Is Bradman worthy of Australia's adulation?

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The Independent Online

He was the world's most talented cricketer, and remains the most celebrated of all Australians. But as his compatriots mark the centenary of Sir Donald Bradman's birth tomorrow, some are asking whether the man behind the bat deserves such adulation.

That "the Don" was one of the greatest sportsmen of all time cannot be questioned. His 99.94 batting average has never been bettered. But Sir Donald, who died in 2001 at 92, found it difficult to cope with fame. Emotionally reticent, he shunned the limelight after he retired, refusing to share himself with his adoring public. He turned down most interview requests, and even boycotted a dinner organised by the cricketing establishment to celebrate his 90th birthday.

While Sir Donald was married for 65 years to his childhood sweetheart Jessie, his relationship with his son John was fraught. John Bradman changed his surname in an effort to avoid public attention, and the pair spent periods estranged. When his father died, John reminded Australians that the legendary cricketer had been "a human being with foibles and contradictions like the rest of us".

One of his sisters, meanwhile, is said to have remarked: "I can't understand why they make such a fuss about Don. All he was good at was cricket."

John Bradman, who grew closer to his father in later life and changed his name back, will attend a centenary dinner in Sydney tonight. The event, at a five-star city hotel, will be hosted by the actor Hugh Jackman, with the Australian cricket captain Ricky Ponting delivering an oration. John's daughter, Greta, an accomplished soprano, will sing.

While family rifts have apparently healed, the Bradman legacy remains tainted by divisions. The batsman's family is suing the Bradman Foundation, a charitable trust set up by Sir Donald, over its commercial exploitation of his name - which has been used, among other things, to sell chocolate chip cookies to cricket-loving Indians.

The foundation, which runs a museum in the Don's home town of Bowral, in country New South Wales, is one of the main organisers of the centenary dinner. Greta Bradman said last week that the family would be attending despite the legal dispute. "We wanted to remember grandpa and grandma and honour what they stood for," she said.

Most Australians care little about such background rumblings. National heroes do not come much bigger than Greta Bradman's grandpa. Often referred to as "the greatest living Australian" when he was alive, the cricketer still occupies a unique place in the hearts of his compatriots. Any criticism of his character or other failings is only voiced in private. For the majority of people, his remarkable sporting prowess renders all else irrelevant.

As a child, Sir Donald would whack a golf ball with a cricket stump against a water tank in his family's backyard. He erupted onto the cricket scene in the late 1920s and captained the Australian team from 1936 to 1948, his glorious achievements lifting the spirits of a country gripped by economic depression. As Sam Loxton, one of his team- mates in the 1948 "Invincibles" side, said after his death: "It was Bradman that turned the lights on."

He also helped Australia to forge a national identity, at a time when it was struggling to cut ties with Britain and shape its own destiny. That identity was, and remains, intimately linked with success in the sporting arena. Critics who believe Sir Donald is placed on too lofty a pedestal sometimes wonder why, leaving aside the occasional film star, Australia's only heroes are sportsmen and women.

The centenary is being marked by a commemorative $5 coin showing the Don saluting the crowd after making a century. In Bowral today, children from the local primary school will step onto the Bradman Oval, where his ashes were scattered, and form a giant human "100" on the turf. The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra has just announced the acquisition of a portrait of the cricketer by a leading artist, Bill Leak.

In Adelaide, where Sir Donald settled after retiring in 1948, a collection of his personal memorabilia has gone on permanent display in a gallery at the city's Oval. The collection, which opened this week, includes the bat that he used to score his first Test century.

Brett Hutchins, who wrote a book in 2002 called 'Don Bradman: Challenging the Myth', told the Sydney Morning Herald recently that it was unfair to expect the cricketer's performance off the field to match his professional feats. "There's no such thing as a perfect human being, yet a lot of the material associated with him in the past portrays him as a saint," he said.