Cricket: 90 not out for man of the century

Cricket: Sir Donald Bradman, Australia's peerless compiler of Test hundreds, reaches another landmark today
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The Independent Online
SIR DONALD BRADMAN, whose ability to make centuries on the cricket field earned him worldwide fame, edges one step closer to another today when he celebrates his 90th birthday at the small house in Adelaide which has been home for two- thirds of his life. A mile or two away, the occasion is being marked by a dinner but Bradman himself had no plans to attend. He has earned the right to peace and privacy now and, it is said, ventures out infrequently.

Bradman's achievements during a career that spanned 21 years set him apart not only as the greatest cricketer of the century but arguably the greatest figure in any sport, such was his dominance and recognition.

Most of the long list of records he set remain unsurpassed: highest Test batting average (99.94); highest career average (95.14); fastest man to 100 hundreds (295 first-class innings next to Denis Compton's 552); most runs in a single day of a Test (309); most runs in a Test series (974); and many more besides.

Of those records he once held that have fallen, his total of 29 Test hundreds has been bettered only by Sunil Gavaskar, who played three times more innings. At his peak, he held the two records Brian Lara now boasts: the highest first-class score (452) and highest Test score (334). His career analysis shows that he made a century, on average, on every third visit to the crease.

Quite apart from his feats with the willow, Bradman enjoys another rare distinction, having been granted the privilege of outliving his obituarists. When, in 1934, at the end of his second tour of England, Bradman lay in a London hospital, editors prepared for the worst. The Australian batsman was suffering from appendicitis and developed life-threatening complications that rendered his condition critical for several days. In the end, happily, the hurriedly written accounts of his life were not required. Some 64 years on, they are still gathering dust.

By then he had done enough already to be placed among the greats. Many of his records had already been achieved and such was his reputation that it was specifically to combat the threat he posed that England employed their notorious "Bodyline" tactic in 1932-33. It was a success in that it restricted his average to 56.67, that of a mere mortal. Bradman's last two innings before the illness struck, at Folkestone and Scarborough, had resulted in hundreds, compiled in a manner that confirmed his genius. His first-class average stood at 90.59.

Although he made, so far as the doctors were concerned, a complete recovery, many doubted he would emerge the same player. He played no cricket at all during the Australian summer of 1934-35. His health was further compromised during the war years, in which he was commissioned as an army physical training supervisor, when he developed fibrositis. However, not only did he continue to gather runs relentlessly, he also became a successful international captain, losing the first two Tests against Gubby Allen's MCC tourists in 1936-37 but winning 15 of the next 22, including the three remaining Tests in that particular Ashes series.

Bradman was born the son of a farmer and carpenter in New South Wales, growing up in the town of Bowral. Anecdote has it that he taught himself to bat by throwing a golf ball against a water tank and playing back the rebound with a cricket stump. As a 17-year-old he scored 300 in a match for Bowral and as word of his talent spread he was invited to the Sydney Cricket Ground for trials, after which he made his way through grade cricket to the New South Wales XI - for whom he made 118 on his debut - and into the Australian side by the time he was 20.

At 5ft 7in he was a relatively short man but had good shoulders and nimble movement. Once, astonishingly, his eyesight was described as below average yet he appeared to see the ball earlier in flight than most mortals and was thus able to make swift assessment of which stroke he should employ. His timing of drive, hook and cut was perfect and the flexibility in his wrists enabled him to strike the ball with power.

He retired after the last of his four visits to England, in 1948, when he led an unbeaten Australian side, scoring 138 in the first Test at Trent Bridge and 173 not out in the fourth at Headingley. Then came one of those extraordinary moments in which sport reveals its capacity to humble even those who would be considered almost superhuman. In his 80th and last Test innings, needing to score only four to finish with a Test average of exactly 100, Bradman was bowled by Eric Hollies for a second-ball nought.

After his retirement, when he became the first Australian cricketer to be knighted, he enjoyed family life and a business career, as well as continuing as a selector until 1971.

Always, however, he protected his privacy, invariably accommodating to those who wrote to him but rarely granting an interview. When he agreed to appear on television two years ago it was only on the understanding that a million Australian dollars be paid into his Foundation Trust, set up to fund the Bradman Museum at Bowral and to provide scholarships for young cricketers.

It was a piece of compulsive viewing for the Australian public and revealed Bradman's mind to have conceded little to advancing years. Touching a wide range of subjects in a two-hour interview, he condemned "sledging" as a practice he would never have tolerated and described Shane Warne as "the best thing to happen to cricket for many years".

Bradman suffered a painful loss a year ago when his wife, Jessie - who he once descibed as "the best partnership of my life" - died after a long struggle against cancer but his own strength shows no sign of failing. If fate remains kind he may well be asked to light the flame at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

The postmen in the Kensington Park area of Adelaide where Bradman lives have always needed strong backs. Today, one sack will be nowhere near big enough as the world says, "Happy Birthday, Sir Donald."