Cricket: Quietly glows the Don

The anniversary: Allure of the greatest batsman the world has seen remains undimmed as he passes 90
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The Independent Online
HALF A century has passed since Don Bradman's 1948 team won The Ashes and the accolade "The Invincibles", and still the memory sparkles. This Bradman phenomenon doesn't just linger, soulless like so many of cricket's headstones; it lives.

One would have thought 50 years was time aplenty to unearth a single new cricketing god. Incredibly, no. Was it sacrilege for we Australians actually to pray that another Bradman would come along, or was it simply blind optimism, the case that he was the inspiration, the beacon, the light on the hill for dreamy cricket watchers?

It's well documented that we failed to find his match. Occasionally nominated were Ian Craig, Norman O'Neill and Doug Walters and, when their batting deeds failed to match the Don's, we ducked our heads and allowed them to re- assume their true, mere mortal identities. Later still, the plethora of Test matches across an ever-expanding cricketing world offered Allan Border and others unlimited opportunities to outscore Bradman, and we anointed them the greatest rungetters of all time.

We turned the best batsman of all time into the next-best, reduced Bradman to an afterthought in the record lists. Now that was sacrilege. Bradman remains the Everest and, only after a space of daylight proportions should the rest be permitted to follow, preferably with bold asterisks against the column denoting "innings played".

Still, for many observers statistics remain a dreary measure of any man and to convince the doubters of Bradman's mastery it is necessary to offer them more substantial evidence. Take them to any archive where, with a single, long-held glance, they can begin to understand why Bradman has held such incredible sway for so long. Archives where they can turn up photographs of Bradman going in to bat on any Ashes tour in the 1930s, or particularly during the 1948 tour.

The centrepiece, naturally, is Bradman, his creams immaculate, each shirt- sleeve precisely rolled up to the elbow, the peak of his green Australian cap perfectly level, eyes fixed, jaw set. His bat is slightly raised, a hint of steel. Purpose propels his stride. But look around him.

In all directions the Don has brought smiles to faces of all ages: worshipping eyes from all walks of life fix upon their hero, and wonder about his freakish talent as they press their hands together in awed acclamation. Yet, this man is the enemy for heaven's sake. Even the bobby is captivated, and he knew that the most heinous crime was about to be committed - the lifting of The Ashes - and chances were this little Aussie bounder's fingerprints would be all over the urn.

The faces in these photographs reflect, like nothing else, the god-like aura that Bradman created. Today in Australia the Bradman legend marches less romantically, but in step with time - there is a Bradman website, probably more than one. There are two Bradman museum collections and two Bradman Stands and, there are enough Bradman Streets in our suburbs for their residents to fill Lord's.

Part of the legend is his genuine plea for privacy; his resolve is as steely as ever as he shuns the stage strutted by today's sporting heroes and resists the temptation to go public on every changing aspect of the game he made famous. This discipline and the intrigue it perpetuates helps sustain, 70 years on, memories of the moments Australians first celebrated the rise of a boy from the bush who had learned cricket by taking a stump to a golf ball rebounding from a water tank, a boy of such freakish talent he would single-handedly wipe out the enemy when the Ashes series wasn't so much a sporting contest as a war.

We are reminded too that he took on the purists who dared to decry the innocent, uncoached nature of his play. Bradman's unorthodox batting grip gave the impression he hit across the ball, a fatal flaw according to Maurice Tate, who advised him during 1928-29: "You'll have to learn to play with a straighter bat before you come to England."

Bradman's immediate response was recorded on scoreboards everywhere, but he later wrote in his wonderfully instructive The Art Of Cricket: "Better to hit the ball with an apparently unorthodox style than to miss it with a correct one." Note his use of "apparently".

Last week, on his 90th birthday Sir Donald generously invited Shane Warne and Sachin Tendulkar into his home; it is an honour offered to few and possibly confirms what many believe, those two are the "Bradmans" of the moment. Indeed, in his last television interview Sir Donald did say Tendulkar's style reminded him of his own. How rich in irony is that? For decades Australians willed another Bradman to rise from the swirling dust out the back of Bourke, and now Sir Donald reveals that the player closest to the real thing is a lad from Bombay, an ocean away.

As usual, Bradman's timing was perfect. Does not his public acknowledgement of Tendulkar's talent offer the modern generation an idea, however slight, of just what they were unlucky enough to miss?