Bowling At A Legend

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The magic number brooks no debate: Don Bradman's Test batting average of 99.94-which towers above all others'-marks him as cricket's king. But for those who trade off Bradman's name, argues the author of a provocative new book, it is not enough that he be celebrated as this alone. In Brett Hutchins' view, these people-journalists, biographers, dealers in cricket memorabilia-have shaped Bradman's story so he seems more noble, more interesting, more quintessentially Australian than he really was. In Don Bradman: Challenging The Myth (Cambridge University Press; 216 pages), Hutchins relentlessly shows Bradman as a man of shades who, despite the millions of words written about him, has been obscured from the public. Hutchins is bored with the "mountain of nostalgic dedications and hagiographies." It's time, he writes, to "introduce some balance."

Hutchins assures his readers he isn't out to tear down Bradman-and is true to his word. But he tries to show how, when an Australian sporting hero such as Bradman "does not fit dominant conceptions of masculinity, a collective, albeit sometimes unconscious, effort is made to make him fit." Was Bradman, who died last year aged 92, a typical Aussie bloke? Hardly. He was reserved, thrifty and physically fragile. Nor was he a war hero: poor health meant he saw no action in World War II. Without these things to trumpet, says Hutchins, a Tasmanian academic, "biographers and the media usually focus on the boy from Bowral story": the idea that a straightforward fellow from "real Australia"-the bush-thrived on pure talent in the meritocracy of sport but never forgot his roots.

Hutchins clears some of the mist from that fairytale. Bradman left Bowral-which, being only 75 km from Sydney, is hardly the sticks-at age 20 and lived the rest of his long life in Sydney or Adelaide. Some of Bowral's older residents resented him for it, while younger ones questioned the building of the Bradman Museum in Bowral because they felt no connection with him.

The author devotes a chapter to the Bodyline Test series of 1932-33, recollections of which have been important in shaping Bradman's heroic image. Hutchins' preoccupation-mercifully-is not the chestnut of whether England's hostile bowling in that series was deplorable, but how Bradman stood up to it. The "preferred interpretation," he writes, is that Bradman did pretty well-as his series average of 56.57 would suggest. But Hutchins explores the alternative view that a rattled Bradman ignored his captain's orders on how to combat the onslaught and surrendered his wicket at vital times. He quotes Bradman's teammate Bill O'Reilly, a great spin bowler who never much liked Bradman: "Our batting genius endured the kiln-heat of unplayable bodyline tactics with such obvious frailty that it took him 15 irksome months to regain his batting aplomb and the unblemished confidence of his teammates."

Hutchins is on firmest ground in quashing the notion that Bradman played purely for the love of cricket. This idea has been crucial, he argues, in casting Bradman as a symbol of "the integrity, honesty and fair play of cricket's past posed against the vice, corruption and moral stain affecting cricket now." While Bradman and his peers were paid a pittance compared to their present-day counterparts, Hutchins points out that Bradman in his heyday endorsed a variety of cricketing and other products, and had deals with a newspaper and a radio station. Bradman also admitted to being tempted by a 1931 offer to play county cricket, a deal that would have ended his Test career. Hutchins concludes that there is no "unbridgeable chasm" between cricket in Bradman's day and today's commercialized game, and that, in his playing days, Bradman was "at the vanguard of commercial self-promotion and professionalism."

At this stage, Hutchins is still off his short run. He reminds us that, for reasons unclear, Bradman did not attend the funerals of his mother, father or four siblings, and appears to have used a financial scandal to launch his stockbroking business in 1945. Hutchins tends to agree with those who've suggested that, as a long-serving cricket administrator, Bradman did little or nothing to boost Aboriginal participation in the game, and that his passing marked "the closure of a white, male-dominated, mono-cultural era in cricket that poorly reflects the heterogeneous character of contemporary Australian society."

In a worthy endeavor that reads a little too much like a university essay-"The objective of this chapter is to provide some compelling arguments ... and, more generally, to integrate these arguments into selected wider social, cultural and historical processes ..."-Hutchins never comes across as bitter, though that's probably how he'll be dismissed by those Bradman fans who would not have their idol remembered except through a fog of reverence. Hutchins is respectful toward The Don, but not always entirely fair to him. At times he makes the very lapse of which he accuses fawning writers: ignoring facts that don't suit the thesis. He makes much of how Bradman's retirement from public life allowed him to be portrayed for decades as a benign, apolitical figure, a hero to all. But the evidence suggests that Bradman withdrew not in search of glory but because he was a tired, introspective old man fed up with a fame so colossal it was given its own name: Bradmania. And Hutchins fails to note that the elderly Bradman's reclusiveness did not extend to ignoring the hundreds of fan letters he received weekly: almost to the end, he spent four hours a day replying to them.

Hutchins tries a little too hard to challenge the idea that Bradman was a natural. He puts an alternative to this romantic "underdog narrative": "Bradman may actually have been well situated to capitalize on his sporting talent." He acknowledges that Bradman as a boy received no formal coaching, but suggests this is balanced by other factors, such as that his father would sometimes bowl to him, that the young Don spent countless hours practicing, and that he received some batting pointers when he went to play for a Sydney club in his late teens. Hutchins writes that he's not interested in "reiterating awe or restating truisms or popularized myths"-and bravo to that. But in the end the world has no one to thank for Bradman's genius but Bradman himself.

Since Hutchins relies almost exclusively on previously published material, one could also debate his contention that other writers have glossed over Bradman's failings. While it's true the popular media has given Bradman a soft ride, Hutchins presents no criticism of him that a student of cricket would not have read elsewhere. His achievement is to have assembled less noticed material into an interesting reinterpretation of Bradman's place in Australian society. But will it make much difference to how the public regards Bradman? The canny Hutchins would be the first to admit that it won't.

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