World War I ended in 1918 but with the terrible pandemic known as the Spanish Flu following closely after, there seemed to be no end to global disasters. We needed relief. Donald Bradman was just 6 years old when The Great War began, and was 11 by the time it ended. Fear was a constant in his childhood, he would be 13 by the time the Spanish Flu ended and the world returned to some semblance of normality.
Like many Australian boys, especially those living in rural areas, a young Bradman turned to cricket. The international sport that had enlivened many Australians, as we were able to compete with and often defeat the inventors of the sport, England. To many in Australia, cricket was like a rebellion, our way to become our own country.
While officially Australia became independent on the 1st of January 1901 (or, at least, a federated colony), we were still very much under England’s thumb, with a governor-general that represented the king. We still needed to fight, and cricket was our weapon.
As a 12-year-old boy, Bradman acted as a scorer for the local Bowral team captained by his uncle, George Whatman. Excited by the involvement, in his first match for his senior school team he scored 115no (out of a total of 150) and took eight wickets. Later that year, before his 13th birthday, he played his first club cricket match for Bowral. Called into the side when one of the players was injured, he scored 37 not out batting at number 10.
Bradman may have played for Australia sooner, but for his decision to switch to tennis for 2 years, as he dropped out of school at age 14 to sell real estate. This ended in 1925 at the age of 16, when he resumed playing for Bowral. That year Bradman relenquished his scoring duties and was a regular in the Bowral First XI. The teenager impressed with many huge scores, including 234 against Wingello. It was here he might have first crossed paths with future Australian Test Bowler Bill O’Reilly. He also scored 320no against Moss Vale, scored over five consecutive Saturdays.
In October 1926, an 18-year-old Bradman was invited to try out for the New South Wales cricket team. For a man unsure if he wanted to play cricket, this was a huge elevation. Soon after he made his first grade debut for St George. While the competition around Bowral was significantly lower than the grade cricket scene, it made no difference to Bradman who made 116 in his first match for St George. A year later he pulled on the baggy blue cap of NSW for the first time. He would make a century on first class debut, making 118 against South Australia.
The next year, with his eyes on a spot in the Test team, Bradman moved 390 kilometres to Sydney. With three centuries in the first two matches of the season, he was rewarded with his Test debut. With just eight first class matches to his name the 20-year-old would face England at the Brisbane Exhibition Ground. He had barely played any cricket, but everything he touched had turned to gold. He was a hunch, but one the selectors hoped would pay off.
His Test debut went horribly. Bradman managed just 18 and 1 while Australia lost by a world record innings and 675 runs. Changes needed to be made and Bradman was seen to be surplus to requirements. He was a good bush player, maybe even decent at first-class level but the Test match arena was too much for him. Or so they might have thought.
An injury to Bill Ponsford, saw him recalled for the Third Test. Scoring 79 and 112, he wouldn’t need a third chance to make it at Test level. Bradman would never be droped again and the rest they say is history.
By the time his Test career ended in 1948 he had broken many of the games batting records. The fastest century, double century and triple century and most runs in a single days play were all his when he retired. Most remarkable of all though was a batting average of 99.96 that he maintained across 20 years at the highest level.
Perhaps he could have played Tests at 12 or 13, such was his talent, but then perhaps the excitement would not have been there. It remains a topic of much debate whether he would have coped in the modern era, and if modern-day stars like Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara would have surpassed him. Would his quick-scoring nature have translated into ODIs and T20s? Or did he only do as well as he did because he didn’t have to play very often?
Bradman was so far above the other players at the time and even those that came before that nobody doubted that he was the greatest of all-time. The only ones who debate it today are the ones who never saw him play, who like to pretend that his successes came with them some easy nature to them.
For someone who grew up with such hardships, in a time when cricketers were not well-paid, living as far away as 390 kilometres from the nearest population centre, Bradman’s achievements are nothing short of amazing. That he did it on wet, uncovered pitches, and putting up with now-illegal Bodyline tactics, is all the more incredible.
Bradman was the player who let Australians recover from The Great War, the Spanish Flu, and, eventually, The Great Depression too. When World War II came, it was Bradman who kept us going in our darkest hours, and, the moment it ended, we needed to see a 40-year-old Bradman one more time, as the team known as The Invincibles defeated England one last time
There has never been a player like Bradman and there probably never will be. For those lucky enough to have seen him play, it was a joy to behold. For those who have not, there is still footage available so you can wonder at the greatest player who ever lived.