The legacy of dust and Ashes

Harry Pearson re-examines the reputations of two 20th century cricketing giants; Wally Hammond: The Reason Why by David Foot, Robson Books, pounds 17.95 Bradman by Charles Williams Little, Brown, pounds 20
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For a brief spell in the early Thirties Walter Hammond was the greatest cricketer in the world. Then along came the Australian Don Bradman, a batsman whose run-gathering outstripped that of anyone else in the history of the game. Hammond, a man deeply conscious of his position, watched his hard-earned pre-eminence not so much crumble as summarily collapse. Withdrawn and difficult to begin with, he never fully recovered his equilibrium. In eerie symmetry of these events two new biographies of Hammond and Bradman recently appeared within a month of one another. It will be no consolation to the deceased Wally, but for once he slightly shades it over The Don.

Hammond's life as detailed in David Foot's pleasantly discursive biography is both mysterious and poignant. The batting, which gave joy to thousands, seems to have given Hammond no pleasure at all, while his many dalliances with women ("Wally, well, yes - he liked a shag," the great Lancashire cricketer Eddie Paynter once commented when asked to sum up the man he played alongside for England) brought little solace and, according to Foot, at least one major illness. It is Foot's contention that during the MCC's 1925-26 tour of the West Indies the mysterious ailment which laid Hammond low and would keep him out of cricket for a year was syphilis. Much has been made of this in Wally Hammond - The Reason Why but anyone hoping for scurrility will be disappointed. The episode fills two chapters and is one of the books least interesting aspects. Better by far are Foot's evocative descriptions of West Country cricket and the Clifton social scene between the wars.

This was the world in which Hammond moved and, while it may have been venereal disease and its treatment with mercury which created his moods, his uneasy quest for social betterment surely exacerbated them. For Hammond began his career in cricket at a time when there was still a rigid dividing line between amateurs ("gentlemen") and professionals. While other great professional batsmen such as Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe had taken pride in their craftsmen status, to Hammond it was an embarrassment. He aspired to be a "gentleman" and eventually became one, though the effort almost ruined him.

A strange and in many ways unlikable man, Hammond was so laconic as to make Calvin Coolidge seem like a chatterbox (during a 700 mile car journey across Australia his sole utterance to co-passenger Len Hutton was, "Look out for a garage. We need some petrol"). He rarely praised a team mate and seems never to have offered advice to young players. His treatment of his first wife, Dorothy offers conclusive proof that to be a "gentleman" on the field did not necessarily mean being a gentleman off it. Yet for all that there remains something deeply affecting about David Foot's tale. The impression given of Hammond is of a man for whom happiness was permanently out of reach.

For Don Bradman cricket also brought its problems. A man of such fame that fans would stand outside the ground while he batted just for the pleasure of watching the scoreboard tick over, the strain of public expectation would play havoc with his health, while his unusual combination of ruthlessness on the field and diffidence off it would alienate many team mates.

Like David Foot, Charles Williams seeks to place his subject in a wider social context. In elegant style he shows the importance of Bradman's genius to an Australia emerging from Britain's shadow and links the rows between The Don and some of his fellow Australian cricketers to the struggle between Empire and republicanism. Williams points out that the Anglophile, conservative Bradman's most vociferous critics were, in the main, Irish Catholics with Labour sympathies. It is a fair point, but one suspects also that The Don's parsimony may have been a strong contributing factor. Amongst the gregarious post-match drinkers Bradman's love of England may have counted against him less than his refusal to stand a round.

What has never been in doubt is Bradman's reputation as the game's greatest batsman. Even those who detested him, would wholeheartedly testify to that. While the quality of his runs may not have pleased the style-conscious, the quantity of them kept the crowds coming. When people went to watch Hammond it was to see a great batsman. When they went to watch Bradman it was to witness a phenomenon.