A hundred years of Bradman

August 27, 2008 – a day of celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Donald George Bradman. And they celebrated at his birthplace, Cootamundra, the hometown of his youth, Bowral, and in a black tie dinner at the business end of Sydney. Has any other sportsperson, in any sport, anywhere in the world, been celebrated quite so much as The Don?

The folklore surrounding Bradman is such that arguably a more fitting date to celebrate would have been August 11, the day he would have turned 99.94 – his Test batting average and reputedly the reason that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation uses Post Office Box 9994 as its mailing address.

I’ll keep my assessment of his cricketing prowess brief – he was the greatest batsman the world has seen, by a wide margin. This is one time when the statistics are so overwhelming that they need to be valued seriously. Ricky Ponting, in his speech at the Sydney Westin last night, described Bradman as Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps put together. That sounds to me like a fair summation.

Science hasn’t really gotten to the heart of Bradman’s prodigious talent, though he undoubtedly had extraordinary hand-eye co-ordination. He was successful competitively at squash and tennis, and one wonders what he would have ended up doing if he didn’t grow up in a cricketing nation. (Baseball, probably. Hockey, maybe. Piano?)

There’s no doubt that he would have been a hit in limited-over cricket and, despite its unsubtlety and lack of traditional technique, in Twenty20 as well. His practice of striking the ball along the ground and hitting very few sixes is well known, but this was the way cricket was played in his day. I see no reason to believe that he would not have adapted to T20, nor that he would have shunned the big bucks of the IPL or ICL.

On the downside, there have been many biographers exploring too much territory and serving us Too Much Information about his off-field life. It was a mixed bag, including success as a businessman, a long and happy marriage, and much sadness in raising a family. Even in cricket his off-field achievements were mixed. His captaincy was blighted by his relationship with senior players, and his near-signing of a lucrative contract with Lancashire League club Nelson was at odds with his stance, forty years later as chairman of the Australian cricket board, opposing the private competition organised by Kerry Packer’s companies.

Bradman was, in many respects, an ordinary man with a handful of extraordinary gifts, a man totally uncomfortable with fame and whose awkwardness, even in writing the forewords of other people’s books, was evident. There was no scandal about his life, his attitudes to King, country and empire were those of contemporary white anglo-saxon Australia. Why don’t the biographers leave him alone?

The handling of the Bradman name since his death in 2001 has also been problematic. It was a great honour when the main highway linking Adelaide to its airport was renamed Sir Donald Bradman Drive. But was it right to then prevent businesses located on that highway from amending their trading names to reflect that they could be found “On Bradman”? What, really, was wrong with marketing Anzac Cookies in India as Bradman Cookies? What other Australian icon would grab the attention in India? (OK, Brett Lee Bickies can’t be too far away.)

On the other hand, if all those “personally signed by Bradman” items on eBay are fair dinkum, then the Don must have been an octopus signing memorabilia continuously for the entire 92 years of his life.

But a truly abominable invocation of the Bradman name is the event held at the Westin Hotel last night. The “Bradman Oration” is the top end of town’s self-important evening of adulation for a man with whom the nearest thing they have in common is that he was a stockbroker in Adelaide.

Ponting may seem an unlikely orator, but he is a far more appropriate choice than some of the past speakers at the BO. John Howard, when he was Prime Minister, I could understand; Michael Parkinson I would have understood if he gave it during an Ashes tour (which 2003-04 was not); but General Peter Cosgrove? and Alan Belford Jones?

Get Sam Loxton (and some of the other surviving 1948 Aussies) to give the next “oration”. And forget the $495 per head ticket price and hold it somewhere so that the schoolkids of Cootamundra and Bowral can get in for free.

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