Farewell to The Don To an older generation of Australians, he was an epic hero: the bush genius who conquered the world. But beyond his cricketing exploits, Sir Donald Bradman was the brightest star amid the darkness of war and economic misery. And for th

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His public life ended long ago. He would never comment on the latest trifle. He rarely graced social functions, even those which honored him. But few people felt deprived, much less slighted. Most knew that this was the right course for a great Australian: it ensured his spell would never be broken.

Feelings for Don Bradman haven¹t changed in the half-century since runs stopped flowing from his blade ‹and won¹t change for his passing, which happened in his sleep on Sunday morning after a bout of pneumonia. He is revered, some think too much for a man who spent his best years playing cricket, merely a game. But Bradman unified and enthralled his country in times of need‹in the darkness of the Depression, in the gloomy plunge into World War II, in the uncertainty of its aftermath‹times when cricket, Ashes cricket, was the only game that mattered. Gaze at one of the grainy photographs, at the faces of the spectators who line the path from the dressing room as Bradman strolls to the middle: their eyes are alive with expectation. There¹s probably a lightness in their bodies and a quickening of their pulse as they produce what former Australian player Thomas A¹Beckett called ³a colossal roar that hit us like a tornado in a wind tunnel.² Does it matter what profession he chooses if a man can inspire this affection?

For all his batting mastery, Bradman was fortunate to have played before television, that instrument of demystification. Out in the middle of a cricket ground, he was safe. There were no all-seeing cameras and garrulous know-alls to pick him apart. Fans either saw him in the flesh or imbibed the heady radio calls of the day and the florid prose of the scribes. Today, we know him from books and the memories of ancients, but mostly from the magic numbers he left behind.

Slaves to technique, products of coaching, have their stories and may come to be celebrated. But Bradman was that rare type of sports person Australians treasure most: a natural, from the bush. His first bat was knocked together by his carpenter father, George. He grasped it unencumbered by expectation, without a sporting pedigree to live up to. He was never coached. His training grounds were his backyard and the dusty expanses of the inland New South Wales town of Bowral. At 14, he left school, went to work and for the next two years hardly touched a bat. In other ways, he was an atypical Australian hero, to the extent he forced some people to broaden their minds if they were to hold the embrace. A loner given to early nights, Bradman didn¹t drink or smoke‹he would celebrate a soaring innings with nothing stronger than tea. He was neither burly nor bronzed: this wrecker was short and light with bird-like feet, slicked and receding hair and a facial tautness betraying frequent ill health and a predisposition to stress. (The cocky West Indian fast bowlers of the mid-1980s, on eyeing The Don in his dotage, were said to have mused that they¹d have sorted out the little man; it might have been amusing to watch them try.) Some of Bradman¹s teammates found him selfish and aloof‹then, as now, grave vices in any Australian side.

He couldn¹t offer larrikin spirit or masculine chumminess, but something better: more talent than has ever resided within another cricketer‹and a resolve to squeeze it dry. Some have ascribed to him a sentimental streak. There wasn¹t one. He would have averaged 100 in Tests had he managed just four runs in his final innings, but was bowled for nought by spinner Eric Hollies at The Oval in 1948. It was a myth that Bradman¹s vision had been blurred by farewell tears, and a myth also that he dismissed the failure as a delightfully ironic denouement. To his last days he regretted not scoring those four runs.

While Bradman is cherished, he is also a trophy Australia brandishes to the world, proof this young country of unprepossessing beginnings can spawn greatness. ³When we spoke of literary figures, we spoke of Englishmen,² recalled writer Thomas Keneally of his schooldays. ³But when we spoke of cricket, we spoke of our own. No Australian had written Paradise Lost, but Bradman had made 100 before lunch at Lord¹s.² Australia has produced many great people, but none whose greatness is so readily demonstrable.

Great? Applied to him, the word is no more adequate than it is for Shakespeare and Mozart. Bradman doesn¹t belong among the some 50 cricketers regarded as greats, but on his own. The gap between him and them is as vast as that between the great and the merely competent. Only a small band of players in the history of Test cricket has averaged over 50, the benchmark for greatness. The next best record after Bradman¹s belongs to the South African Graeme Pollock (60.97). The West Indian Vivian Richards, recently honored by cricket bible Wisden as one of the five best cricketers of the 20th century‹along with Bradman, Jack Hobbs, Gary Sobers and Shane Warne‹bludgeoned bowling attacks with a mesmerising ferocity in the ¹70s and ¹80s. But with an average of just over 50, Richards is a Lilliputian at the feet of Bradman.

If Tiger Woods dominates golf for another 15 years, perhaps Bradman will have a peer. For now, no other sport has seen his like. Dissenters have suggested he wasn¹t the most marvellous‹that some other batsman was more elegant, another more powerful or charismatic. But always Bradman¹s record destroys their claim. Between 1928 and 1948 he played 52 Tests, 24 as captain, in which he scored 6,996 runs at an average of 99.94. For cricket followers, it is that average, pondered even for the thousandth time, which bewilders.

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His public life ended long ago. He would never comment on the latest trifle. He rarely graced social functions, even those which honored him. But few people felt deprived, much less slighted. Most knew that this was the right course for a great Australian: it ensured his spell would never be broken.

He was the youngest of five children, one of whom was a brother, Victor, but these two never waged the fierce backyard "Tests" which many champions count among their dearest memories. Learning to bat was for Bradman a solitary process, and the pastime which was no less than the making of him featured the now famous props of a water tank, mounted on a brick stand at the back of his house, a cricket stump and a golf ball. The boy would throw the little ball at the brick stand and hit the rebound with his stick. He would do this for hours at a time, day after day, for years.

By the age of eight, without knowing it, he'd taught himself the essentials of footwork: back to short balls, forward to fuller ones. He realized that balls of the same trajectory could be struck to different points with subtle alterations in footwork and the angle of the wrists. He began to throw the ball faster, to the point where it's likely he faced nothing quicker in Tests than he did as a boy, alone at the back of his house. "If he has a fault," wrote English reporter Trevor Wignall in Bradman's heyday, "it is that he makes cricket look too much like child's play."

As a callow bowler in the opposing XI, what would it have been like to confront this man? Bradman's entry onto the ground was an amble, which some interpreted as him basking in the applause. In fact, he was allowing his blue eyes to adjust to the sunlight. From narrow shoulders hung muscular arms; this was the result of nothing except overuse of a bat. More striking was his unmistakable half-smile, reflecting both supreme self-confidence and pleasure. He was nerveless in the moments before his first ball. "I couldn't wait to bat," he said. "The bigger the occasion, the tenser the atmosphere, the more I liked the game."

On arrival at the crease, he studied the field; he did not perfunctorily glance about as most batsmen do. Satisfied, he'd utter a shrill "right" and crouch over his uncommonly light bat. That single word sent a powerful message: Bradman was ready. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about him was that his determination matched his ability. He brought both qualities, in freakish amounts, on every outing. The latter never softened the former, and the former never smothered the latter.

As the bowler moved in, Bradman revealed two more idiosyncrasies. First, he did not tap his bat, a habit observed by virtually every batsman at all levels. He was perfectly still-and still smiling. Second, his grip was unusual, his bottom hand turned more toward the front than the textbooks recommend. Though this grip should have made certain strokes awkward to play, it didn't seem to: his horizontal-bat shots went straight to ground, and it was this as much as anything that caused his discovery.

At 18, Bradman was batting in the Sydney Cricket Ground nets, one of 20 youngsters chosen to show their bowling talents (young Bradman was also a talented leg-spinner) to state selectors. One selector, Harold Cranney, noticed how Bradman's hooks, pulls and cuts were rifling into the base of the net. On closer inspection, he noted the youngster's fast feet and daring: the lad treated the crease not as a precipice, but as a dance floor. Cranney summoned his fellow selectors. He also urged the swiftest, tallest youngster present to throw all he had at the Bowral boy. Bradman played him expertly. Two years later, in 1928, he was selected for Australia.

During the ball's split-second journey from the bowler's hand to the batsman, Bradman would show still more of his peculiar method. His backlift wasn't straight but in the direction of second slip, and his rear foot moved back and across the stumps. He liked to score from his first ball, then assess the vagaries of the pitch from the other end. He was most vulnerable early-he made seven noughts in 80 Test innings-but, once settled, an all-out attack was likely. These consisted of shots of all types, with a weighting toward late cuts and pulls, sometimes off balls that weren't short, just made to seem so by Bradman's movements. "As I ran up to bowl," recalled England's Jim Laker, "Bradman seemed to know where the ball was going to pitch, what stroke he was going to play and how many runs he was going to score." He wasn't a beautiful batsman-he lacked the grace of Victor Trumper, Ted Dexter or Mark Waugh-but as his late teammate Jack Fingleton wrote: "He was such a genius that he could well have indulged himself in the artistic flourishes of batting, but he was too much of a realist to permit himself to do this. Every spectator in Bradman's heyday sensed that he was using not a bat so much as an axe dripping with the bowler's blood and agony."

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His public life ended long ago. He would never comment on the latest trifle. He rarely graced social functions, even those which honored him. But few people felt deprived, much less slighted. Most knew that this was the right course for a great Australian: it ensured his spell would never be broken.

Another feature of these onslaughts was their duration: they went on and on. Bradman couldn't have plundered bowling more savagely than Stan McCabe, Clyde Walcott or Ian Botham, but these players' innings were eruptions that petered out, often consumed by their own fury; Bradman's were like Niagara Falls. Among his 117 hundreds in first-class cricket, he carried 37 of them past 200, six of these past 300 and one to 452. The simplistic but inescapable explanation for Bradman's Test average is that, compared to the lesser greats, he was harder to get out. "He was the original smiling assassin," said A'Beckett, "the most gentlemanly, polite, ruthless and efficient sporting dominator who ever lived." There were few things he did better than concentrate. "Every ball is for me the first ball, whether my score is nought or 200," he said. "And I never visualize the possibility of anybody getting me out."

In preparation for Bradman, opposing captains visualized little else. It was one of these men, the imperious Englishman Douglas Jardine, who used Bodyline in 1932-33 as a means of making it happen. The tactic of targeting Bradman's body (and his teammates' bodies) with short-pitched, fast bowling highlighted the fear in which rivals held him. Jardine was prepared to risk his reputation to quell the destroyer-and Australian crowds loathed him for it.

Bradman was in many ways a lucky man: he had prodigious talent, a wife he adored to the end, and longevity (though not quite one last century). But there was a payback. He was often sick during his 92 years; he nearly died in his twenties from an infected appendix. He and Jessie's first son died a newborn; their second, John, survived polio and, for a time, changed his name to Bradsen to escape what he called the "metaphysical glass cage" of being a legend's son. Their daughter, Shirley, has cerebral palsy. And Bradman had to endure the corollary of greatness, in his case a fame so massive it was given its own name: Bradmania. It was the bane of his life and, with the stress it brought, the cause of much of his ill health. For a tired, introspective old man, reclusion was a sanity-saving last resort.

But he still contributed on some level-before and after his withdrawal. After retiring as a player, he served Australian cricket for many years as selector and administrator. In the late '60s, he persuaded a youthful Greg Chappell, later to become one of Australia's greatest batsmen, to adopt the Bradman grip. The singular quality of his own record was a mystery to him. "I saw many players who I thought had more ability than me," he said in his last interview, in 1996. "Why they didn't make more runs than me, I'll never know." One of those players was the Newcastle-born Ray Robinson, of whom Bradman once told the writer Neville Cardus: "Neville, if you see Robinson make a hundred, you'll never want to see me bat again." (But Robinson would achieve more as a writer than a cricketer.)

In the same interview, he called Sobers "unquestionably the best cricketer I set eyes on," and said he saw elements of his own technique in the Indian gem Sachin Tendulkar. Nearly until the end he spent four hours a day replying to the hundreds of fan letters he received weekly.

Bradman lived two lives. On the first-as the greatest cricketer to have walked the earth-words fall short. All have been applied to lesser players. As for the second-an old man living quietly-perhaps it was his final stroke of genius. There's enough sound and fury in the world, enough fading stars who won't leave us to our memories, so eventually spoiling them. Bradman remained Bradman to the end.

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