You’re facing the veteran and famously accurate San Diego Padres pitcher Greg Maddux from a distance of 22 yards, armed only with a three-foot wooden club and your own nerve. To enliven the proceedings, Maddux interacts with you not from the traditional, essentially static crouch, but after a 20- or 30-yard headlong sprint from the outfield to the pitcher’s mound, at the climax of which he hurls a cherry-red leather ball in the general direction of your ankles. In most cases the ball will hit the turf, deviate sharply left or right, and rear up somewhere toward your unprotected midriff. For good measure, Maddux will periodically vary the routine by dropping the ball in shorter, with the result that it bounces off the grass and bears in on your head; at your discretion, you may have previously equipped yourself with a device much like a motorcyclist’s helmet for the event. Other than avoiding serious injury, your primary job is to score runs—the currency of the game—by striking the ball to the field boundary (accruing four if it bounces before crossing the line, or six if still airborne), or far enough from the eleven fielders to allow you, the batsman, to run to the other end of the 22-yard infield before the ball can be returned. At least two bowlers must take turns, from alternating ends; also, there are always two batsmen on the field, each to take a turn as required. When the entire batting team has been dismissed, either by committing one of various technical indiscretions or by being rendered hors de combat, the teams’ roles are reversed. After all the players required to bat on both sides have done so either once or twice, a ritual that can take from a few hours to as long as five days, the total number of runs accumulated determines the winner—unless time runs out first and the result is a draw.
There, in a nutshell, is cricket, which despite or because of its fabled idiosyncrasies remains the world’s second most popular sport, after soccer. The game’s exact origins are a matter of scholarly debate, but it’s generally agreed that in the England of the mid-16th century the essential bat-ball combat at the heart of the proceedings had evolved far enough to be recognized as the highly structured contest enjoyed in some 80 countries, including the United States, today. The roughly 500 years of cricket’s modern incarnation have seen a fair share of individual geniuses, eccentrics, and sundry other performers who have gone on to prominence in other fields. Samuel Beckett, to give just one example, graced two “first-class” (or semi-professional) matches some 40 years before he went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature. It seems somehow fitting that the author of Waiting for Godot should be described as an “enigmatic” player in the surviving contemporaneous account of his brief sporting career.
But for sheer technical skill, allied to almost robotic powers of concentration and resilience, no batsman has rivaled the Australian player Sir Don(ald) Bradman, who was born a century ago, on August 27, 1908, and died, aged 92, in 2001. He still bestrides the history of cricket today, 60 years after his last professional appearance. Bradman not only rewrote cricket’s record books but, in the process, became a somewhat unlikely symbol of Australian republicanism in the 1930’s and beyond. At the depth of the Great Depression, some 40 percent of that nation’s workforce was unemployed, and GDP fell by more than a quarter. Many Australian commentators chose not to explain the crisis in terms of global market forces, but rather as an act of deliberate economic policy by the British and their “rank financ[ial] exploitation” of their “so-called colonial possessions,” to quote Jack Lang, the charismatic populist premier of New South Wales, one of the hardest-hit states.
In due course, the outwardly diffident but self-aware Bradman became a nationalist icon, a role he performed with characteristic determination. As a result, international (or “Test”) matches between the Australian and English cricket teams were invariably highly charged affairs, with Bradman thrust in the role of the plucky David confronting and more often than not slaying the imperial Goliath. No sportsman has come to symbolize national pride or aspiration quite like he did.
Bradman was born in the small town of Bowral, some 70 miles south of Sydney, into a middle-class, churchgoing Anglican family. As a boy he was keen on tennis and golf, and, even then, had a prodigiously good head for figures. It is said that he turned to cricket chiefly because, after protracted negotiation, the local Sydney team agreed to pay him his travel expenses. The club offered a munificent 30 shillings per game at a time when the round-trip train fare from Bowral was only 9 shillings, allowing the teenager to show a handsome profit. Bradman was to apply much the same principle throughout his career, in which he was sometimes thought to have devoted himself as diligently to the material and commercial aspects of the sport as he did to his peerless batting technique.
At the start of the 1928 season, Bradman, at 20, was a regular choice for the New South Wales team. In time the Australian selectors chose him for his first Test match, against the visiting English side. (Before mentioning Bradman’s international career, a word about the art of scoring runs: Compared with baseball, cricket is a swingfest in which a batsman can be in play for hours, literally, not least because he alone decides, once having hit the ball, whether or not to risk the sprint to the other end of the infield. It is perfectly possible for him to hit the ball some 30 or 40 yards yet do nothing at all about it except to wait for the next opportunity. The figures are approximate, but a below-average batsman generally hits fewer than 30 runs in a match. Good batting means a “half-century” (50) or the rare but coveted “century.”) In his inaugural Test, Bradman scored 18 and 1, and was promptly dropped from the national team. Recalled later in the series, he scored 79, 112, 40, 58, and 123 in five consecutive innings. Eighteen months later, Bradman was with the Australian side on the return tour of England. Certain observers gave the opinion that he would struggle to score runs on the damper English fields, which traditionally favor the bowler over the batsman. Bradman mocked the doubters with scores of 8, 131, 254, 334, 14, and 232. In terms both of runs and of the technical efficiency with which he scored them, this was batting on a plane never before seen. Bradman’s technique was a fascination not only to the general public but to fellow professionals who knew just how difficult a game cricket is. His quick-footedness in moving toward the bounce of the ball, the essential position for an attacking shot, seemed to defy the conventional laws of physics. Conversely, should the bowler bounce it shorter, Bradman would step back with a perfectly timed shuffle and imperiously dispatch the ball to the boundary with the fluency of a knife spreading butter. For such a trim, lightly built man, he played his shots with compulsive power, but with no suggestion of strain or even exertion. In that curious way it has when struck by a great cricket player, the ball seemed to find some hidden acceleration as it went, to gather pace when it was halfway to the boundary.
In the Australian cricket season of 1932-33, the visiting Englishmen under their captain Douglas Jardine tried to intimidate Bradman. The basic idea was for the English bowlers to deliver the ball short and at extreme speed so that it spat up toward the batsman’s ribs, a technique that came to be known as “bodyline.” The folk memory of the resulting series is of a cruel and effete British aristocrat tormenting a naive and uncomplaining Australian country boy. It’s a caricature, if one that has a grain of truth. Certainly the famously unsentimental Jardine established his intent early on, when, before the first match of the series, he summoned his players to announce gravely that from then on Bradman would be known not as “Bradman” or “Don” but as “the little bastard.” The bastard in question scored 0, 103 not out, 8, 66, 76, 24, 48, and 71 in eight Test innings, giving him an average of 56.57, or roughly half his previous career figure. A lesser batsman would consider even those statistics highly creditable. That such a brutal method of attack—the subject of indignant cables between the Australian and British governments—had to be used at all merely burnished the Bradman legend.
By the mid 1930’s, the slight, soft-spoken Bradman enjoyed iconographic status both in Australia and throughout the rest of the cricket-playing world. When he walked out to bat at any of his home grounds in New South Wales, he was accompanied by a steady crescendo in the sort of rowdy whoops and high-pitched acclaim later to be associated with major rock stars. Thirty years before the Beatles, there was Bradmania. He was especially feted in Sydney, which boasted its three “ours”: “our harbor, our bridge, and our Bradman.” Not long after the bodyline episode, an Australian entrepreneur sent Bradman on a goodwill tour of North America, during which he was photographed with his baseball equivalent “Babe” Ruth at Yankee Stadium. The widely reported meeting between what the press called “the two titans” consisted in reality of little more than a succession of prolonged silences.
Ironically, perhaps the only people not fully devoted to the Bradman legend were to be found among his colleagues. From 1936 he was appointed both the captain and a selector of the Australian team. Bradman made few tactical errors, but he lacked the warmth to inspire. He was accused of occasionally “letting the game go on” and of watching it in detachment. He followed the conventions, making the required speeches and public appearances with unfailing dignity, but he never adopted the false heartiness of other contemporaneous sports stars. There was friction, too, between Bradman, who was a Protestant and a Freemason, and certain Catholic, Irish-Australian members of the national side. It reached the point where the Australian board of control formally censured four players for insubordination under Bradman’s captaincy. A fifth player, a future journalist and cricket commentator named Jack Fingleton, wrote later that “the Don” was “a little, churlish man” who “didn’t ever come clean as a personal member of the team; he was always a far-distant relative.” Some critics went so far as to claim that Bradman, an astute business brain, had always been primarily motivated by short-term reward and acclaim, a charge his 21 years of playing at the highest level, for a fraction of the fees commanded by today’s stars, would seem to refute.
In cricket, a career Test match batting average of over 40 is considered eminently respectable, even distinguished. Since international matches began in 1877, 32 players have recorded an average of over 50, and three men have edged past 60. Bradman’s lifetime average is 99.94. He played his last ever Test innings in August 1948, on the eve of his fortieth birthday, at The Oval in London. Needing to score only four runs to retire with an average of 100, Bradman, who was loudly cheered by the English spectators and players on his walk to the infield, was out for nought. Some thought that the great man’s normal hawklike concentration on the ball was for once impaired by emotion; it’s said that “tears were literally rolling down his cheeks” as he faced the bowler. I once asked Godfrey Evans, one of the England players present that day, if the story were true. “You’re kidding,” he said. “Don Bradman never choked up in his life.”