Donald Bradman was not just a statistic. For people who look back on his record, they think that he is just the 99.94 man, the man who averaged almost 100 in Tests. Some people justify it because there were effectively only two decent teams back then. That they were amateurs who hardly played any professional cricket. They didn’t have to put up with the demands of ODI and T20 cricket, and claim that it made Bradman not as good as some other player. But such justifications are missing the point.
I can sit around and counter those arguments by pointing out that being amateur makes it harder, not easier. Or that England were professionals by then, but Australians weren’t, so it’s kind of like the difficulties faced by associate teams today. Don Bradman held down a full-time job while playing cricket for Australia, while English cricketers were full-time cricketers. I can also point out that the laws of cricket then were much kinder to bowlers. Bouncers were allowed to be bowled without restriction, back foot no balls (much nicer to bowlers than front foot no balls like they have today), a lack of protective equipment for batsmen. And, most importantly, they didn’t covered pitches.
To understand the significance of that last point, you need to look no further than some scorecards of the era. Teams who were caught on a “sticky wicket” after rain would be all out very cheaply and did such things as send in a reverse batting order while the wicket was drying out. There were also wet pitch specialist bowlers, especially spin bowlers, who were virtually unplayable, bowlers who were useless on dry pitches but were suddenly amazing if the pitch was wet.
England’s Derek Underwood was perhaps the last true wet pitch specialist, but there were many others before then. Even Australia’s own Richie Benaud was something of a wet pitch specialist, though in his case he bowled pace when the ball was dry, and could bat as well. Such was the environment of the time that there were many bowlers who bowled pace when it was dry and spin when it was wet – Sir Garfield Sobers being another one. And there were some bowlers who only played when rain was expected.
That was the environment in which Sir Donald Bradman averaged 99.94. Not some easy environment where he was a protected species, but the hardest environment you could imagine. He didn’t have weaker teams to boost his average – it was all scored against the toughest opponents imaginable, in the worst conditions.
He did this in the aftermath of World War I, during the Great Depression, and even in the middle of Bodyline. The dreadful series that most regard as cheating, where the English bowlers tried to injure Bradman with constant bouncers in order to lower his average. He still averaged 58 in spite of that, and the result is that they promptly banned the bowling of constant bouncers so that nobody else had to put up with it.
Bradman scored 6,996 test runs across 52 test matches and 80 innings, over 20 years, but don’t forget that eight of those years were missing due to World War II. Bradman even served in the war, in the Royal Australian Air Force, before being invalided because of poor eyesight. You read that right, the greatest batsman that ever lived had poor eyesight. Just imagine what he’d have been like if he had good eyesight!
He also had fibrositis, or constant body pain, which he battled through while playing. Far from life being easy for him, it was very hard.
He used to practice using a cricket stump and a golf ball, hitting them against a brick wall. His movements were so quick and so accurate that he could get used to the fastest bowling or the most prodigious spin. He batted at a fast pace, so fast that he likely would have shone in ODI and T20 cricket, though we will never know for sure.
And then, with the war ending in 1945, Australia, and indeed much of the cricket-loving world, scrambled to try to get Bradman fit to play again.
He was 37 years old by the time the war ended, and 38 by the time that the first test series back was played. He had poor eyesight and pain ravaging his body, and his body told him not to play, but, to the excitement of the Australian public, he played anyway, as captain of the 1946-47 Ashes test series in Australia.
Australia won the first two Tests by an innings, then England fought out two draws before Bradman led Australia to a hard-fought five-wicket win in the fifth, to clinch a 3-0 series victory. Bradman didn’t have the best series by his standards, but still averaged a lazy 97.14.
Australia played five Tests against India, the first Tests that Bradman had played against them, joining Bradman’s five Tests against West Indies and five more against South Africa, for 15 tests that were not against England, and 37 that were. So much for cheap runs against weak opponents, he still averaged 89.78 against the English and 99.94 overall.
And then came Bradman’s farewell, as a 40 year old, in England. There was no doubt that after this he would not play again. He could barely see and his bones ached when he moved, but he still went out there to give it one last shot. He was like Rocky Balboa coming back for one more hit.
The series could have been played without him, but the public needed him to play. They had missed him for close to 10 years, and to just have that one series at home was not enough. He needed to play in the toughest of conditions too, away against the professional English, the only nation on Earth where you could play cricket for a living.
England were bowled out cheaply for 165, with Miller and Johnson running amok, before Bradman himself took charge, scoring 138 himself as captain batting at number three, helping Australia to a match-winning score of 509, Lindsay Hassett’s 137 at number six just as useful. But England fought back, to avoid the innings defeat as they managed 441 with Denis Compton leading the charge with 184 before cruelly being out hit wicket. Australia needed just 98 to win and they got there, but not before Bradman was out for a rare duck, a demonstration of vulnerability.
That vulnerability carried through to the second test, when Bradman was out for just 38, but Australia still managed 350 and got a lead of 135, thanks to Ray Lindwall, Johnson and Johnston. Bradman once again failed in the second innings, getting just 89, but Australia’s 7 for 460 declared set England an improbable 596 to win. It never looked likely and they fell for just 186 as Australia won by 410 runs.
The third test saw England bat first and tough it out for 363, Denis Compton again leading from the front with a manful 145 not out. Bradman failed again for just 7, as Australia managed just 221 in reply and it looked like England might win. The rain fell in the 4th day to dent England’s charge and they were forced to declare with just 3 wickets for 174, setting Australia just 317 for victory, but it was never attempted, as Australia instead got some batting practice in and finished their 61 overs at 1/92. Importantly, Bradman was still there on 30 not out, an ominous note for the last two tests.
The 4th test was England’s last chance to draw the series, and they came out all guns blazing, with centuries to Washbrook and Edrich as Hutton and Bedser got close, as England piled on a mighty 496 and victory looked on the cards. Bradman again failed with 33, but his team did not, fighting all the way to 458 and trailing by just 38 runs. But England weren’t about to give Australia a chance, as they piled on 365 runs before declaring 8 wickets down, setting Australia a world record 404 for victory. With Bradman so out of form, he was no risk, and England were about to win their first Ashes test since before the war.
After Lindsay Hassett was out for just 17, Arthur Morris was joined by the out of form 40-year-old nearly blind Donald Bradman, his body aching in pain. The match looked gone, but this was their last chance. The required run rate was barely over 3, so that wasn’t an issue. They had to just wait and see.
Ordinarily, Bradman would be striking at a run a minute – 4-5 runs per over in the modern parlance, a strike rate of around 80, which was his usual rate, but with sight and pain issues it was Morris who took over. When Morris fell for 182, victory was within sight, and an ageing Bradman took Australia home, eventually finishing with a manful 173 not out as Australia won by 7 wickets.
England were 3-0 down, in spite of all that they did in the 4th test, and it showed in the 5th, as they crumbled to 52 all out. Bradman came out for what most expected to be his last innings, needing just 4 runs for 7,000 and an average of 100, but instead he was out for a duck, bowled by Eric Hollies, who barely played besides this. Australia managed 389 and won by an innings, but it was all about Bradman. Hollies became known as the man who stopped Bradman from averaging 100. Before the series began, Bradman’s average was much higher.
Bradman wasn’t great because he had a great average. He was great because he lifted the team and the nation. Even nearly blind and his body aching in pain, he still managed to lift himself to lead Australia to the highest chase in test history. Even when he scored a duck in his final innings, Australia still won by an innings and he still averaged 99.94.
His final team was dubbed The Invincibles not because they were the best team that had ever been. They were The Invincibles because they could not lose. Even when everything went right for England and wrong for Australia, they still found a way to win.
And, most importantly, they helped lift us out of our post-World War II depression.
And so did Bradman.
That is why we remember them. That is why we needed them.
And it was great.