‘Scabrous attack’ on Bradman unworthy of a hero
Donald Bradman was an ordinary Australian with extraordinary sporting ability, a far cry from the supposedly peculiar figure identified by two Monash academics, writes Rodney Cavalier.
When the owner of Don Bradman’s childhood home in Shepherd Street, Bowral, considered the restoration and building works were completed, he bought a stump and a golf ball and invited me to be the first to throw a ball against the base of the reinstalled stand and do my best. Doubtless my enthusiasm disqualifies me from entering a debate with those determined to demolish the reputation of Bradman.
David Dunstan and Tom Heenan have collated a smattering of scabrous stories about Donald George Bradman that damn him as entirely self-centred, cash hungry, disliked by his team mates and not all that good against top line bowling. His most enduring shortcoming was not to be the knockabout of the dressing room, fond of beer and cavorting with mates. For that shortcoming, he is labelled peculiar.
Let me then go through the accusations to make of them what I may.
First, the notion that his once home is intended to be a “shrine”. Wrong. The purchaser did buy the Bradman former home because it was the Bradman former home. The home had a premium because of that association. Entirely out of his own funds – not a tax dollar, no fundraising campaign – he employed experts to restore the home to what it was likely to have looked like in the 1920s. Thanks to a succession of previous owners, the building had remained fairly well what it had been in the 1920s.
Have Dunstan and Heenan any knowledge of the penchant for restoration of Federation and colonial era houses across inner-Sydney and other parts of Australia? The once Bradman home is again a family home. There is no shrine attached to it, no tourism traffic. The owner is a private person who has shied away from publicity. Requests for access he regularly refuses.
Would being alone be an issue if the hero had become a writer, a painter, a musician?
Don had great fun testing himself against a golf ball coming at him at an inconsistent angle. Testing himself was for fun, not honing batting skills or building concentration. Roy Cazaly spent a childhood leaping for a football hanging from a roof that kept getting higher so as to be at the outer limits of his leaping. Richie Benaud entertained himself by throwing a ball against a wall in a small room his father had cleared of furniture in the schoolhouse at Jugiong. Steve Cannane has written a comprehensive survey on how future Test cricketers acquired their skills in backyards and back lanes.
Would being alone be an issue if the hero had become a writer, a painter, a musician? A golfer? Or a spinner, for that matter, practising perfect length over and over, as did O’Reilly?
Some part of every childhood is spent on one’s own. Hobbies and study and role-playing involve huge slabs of solitude. Don Bradman chose to spend hours upon hours on his own after school. Put the solitude in context. Don had spent all of that day with friends at school. His small house filled as the day ended with his parents, four siblings and a little girl called Jessie Menzies who came to live with the Bradmans. On Saturdays he went to cricket, first to see his father and brother and uncles play, then to play himself. On Saturday nights the family’s social circle took turns in hosting sing-song nights. Each Bradman child was adept with at least one musical instrument. On Sundays his family went to church.
He batted at practice sessions through the summer and begged his mother to bowl to him when she had the time. Through his mother Emily, née Whatman, he inherited his cricket genes. His father was usually too bushed at the end of the day to bowl to his son.
Don mixed a lot for a child supposed to be unsocial. He played tennis at the highest level and cycled with friends. I have never bought the notion he was solitary except when he wanted to be. Being good at competitive sport does mean you are involved with a lot of other people.
Disproportionate time was spent with adults because there was no schools competition and no juniors. Playing against men at an early age afforded him a mighty advantage over those who came to grade cricket out of a school. Country NSW for such reasons is the greatest nursery in the world of cricket.
The charge is that Bradman was not averse to deploying his quicks to bowl bouncers. So what? Every good skipper deploys the bowling resources available to him. A skipper plays the hand the selectors have dealt him. For the two series he was captain pre-War, Don did not have top-line quicks. Bradman proved himself a master of building an attack around spin. With Bill O’Reilly as main striker, joined variously by Grimmett, Fleetwood-Smith and Ironmonger, in two tight series characterised by dominant batsmen, the spinners delivered victory.
The charge is that Bradman was nothing more than a batsman. Consider the 1936-37 Ashes, Bradman’s first series as captain. Australia down 0-2, Bradman had four batting failures out of four (including two ducks). He was staring down the barrel. Third Test, shocker of a wicket, England’s captain, Gubby Allen, declared England’s innings at 9-76 in the confidence that his bowlers would similarly rout Australia. Confident the pitch was improving, Bradman turned assumptions on their head. O’Reilly and Fleetwood-Smith opened the batting. Their brief was to chew time. Wickets fell steadily. Australia 5-97. Bradman entered at No.7 to join Fingleton. They turned the match with a stand of 346. Bradman 270, the first of eight centuries or double centuries eight Tests in a row in which Bradman batted. Not before, not since has a team come back from 0-2 to win a series.
Those who assert his greatness are not comparing him with Alexander, Howard Florey, Virginia Woolf or Nelson Mandela.
In only one Test in his 52 Tests did Australia win where Bradman had not scored a century. Bradman knew all too well the expectation upon him, especially when a long way from home.
The authors fall for myths. Take Lindwall and Miller, champions both post-war. To vaunt them and omit Bill Johnston is symptomatic of those who know little of cricket except knowledge received by a broad brush. Johnston in 1948 shared top billing with Lindwall for wickets. Miller missed one Test and did not bowl in another innings.
Bradman knew how to use his three quicks for maximum effect, mixing them up with Ernie Toshack, sometimes spinner, sometimes medium pacer.
For a captain considered ruthless, Bradman respected the convention of not bouncing tail-enders.
When the authors deny Bradman greatness, you are at a loss to understand what could deny him that appellation. Those who assert his greatness are not comparing him with Alexander, Howard Florey, Virginia Woolf or Nelson Mandela. As a cricketer in the complete sense of the word, Bradman was great. By what other matrix are we supposed to assess him?
When it came to selecting the greatest teams of the century, world or Australian, however often votes were cast, whoever were the judges, Bradman polled a unanimous vote. Were the finest writers on the game all taken in by myth?
The case presented by the authors is based on asserting one myth after another which is not actually a myth. They then shoot down the flimsy house of straw they have constructed.
Consider the ahistorical assertion by Brian Fitzpatrick that Australians raised no heroes. Brian Fitzpatrick does not stand up to even cursory examination. In sport alone, what were Spofforth, Trumper, Miller, Les Darcy and the Boy Charlton? What else are those we know only by their first name – Dawn, Betty, Dougie, Cadel? What were Smithy and Flynn of the inland?
Don Bradman entered real estate because he was seeking a lifetime career. That Don worked for the real estate firm of Westbrook and Davis in Bowral reflected the way in which a small country town looked after its youth with promise. Staying at school beyond the Qualifying Certificate was not an option. His job involved the town’s leadership coming together. His father’s employer, Alf Stephens, was separately Mayor, captain of the Bowral XI and the leading conservative identity. Stephens spoke to another leading identity about a job with prospects for the younger son of the Bradmans.
A real job in real estate resulted. A job, on his father’s insistence, Don needed to be devoted to. His proof of devotion was to give up cricket entirely for two full seasons, a decision of which the authors seem unaware. At what is regarded as the vital formative years in a coming cricketer, Don Bradman stopped playing cricket altogether. Somewhat of a contrast to the grasping venality that the authors seek to associate with the Bradman of all ages. Don was not managing the Westbrook business in his teens: he was a junior employee with a junior’s responsibilities.
Well known contemporaries have fallen foul of enforcers of orthodoxy because they do not like beer in excess.
When he first went to Sydney, it was to work for a Westbrook branch office. His continuing ability to make runs gave him the chance to be a professional. There was nothing “shamateur” about Don or any other Australian cricketer – then, before or since. Unashamedly, Australians sought to be paid with expenses on top. Australian cricket did not ever vaunt the gentleman amateur. Have the authors confused Australia with England?
Don was never one of the boys. Is this a shortcoming? He did not seek to be one of the boys. He bridled at horsing round in the dressing room and the bastardisation that faced new young players. Why should he have sought to fit in? Well known contemporaries have fallen foul of enforcers of orthodoxy because they do not like beer in excess; they have preferred to spend time with a girlfriend instead of blokes. When Bradman took charge of the side, he ended that culture. New players, especially young men, were welcome. You will never hear Neil Harvey speak ill of Bradman. The only member of the 1948 side not to have been a serviceman was made to feel one of the team without equivocation.
Bradman accepted the offer to move to South Australia to learn stockbroking. No myth here. He was not interested in a job that traded on his cricket reputation. He understood the limits of being a travelling salesman for the sport. In causing Don to understand that cricket was necessarily transitory, his parents did him his greatest service. His parents had missed out on choices by marrying in their teens with children arriving soon after. None of the Bradman five children were going to be without choices.
No cricket for two years, a real job in real estate, accepting the Hodgetts offer – each was a decision about the long term in the expectation that cricket would not provide him a living after he stopped playing. Income possible from cricket was dramatically less than today; Bradman pushed the frontiers with endorsements but his earnings were penny-halfpennies compared with even journeymen in 2014.
While with Hodgetts, he might have drawn most of his income playing cricket but cricket was not where he spent most of his time. He was in the Hodgetts offices five-and-a-half days most weeks, except when he was playing cricket outside Adelaide. When the game was in Adelaide, he went to the office before heading to the oval. Hodgett played fast and loose with other people’s money. The firm did not collapse, Bradman was untouched by any allegation then or since of wrongdoing. Because of a swift response by the establishment, jobs were saved, a serious crisis was avoided. Who were the victims here? We have waited now for 13 years for “the truth to out after Bradman dies”. We are waiting still. There is no bad story that is going to emerge about Bradman at Hodgetts.
Bill O’Reilly told me. ‘Out there he was magnificent. Off the field no greater b_____ ever lived.’
Most extraordinarily, the authors slag the bowlers of the Bradman era, excepting Larwood and Voce, as “ordinary”. This dismissal applies then to each of Tate, Hammond, Geary, Tyldesley, Peebles, Farnes, Verity, Bowes, Wright, Bedser, Yardley, Laker. In the Sheffield Shield Bradman faced the best Australian bowlers over 20 years. We dismiss each of O’Reilly, Fleetwood-Smith, Grimmett, Toshack, Miller, Johnston as ordinary?
Consider Harold Larwood, a truly magnificent bowler. Bradman and Larwood faced each other in 20 innings over 11 Tests. Bradman scored 1569 runs at an average of 82.58 in those 20 innings. Or was Larwoood also ordinary?
Bradman did not like fast leg theory. No one did. The authors do not grasp the essence of bodyline was not speed, not short-pitched balls rising at the batsman’s body and head. Those elements were as old as the development of fast bowling. What made bodyline different was the placing of so many fieldsmen on the leg-side. Defend and you are likely to be out sooner not later. Try to avoid the ball and you are useless to your side. There was no relent to the short stuff.
Bodyline defeated every Australian batsmen. It effectively destroyed Ponsford. An effective response was to step back and hit inside the line, high and wide. Stan McCabe brought that together in an innings of 187 not out in the first innings of the First Test at the SCG. He said immediately afterwards he could not play such an innings again. Nor did he.
The only other century scorer in the series was Bradman. A man “brought back to earth” scored a century or half-century in each of the four Tests he played. By no standard was this a failure – except by the standard of Bradman.
The authors quote those who thought Bradman was scared of the quick stuff. Here is a revelation – every batsman has some measure of fear for the genuinely quick. Overcoming that fear, making fear work for you, such is the essence of great batting. Bradman played without a helmet. The blows struck against Woodfull and Oldfield stand as reminders for all time of the courage required even to walk to the middle. Something worse than serious injury was in the minds of everyone who faced relentless bouncers aimed at their head.
Bradman was not alone in deploring bodyline. The Australian Board of Control sent a famous telegram after the first two Tests. The future of Test cricket and the Ashes was in peril, not because of the need to protect the precious petal of Bradman. A game played in that spirit would not long survive. Marylebone grasped that truth as soon as they gathered reports from friendly witnesses about the harm done in Australia. The Laws of Cricket are in the gift of the MCC. They changed the Laws to ban the packing of the leg-side.
In what way was Bradman peculiar? He lived a life outside cricket. He married his childhood sweetheart and remained married to her.
Bradman labelled Larwood a chucker, according to the authors. What is the evidence for that? Larwood’s action was perfect. No one in their right mind could question it. Not once ever did Bradman question the Larwood action. Apart from anything else, Bradman emerged from bodyline with the determination not to be seen as a squealer.
What Bradman did undertake, 27 years after the bodyline series, was assumption of responsibility in 1960 to examine the vexed issue of chucking which had clouded the Australian Ashes triumph of 1958-59. To an audience of umpires, Bradman screened a home movie of a number of quicks, Larwood included. He showed the same movie to cricket authorities at Lord’s. At no stage did he accuse anyone of throwing. Richie Benaud noted that he showed the film a second time back to front and “there was no problem at all”.
The sports historian, Geoff Armstrong, makes the telling point that Bradman “used the film of the ‘left-handed’ Larwood, a bowler whose action was generally considered to be close to perfect, to illustrate just how hard it was to nail a thrower. Rather than a smear, it might have been a form of tribute.”
During the War Bradman’s body broke down. No myth in that. Bradman sought total retreat at the Menzies farm in Glenquarry. He did not emerge from his convalescence for months. He was scarcely seen in Bowral for the duration of his stay.
The authors assert a myth that Bradman single-handedly resurrected cricket after the War. Apart from the authors, who has ever put forward such stuff? The return of cricket to the green fields of England in the summer of the German surrender lives as a golden memory for all those who experienced that time. Cricket was in fabulous good health in England and Australia.
Apart from the return of the county championship, Australian servicemen played a series of Victory Tests that drew on men stationed in Europe, including those so recently prisoners of war. The ex-servicemen were required to tour the sub-continent and then Australia. The first season of Sheffield Shield included a non-State for the first time: the Board of Control ruled the ex-servicemen would continue for one season as a unit before returning to their states.
Bradman was not needed to make cricket viable. There is not a shred of evidence he entertained such hubris. There was considerable doubt whether he would continue to play. He had turned 37 by the War’s end and had nothing to prove. Bradman was reluctant. After a shaky start he consolidated his position. Australia won each series post-war under Bradman and won them comfortably.
Throughout his career in unending generosity, Bradman gave away his most precious objects.
Even if he was an observer in slips, England was insisting Bradman lead the Australian side to England in 1948. In a time of privation, the devastation of war visible for all to see, the Australian side emerged with glory. Malcolm Knox has written a fine book calling into question the tactics employed. He makes a strong case. The evidence of contemporary opinion in England attests to the high standing of the Australians. Their presence was an affirmation of the joy of life.
The authors make mention of Farewell to Cricket as a book-length response in retirement to his critics. Omitted is why Bradman felt such a need. He had been at the other end of the cyclonic force of Jack Fingleton and Bill O’Reilly. Their writings were the beginning of a battle for history. Australian cricket history is well served by three such writers.
Don was unsympathetic to the tides of decolonisation. Yet, as Chairman of the Board, faced with civil strife over a South African tour in 1971-72, Bradman disregarded the ire of a government relishing such strife, to cancel the tour. A World XI chosen in its place mixed West Indians and players from the sub-continent with white South Africans. Bradman met each of the players as they arrived at Adelaide airport.
Bradman cashed in, the authors allege, and dabbled in memorabilia. From where do they conjure this? Throughout his career in unending generosity, Bradman gave away his most precious objects to the South Australian Cricket Association, the Sydney Cricket Ground, sundry admirers. What remained he gave to the Bradman Foundation. He signed over to the Foundation all the rights that attach to his name. That has been a river of gold.
Of his baggy greens he kept not one. A Bradman cap trades north of A$500,000. Not a penny of this ever reached the Bradman pocket.
Interviews with Channel Nine toward the end of his life required Nine to pay a small fortune to nominated charities. Not one dollar reached the Bradman pocket. Not a child or adult was ever refused a signature on bat or autograph book. No letter went unanswered on his battered typewriter. Tens of thousands of children and adults possess the letters he sent them back. Compare Bradman to Joe Dimaggio, who charged $30 for his signature on a baseball.
Bradman had endorsed the Sykes bat in 1930. By the 1980s he was receiving offers that were going to make him rich beyond avarice to give his endorsement to a new manufacturer. A change was not possible – he had given his word to Mr Sykes all those years earlier.
Absent, wholly absent, from the article by Dunstan and Heenan is a generosity of spirit. Nothing that was good about Don Bradman is worthy of their attention.
His aspirations were ordinary. That was why ordinary Australians related to him. He was without airs and graces.
Don Bradman was not a saint. He made no pretensions to be. He did not offer his opinion on public issues and rarely expressed an opinion on cricket except when he had the authority to give one. He was ill served by later biographers who lapsed into hagiography. How is that Bradman’s fault? Irving Rosenwater crafted the definitive biography in 1978. No one has improved on it. Phil Derriman and Mike Coward conducted serious interviews that explored the cricketer. My regret was that no one explored the Bowral of his childhood. I have sought to repair that omission myself.
In what way was Bradman peculiar? He lived a life outside cricket. From his first days of success, he was seeking to ensure he did not depend on cricket for his income. He married his childhood sweetheart and remained married to her. While fit and able, the Bradmans drove to Bowral each Christmas for an anonymous stay with their families.
Staying out of the limelight was his choice. By no means a recluse, his home was open to cricketers of his era and cricket writers. He played golf seriously while ever he could. Adelaide respected his privacy.
Of shortcomings he had many. He did not pretend perfection. I have written and spoken on his human frailty many times. I had the best of all sources on Bradman’s shortcomings – the Tiger himself, William Joseph O’Reilly. In his final years in the press box at the SCG, I sat with Bill O’Reilly as often as I could. He enjoyed acquainting me with the shortcomings in the English curriculum.
I can understand the resentment of contemporaries who had come to be forgotten. “He occupied all the sun,” Bill told me. “Out there he was magnificent. Off the field no greater b_____ ever lived.” At the front of Bill’s mind was the only Test Australia won against bodyline, an achievement popularly associated with Bradman’s century. Bill O’Reilly had a wicket haul that Test of 10-129, the only time in the series that England scored under 340 in a completed innings. Bill won the Test, not Don. Same with Fourth Test 1938: Bill took 10-121 to dismiss England for 223 and 123. The other three Tests were dominated by the bat. Bill won the Test, not Don.
We might all have cause to resent how Bradman has blotted virtually every other player except the present from popular memory. Take the sublime Victor Trumper, in my view the finest cricketer ever to have played the game. So palpable was his memory when Bradman began to bestride the field of play that writers called on the only superlative available – a comparison with Vic. No one who saw Trumper bat and later saw Bradman considered Bradman better. Fingleton devoted a chapter in his classic, Cricket Crisis, to how Trumper would have dispatched bodyline.
Bradman was dead wrong about the remuneration cricketers deserved. He was not showing the respect for the players that he had insisted on in his own playing days. Bradman was not unique: The Board of Control was united in opposition to increasing payments. So were the six state associations and the governing bodies of each cricket nation. Bradman was symptomatic of a mindset about to perish. The authors prefer to blame Bradman for whatever they disapprove rather than examine social history. It is a poor approach to understanding the past.
Finally, building on a mountain of false premise, the authors assert Bradman was peculiar. In what way? He was so very Australian and so very ordinary. His aspirations were ordinary. That was why ordinary Australians related to him. He was without airs and graces, a heritage from his parents and his wider Bowral family. Don was not treated as special because of his uncommon prowess at games. A sister put it well: “I don’t understand all this fuss about Donald. All he did was play cricket.”
By being all that he could be and pretending to be no more, Don Bradman became a hero to Australians of his time. He remains a hero.
Rodney Cavalier writes extensively on politics and cricket. He is the Chairman of the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust and was a minister in the Wran and Unsworth governments. He lives in Bowral.