As England and Australia continue the age-old clashes for the Ashes this summer, one name always hovers over the collective psyche of both teams as they take the field. Don Bradman is indubitably the greatest Australian cricketer of all time and, in the eyes of many, also the greatest cricketer of any nationality. The most famous statistic in a sport permeated by data is Bradman’s Test average of 99.94 which is unlikely to be ever matched and is nearly forty runs ahead of the next name on the list of all-time great batters.
His twenty-year Test career is dotted with many other barely believable achievements. Bradman, or ‘The Don’ as he is still deferentially referred to within the game, scored twenty-nine centuries, including a then world record score of 334 against England at Leeds in 1930 (309 of those coming on the first day). That innings was one of three 200+ scores Bradman posted in that Ashes contest, giving him a series average of 139.14 which remains unequalled in Tests. In the same season he made the highest score in Australian first-class cricket of 452 not out – an innings which also stood as a world record for thirty years.
Behind the statistics, however, Bradman the man came to personify both his country and the era in intriguingly contradictory ways. As the great Trinidadian Trotskyist CLR James noted in Beyond the Boundary, his classic 1963 analysis of cricket, ‘Beyond the Boundary’:
'Who will write a biography of Sir Donald Bradman must be able to write a history of Australia in the same period.'
When Bradman was at his peak in the 1930s he became the cultural lynchpin of a country enduring the worst economic downturn in living memory, and one starting to loosen its hitherto unquestioned loyalty to the British colonial power. Bradman’s prowess made him an icon not just to Australians but to cricket fans around the world, even among the English on the other side of the great Ashes divide.
The image the Don consciously cultivated was of a clean-cut, unproblematic and apolitical figure whose sole sources of pleasure were his cricket and his family. There is no doubt that the phenomenal achievement of the Australian run-machine was valued by millions around the world in a particularly dark period of the twentieth century. When the PM of Australia visited Nelson Mandela in prison in 1986, the first question from the great anti-apartheid leader was ‘tell me Mr Fraser, is Don Bradman alive?’
A right wing, bigoted businessman?
There is another side to the legend of the Don, however, that is worth examining in the 21st century, especially as his home country is evolving into a quite different, more multicultural society to the WASP-dominated one that elevated him to the summit of its cultural pantheon. Revelations last year about Bradman’s political views led a former Mayor of Brisbane to note:
'He was the best chairman of any organisation I’ve had anything to do with, absolutely outstanding. But he was a bigoted, right-wing politician. People say he wasn’t political — he was, and very much so.'
Apart from his near-supernatural batting ability, the other aspect of Bradman’s early career that displays remarkable precocity is his awareness of the commercial possibilities of sporting success. His careful manipulation of what now we would call his ‘brand’ is more fitting of a 21st century sports icon such as Beckham or Messi in our neoliberal era of capitalism than what would be expected of a sports figure from the seemingly quainter 1930s. As his first-class career with New South Wales was taking off in the late twenties, young Bradman was already managing a real estate office in his home town of Bowral and became a shareholder in a Sydney property development company.
In 1929, the same season he made his Test debut, Bradman took a job as a promoter for Mick Simmons Ltd, a sports equipment supplier. This commercial nous, supplemented by on the field success inevitably made Bradman richer than any of his team-mates. After his record-breaking success on the first tour of England in 1930, he was gifted a custom-built Chevrolet car which, of course, was deployed by the car manufacturer for promotional appearances by Bradman around Australia.
In an age of austerity, however, when most other players would have to survive on a fraction of Bradman’s income, this exceptional remuneration became a source of rancour within the Australian team. When he received a bonus cheque after the innings of 334 for today’s equivalent of £75,000, it was noted Bradman did not even buy his fellow players a round of drinks! He was unapologetic about this conspicuous lack of solidarity:
‘If I gave you fellows dinner every night from now on until we got home to Australia you would only say what a fool I am.’
Envy of a unique sporting genius no doubt played a part, but Bradman was never the most popular member of the team and resentment of his financial wheeler-dealing must also have been a factor. Vice-captain Vic Armstrong was among those who were sceptical of Bradmania:
‘We could have played any team without Bradman but we could not have played the Blind School without Clarrie Grimmett (a spin bowler).
Bradman’s commercial activities were the prelude to the greatest controversy of his career – his central role in the great ‘Bodyline’ affair associated with England’s tour in 1932-33. He had previously exploited the literary possibilities of his fame by penning a serialised account of the 1930 series, a technical breach of contract for which the Australian Board of Control had fined him. Shortly after, Bradman signed deals with Associated Newspapers and Radio 2UE to provide reports from inside the dressing room on the upcoming Ashes series.
The ACB threatened to bar Bradman from playing as their rules at the time stipulated that only professional journalists were permitted to provide such coverage. Bradman was a sharp business operator, however, and his retaliatory threat to defect to the professional leagues in England sent the ACB into panic mode as they understood that an Ashes series minus Bradman would be a financial disaster. A deal was eventually struck which suited all parties but not before a convenient injury had befallen Bradman as the confrontation peaked and which forced him to miss the first Test of the series.
The 1932-33 series has gone down in history as the most controversial in history, and one of those rare occasions when cricket makes the jump from the back pages to the front. English captain Douglas Jardine paid Bradman the back-handed compliment of devising a bowling attack that was specifically tasked with containing Bradman’s free scoring. Spearheaded by Nottinghamshire’s Harold Larwood, the English bowlers remorselessly sent down short-pitched, fast deliveries targeting leg stump in a strategy labelled by the Australian media as ‘Bodyline.’
In a moment of incredible sporting drama, Bradman returned to the side after the contractual wrangle for the second Test at Melbourne. Taking strike before a hushed capacity crowd of 70,000, however, he was bowled for a first-ball duck! Bodyline did succeed in curtailing Bradman but his series average of 56 would still be impressive for any other player.
Observing from the other side of the world, CLR James in ‘Beyond the Boundary’ drew an intriguing parallel between the ruthlessness of the English tactics with the contemporary rise of fascism in Europe:
‘Bodyline was not an incident, it was not an accident, it was not a temporary aberration. It was the violence and ferocity of our age expressing itself in cricket…But there is no need to despair of cricket. Much, much more than cricket is at stake, in fact everything is at stake. If and when society regenerates itself, cricket will do the same.’
Bodyline also produced one of the iconic quotes in the history of the game when English tour manager Plum Warner tried to apologise for the tactic to Australian captain Bill Woodfull. The latter retorted:
‘I do not want to see you, Mr Warner. There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket and the other is not. It is too great a game to spoil. It is time for some people get out of the game. The matter is in your hands. Good afternoon.’
Controversy still rages over who was the source of this infamous leaked dressing-room exchange. Bradman’s team-mate Jack Fingleton always contended that the Don himself was responsible. The argument caused the two men to fall out but there were other undercurrents at play in their fractious relationship. When Fingleton was surprisingly dropped from the 1948 tour squad they never spoke to each other again – despite playing together as openers before WW2.
Sectarianism, the square, and the Springboks
Australian society in the 1930s was blighted by sectarianism and the Test team was not exempt. On the one hand were the WASPs such as Bradman, many of whom also happened to be freemasons. On the other side of the divide were the Catholics of Irish descent such as Fingleton, Bill O’ Reilly and Stan McCabe. Bradman’s squeaky-clean image might indicate he would never indulge in sectarian rivalry, but Fingleton claimed that the great man could be as petty as anyone else at the time.
Fingleton tells a story of how Bradman reacted to the revelation that his Catholic team-mate had requested his bat be sprinkled with holy water by a bishop. As the latter walked to the wicket during a match in Sydney, he turned to Fingleton and derisively commented: ‘We’ll see what a dry bat will do out there.’ Similarly, O’ Reilly noted that the public unity of the great sides captained by Bradman did not necessarily reflect the reality inside the dressing room: 'You have to play under a Protestant to know what’s it’s like.' Noticeably, when Bradman was famously bowled for a duck in his last Test innings at the Oval in 1948, Fingleton and O’ Reilly were both observed to be laughing hysterically in the commentary box!
Following his retirement from playing the game, Bradman inevitably became a powerful administrative voice in Australian cricket and performed a central role in two of the most contentious issues affecting the game in the modern era.
In 1970, South Africa’s apartheid policy threatened to split the game down the middle as establishment figures in the global game sought to retain that country’s status as a Test-playing nation, while anti-racist activists campaigned to have the Springboks expelled. Nelson Mandela, as mentioned above, regarded the Don as a sympathetic figure and it is certainly true that, as Chair of the ACB, Bradman approved South Africa’s ultimate exclusion from Tests. According to one of his biographers however, this was a decision that was made reluctantly and also one Bradman sought to overturn a few years later. Roland Perry notes:
‘Bradman’s first reaction was no reaction. Bradman’s attitude was with the 75 per cent of polling who said ‘we shouldn’t do anything. It’s South Africa’s problem over there.’ He didn’t want to interfere in their politics because they were not getting involved in Australia’s.’
In the mid-70s, Bradman reversed his commitment to the sporting isolation of the apartheid state and attempted to organise boycott-busting tours by Australian sides. He was only thwarted by the insistence of the Labour government of that period that the policy remain in place. Before his death in 2001, Bradman commented that his role in implementing the boycott was one of the biggest regrets of his career.
Cricket gets commercialised
Bradman also played a conservative role in the next major controversy that affected the global game in the 1970s – the Packer revolution. In 1977, Australian media mogul Kerry Packer set up World Series Cricket as a rival to the ACB with all the accoutrements that have now become an accepted part of the game in the 21st century – white balls, coloured clothing, floodlights and showbiz-style presentation.
More importantly, Packer aimed to professionalise the sport with players receiving wages more commensurate with their equivalents in football, rugby and other high profile sports. Bradman, however, was so incensed by the prospect of modernisation that he stepped down as chairman of the board. Ian Chappell was one of the Australian players who spearheaded the Packer revolution and was critical of Bradman’s agenda to block the changes:
‘Once you'd put your case he countered with the perennial, 'No son, we can't do that,' delivered in his distinctive high-pitched tone, as was the harangue that followed and then the meeting was over.’
One of the ironies of this situation was that Packer’s grandfather was the key person who defused the crisis of 1932 when Bradman’s commercial commitments threatened to rule him out of the Bodyline tour.
Last year, private correspondence between Bradman and former Conservative PM Malcolm Fraser surfaced which confirmed the right-wing politics which the great batsman had carefully kept out of the spotlight for his whole life. Bradman spoke approvingly of the removal of Labour PM Gough Whitlam in 1975 and warned Fraser of the necessity of sticking to what we would now call a clear neoliberal agenda:
‘What the people need are clearly defined rules which they can read and understand so that they can get on with their affairs. The public must be re-educated to believe that private enterprise is entitled to rewards as long as it obeys fair and reasonable rules laid down by government. Maybe you can influence leaders of the press to a better understanding of this necessity of presentation.’
Ultimately, all these criticisms of Bradman the man are perhaps a necessary corrective to decades of idolatry. However, a dialectical view of the Don would not lose sight of the fact that he brought immeasurable amounts of pleasure to millions of working-class people as the Great Depression hit home and the shadows of fascism and war lengthened over the Western world. Michael Parkinson expressed this sentiment perfectly when describing his father’s return from a thirty mile walk to watch Bradman in a Test match at Leeds:
‘Upon his return he faced a family who clearly believed he had a slate loose. Who, in their right mind, would waste that much precious shoe-leather to see a cricket match? My father went to his grave unrepentant. Retelling the story – as he did many times – he'd say, "But I saw HIM bat and they didn't.’