Some 30 years ago Rowland Bowen, the pioneering cricket historian, warned, "One must not judge a cricketer on his figures alone." Precisely because Don Bradman's statistical superiority is so emphatic, that caveat applies especially to him. If we're to grasp what Bradman was—and what he wasn't—we have to look beyond the mind-bending career averages and try to place the individual against a wider historical canvas.
In Australia at the moment, a special condolence book has been placed in every single post office. PM John Howard dubbed him "the most dominant figure in Australian life for decades." The Sydney Daily Telegraph proclaimed, "Nation mourns greatest hero." Big claims for a mere cricketer, and statistics alone can't explain them.
Bradman entered the scene at a peculiar moment in Australian history. At the outset of the '30s, the country had just achieved full 'dominion' status and effective self-rule—though it retained its allegiance to the British monarchy and imperial policy. At the same time, the Great Depression ripped through the economy. Unemployment was running at 25 per cent in 1930, when Bradman made his triumphant overseas debut, taking more than 900 runs off English bowlers in the Tests. Thousands of jobless workers crowded outside newspaper offices in the big cities, waiting for the latest scores to be posted, for the balm of another Bradman ton in a time of extreme social distress. Meanwhile, nationwide radio broadcasts, introduced at this time, carried his feats to the far-flung Australian public. With his relentless run-scoring, Bradman was ideal radio material.
So at a preposterously young age Bradman became a national hero, and pretty soon a national institution. He was one of the first to experience what was to become a hallmark of the late 20th century: youthful celebrity, an intense exposure to the public gaze at a formative stage in life. In response to these unnatural pressures, individuals have forged a variety of strategies, but there's always an inner cost, a human compromise, and the Don was no exception.
In many ways, Bradman was an unlikely and often uneasy bearer of the emerging Australian national identity. As a self-made man, risen out of poverty to master his destiny, he fit the bill. But in every other respect he was more like a national alter-ego. Introverted, calculating, methodical, and, some say, cold and remote, he was as far as can be imagined from the stereotypical "larrikin" Australian—easy-going, egalitarian, straight-talking, hard-drinking. There was a persistent culture clash between the conservative and royalist Bradman (who flirted in the early '30s with the fascist "New Guard") and many of his team-mates, who tended to be more sociable, more voluble and more Republican—especially those, like O'Reilly and Fingleton, who hailed from Irish Catholic backgrounds. Lindsay Hassett once observed, "The Don got just about what he deserved to get out of cricket. A lot of runs, a lot of money and very few friends."
After his retirement in 1949, Bradman became the first cricketer to be knighted for his performances on the field. Curiously, 15 years earlier, his predecessor as Australian captain, Bill Woodfull, had also been offered the honour (partly as a peace gesture in the wake of the bodyline furore). Woodfull turned it down, explaining that he couldn't accept a knighthood "just for playing cricket".Bradman was also uncomfortable with the knighthood, but accepted it with the imperturbable dignity and humility he maintained like a defensive wall between his inner self and the intrusive public gaze. It was one of those things he felt he had to do as a "national ambassador".
Bradman has been mourned in some quarters as the last incarnation of a vanished sporting era—a chivalrous gentleman from an age innocent of sledging, helmets, match-fixing and other byproducts of a hyper-competitive milieu. Yet in his day Bradman's advent was greeted in an entirely different tone. He was dubbed "the run machine", and outside Australia, at least, there were many who saw in his pitiless batting mastery a dangerous departure from the past. C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian anti-colonialist and cricket writer, argued that previous generations of batsmen "had inhibitions Bradman never knew". For James, Bradman symbolised the unleashing of the ruthless ethos of modernity onto a game still dominated by Victorian mores. In his batsmanship, form subordinated to function; the frivolous elements were stripped away.
James believed the origin of 'bodyline' lay in the desire of the mcc mandarins to tame the upstart colonial, and to smash what they saw as a threat to a way of life: the gracious ease of unearned privilege that had set the tone of cricket's waning "Golden Age". As so often when the old reacts against the new, the mcc succeeded only in destroying what it set out to save. 'Bodyline', James averred, wasn't a tactical ploy but "the violence and ferocity of our age expressing itself in cricket".
Yet when the year 1999 expired, it wasn't Bradman but Muhammad Ali who was honoured most widely as the sports figure of the 20th century, with Pele and Michael Jordan as runners-up. Cricket, despite its huge fan base in South Asia, isn't really a global game; outside cricketing nations, the name Don Bradman is an answer to an obscure quiz question. In contrast to Bradman, Ali's supremacy over his rivals was marginal; it was part of his mystique that he tangled repeatedly with fighters who seemed ready to get the better of him—Joe Frasier, George Foreman, Ken Norton—only to triumph against the odds through some magical combination of inner fortitude and strategic oneupsmanship. What's more, Ali fought his battles outside the ring as well. He challenged racism and injustice and took a defiant stand against the American war in Vietnam that nearly cost him his career and freedom. As a result, his sporting triumphs meant something special to millions outside his native land, including many who took no interest in boxing.
Similarly, it might be argued that the careers of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova, measured in social impact, were of greater significance than Bradman's—they helped redefine the status of women athletes and popular notions of femininity. Michael Jordan is the only sports performer who established a degree of supremacy over contemporaries comparable to Bradman's. Like him, Jordan was often accused of being "too good" for the health of the game; like Bradman, he deployed a financial acumen that was the envy of other professional sport performers. But despite his success as writer, broadcaster and stockbroker, Bradman's carefully-accumulated personal wealth was dwarfed by Jordan's global business empire, and the contrast between the two speaks volumes about the changes in the economic climate in which sport is now played.
The closest parallel to Bradman may be Babe Ruth, the American baseball colossus who dominated the national pastime in the 1920s and early '30s. Like Bradman, Ruth owed much of his fame to the new medium of radio and the expanding audience for popular newspapers. Like Bradman, he displayed an almost contemptuous mastery of his opponents, and became an icon of power and supremacy. Although his major records have now been shattered (unlike Bradman's), the Babe's legendary prowess continues to outshine his successors. Among his accomplishments, it must be noted that he administered the coup de grace to American cricket, which had enjoyed revived popularity just before WW I, but was wiped out of the national consciousness in the following era, thanks to Ruth's feats, who drew huge numbers (especially recent immigrants) into the grounds and into the game. Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, helped make baseball one of the touchstones of "Americanism", and in this respect—as definer of national identity through sport—his career recalls Bradman's.
The flamboyant, party-loving Ruth was far more comfortable in this role than Bradman ever was. And in Bradman's death, this curious contradiction—the deeply private man who endured a lifetime as a public icon—wasn't resolved. He declined a state funeral and asked that no statues of him be erected. Australia mourns and celebrates, joined by all who care for cricket, but how little we really know of this extraordinary man.
Thomas Kenneally, the Australian novelist, noted that growing up you knew an Aussie didn't write Paradise Lost but you knew Bradman had scored a ton against the Poms before lunch. The address of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is PO Box 9994, Sydney, New South Wales—the number chosen to commemorate Bradman's Test average. It seems that even after all these years, Bradman's statistical clout hangs over his nation as well as his game, and still obscures the enigmatic individual.
(Mike Marqusee's latest book, Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties is published in India by Seagull Books)