In 2006 I attended the annual conference of the Federation of Irish Societies in Britain in Leeds. Part of it took place in the new centre at Headingley Cricket Ground. I was reminded of this recently as the results came through from the Cricket World Cup. Ireland’s heroics against England took place almost ten years to the day after the funeral of the greatest cricketer of them all, Donald Bradman. Bradman would certainly have approved of the win and the manner of it.
Bradman in fact was in at the birth of one day international cricket in 1971 when he organised a match after the Melbourne Ashes Test was rained off. One day cricket at the top level has since proved to be immensely popular as witness the current Cricket World Cup. Bradman was also an early advocate of instant replays and the use of modern technology to further popularise the game.
But it is as a batsman that he will be remembered, not only as the greatest cricketer but arguably the greatest sportsman of the last century. In international Test Cricket only twenty players have ever achieved the monumental score of over 300 in a game. Bradman did it twice, one of only four to do so. But Bradman did it on the same ground – Headingley – and in a manner that will never be forgotten.
In 1930 Australia toured England, with their new star, Bradman, who was still only 21. He was slight of stature -five foot seven – and weighed just ten and a half stone. He had burst on the scene two years earlier but some of the English critics had dismissed him as a once off. They got their answer. Bradman began by hitting 1000 runs before the end of May –itself a rare feat. In the first Ashes Test he scored 131.In the second test, at Lords, he scored 254, a new Test match record score in England. On 11 July he entered cricket history at Headingley. He came into bat early on, after Australia lost a wicket. He reached 100 in 99 minutes and was 115 at lunch. Between lunch and tea he added a further century. By close of play he had reached 309 not out, made in 344 minutes, the only player ever to score a triple century in one day.
He was eventually out for 334. He followed this innings with one of 254 at the Oval. In five test matches, one ruined by rain, he had scored 974 runs at an average of 139.
Bradman returned to England in 1934. The years between had been eventful. He had scored 299 not out, against South Africa in 1932, being denied another triple century when he ran out of batting partners. An Ashes series in Australia had been soured by England’s tactics – designed to stop Bradman – of bowling short and at speed, hitting the batsman. The issue, known ever afterwards as “bodyline”, escalated into a diplomatic incident before cooler heads prevailed. Despite, or perhaps because of, the bodyline tactics, Bradman again topped the Australian batting averages, albeit below his customary level. These years saw him also plagued by ill health, which continued through the 1934 English tour.
Some indifferent performances – for Bradman – and recurring ill health marked his tour performances before the Fourth test at Headingley in August 1934. Bradman commenced his innings at the beginning of the second day. The night before he had declined a dinner invitation from the great Cricket sportswriter, Neville Cardus, on the grounds that Australia needed him to score 200. Cardus pointed out that, since he had scored 334 on the same pitch last time around, he was statistically unlikely to perform well. In the event Bradman batted for over a day and scored another triple century. He followed this up with a supreme double century in the fifth test at the Oval.
Bradman scored more runs faster than any other cricketer before or since. But for the Second World War, which took a large chunk out of his playing career, his figures would have been even more impressive. In his final tour of England, in 1948, in his 40th year, he scored over 2400 runs at an average of almost 90. His career first class run total was 28,000 in 338 innings, averaging 95.10 with 117 centuries – one for every third time at bat. In all he scored 6996 runs in 52 tests at an average of 99.94. His nearest rival to date averages sixty. And, a pub quiz answer: his batting average as a schoolboy was infinity – he was never dismissed.
How good was he, and how would he measure up to sportsmen in other fields? His comparative performances have been calculated by Charles Davis, an Australian sports statistician. Davis calculated that, to achieve levels of performance equivalent to Bradman, a basketball player would have to average over his career 43 points a game, a golfer win 25 majors and a baseball star average .392. For reference, Michael Jordan averaged 32 points, Jack Nicklaus won 18 majors and Ty Cobb (the highest baseball hitter) .366; the great Babe Ruth, much admired by Bradman, averaged .342.
Bradman – truly a different class!