the commercial value of television and the one-day game.

Packer did, and when the Board refused to grant him exclusive rights in 1976, he bought the game’s best players. When the Board and Packer’s PBL brokered a peace settlement in 1979, Bradman left the Board. He liked to give orders, not take them, and now PBL was in charge.

Business of retirement

In retirement he cashed in on renewed public interest in Bodyline after the 1984 television dramatization of the 1932-33 series, and he dabbled in the memorabilia market. His determined interest in re-telling his side of the story continued as a spate of biographers hung on his every word in penning their definitive Bradmans, further fuelling the myth. The traits that his teammates criticised as personality disorders were swept under the table.

But with the country’s popular history now being built on nationalistic self-aggrandisement in war and sport, the cult of Bradman’s humble origins and as beleaguered but all-conquering hero fitted in well.

Each year sees a new and usually favourable book on some aspect of the great man’s exploits.

A museum was built in his honour in Bowral, while the conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, declared The Don “the greatest living Australian”. Howard made knowledge of The Don a pre-requisite for citizenship and passed legislation to stop the commercial exploitation of Bradman’s name.

A sex-shop on Adelaide’s Sir Donald Bradman Drive had planned to trade under the banner ‘Erotica on Bradman’ but was stopped by the Bradman Foundation and family.

Howard left public life in 2007 along with the Bradman citizenship question

The Bradman Museum is now the international Cricket Hall of Fame. When it comes to the greats of the game, Tendulkar now out-ranks The Don, according to Hall of Fame patrons.

But the myth grinds on. Each year sees a new and usually favourable book on some aspect of the great man’s exploits. There’s still Shepherd Street and the stump, the golf ball and the tank stand, and the larger-than-life image of a man made great by his batting average for country tourism promoters. The myths are better than the reality for some. But for others, perhaps it is time to acknowledge that Don Bradman was an extremely peculiar Australian.

David Dunstan and Tom Heenan lecture in sports studies at Monash University.

  • Dean R Frenkel

    This article tries too hard to debunk every Bradman myth and loses credibility. It appears to be another example of lesser lights trying to cash in on the Bradman name. It also fails to point out that Bradman may have died prematurely due to the now familiar Adelaide heat-waves.

    • J. Kellett

      Can these authors really be university academics and quote an unnamed Adelaide matron as a source of evidence? Can such people introduce the diagnostic possibility of autism spectrum disorder? What evidence is on offer for bodyline MAY have halved his average?

      • L

        Bradman made 396 runs at an average of 56.57 for the 1932/33 ‘Bodyline’ series in Australia. His average before that series was 112.29.

      • SteveOL

        He averaged 56.67 during Bodyline. A touch over half his career average. Clear evidence it worked.

        • Lolly

          Didn’t work THAT well though. Close to 60 is still a damn fine average. You’d think he averaged around 20 in the Bodyline series the way it is presented.

          It’s hard to care about what modern sportsmen are like off the field, who really gives a damn whether Bradman was a dickhead or not?

  • Lee

    A lot of Bradman’s off-field behaviour might well be accurately criticised here, but his on-field performances can’t be questioned. It is a nonsense to put Tendulkar above him. He stands so far in front of anyone, there’s no contest.

    • Concerned

      I agree with Lee and most others who have gone to the trouble to disagree with the views of the story you have presented. Is it not time for you to consider including words of those who write stories of relevance or is it your aim to include those that bring the most replies.

  • neels

    Have the authors actually played competitive sports? Academia and ruthless competitive sport have little in common, one will never understand the other. The thing that can be said about Bradman in this context was that we was a far superior batsman then these two self styled academics are in research. But to be fair to these two chaps, their motives for publishing this article were to garner a bit of publicity in their hunt for the odd grant, hungry shcolars need to eat too.

  • Gyfox

    Bradman was also the person responsible for football leaving Adelaide Oval in the 70′s. Being from Sydney, he had no love for the Australian game &wanted to keep it under cricket’s control. He refused all proposal’s to share the Oval with cricket, so the SANFL left. The SACA eventually went into debt. Now, finally, footy has come home to Adelaide Oval 40 years later.

    • Jaspersports

      C’mon guys … do your research!!! The so-called “Bradman myth” has been written about before … and in some detail. See ‘Don Bradman:Challenging the Myth,’ Brett Hutchins (2002); ‘Exploding Sports Myths’, George Shirling (2010)

  • Iain Macpherson

    A flawed character was “our Don”. I put him in the same basket as Shane Warne – a great performer at his aspect(s) of his sport but not the sort of person one would value as a loyal friend or acquaintance. I read the books and comments of Bill O’Reilly in the early 1970s and came to understand just what a ba5tard Bradman was to teammates and people he considered “underlings”. His test batting and fielding were master class stuff. His respect of others was appalling.

  • Faz

    ‘Against far more docile attacks … Bradman plundered runs’, seems a little thin. If they were so docile, why didn’t other talented batsmen do just as well?
    Clearly Bradman’s legacy needs to be critically examined and admiration that turns to uncritical adulation doesn’t serve that legacy. He was a great batsman, perhaps the best, but outside the leather hitting the willow, he was not great. Similarly, I think Warne deserves to be up their with the greatest even though he was too often an embarrassing idiot off the field.

  • john

    I find interesting is that this piece actually presents nothing new about
    him (I have just read through the Bradman bit of Malcolm Knox’s captains). All Bradman’s behaviours were well known. I did take umbrage at the peculiar Australian comment,
    as it assumes that there is a “normal” Australian, which we know that there isn’t one

    • The Banker

      Indeed. There is nothing new here at all.

  • Christopher B

    To say that Bradman didn’t do well against Bodyline bowling is right, but then again, who did? It was outlawed from the game as unfair and if you remove that series from his Test records, his batting average is over 104. The true measure of his batting genius is in the comparison with his contemporaries, who played the game with the same conditions and oppositions, yet he was around 50% better at it.

    • Steve L

      Who did? Stan McCabe averaged 42.8 in the series, compared to his career average of 48.2. Len Darling (2 tests) averaged 37 (career average 27.9). VY Richardson averaged 27.9 (career average 23.5).
      Of the top 6 batsmen in the side, only Woodfull (avg 33.9 v career 46.0) and Ponsford (23.5 v 48.2) had comparable declines in their performance in the series versus their career figures as did Bradman.

      • William Schack

        Correct, yet Bradman still had a better average than all of them, ending with 56.57. So whilst his series average compared to his career was a lot lower, it was also a lot better than everyone else.

    • Tony Tea

      About double the average is about 100% better.

  • Juliet Arnell

    Oh my, oh my – so sad to see the tall poppy syndrome clearly in evidence just after Australia Day. One of our less edifying cultural traits. What value is there is seeking to detract from and destroy the image of one of our legends? Of course the man was flawed – show me a human who isn’t. But this piece dwells on implied flaws and ignores the clear indicators of greatness. Who is next – Mawson? (He didn’t go to the geographic South Pole, you know!) PharLap? (Someone said he was on drugs!) What a sorry piece of second rate writing with base motives.

    • Fatalberton

      By all accounts Mawson was a bit of a self-obsessed nutcase. At least Bradman didn’t lead anyone to their death. Fleetwood-Smith excluded of course.

      • juletveret

        Certainly not by “all” accounts – read Peter Fitzsimon’s. I would rather be led to my death by Mawson {or even Bradman,for that matter) than Scott of the Antarctic who is lauded as a hero!

  • bobcooper

    Anyone who wants a second opinion on Bradman’s unpopularity with Australia cricketers should talk to the Chappell brothers who long ago complained about Bradman’s efforts to restrict the remuneration of our nations cricketers

    • Tony Tea

      The Chappell brothers complaining about Bradman does not make Bradman a rotter.

  • samantha griffith

    From memory, it is another myth that John Howard made knowledge of Bradman a pre-requisite for citizenship. Please do a facts check.

  • Oliver Nutherwun

    It doesn’t take too much trawling through some of the older citizens around Adelaide to hear many other stories regarding a much darker side to Bradman’s personal life – some drawn from direct personal experience. For legal reasons I’ll stop there, but I’ve yet to hear any of those who met him with a good word to say. Being good at a sport doesn’t make someone a hero in any real sense, and certainly doesn’t tell you anything about their character. Shane Warne anyone? It does well to remember that if a story, or a ‘hero’s’ story sounds too good to be true…it is.

    • DeeJay

      I agree with you Oliver and I wish I knew where the legal boundaries lie. He had some unusual associates and there is the alleged story behind the reasons why he was initially denied membership of the Royal Adelaide Golf Club

  • Lezza

    A bitchy piece of academic self-flagellation.

  • Ray Walker

    It would be interesting to know what our two academics from Monash have achieved in life. It is fair to say that every genius is flawed in some way but to castigate ” Our Don” is this way is to be bordering on the absurd.

    • Rex

      I think you may have played and missed (the point), Ray.

  • Murray

    Lost me from the point they contended that Clarke “threatened to break a tail-ender’s arm”. Hard to claim your article is factual when you don’t understand how that differs from “get ready for a broken arm”.

  • Rick Eyre

    Poor effort this article, which is reads as a stilted attempt to sensationalise every negative aspect of Bradman’s life. His flaws are already well documented and presented elsewhere more objectively than this serial collection of cheap shots. I look forward to reading the final study and the research that has gone into it.

    • ALH

      During the mid 80s there was an arrangement with the SACA where anyone wishing Bradman memorabilia to be signed would just drop it off at Memorial Drive. Sir Donald would come in on Tuesday afternoon and sign the lot. I don’t know how many books and bats were done during this period, but certainly my grandfather was proud of his two-volume Sir Donald Bradman biography.

      How many sportsmen can you name who in retirement, let alone in their 70s, volunteer once a week to sit in an office & sign memorabilia?

  • amanda

    As is often the case It is their talent that is special, not the people themselves.

  • Marcus

    “Whether or not Bradman was in the autism spectrum is open for debate. He certainly lacked empathy and had a near obsessional ability to concentrate intensely for long periods on repetitious tasks.”
    Firstly, just about every successful sportsperson (and many unsuccessful ones) needs to concentrate intensely for long periods on repetitive tasks. Think swimmers, golfers, etc etc.
    So the authors’ armchair suggestion of Bradman being “in” the spectrum (no fellas, one is “on” the Spectrum not “in” it – the Autism Spectrum is not The Matrix) could arguably apply to, um, let’s see, just about every successful sportsperson in history who did not “show empathy”.
    Sheesh, what a lazy supposition.
    Maybe the authors should spend some time with people on the Spectrum.

  • saints35

    Well it can be said hes an icon of the game. Then again there was a certain South African who died in a plane crash that was pretty popular to.What both have in common is they were good or better than most at there chosen sport.What is more than obvious is they had many failings both in and out of the game. Is Bradman a hero answer no he was not an ANZAC. Should he be compared to one no he was only a sportsman with failings like the rest of us. Its not a bad thing to be reminded that sportsman are after all only human. Its then upto us to make up our own minds Good on you guys for allowing choice. PS many ANZACS wernt saints but i still love what they have done for this country Its there spirit that alows thes guys to write a peace like this which i myself have enjoyed fact or fiction aside.

  • cricketfan

    The Don was a squealer. Unable to face Larwood and Voce during the 1932-33 series, he went complaining to the board. After the ‘bodyline’ furore, Larwood found himself out in the cold and the Don could go about accumulating runs. I would have great regard for him had he countered Larwood on the field rather than complaining about his action off the field. Wasn’t he the one responsible for the Adelaide leak?

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