Robert Winefield
Robert Winefield

"The Don" is Gone

Sir Donald Bradman, Australian Batsman, 1908 to 2001

More than just a batsman, he was something like a tide
More than just one man, he was the whole damn side
They always came for Bradman because fortune used to hide
In the palm of his hand

Paul Kelly

Cricket is fundamentally similar to baseball. In both sports, a pitcher hurls a small, hard ball at high speed towards a batter who is intent on hitting it to score points. Rules allow the fielding side to dismiss the batsman through missing the ball, by catching him out, or by catching him short of a safe haven whilst attempting to score. It is the differences in the definition of a legal pitch or delivery wherein lie the juice.

First, in cricket the ball may bounce once during the delivery, allowing the vagaries of the pitch surface to affect the ball's trajectory. Second, while both games insist the ball pass within range of the batsman's bat, only in cricket does the strike zone include the batsman. Only the bravest, and quickest succeed. The man known simply as The Don didn't just succeed, he became the best in the history.

In February, to a worldwide flood of mourning, Sir Donald Bradman died. To truly understand the love felt for this, the greatest of all batsmen, one must understand the time in which he lived. Bradman's generation lived through two world wars, two depressions and an influenza pandemic. In the days predating television and computers, cricket became for many a refuge from the desperate misery of the time.

Bradman wasn't just a batsman; greats like Worrell, Pollock, Gavaskar, Hutton, Sutcliffe, and Border were 'just batsmen.' Each of these were fabulous exponents of the game, with a career average of 45 or more runs per innings and a handful of spectacular run-scoring explosions studding their careers like diamonds embedded in gold crowns. But these greats were but callow schoolboys compared to Bradman.

For batsmen, the pinnacle is to score a century in a test match. It can be the direct equivalent of scoring 17 consecutive home runs in a single game without being dismissed. Bradman managed to average 99.94 runs per innings over an entire career! He scored 29 test centuries including 10 double and 2 triple centuries. 6,996 runs in 80 innings from 52 test matches.

"Poetry and murder lived in him together," wrote English journalist R.C. Robertson-Glasgow. "He would slice the bowling to ribbons, then dance without pity on the corpse." Bradman butchered bowling attacks during the 15 years of his career. He dominated the game, dispensing pleasure and glee to the hundreds of thousands flocking to witness the carnage, and to the millions more listening on their valve radios.

The 1930 Australian tour of England was when the seed really burst into flower, on one occasion smashing 309 runs in a single day. Later, Richie Benaud, one of Australias greatest bowlers, recalls lamenting Bradman's retiring before he could have a crack at him. The retort from Keith Miller, one of Bradman's teammates in 1948 went "Everybody gets a break in their career son, I reckon you've just had yours".

In a 1996 television interview his gentlemanly charm, and impish sense of humour shone through. I was incredulous. How was it possible that this diminutive man could stand tall against any fast bowler, let alone a walking howitzer like 'bodyline' bowler Harold Larwood. Then I saw what resided behind his eyes; a volatile mix of confidence, determination and champion spirit contained within a steely unblinking gaze.

Bradman had it all; a glorious natural talent and the iron determination to squeeze it dry. Uncoached, he moulded his raw abilities according to his own theories with relentless practise to perfect his game. His childhood practice sessions using a stump to repeatedly hit a golf ball against a corrugated iron fence, and hitting it back again on each rebound, influenced whole generations of schoolboys. Batting, to Bradman, was a passion; a broad grin adorned his face from the minute he entered the arena until the moment - eventually - that he returned to the pavilion. He was the original smiling assassin.

He remained an amateur, working obscene hours - often still working on the morning of a match - to avoid sullying his pleasure in the game with the pressures of earning a living from it. He rarely mixed socially with his team and never drank, something usually taken as snobbery by more vindictive commentators, but Bradman simply didn't enjoy these activities, and for him that was reason enough.

To an Empire foundering in a depression his exploits were a ray of sunshine on a dreary day. To the Australian nation, new and without history, he was a legend, the boy from the bush who smote the 'Pommie' cricket team with a 2.6lb cutlass of willow and a smile. To me he is a hero bereft of mindless belligerence or petulance who lived with dignity and panache, doing things his way without apologising for his talents or his determination to exploit them.

He was, simply, The Don.

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