The Don's century: Why Bradman reigns as greatest ever sportsman

They forever look for the next one, but they will never find him. By Stephen Brenkley

Sunday 23 October 2011 01:44

There will never be another Don Bradman, but that will not stop the quest to find one. He was simply the best batsman and the most outstanding sportsman of all time. He was better at cricket than anybody else has been at any other sport. His Test batting average was 99.94, slightly better than his 95.14 in all matches, both more than 25 runs an innings ahead of the men in second place.

Wednesday will mark the centenary of Bradman's birth and it was 60 years ago last Monday when he finished his last Test match. His achievements remain without equal. From the moment he retired there has been a compulsion both to explain how he did what he did and to try to unveil the next Bradman.

It is one thing to laud the scale of his run-scoring, it is another to contemplate that its like will never be seen again. Usain Bolt has run into history in the past few days with two glorious, spine-tingling performances which broke the world records for 100m and 200m and demonstrated again what it is that humans do. They get better.

Yet nobody has come close to emulating Bradman by any yardstick. Of batsmen to have played 20 Test innings, none average above 70, only four above 60. In second place at present is another Australian, Mike Hussey, whose career after a quite astonishing start is beginning to suffer from what might be called readjustment.

It is irksome that Bradman will always stand alone, of course, because, as Bolt showed so marvellously, we want to improve on those who came before without at all deriding their achievements. That is the fun. But all studies of Bradman – and they are by now countless – point to his uniqueness. Richard Mulvaney, a former curator of the Bradman Museum in Bowral, the small New South Wales town where Bradman moved aged three from the even smaller one of Cootamundra, concluded that the Bradman phenomenon was created by a freakish natural talent, levels of concentration and the practical formula for success he more or less stumbled on.

Decades after he was in his long pomp, it seems that coachesstill fail to understand. Bradman transcended a game partly,maybe largely, because he was uncoached. One of the famous reasons for his unparalleled success lay in his formative years, when he invented a game in which he attempted to hit a golf ball with a cricket stump against a water tank in the yard at the back of the Bradman home.

He wrote in his autobiography, Farewell to Cricket: "The golf ball came back at great speed and to hit it at all with the round stump was no easy task. This rather extraordinary and primitive idea was purely a matter of amusement, but looking back I can understand how it must have developed the co-ordination of brain, eye and muscle which was to serve me so well in important matches later on."

Nor did he follow orthodox method. His stance shows that he stood with his bat between his legs, the face of the bat closed, and lifted it at an angle towards second slip, moving before the ball was bowled. It meant he had more attacking shots and the most assured foot movement. It was fashionable to decry him aesthetically but he was much more than an accumulator and much less vulnerable on wet wickets than was supposed.

In his admirable book What Sport Tells Us About Life, the Middlesex and England batsman Ed Smith explains why there will never be another Bradman. "Three reasons: better defence, more information and a higher level of base achievement." Sides are better at preventing the scoring of runs, there is much better information about the opposition and where those runs might be scored, and the less accomplished players are better than they used to be.

Bradman scored 117 hundreds, 37 of them doubles, in his 338 innings, one for around every three visits to the crease. In all, he scored 25 per cent of the runs made by the teams he played for. But lest anybody detect a superhuman, he failed as well: there were 86 scores under 20, including 16 ducks. Bradman assessed his best innings as the 254 at Lord's in 1930 – "practically without exception every ball went where it was intended to go".

But his most memorable was his last in Tests, because it demonstrated that he was not a machine. For 18 years his Test batting average had hovered just under or just above 100. In that summer of 1948, he finally took it above 100 with his 173 at Leeds.

Four in his final innings would have been sufficient to keep it there, but he was given a rapturous greeting on his way out, and as he said: "That reception had stirred my emotions very deeply and made me anxious." He misread Eric Hollies' googly and was bowled second ball for nought.

Bradman was soon knighted and shortly thereafter became a selector, administrator and inveterate correspondent, replying personally to all his mail. He was married for 65 years to his childhood sweetheart, Jesse. His influence on Australia and cricket was profound. He gave a nation pride in itself. "But for me," he said, "as a private man and citizen, I always preferred to think of myself just as plain Don Bradman, the boy from Bowral."

The next best 10...

1. Sir Jack Hobbs (Eng)

His durability alone puts him in the pantheon. He played his first Test innings in 1907, his last in 1930, made his first century against Australia in 1911, his 12th and last in 1929. But there was much more than that. Hobbs had style, poise and integrity.

2. Wally Hammond (Eng)

For a while he was a phenomenon, Bradman before Bradman arrived. For the 1928-29 tour of Australia alone, when he made 904 runs at 113, including four hundreds of which two were doubles, he will always be remembered. Powerful and majestic, his off drive could have been the model for the stroke.

3. Sir Garfield Sobers (WI)

Recognised as clearly the world's greatest all-round cricketer, he was a breathtaking batsman. The sour personality which has come to prevail latterly cannot diminish the sheer joy of his cricket and his bravura left-handed batting.

4. Ken Barrington (Eng)

If he is not an obvious choice because his batting was resolute rather than joyous, his figures were still formidable. He never gave away his wicket lightly and though he never appeared in an Ashes-winning team he epitomised the bulldog spirit.

5. Graeme Pollock (SA)

Cut off in his prime because of South Africa's isolation, he still illuminated the game. His timing was precise and artistic, belying his robust build, and the remarkable 125 (out of 160) he scored in the most testing conditions at Nottingham in 1965 left an lasting impression on spectators.

6. Sir Viv Richards (WI)

He intimidated bowlers like a mugger in a convent. When he came out, sauntering, almost swaggering, inevitably chewing gum, there was menace in the air. Occasionally, but not often enough for bowlers, he was undone by his desire to dominate. He hit the ball hard – and frequently with a cross bat. An astonishing sight.

7. Javed Miandad (Pak)

Tempestuous, with a wide array of strokes, he was usually prepared to play. A key member of the World Cup win in 1992, he combined the methods of a streetfighter with those of a concert pianist.

8. Brian Lara (WI)

At times he was unbowlable to. The timing and placement were wonders to behold. He lacerated fields, he could bat sensibly with remarkable control, and he could win matches off his own bat.

9. Sachin Tendulkar (Ind)

Maybe he has not done it when the chips were down that often, but to have survived in the Indian goldfish bowl and scored 81 international centuries with strokes of genius and audacity is wholly admirable.

10. Ricky Ponting (Aus)

Not always aesthetically delightful (nor was the Don), he has produced results of a high order after being spotted as a boy. Sometimes he has hard hands but his certainty of stroke and execution is marvellous.

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