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SPIRO: Is the war on Don Bradman's reputation a fair thing?

Expert
22nd December, 2012
59
3674 Reads

A highlight of my life watching sports events came several decades ago when the Bradman and O’Reilly Stands were opened at the SCG.

The two greatest of cricketers, rivals and team-mates in their distinguished careers.

The short, slightly bandy-legged, still spritely batsman and the tall, square-shouldered bowler, walked out into the middle of the ground during the lunch break of a Test between Australia and New Zealand, for the naming ceremonies.

Sir Donald Bradman proceeded to pull out a stump, after the ceremony, and played a few off-drives. I was particularly taken with the fact that, typically, the shots he rehearsed were attacking shots.

This was my only sighting, in the flesh, of Bradman. He was, though, in his career and his later life in cricket, as familiar to me as a parent.

I had read his book on the art of batting and all the other books written about him and cricket from the 1920s through to the 1960s (a golden age of cricket writing). My first cricket bat was a weathered, short-handled Sykes model, with Bradman’s autograph, clearly written, stamped on it.

Seeing Bradman in the flesh gave me the same frisson I felt when I first saw and heard Louis Armstrong in person. You were seeing history, in the case of Bradman cricket history, before your eyes.

At that time, too, I would have endorsed John Howard’s later claim that Bradman was “the greatest living Australian,” and Michael Parkinson when he said the person he most wanted to interview (but did not) was Don Bradman.

During the 1980s I became aware the Bradman legend might not be as lilywhite as he and his admirers might have suggested. There was, apparently, a dark side to the glittering moon.

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Most of the complaints about Bradman’s relentless behaviour, on and off the field, came directly in articles and anecdotes told to the journalists in the press box at the SCG by Bill O’Reilly.

The gulf between O’Reilly and Bradman was essentially sectarian.

Bradman was a Mason and O’Reilly a Catholic. In the days when these two players dominated cricket in Australia and for a couple of decades after they retired, this difference in allegiances mattered.

In NSW, for instance, the major government departments, especially the police, had a system which saw a Catholic chief commissioner invariably succeeded by a chief commissioner who was a Mason, and so on.

One of O’Reilly’s great stories to the journalists related to the rows in the 1930s between the Bradman faction in the Australian cricket team and the Catholic clique of O’Reilly, Stan McCabe (an old boy of rugby nursery St Joseph’s College) and Jack Fingleton, a dour opening batsman and a brilliant writer on cricket whose best work, unfortunately, was for newspapers in the UK.

Greg Growden has written a terrific biography of Fingleton which explores, along with an examination of his career as a political writer in Canberra, his feud with Bradman during and after their cricket careers had ended.

The case against Bradman for leaking stories from the Australian dressing room during the Bodyline series, and allowing Fingleton to take the rap for the disclosures, is made very convincingly by Growden.

This Fingleton perspective of the Bradman legend has been explored further and given a deeper resonance in a new book by Malcolm Knox called ‘Bradman’s War’. The sub-title of the book exposes what the book is really about: ‘How The 1948 Invincibles Turned The Cricket Pitch Into A Battlefield.’

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I should point out at this point that I worked with Knox on The Sydney Morning Herald and have the highest regard for him as a writer. In my opinion, he ranks with Tom Keneally as a foremost person of letters, who can turn his hand to write brilliantly on any matter which interests him.

He has written well-reviewed novels. He has won a couple of Walkey Awards. He has broken sensational stories as an investigative writer. Along with Gideon Haigh, he is the best writer on cricket anywhere in the world.

The highest praise I can give for his cricket writing is to say his columns on cricket Tests for the SMH almost fill the enormous gap (for pleasure and insight) left by Peter Roebuck.

And I’ll get this endorsement out of the way right now. ‘Bradman’s War’ is a cricket classic.

‘Bradman’s War’ covers in great detail the Don’s last tour of England with his undefeated side that overwhelmed the opposition in county matches and in the Tests.

The title is a play of words. Don Bradman declared a sort of war on English cricket during the tour. But his own real war in World War II was endured as a PE expert in Australia, while Keith Miller, Bill Edrich and others had German fighter planes “up their arse,” in Miller’s colourful phrase.

Bradman was absolutely determined to take his side through England undefeated, even if this meant adopting “an angry competiveness” (Knox’s phrase) against the England players by exposing them to repeated bouncer attacks from Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller (when he was inclined to do so).

Some players in his own side, especially Miller, and most of the England side who had experienced first-hand the horrors of war, were repulsed by Bradman’s single-minded and bloody-minded tactics of unrelenting attrition.

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These players knew the difference and the relevance between real warfare and a pseudo warfare created to win Test match victories.

Knox gives a vivid picture of the hostility created by Bradman’s war tactics on the cricket field with a description of an incident during the Lord’s Test. Bradman had thrown the ball to Miller to bowl some bouncers. Miller refused to bowl, claiming he had a bad back.

Here Knox takes up the story: “At Lord’s, the bickering went on throughout the afternoon. In the dressing room later, Fingleton was told that Bradman ‘grumbled apropos of Miller not bowling.’

“‘I don’t know what’s up with you chaps,’ Bradman said. ‘I’m 40 and I can do a full day’s work in the field.’

“To which Miller replied: ‘So would I – if I had fibrositis during the war.’”

Knox did not interview Bradman. He did interview Arthur Morris, Neil Harvey and Sam Loxton about the tour. His main document of record is Jack Fingleton’s book, one of the great cricket books, ‘Brightly Fades The Don’, a detailed account of the 1948 tour.

This book leaves out the telling incident of Fingleton and O’Reilly in the press box, chortling like intoxicated teenagers when Bradman was bowled by Eric Hollies for a duck in his last Test innings.

Fingleton was a powerful writer and a cranky but entertaining person to interview, as Michael Parkinson discovered in his several interviews with him. O’Reilly was the epitome of what he himself would call ‘a fair dinkum Aussie’. There were always lots of laughs and jokes and great stories flowing like Guinness in a Dublin pub whenever O’Reilly held court, as he did frequently in the press box of the SCG.

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Several generations of journalists warmed to O’Reilly (I would say loved him and rightly so) and relished his stories about the Don. These same journalists found Bradman an enigma, masterful in getting his own way, with a dogmatic approach that was leavened slightly by a wry turn of humour.

The key chapter in Knox’s book comes towards its end and is titled ‘The Legacy’.

You find in this chapter the criticism from Norman Yardley, England’s captain, that while he enjoyed playing against Bradman, “he let his relentless determination to win sometimes run away with him.” One of the matters Yardley objected to was Bradman appealing for lbw from gully or cover point.

Other England players, especially Compton and Edrich, were less generous. According to Compton, “Bradman, to put it mildly, had some qualities that were difficult to like or admire.”

Bradman is also criticized for his friendship with Walter Robbins, an England selector; his exploitation of the rule allowing a new ball every 55 overs; his deployment of negative fields; his brutal use of Miller, when he put his mind to bowling bouncers; and his “merciless pursuit” (Knox’s words) of victory in the county games.

Knox accepts that taken as individual issues, these matters “are all debatable”. But, and here is the crucible of the argument against Bradman, “there was an overarching pattern here, with ramifications far beyond individual issues … it goes to the way cricket could have been played after the war and how Bradman stopped that from happening, redirecting it to a route that it has followed ever since.”

I don’t find this argument very convincing. There is no way that Test cricket, especially when playing for the Ashes, is or was ever going to be played as the Victory Tests were after the war.

Lindsay Hassett, one of Knox’s white knights in this saga, directed Lindwall and Miller to bombard the West Indians, especially Everton Weekes, with bouncers during the West Indians’ first tour of Australia after the war.

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This is elemental Test cricket, the survival of the strong and the annihilation of the weak. Bradman did not start this militant tendency, and he certainly could not have stopped it or redirected it.

Allan Border is praised for banning his players from the England dressing room after several of them had succumbed to Ian Botham’s beery charms. Steve Waugh’s unrelenting commitment to victory, which probably exceeded that of Bradman, has been universally praised.

History, it is said, is won by the victors. In this case, on the Bradman Argument, the victors are Miller, Fingleton and O’Reilly, especially O’Reilly.

Here was a big man who was even larger than life, a classic outer-directed personality. He had a great laugh and such a friendly, entrancing manner that you would believe anything he said, even if there were elements of the excessive in his accounts.

Bradman, on the other hand, was a secretive, manipulative, masterful and inner-directed.

In comparison with the easy going, accessible O’Reilly, Bradman was a castle, with the draw-bridge up and a large moat rounding the buildings. Even Bradman’s friends were fearful of offending his privacy.

And, to his credit, no celebrity has ever managed his fame to ensure that as far as possible he and his family had a normal life as Don Bradman. He devoted tens of thousands of hours, unpaid, to the administration of cricket. This is a point that Gideon Haigh raised recently in an impressive speech on Bradman.

Bradman, too, could have made many fortunes out of the game if he had gone commercial after his retirement. He resisted the siren call of money and celebrity, which is to his great credit.

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While rejecting Malcolm Knox’s main argument, I’d hasten to add that this is no way diminishes the quality of this book. I have read probably hundreds of cricket books. This is one of the very best.

The writing is powerful and exact. The stories in it are brilliantly told. The main characters – Ray Lindwall, Sid Barnes, Lindsay Hassett, Bill Johnston, Keith Miller, Arthur Morris and the great Bradman himself – come to life as we see them in their prime.

An historic tour, arguably the greatest by an Australian cricket team, has got the book it deserves.

In cricket terms, Knox’s account averages out, I reckon, at 99.94, about as good as you can get.

Bradman’s War by Malcolm Knox (Penguin, 2012) $39.99