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The Best of Bradman?

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No one has a record like Donald Bradman’s. The iconic average of 99.94 and a total of 29 centuries in 80 visits to the crease over a Test career of twenty years place him far ahead of anyone who had played the game before him, or has done so since. His pre-eminence is probably the only thing that all with a love for the game are agreed on.

There are still matters for debate however, and the question that has taxed me for this feature is which of those 29 centuries was the best. It is a question I have had cause to ponder before, when I was involved in the research for Dave Wilson and Patrick Ferriday’s Masterly Batting, an attempt, with the aid of a statistical comparison, to establish an order of merit for the hundred best Test centuries.

By the time we had looked at every single Test century ‘The Don’ had five entries in our century of centuries. The first came in at number 74, and was the match changing 270 he scored in the second innings of the third Test against England in the 1936/37 series. Australia were, in Bradman’s first series as captain, 2-0 down at the time and his previous scores in the series were the distinctly mortal looking 38, 0, 0, 82 and 13. To show the difficulties inherent in such exercises the Wisden 100 list in 2001 had nominated this innings as the finest of the twentieth century, by anyone, not just Bradman.

The next appearance for us for The Don was at number 60, and his innings of 334 against England in 1930. It remained his highest Test score, and included a century before lunch on the first morning, and another between lunch and tea before Bradman was dismissed early on the second morning.

That Bradman was not keen on batting in poor conditions is an accusation often levelled at him, but his next appearance in Masterly Batting, at number 49, was an example of his conquering not only the bowlers he faced but the conditions as well. In the Headingley Test of 1938 he made the highest score of the match, 103, with little support. The innings proved crucial as Australia eventually won by five wickets.

Another innings of 103, this time unbeaten, figures next in the Masterly Batting countdown at number 32. Again it was an innings which undoubtedly led to an Australian victory, and is another example of Bradman triumphing over adversity, albeit this time of a very different type. The setting was the MCG and the hurdle to overcome the deployment by Douglas Jardine of a four man pace attack including the lightning fast Harold Larwood and his left arm partner Bill Voce. Both these two were, of course, bowling the fast leg theory that inspired the word ‘Bodyline’. The Nottinghamshire pair were backed up by Gubby Allen, bowling off theory but still decidedly quick, and the tall and bespectacled Bill Bowes, another bodyliner. Illness had kept Bradman out of the first Test, and then in the first innings Bowes castled him first up. Second time round the unbeaten century was the highest individual score in a low scoring encounter and brought about Australia’s only success against Bodyline.

Finally, the one Bradman innings to make the top 25 in Masterly Batting, came in at number nine. It was back to that 1936/37 series and indeed the very next Test after the 270. Back in the Ashes at 2-1 an Australian victory squared the rubber and enabled the home side to go on and become the first side to win a five Test series after being 2-0 down. Skipper Bradman’s 212 was the crucial factor in a victory by 148 runs. There were other innings of significance for Australia as Stan McCabe made 88 and 55, Arthur Chipperfield 57* and Ross Gregory 50, but had Bradman failed the match and consequently the series would not have been won.

One thing that can be said with absolute certainty is that not one of the researchers who worked on Masterly Batting had ever seen Bradman bat. We had to deal with the raw numbers, which was a large part of the exercise, but some subjective elements were included as well, and for this we had to rely on the written word and the impressions of others. Many of those others doubtless saw a number of Bradman’s innings, but by definition the only man who could have seen every single one of them, and from the best seat in the house, was the man himself and that, in his own words, made him the one person who can make an authoritative judgment.

Years later Bradman wrote an article in which he ranked his ten best First Class innings, the first seven coming in Tests. Part of me, not unnaturally, hoped that the list would include the Masterly Batting five, and in the same order. In that I was to be disappointed. For Bradman that 334 at Headingley (our number 60) came second, the 270 (our number 74), fourth and the Bodyline 103* (our number 32) was sixth. Neither the 1938 innings (our number 49), nor that 212 that we considered the ninth best of all time figured at all.

The first choice of the man himself was an innings that Dave Wilson tells me didn’t even make the first cut of 223 which were then subjected to the full detailed examination on Masterly Batting criteria. For Bradman however this innings takes pride of place in my memory bank because it was without any question the most perfect and satisfying of my life. The scene of a score of 254 was the home of cricket, Lord’s, and the year 1930, for the second Test of a series that Australia eventually won 2-1.

Bradman was 21 when he played the innings. On reviewing his list he writes it is intriguing that eight out of the ten relate to the period 1930-1934 when I was 21 to 26 years of age. This emphasises my belief that the paramount virtues of keen eyesight, speed of muscle and co-ordination plus the fitness of youth triumphed over experience.

The 1928/29 series, won  4-1 by an England side led by Percy Chapman, was Bradman’s introduction to Test cricket. He was actually dropped after making just 18 and 1 in the first Test, but was back for the third and, with two centuries and two fifties in the remaining three matches, made sure he would never be dropped again.

A certainty for selection for England in 1930 Bradman showed from the off that the unfamiliar English conditions did not trouble him and, by the time the first Test came round, he was averaging 111.82. Chapman led England to victory in that first Test but, there was only one centurion on show, Bradman with 131 in the Australian second innings, and the writing was on the wall. All eyes turned to Lord’s for the second Test.

Chapman won the toss and England spent the whole of the first day and the first twenty minutes of the second scoring 425, built around a superb 173 from Duleepsinhji, a prodigious talent who ill health was to take from the game just two years later. In benign conditions Bill Woodfull and Bill Ponsford started well for Australia before, almost immediately following the two sides being presented to King George V in mid afternoon, Ponsford was caught at slip with the score on 161, thus bringing Bradman to the wicket.

Much was made of the first ball Bradman faced, even though it brought forth only a single. The bowler had been Jack ‘Farmer’ White of Somerset. White was an orthodox left arm spinner who had bowled extremely well in Australia two years before and who was always accurate. This time Bradman, without so much as a single delivery to take a look at the wicket, danced down the wicket to him and drove the ball to deep extra cover. The Guardian commented that when he had finished the stroke he was close enough to see the look of astonishment on the bowler’s face.

When tea came Bradman had faced 56 deliveries and scored exactly 50. The attack he was facing comprised seamers Allen, Maurice Tate and Walter Hammond, and the wrist spin of Walter Robins to complement White. There was no Larwood, missing the game through injury although it was not to be the great fast bowler’s year, as in three Test appearances he took just four wickets at a cost of 292 runs.

There was no let up in Bradman’s remorseless scoring after tea and, by the close, he had advanced to 155 from 171 deliveries. It is worth quoting former England skipper Percy Fender at some length; He was the complete master of the attack all the time, and while extremely careful in playing a defensive stroke here and there, he was merciless in his attack when he went out for a stroke for runs. It was remarkable that he never did lift the ball off the ground, no matter how hard he hit, and anything at all short of a length was pulled without hesitation or mistake to the leg boundary for four. The fielders never had time to get to it, unless they were already on the direct line of the ball. It was a magnificent example of real offensive cricket in its best sense. In his book on the 1928/29 series Fender had expressed some doubt about whether Bradman would succeed in England,

Resuming on the third morning with Alan Kippax Bradman was, initially, a little more circumspect than he had been. The match had reached an important phase as Australia had, with eight wickets still in hand, passed England’s total with the best part of two days still to play. What had initially looked like being a draw could now easily be an opportunity for Australia to win if they could build a substantial lead and Bradman was intent on building just such an advantage.

Despite that slight reticence in the morning session Australia still ended up adding 140 in the two and a half hours of play, so the scoring rate remained a good one. In addition to his batting prowess Bradman also possessed a remarkable power of recall that he retained into old age as, when describing that session many years later, he was able to tell his reader that, when he was on 191, he made what amounted to a mistake. He played forward to a straight delivery that caught a thick outside edge and went to second slip, although it should be stressed that this was no chance, and the ball travelled along the ground. It is a remarkable feat of memory to recall, over such a long career, a single false shot that was, of itself, a cause of no drama.

It was three o’clock in the afternoon before a wicket fell when Bradman did not, for the second time, play a shot exactly as he intended. This time was not an edge however. It was a full blooded cover drive off the bowling of White but, for the first time in the innings, Bradman lifted the ball a little. If anyone other than Chapman had been at extra cover Bradman would have moved serenely on to 258, but the England captain was a magnificent fielder and, making ground to his right, threw himself at the ball which he managed to catch one handed. Bradman’s comment was the ball was going like a rocket, just where I intended but Chapman, a left hander, flung out his right hand and held a miraculous catch only inches from the ground. It was the greatest catch taken off my batting in the whole of my career.

In concluding his thoughts on the innings Bradman expressed the view it would have been virtually impossible for me to have batted better. His innings of 254 had included 25 fours and took five hours and twenty minutes. It was scored out of a total of 423 that were added whilst he was at the crease.

His work finished Bradman went on to watch his teammates take the total to 729-6 before Woodfull declared. In England’s reply wickets fell regularly and although Chapman counter-attacked so successfully that he recorded what was to prove his only Test century, Australia went on to win the match by seven wickets.

Was all that work we did on Masterly Batting a waste of time? The answer to that one must be ‘of course not’. Whilst Bradman inevitably speaks with great knowledge, the basis of his judgment was purely subjective. Forever the perfectionist it is crystal clear that Bradman rated his 254 at Lord’s as highly as he did simply because there were only those two ‘mistakes’. The strength of the relatively modest bowling attack (a major factor for us in the 103* in 32/33) merits not a mention from The Don. In addition the Lord’s wicket in 1930 was an excellent one, with no tricks to play on the batsman, unlike the Headingley pitch in 1938 (an important factor for us with that innings). As for the two innings in 1936/37 the pressure on the new captain was intense, as well as other factors being at work causing those knocks of 270 and 212 to be rated as highly as they were.

Should we have taken account of near perfection, and marked batsmen down for playing and missing, or not meeting the ball in the middle of the bat with sufficient frequency? In fact dropped catches were of some relevance in our formula, and any reference to playing poorly would have attracted attention as an intangible, but I don’t think they are of overwhelming importance and in any event for the older innings reliable information is often unavailable.

In researching this article I read Wisden’s account of the Lord’s 254, and that in The Cricketer. I consulted the accounts in their books of the tour of Percy Fender, Pelham Warner and Geoffrey Tebbut as well as Bradman’s own account. One thing I can say with certainty is that if that time machine ever does get invented, and I could choose five Bradman innings to go back and watch, I’d still go and see the five Masterly Batting identified rather than Bradman’s personal favourite.

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