The decisive vote between these two peerless men, Muhammad Ali, an extraordinary heavyweight boxer who defied convention as much as he did opponents, and Sir Donald Bradman, an orthodox batsman who scored a hugely unorthodox amount of runs, is difficult to cast but long appears to have been leaning the way of Ali. His deeds were more recent, he participated in a sport which was seen in more parts of the world and he became famous in those other parts where it had never been seen.
A monumental piece of evidence has now been produced, in the nick of time, which might, nay ought, to reclaim some lost ground for the phenomenal Australian cricketer. Bradman The Great by B J Wakley was first published 40 years ago when 500 copies, maybe fewer, were printed. In the intervening period it has become a collector's item. A copy would change hands for pounds 200, or perhaps pounds 500, if it came up for sale.
The reissue is not before time. Bradman The Great (Mainstream, pounds 15.99) is a remarkable volume which required formidable research, meticulous attention to detail and a clear devotion to its subject. It is a striking combination of cold statistics and precise reportage which exquisitely conveys Bradman's superiority over every other batsman before or since.
Each of Bradman's 338 innings is chronicled, from the first, for New South Wales in 1927, when he made 118 (before he "was last out, just before lunch, caught in the gully after a stay of three hours eight minutes") to the last, for South Australia in 1949, when he scored 30 ("well below his best form, and never really timed the ball properly").
Some, such as the legendary hundreds he made at Headingley on successive England tours (334, 304, 103 and 173 not out), obviously command more description but, for instance, the duck he registered for South Australia in Sydney in January 1936 is not allowed to go unnoticed: "Caught at leg slip... Hymes was a fast-medium left-hander and Bradman failed to time his in-swinger properly in attempting a leg-glance."
The innings comprise only part one of the book; part two deals with the nitty-gritty season by season: the ducks (16 of them, seven in Tests); the speed of scoring (the average length of a Bradman innings was 134 minutes and he scored at 42 runs an hour); the sixes (only six in Tests); and the chances (he offered 93 unaccepted chances in 69 innings, making 319 of his innings chanceless, and had they all been taken he would still have had a career average of 77.92 instead of 95.14 and a Test average of 74.79, not 99.94).
The whole conspires to confirm what a towering figure Bradman was, transcending his game like no other. It also establishes the considerable stature of B J Wakley, otherwise His Honour Bertram Wakley, a barrister at the time of publication who became a circuit judge. He is 82 now and, pleased though he is to have the book reprinted, he said: "It was a long time ago but I remember using up all my spare time and spending many hours in the British Newspaper Library." He first saw Bradman bat at Hove against Sussex in 1934 when "of the 83 runs added while he was in, Bradman scored only 19, or 22 per cent, the lowest proportion of his career".
The notion for the republication came from Charles Frewin, who runs Two Heads in London and currently has a deal with Mainstream. It is a stunning tome, which the sportsman of the century deserves.Reuse content