The laurels of ‘The Don’

Navid Khan Roar Rookie

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    August 14, 1948. The Oval Cricket Ground, Surrey, London, United Kingdom. The fifth and final Ashes Test of the summer.

    Australia, having already taken an unassailable 3-0 lead and the urn in their secure grasp once again, announced their reluctance to settle down. They riled the old enemy all out for 56 after being sent out to field first.

    As the Aussie bowling cartel, led by none other than Ray Lindwall, laid carnage to the Englishmen, it was Australia’s turn to bat. But what added a layer of inexorable underlying significance to the innings was that it was expected to be Sir Donald Bradman’s last ever.

    ‘The Don’ was heeded with a standing ovation as he took the walk to the middle for one last time. With 6,996 Test career runs already under his belt, Bradman needed only four to boast an average one could only dare to achieve in video games – a pitch polished, exact 100 in Test cricket. Let that sink in for a while.

    Bradman took guard and fended the first ball from Eric Hollies, a leg break, off the back foot. The nifty spinner pitched the next ball slightly up. As the Australian skipper leaned forward expecting another sweet meeting of the willow and the cherry, him, his partner at the other end, the remaining 13 on the field, including the umpires, and the full house watching on were left overwhelmingly flabbergasted.

    The rampantly revving googly pitched somewhere around off stump, drifted ever so gracefully through the bat and pads, making a preposterous mess of the Don’s holy grails. Incongruously abrupt was The Don’s final bout. Hearts shattered, psyches stunned, emotions pulverised as he walked into oblivion besieged by another large round of applause.

    Fast forward 69 years from that gloomy day in London, Bradman still remains in a league that he and he alone can unequivocally claim to be his own. Even after 15 years since his death in 2001, cricket has not let the name of its favourite adversary get lost into a crevasse.

    What sets Bradman apart from the rest of elitists to have played the wonderful game is his outright dominance matched by no other, compounded by the tsunami of mammoth stats that signaled from behind.

    Bradman is not only the the most rightful petitioner for the tag of the greatest cricketer but may as well be the greatest sportsman the world has ever seen. Now before you multi-sport followers sequester my statement, let’s shed some light.

    Pele, arguably the greatest football player ever, has his contradicting counterpart in Diego Maradona or maybe even in Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. Michael Jordan? Some would argue LeBron James. Roger Federer has his own rivals to the crown in the likes of Pete Sampras or even Rafael Nadal.

    roger-federer-rafael-nadal-tennis-australian-open-2017

    (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

    Shifting gears to the realm of pro wrestling, you have Ric Flair only to be met by John Cena in disguise of a bug bear on his route to unanimous supremacy.

    But Don Bradman? I dare you to find a single contestant close enough to challenging his claims to cricket’s royal throne. The best you can huddle is a cluster of distant second bests. His ascension to cricket’s highest pedestal is, to this day, a depiction of unfeigned skill and a reassuring instance of a-never-to-be-matched feat for the ages to come.

    So what made The Don an exponent of such sheer tenacity, so far ahead of the rest of those who played with, against and even after him? Keeping aside his superfluous stats for maybe once, let us delve deeper into the neck of the woods.

    During the tenure of 20 years Bradman played from 1928 to 1948, there have been a number of great batsmen to have graced us with their presence. Herbert Sutcliffe, the marquee English batsman, second to only Bradman averaged a humanly 60.73. A staggering 39.20 behind! Wally Hammond and Jack Hobbs too deserve honourable mentions, boasting healthy averages of 58.45 and 56.94 respectively.

    If Bradman confused you into thinking if he’s not one but two world-class batsmen rolled into unison, then welcome to the club. The drastic difference in average which he shares with second-placed Adam Voges (minimum 20 innings played) – an astounding 38.07 – is something many a player would happily have inscribed in their epitaphs.

    Nevertheless, the fuss around his diabolical average barely reflects what goes into the make-up of the career of this once in a thousand years force of nature.

    Across a career that spanned 20 years, interrupted in the middle by the Second World War, the maestro played 52 tests, amassing 29 hundreds and 13 fifties on the way. That gave him a conversion rate of 69 percent, meaning out of the 42 times he crosses fifty, he converted 29 of those into hundreds. In 80 innings he scored 6996 with a hundred every 2.75 innings. He scored 12 double-hundreds in contrast to six ducks. No one else comes even remotely close.

    Judging by the ‘Bradman Standard’ to determine who comes closest to Bradman or in other words who deserves the mantle of the best (after The Don), we may consider looking at a batsman’s best stretch of 70 consecutive dismissals. Calculations show that it is rare for a batsman to have two non-overlapping bouts of 70 dismissals of comparable success. Only three players could take pride in with scoring 5000 runs while 30 sneaked in to the 4000 to 5000 bracket.

    Just in case claims are made, of the sorts that Bradman only made those runs because batting was easier back in his time, then why was the second best, Sutcliffe, so far behind despite playing in more or less the same era?

    To debunk the myth of ‘easier batting conditions’ further, the doctrinaires of such belief may need to be reminded that cricket was played on uncovered pitches back then. This meant the pitch was not covered overnight like now, not even when it rained. This very often resulted in batsmen getting out cluelessly on damp, sticky, skiddy wickets.

    Overs consisted of eight balls with no field restrictions or short-ball limits. As for quick bowlers, Bradman had to face the likes of Harold Larwood, Learie Constantine, Bill Voce and Dick Pollard without any helmet or protective guards other than a pair of pads and a box guard. Talk about spinners, he valiantly stood up to the likes of Sonny Ramadhin, Alf Valentine and Hugh Tayfield.

    Don Bradman AAP Photo/Mortlock Library of South Australia

    As for the ball itself, the manufacturing was not at all akin to the modern methods, domiciled by use of technology and heavy machineries alike. Rather, the indispensable round object was completely manufactured by hand, starting from cushioning the cork in the middle, to sewing the seam around the sphere. This recurrently engendered in misplacement of the cork either way from the exact centre, making way for egregious swing in the air for fast bowlers. The hand-sewed seam was also more prominent, aiding the seamers with substantial lateral movements off the pitch.

    The term ‘Bodyline’ itself bears testimony to the flagrantly atrocious force Don Bradman was. Also known as fast leg theory bowling, it was a tactic devised by English skipper Douglas Jardine for their 1932–33 Ashes tour of Australia, primarily to tighten the noose around Bradman’s scoring spree.

    The tactic was founded on the loophole enclaved in the absence of fielding restrictions back in those days. The core theory was to bowl at the body of the batsman, in the hope that when he defended himself with his bat, a resulting deflection could be caught by one of several fielders standing close by. This was considered by critics to be intimidatory and physically threatening, to the point of being unfair in a game that was supposed to uphold gentlemanly traditions. It was eventually shown the exit doors.

    Shedding some light on Bradman’s approach behind the scenes, there is a tale that has, in many ways, reached the status of a being called fable in many homes around the globe. It zeroes in on the untold hours of the blooming legend back in his garage, hitting a rebounding golf ball off the corrugated water tank with nothing more than a rounded piece of stump. While the method does not unequivocally guarantee success to anyone who may lovingly adopt the nuts and bolts of this rather weird method, what it did to Bradman was allow him to mould his own modus operandi.

    Unlike players of the modern era, many immensely gifted, Bradman was not coached from the word go. As such any originality or instinctive difference in his technique didn’t get coached away by the rigours of compressive training drills. This let him harness instinctive solutions to instantaneous problems, in the form of strokes that later on translated into muscle memory.

    Bradman’s method, described by author Tony Shillinglaw as the ‘Rotary Method’ appears to be more natural physiologically. It just encompasses the restrictive notion of picking the bat up and bringing it down in straight lines.

    Bradman set the standard by which all other players should be measured. By that standard the best anyone has done is merely hovering around the 75 percent mark. No other sportsperson in any sport has managed to create such conspicuous distance between themselves and next best.

    It is somewhat irksome as patrons of the wonderful game to gobble up the fact that The Don will forever stand alone. It is one thing to laud the scale of his outrageous run scoring. But to come into cognisance that its encore will never be seen again is something else altogether.

    For no other cricketer has so resonated with audiences and purists alike. And of no cricketer has it been truer to say that their every innings was an event, in both the anticipation and recollection.

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