Not a lucky night for the Stoin.
We mark Australia Day with this appreciation of Australia’s greatest ever sportsman, Don Bradman.
With the first test in 2008 being played at the SCG, where Don Bradman scored his first test century, it is appropriate to honour his memory in the centenary year of his birth as certainly the greatest batsman in the history of cricket, and possibly the greatest athlete in any sport at any time.
Wisden’s verdict on Bradman declared that ‘he was the greatest phenomenon in the history of cricket, indeed in the history of all ball games.’ When Bradman died in 2001, the excellent sports columnist for The Times, Simon Barnes, noted that every test cricketer except one who died a few years younger than his batting average would have been have been struck down in the prime of life. That one exception was Don Bradman. He had a test batting average of 99.94 and was short of this by seven years or so when he died after a very long and well-played, fulfilled life.
Don Bradman’s splendid entry in Wikipedia (where most of the facts in this essay have been gleaned) lists his significant records in test cricket and his averages in all cricket. Here are some of the highlights: a test batting average of 99.94; a Sheffield Shield average of 110; a first class average of 95; 117 centuries in 338 first class innings; 309 runs in a day’s play in a test (1930); most centuries in a single session of play in a test, six; 21 centuries in 34 innings in 1938/39; most double centuries in a test series, three in 1930, with double centuries featuring in 15 per cent of all his test innings; the most runs in a series, 974 in 1930; and the highest batting average in a 5-test series, 201 in 1931/32.
Inevitably, though, the spotlight falls on Don Bradman’s test batting average of 99.94. A four in his last test innings would have given him an average of 100. Bradman was unaware of this and played, in his words, a bit carelessly at a wrong’un from the journeyman England leg-spinner Eric Hollis. He got an inside nick (any miss-hit was very rare for Bradman) and played on to record a famous duck. Wikipedia calls the 99.94 test batting average ‘one of cricket’s most iconic statistics.’
There is a fascinating discussion in Wikipedia comparing Bradman’s 99.94 average with stellar performances from other all-time great sports stars. The statistician Charles Davis is quoted as arguing that Bradman’s record is the most dominant of any player in any major sport. Davis has a table showing that Bradman’s performance in terms of standard deviations is 4.4, and that someone of his calibre appears once in 184,000 batsmen. My gloss on this is that this number of batsmen does not sound too extraordinary until it is remembered that only about 400 players have played test cricket for Australia.
According to Davis, the relevant statistics relating to Pele and goals per game are SD 3.7, and probability of someone else 9,300 players; Ty Cobb and his all-time high baseball batting average of 362, SD 3.6, and probability 6,300. Jack Nicklaus and major golf titles won SD 3.5, probability of another player (surely Tiger Woods?) 4,300; Michael Jordan and points scored in a NBA game, SD 3.4 and probability 3,000.
Davis points out that Bradman’s SD would be much higher if non-specialist batsmen had been included in the count. And Michael Jordan’s NBA record of 30 points a match would have to increase to 43 points a game to match Bradman’s test batting average.
Don Bradman has been the subject of many books, the most on any Australian sportsperson, and a forest of newspaper clippings. In my view, aside from his own account of his career — The Art of Cricket, a masterful book, a personal history and text book on cricket in one — the closest anyone has come to unravelling the secret of why and how Donald George Bradman became ‘Our Don Bradman’ was an essay written by Rodney Cavalier.
Cavalier, a formidable Minister of Education in the Wran Government, an historian of politics and sport, argued that the fact that Bradman was a boy from the bush was the makings of him. Before Cavalier, it was thought that Bradman was limited by being brought up in Bowral, rather than in one of Australia’s major cities. But Cavalier demonstrated in an elegant ‘proof’ that the young Bradman had to play against men from an early age. At age 12, while keeping the scorebook for the Bowral men’s XI, he filled in for an absent batsman and scored 37 not out. He acted as secretary for the cricket club, and other clubs, while still a teenager. And at the beginning of his grade career used to make the train trip down to Sydney and back to Bowral every Saturday by himself.
These experiences, Cavalier argued, gave Bradman a maturity, a self-confidence, a mental and physical resilience, and an understanding of cricket tactics and methods that were well-advanced on his contemporaries in the cities. When Neville Wran retired from politics, Cavelier played his old boss, who was a political genius, the highest compliment in this memorable phrase: ‘Following Neville Wran as Premier of NSW is like coming in to bat after Don Bradman.’
Don Bradman had phenomenal hand-eye co-ordination. He was a talented tennis player and had to decide, fatefully for himself and Australian culture, whether to attend a cricket or tennis week for outstanding youngsters from the bush. He choose the cricket week and a year or so later was scoring centuries for Australia. He was a competitive squash player and a champion at table tennis. In later life, Bradman regularly beat his age at golf. He could also bounce a ball on a cricket stump for over a hundred hits, where even the most gifted hand-eye expert would be hard-pressed to achieve 10 hits.
Away from city coaches and coaching manuals, Bradman developed a batting style that was unique but remarkably effective, and totally at variance with the conventional methods. His feet were planted wide apart. He rested his bat between his feet rather than behind his toes, at an angle facing his knees rather than facing the bowler. He gripped the bat with his wrists behind the handle, rather than holding the handle in the palms of his hands. He was very still as the bowler delivered the ball. His backswing was ‘crooked,’ going out in the direction of point rather than a straight back, pendulum swing. In his backswing, too, he kept his hands close to his body, which allowed for a quick re-adjustment if a ball did something unexpected. He was extraordinary quick with his foot movements, often advancing metres down the pitch or stepping back and almost straddling the stumps to pull balls away to the boundary.
A biomechanical analysis of Bradman’s method which was written by Tony Shillinglaw, ‘Bradman Revisited’ revealed that Bradman’s unorthodox method, particularly the crooked backswing, created a ‘rotary’ action. This action apparently gave Bradman extra power and kept the ball along the ground. Shillinglaw argued (very persuasively) that Bradman’s unique way of holding the bat and the way he lifted it and prepared for each stroke gave him an important advantage in balance and ensured he was always ideally positioned before he played a stroke.
What did Don Bradman look like at the batting crease? This video featuring footage from the 1930 Ashes series gives an interesting perspective on his technique:
There is a great mystery involving Don Bradman, or more particularly his method of batting, and it is this: Why haven’t other batsmen tried to imitate the Bradman method? From looking at the old films and watching test cricket live and on television for a number of decades my belief is that the nearest player to the Bradman method is the other ‘Boy from the Bush,’ Doug Walters. But, in my view, aside from Walters, who had an un-Bradman-like weakness for hitting sixes (Bradman hit only one six in his test career), there is no other player who remotely resembles Bradman in style, or in achievement.
Tony Shillinglaw was so convinced that that the Bradman method was not an aberration that, towards the end of his own career, he tried the method out for himself in the nets. ‘Batting was not just different,’ he wrote. ‘With practice it suddenly became a thrilling new experience … Never before in my cricketing experience had I timed the ball so consistently well, nor hit it so fast all around the wicket and with so little mental and physical effort.’
‘Up and down the country youngsters are being taught slavishly to take their bats straight back, the old pendulum idea, in a program developed by the MCC,’ Shillinglaw insisted. ‘The indications are that they are being given a handicap from the very beginning.’
What better way to commemorate the centenary of Don Bradman’s birth than to start training many youngsters to bat in the Bradman way? If this is done, cricket might see a Bradman clone, not in a couple of thousand years or so (presuming the game lasts this long) but hopefully within a couple of generations of players.