Don Bradman the world beater

Sir Donald Bradman, the greatest cricketer the sport has seen, was born 100 years ago today. Angus Fraser salutes a man whose standards no other player has come close to matching

The aim of many old golfers is to complete a round in fewer shots than their age. Most batsmen pass their career average in their forties, at a time when they are going through some sort of crisis. Sir Donald Bradman, arguably the greatest sportsman that has ever lived, never had much of a chance of overtaking his remarkable Test batting average of 99.94.

Bradman passed away at the age of 92 on 25 February 2001 but today every Australian should raise a XXXX to celebrate the centenary of The Don's birth. Even now, more than 60 years after he was bowled for nought by an Eric Hollies googly in his final Test innings, a dismissal that prevented him averaging more than 100 in Test cricket, it is hard to appreciate how phenomenal a batsman Bradman was.

Bradman's figures are quite simply astonishing. His Test average is the statistic everyone remembers but he also had a first-class batting average of 95.14, scored a hundred for every three innings he played and passed 200 on 14 occasions in 52 Tests. Brian Lara is the next highest with 11, and he played in 131 Tests. His 117 first-class hundreds took on average 128 minutes to reach.

It is therefore little surprise that Wisden, cricket's bible, hailed Bradman as "the greatest phenomenon in the history of cricket, indeed in the history of all ball games." Statisticians have analysed his career and compared it to other prominent sportsmen like Pele, Jack Nicklaus and Michael Jordan. The statisticians determined that none of the athletes named above dominated their sport to the same extent as Bradman. Indeed, Jordan, the legendary basketball player, would have needed to average 43 points per game to match Bradman, rather than the 30.1 he ended with.

Bradman played his final first-class innings at the Sydney Cricket Ground in February 1949 but he remained at the fore of the game, acting as a selector, administrator and writer. Indeed, when Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, one of the first questions he asked was: "Is Sir Donald Bradman still alive?" He never really enjoyed the limelight and became reclusive in his later years. Those years were spent in Adelaide, where he occasionally attended Test matches. It was at the 1994-95 Adelaide Test that I met him for the only time, bumping in to him next to the committee room as I was going for lunch. When he introduced himself to me I couldn't get over how small he was. He was tiny, but there was an aura about him that very few people have.

On his visits to the Adelaide Oval Bradman occasionally frequented the Australian dressing room. On one such visit in the late '80s Australia were being beaten up rather badly by the West Indies. Malcolm Marshall, Curtley Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Patrick Patterson were running riot and at the end of day's play Bradman sat down in the dressing to have a cold beer with the team. Dean Jones, the Australian middle-order batsman, asked Bradman how he would have fared against this great West Indies attack. Bradman indicated that he would probably have averaged 60 or 70 against them. The admission took Jones and his Australian team-mates by surprise. Sixty or seventy, that wasn't a lot for The Don? But before anybody had the chance to speak Bradman said: "But I am 80 years old now."

Bradman was born in Cootamundra, a small agricultural town 240 miles south west of Sydney. At the age of two his family moved to Bowral. It was here where his love for cricket blossomed. Bradman was one of five children but he had a lonely childhood, spending hours at home on his own entertaining himself by hitting a golf ball against the curved brick base of a water tank with a stump. The game is part of Australian folklore and unbeknown to him at the time, it was these hours that allowed him to develop the brain, eye and muscle coordination required to score thousands of runs.

He scored his first hundred at the age of 12, before leaving school at 14 to work as a clerk at a local real estate agent. Runs continued to flow from his bat and at the age of 18 he was invited by New South Wales to attend practice sessions in Sydney. Bradman was an outstanding tennis player too and his boss, peeved about the amount of time the two sports kept him away from work, presented him with an ultimatum. He chose cricket.

Bradman joined the St George club in Sydney, making the 170-mile return trip from Bowral each weekend, and it wasn't long before he made his first-class debut for NSW. Predictably he celebrated the occasion with a score of 118 against South Australia. After nine matches he was picked for Australia, making his debut against England at Brisbane in the 1928-29 Ashes, where he scored 18 and 1. Amazingly, Bradman was dropped after his debut. But he returned in the third Test where, in Australia's second innings, he became the youngest player to make a Test hundred.

It was on Australia's 1930 tour of England that Bradman's true brilliance was witnessed. In England he scored 2,960 runs at an average of 98.66. In the Ashes he struck 131, 254 and 334 in consecutive Tests, with 309 of the 334 runs he scored at Headingley being gathered on the first day of the match. In the final Test at The Oval he struck 232 to help Australia win the Ashes. The result was greeted with joy in Australia, a country hit hard by the Great Depression.

Though brilliant, Bradman's technique could not be described as classical or aesthetically pleasing. Much of his early cricket in Bowral was played on matted concrete pitches, surfaces that offered bounce to bowlers. The nature of the pitches and Bradman's stature – he was only 5ft 7in – meant that he had plenty of practice playing off the back foot. The hook, pull and cut shots brought him thousands of runs.

Bradman had very little coaching, which is undoubtedly why he had an unorthodox grip. His hands were some distance apart on the handle, with his left hand turned over so far that it was almost at the back of it, resulting in the face of his bat being closed – facing the leg side – when he took guard.

Commenting on his grip, Bradman said: "My grip was different and it assisted me for on-side shots, though it handicapped me playing between mid-off and point. I experimented with it but decided not to change. Throughout a long career my grip caused many arguments, but I think it is sufficient to prove that any young player should be allowed to develop his own natural style providing he is not revealing any obvious error. A player is not necessarily wrong because he is different."

What set Bradman apart were quick eyes, fast feet, fast hands, enviable powers of concentration, determination and an unquenchable appetite for runs. He was remarkably still at the crease when the bowler released the ball, not wanting to give the opponent any indication of what he was about to do. Good batsmen trust their judgement. They possess the ability to pick the line and length of the ball almost as soon as it leaves the bowler's hand. Quick feet allowed Bradman to get in position and fast hands allowed him to give the ball an almighty whack.

He made full use of the crease, completing some shots with his feet behind the line of the stumps. He was fearless coming down the pitch too, with his fast feet and hands allowing him to get to the pitch of the ball. Though slight Bradman hit the ball extremely hard, and essentially along the ground. Legend has it that on one occasion the South African captain appealed against the light in the interests of safety to his fielders.

Once in he was ruthless, destroying attacks with a devastating array of strokes. In the 1930's most batsmen ambled between the wickets but Bradman sprinted, so strong was his desire to score runs. He was fit too, rarely seen to be breaking sweat. Sandy Bell, the former South African fast bowler, described bowling at him as: "heartbreaking ... with his sort of cynical grin, which reminds one of a sphinx ... he never seemed to perspire."

Bradman's 934 runs at an average of 139 in the 1930 Ashes made him an understandable target for England and in 1931, as a prelude to the 1932-33 series, Douglas Jardine was made England captain. Jardine, amongst others, noted that Bradman had looked uncomfortable during his 232 at The Oval when Harold Larwood bowled short at him on a pitch enlivened by rain. On such detail "leg theory", as Jardine called it, was devised and England set off for Australia with a fast bowling attack spearheaded by Larwood and Bill Voce.

In Australia the tactic, which revolved around England's fast bowlers bowling short and at the body of the Australian batsmen with several fielders positioned behind square leg, quickly became known as "Bodyline". It caused uproar. In the third Test at Adelaide Bill Woodfall and Bert Oldfield were injured as a direct result of the tactic. When Pelham Warner, the England manager, enquired about their well-being Woodfall uttered the now famous words: "There are two teams out there on the Oval. One is playing cricket, the other is not." England regained the Ashes as a consequence of the tactics, with Bradman averaging just 56, but it produced the darkest chapter in the history of Anglo-Australian cricket. The strategy was quickly banned, allowing Bradman to resume scoring runs at a prodigious rate.

Untouchable with a bat in his hand, Bradman had a more difficult time elsewhere. The pressures that came with being The Don had a detrimental effect on his health. He suffered from fibrositis, a muscular ailment, from an early age and illness nearly cost him his life on Australia's 1934 tour of England, when peritonitis set in following an operation to rid him of acute appendicitis.

He was not universally popular with his team-mates either. Bradman was a loner and he spent a lot of time on tour writing, having often sold the rights to a book. His genius did not help, with colleagues becoming jealousof the attention he attracted. The fact that he had threatened to pull out of a tour unless the Australian Board allowed him to fulfil a contract with a newspaper would not have helped. He eventually relented but the damage had been done. Team-mates thought the focus on individual achievements in a team game to be unhealthy and it permanently damaged relationships with his contemporaries, many of whom thought he was aloof. When he returned to the Australian team after illness he was made captain, a move that did not go down very well with the Irish Catholic members of the side, who performed what almost amounted to a mutiny.

Bradman's days as a Test cricketer ended on a far happier note in 1948, captaining Australia's "Invincibles", a team that went through an entire tour of England unbeaten. Bradman was 40 and he was at last showing human fallibility with the bat but the pre-war divisiveness had disappeared and Bradman wrote glowingly about his immortal team. "History may decide whether it was the greatest team ever, I can't," he said. "For me, I'm satisfied to say it was a really great team, whose strength lay in its all-round ability, versatility and brilliance allied to bulldog courage. You can often get some of these things; to get the lot is a rarity."

Bradman could have been writing about himself when describing "The Invincibles". In most sports, as the Olympics have highlighted, records will be broken but it is safe to say that nobody will pass those set by Donald Bradman, the boy from Bowral.

Bradman's best: The Don's three most memorable innings

254 v England, Lord's, 1930

Australia lost the first Test of the 1930 Ashes in Nottingham by 93 runs and in the second Test at Lord's the tourists were in trouble after England scored 425 in their first innings. Donald Bradman then entered the scene, scoring 254 in his maiden Test innings at the home of cricket. When Bradman was finally out Australia were 160 runs ahead of England and on course for victory. Commenting on the innings, Bradman said: "Practically without exception every ball went where it was intended to go. Any artist must surely aim at perfection, and that is why I think Lord's 1930 is my first choice [as my finest innings]."

334 v England, Headingley, 1930

Not satisfied with his innings at Lord's, Bradman then went on to Leeds where he scored 334, then the highest score in Test cricket. On the first day of the Test Bradman struck 309 unbeaten runs, accumulating more than 100 in each session. He said: "In a long career there are many outstanding memories but I suppose the opening day of the third Test at Leeds must rank as the greatest in my cricketing life. To do so against Australia's oldest and strongest rival was satisfying."

173* v England, Headingley, 1948

With the Ashes already won, Australia's "Invincibles" were set the unlikely target of 404 on the final day of the fourth Test. No Test side team had ever come close to achieving such a goal on the final day of a Test. But Australia romped home with 15 minutes to spare after Bradman, 173 not out, and Arthur Morris, 182, put on 301 in 217 glorious minutes of batting. The worn state of the pitch made the feat even more memorable. Jim Laker, the England off-spinner, was turning the ball considerably and Bradman was batting in bowlers footholes that were two to three inches deep. It was his last Test century.

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