Sir Donald Bradman’s Test match average of 99.94, mentioned in last week’s column, has raised the question as to why he was so much better than anyone else. There have been numerous attempts to provide an answer, even by himself.
Bradman, born in 1908, spent his early years in small agricultural communities south of Sydney where, outside of school, he was left with time to fill. He was a fan of cricket, derived from his family, but had no equipment. Improvisation was necessary. His legend began in one-man cricket. Within a three-sided barn was a water tank supported by two, small, brick walls. Time after time, the young Bradman threw an old golf ball at one of the walls and tried to hit the rebounding ball with a stump. Once this feat had been mastered, he introduced another one, by throwing the golf ball at a rail 10 meters away, trying to hit or catch the ball on the rebound. In order to succeed at this, great throwing accuracy is required, coupled with anticipation and swift footwork, as the ball would come off at unpredictable angles.
Bradman will not have been the only young boy to have engaged in such attempts to sharpen reflexes. No doubt, some, having read about Bradman’s drills, will have followed their own. Mine involved throwing a tennis ball at the angled blue brick, which formed the damp proofing for the house about half a meter from the ground, aiming to catch the ball as it rebounded unpredictably. This did serve to sharpen my reactions, but not anyway near Bradman’s levels.
These were evident when he began playing for his local club, for which he scored over 200, aged 17 in 1925. His levels of concentration were also remarkable, whilst he excelled at other sports, especially tennis. The cricket pitches in his home area were made of concrete with matting laid on top that led to extra bounce for the ball. Bradman adopted a grip to his bat handle which was designed to enable him to keep the ball down when playing shots, making maximum advantage of the supple wrists he had developed in his boyhood drills. This was to be a remarkable feature throughout his career, during which he only hit six sixes in his 52 Test matches and no sixes in 234 first-class matches.
Only limited footage of his batting exists. It is not of good quality. Hence, an assessment of his abilities relies largely on those who played with and against him and those who reported. One measure of his ability is that in 1932-33, in Australia, England’s captain decided to deploy the infamous “bodyline” strategy. This was designed to reduce Bradman’s scoring opportunities by bowling fast at his body. Despite this tactic, he averaged 56.6. Harold Larwood, England’s chief exponent of bodyline, said that only someone with phenomenal sight and footwork could play some of the shots which Bradman did in attempting to counteract bodyline in a series of unorthodox, daring, innings.
Off the field, Bradman was regarded by some as aloof; to others he was reserved, as befits his country upbringing. His relations with his players, as captain, was not always harmonious. He did not drink or smoke, which reduced participation in social events. Yet, he was in constant demand for speeches and dinners. After retiring from cricket, he combined cricket administration with the running of a number of successful businesses. Throughout it all, Bradman retained the undying affection and respect of the Australian public.
The player who, so far, has achieved the next highest average to Bradman from anyone who has completed at least 20 Test match innings is Adam Voges, with 61.87. His name does not feature in many conversations about great cricketers. This is hardly surprising since he did not make his debut for Australia until he was 35 in 2015. In his first 20 innings, he achieved an average of 95.50. It seemed that the impossible might be about to happen, Bradman being eclipsed. However, Voges could not maintain the momentum and was dropped from the team in 2016, never to return. It felt as if he had done something wrong in even getting that close to Bradman.
Australians are likely to have more sympathy with a current player and former captain, Steve Smith, who displays some resemblances to Bradman. These stretch to an obsession with the game from an early age that was based on developing a home-spun, unique, unorthodox style. His fidgeting at the crease is off-putting and eccentric but his average has now reached 60, although it is unlikely to go much higher. One player who might have challenged Bradman was the South African Barry Richards. He played only four Test matches before the apartheid ban on his country in 1970 brought a premature end to his international career. He possessed prodigious talent and it is reported that while qualifying to play county cricket in England, he found playing in the second’s team so easy that he scored a hundred by using only the edge of his bat.
There are others who have boasted similar skill and personality sets to Bradman. Sachin Tendulkar, with 51 Test match centuries, 931 runs and an average of 53.78, is considered a cricketing great. One difference in Bradman’s era is that there was no limited overs cricket to distract from a focus on Test matches. The athleticism of fielding was not so pronounced, although Bradman was reported to be a fine and aggressive fielder.
It seems that in his case, phenomenal hand and eye coordination, superb anticipation, great concentration, nimble footwork, balance, fitness of mind and body, an uncanny sense of anticipating what the bowler was going to do and an unorthodoxy in handling the bat, all combined to make him an unparalleled cricketer. Bradman, himself, when asked why no one played like him, said that they had been coached not to, suggesting that his self-taught, somewhat mysterious style could not be replicated. It is unlikely to be surpassed.