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January 5, 1937. Don Bradman was under enormous pressure after losing his first two Tests as captain. He was plagued by a rare loss of form, discontent among players, press and public and a devastating personal tragedy. Yet, at Melbourne, he turned the series around with a blemish-less innings of 270. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the innings that had been ranked by Wisden as the best of all time.
The best innings?
When, for a change, all that glitters is indeed gold, it is almost futile to look for the brightest of them all. Such steeped in splendour is Don Bradman’s chest of treasures, ascertaining the most sparkling of his gems is a tough ask.
Yet, order of nature dictates that even when excellence operates in the extraordinary dimensions there has to be one feat that stands out even amongst a continuous profusion of brilliance.
Some rate his 254 at Lord’s in 1930 as a knock played in the veritable heaven of cricket’s platonic perfection. It was perhaps as near flawless an innings that the legend ever essayed. Yet, chroniclers can sometimes let their pens run on willingly to the dictates of circumstances. That entire Test match was magical, with KS Duleepsinhji setting the tone on the first day. Such was the lustre of stroke-play that England lost the game in spite of posting 400-plus on the first day of the four-day encounter. Alan Kippax and Percy Chapman added their distinctive touches of class and, of course, Bradman displayed the heady concoction of marvels of genius and precociousness of youth. There was an air of unreality about the game, and it has gone down as one of the most written about Test matches.
However, if one looks at the earthy elements of circumstances, controversy, tragedy, pressure, expectations, stakes and the weight of every single run that combined into the events of Melbourne in January 1937, the innings Bradman essayed on that occasion should go down as unparalleled in the great man’s gilt edged curriculum vitae.
Bradman had just ascended the acme of cricketing ambition. At the start of the season, the inevitable had taken place — he had been appointed captain of Australia. No choice had been more expected in the public consciousness. Bradman was in the tongue of every man who discussed cricket. It had been as natural a course of events as the change of seasons. But, even the great man stumbled during the first few steps at the helm.
Not that there had seemed anything wrong with his form. When Gubby Allen’s side landed at Fremantle in October 1936, the stentorian tones of the tug-boatman shouted, “Have you heard Bradman’s latest score? It’s 212.” Indeed, in the majorly awaited first showdown at First-Class level between Bill O’Reilly and Bradman, the greatest of batsman had made a mockery of the supreme leg-spinner’s leg-trap by hammering 212 in 202 minutes, the last 112 of them in 72. His last seven innings in First-Class cricket had seen scores of 233, 357, 31, 0, 1, 369 and 212. The verdict was that the Tests against England would have been fair, if it had not been for The Don.
Yet there were problems. On October 29, Bradman suffered the greatest of personal tragedies. His day-old baby son — the first child born to him and his wife Jessie — died. It was the day before South Australia were to take on Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). Bradman decided he could not face the crowd. Allen sportingly agreed to leave his place open as he tossed with Vic Richardson. But, Bradman did not turn up. The flags at Adelaide Oval flew at half-mast. On Saturday, he rose above his grief and visited the ground to pay respect to the visitors. Some strange and sad quirk of fate also saw the demise of Stan McCabe’s infant son, also his first born. Australian cricket was steeped in sadness.
A fortnight later, Bradman took the field again, against Victoria at Melbourne and made 192 in three hours. It was as if he wanted to hit his sorrows away. With Ron Hammence, he added 108 for the fifth wicket, contributing 99 of the share.
Yet, when the Tests started, Bradman was nowhere near his normal self. At Brisbane, rains before the fifth day condemned Australia to bat on a horrible wicket. The side was skittled for 58 in 71 minutes and lost by 322 runs. Bradman’s contributions were 38 and a duck. As he had walked out to bat, Neville Cardus noted, “Bradman was heralded with trumpets and trombones of acclamation.” The stroke that gave him his zero was called “as purposeless as a man flicking at the gyrations of a wasp or mosquito.”Allen privately observed, “Bradman seems very jumpy, and, I should say, was not at all well, and if we can keep him in that frame of mind, we ought to win the rubber.”
Bradman left the Gabba disguised behind black sun-glasses. He had the vacant air of a man contemplating his fate. His captaincy was criticised in the press. Had the national genius taken on too much load on his shoulders?
Worse followed at Sydney. It was another sticky, and Australia fell for 80. Bradman shocked all with yet another duck, offering a tame catch to short-leg first ball. The Cardus cable that shot across the oceans to England read, “An amiable Christmas present to Allen, Bradman’s stroke today was not fit for public view.”
Vic Richardson, never a Bradman acolyte, thought there was nothing wrong with the wicket. “Most of the batsmen got themselves out during the storm in the night,” he remarked.
Bradman showed some promise of getting back in form in the second innings, proceeding to a lucky 82 as Australia trailed by 346 in the first innings. But then he hoiked at a Hedley Verity long hop with his head in air, and CB Fry almost wept as he wrote, “The greatest run-getter in the history of cricket has made the worst stroke in the history of cricket.” Australia lost by an innings.
England were without Harold Larwood, but his old Nottinghamshire comrade Bill Voce was downright nasty on the wet wickets. He had scalped 17 wickets in the two Tests at less than eight apiece.
The public outcry was deafening across the nation. Bradman should be deposed as captain as soon as possible. The rain was just a flimsy excuse. The team would have lost the first two Tests even if the wickets had been bone dry.
Such were the opinions that ran across Australia.
From the dressing room, there came forth curious reports. Some players were supposedly staying up too late. Bradman was probably unable to reconcile the triple role of selector, captain and main run-getter. The great man himself knew that he had limited experience as captain, but added, “It would be sheer cowardice to abandon what appeared to be a sinking ship.”
It did not help that a sensational news item appeared in the Sydney Daily Telegraph on the morning after the Test defeat: “Selectors and the board of Control are disturbed at the suggestion that the Test teams are not pulling together, and that Bradman has not had the support generally given to an Australian captain. There is an important section of the team that has not seen eye to eye with Bradman, either on or off the field.”
Four Australian cricketers, McCabe, O’Reilly, Chuck Fleetwood-Smith and Leo O’Brien, were asked to appear before the Australian board. Rumours had it that the hearing was instigated by Bradman. The press in both Australia and England were rife with the stories of dissent and Bradman’s discontent with some of the team members. Alan Fairfax, arriving in London to attend to his cricket school, summed up the position to a Daily Express reporter saying: “The boys in the Australian team feel that they are not getting a fair break from the crowd. Bradman, Bradman, all is Bradman. Well, the boys know he is a cricket genius, but that does not mean that the other players should be left right in the cold … Amrstrong, Woodfull, they were the skippers to study the players’ interests and get the best out of them. Don simply does not come up to that.”
Bradman categorically denied that he had been responsible for any complaints to the ABC. He also maintained the same version in his Farewell to Cricket published in 1950, after his retirement. O’Reilly later said that the complaints had to do with too much alcohol consumed by team members. He added that when asked about the accusations, Bradman claimed that he knew nothing and hadn’t even been invited to the meeting.
However, there were critics of his on field tactics as well. As captain Bradman was initially characterised by a pronounced desire for control. He did not agree to the field asked for by O’Reilly. He had been known to do the same with Clarrie Grimmett in South Australia. Ray Robinson had slammed this attitude, saying, “It was like an editor telling a cartoonist what to draw.”
In the first two Tests, Bradman had also erred in placing the rather ungainly O’Reilly at short leg to the bowling of Ernie McCormick. Additionally, his choice of Frank Ward over Grimmett was also one of the most unpopular decisions that irked the players, press and public. The papers of the day vacillated over whether he was a martinet or inept tactician. In short, the great man was going through one of the meanest patches of in his career.
The two-nil deficit, the criticism and the strained relationships built up tremendous pressure, but some old heads predicted that things were about to change. The wise Maurice Leyland remarked that the two successive ducks meant someone was bound to suffer very soon.
In the New Year Test at Melbourne, Bradman won the toss for the first time in Test cricket and elected to bat. But, under gloomy skies, Voce reigned supreme once again. The captain fell for 13, prompting tongues to wag, pens to scribble and telegrams to make their ways across the world that his skills were perhaps on the wane. It was largely McCabe’s 63 that helped Australia struggle to 181 for six, before a deluge swept across the ground.
The rains delayed the match till lunch on the second day, and ensured that the balls shot up from length once play resumed. Bradman now took an unusual step. In spite of it being a Timeless Test to be played to finish, he declared at 200 for nine.
Immediately England were in trouble. Only Wally Hammond stood fighting hard as Morris Seivers, the only Australian bowler of some pace, had the visitors in all sorts of problems. The wicket was like pudding and on it a curious game of cat and mouse soon commenced between the captains.
Bradman asked his bowlers to bowl a defensive line. He was in no hurry to bat again in these conditions. However, Allen itched to get Australia in while the pitch was at its worst. But, he delayed things till England were down to 76 for nine before calling his men in. Forty minutes remained before stumps on the second day. This was the first time in Test cricket that both sides had declared their first innings.
The Bradman tactics
And Bradman showed a kind of cricketing cunning witnessed earlier only during the days of Monty Noble and Joe Darling. In a brilliant tactical move he sent a messenger to the England dressing room to verify that Allen had indeed closed the innings. He feigned major surprise. Allen was also not one to be conned. “Of course the little blighter knows,” he exclaimed. Bradman’s delaying tactics took five minutes off the remaining time.
With the pitch still fearsome, Bradman reversed the batting order. O’Reilly and Fleetwood-Smith, surely two of the worst batsmen in the history of Test cricket, were sent out to open the innings against Voce and Allen. Bradman’s words of encouragement were fascinating. He told Fleetwood-Smith, “You can’t hit the ball on a good wicket so you won’t be able to edge it on this.”
O’Reilly spooned the first ball back to Voce. However, Ward and Fleetwood-Smith, with a combination of fortune and pluck, managed to survive till the close of play. Fleetwood-Smith, with a crucial zero not out at stumps, returned to the pavilion and informed Bradman that he ‘had the game by the throat.’ He had not yet managed to hit a ball.
The next morning Fleetwood-Smith fell to the first ball he hit. But, Keith Rigg, the stylish Victorian batsman, played what he considered to be the innings of his career. He held fort as Ward and Bill Brown fell at the other end. At 74 for four, Jack Fingleton joined him. At 97, Rigg was fifth out for a superb 47 and Bradman at last walked out to join Fingleton.
Australia were just 221 ahead on a fast improving wicket. A quick dismissal now would have changed the course of Bradman’s captaincy days and his career. However, under this incredible pressure, his greatness sparked and glowed.
The Bradman genius
The first few hours were understandably spent in a battle for survival. Through nerve, skill and unflinching resolution Bradman made it to stumps, walking back unbeaten on 56. Fingleton had progressed to 39. The score was 194 for five.
The next day, Bradman walked out with a head heavy with flu. Allen spread the field far and wide. The thinking was that a sick Bradman could not run all his runs if boundaries were cut off. Under the cloudy skies, the great man proceeded to work the ball away for singles. And sometimes he split the deep field with scorching boundaries. He played late, watching the ball until the very last moment. And not one stroke was hit in the air.
It was not his most scintillating innings. To minimise risks, he cut out the off-drives. His methods were based on opportunity. The wet field made it difficult for the bowlers to grip the ball. The towel was brought out often enough to wipe the cherry dry. And all the while the great man took advantage of the situation. He was back in form when his country needed it most, as did he himself.
The Englishmen fielded brilliantly, with Hammond, Allen, Stan Worthington fast and impressive, and Walter Robins often spectacular. But, Bradman went on batting. At the other end, so did Fingleton.
By the time Middlesex leg-spinner Jim Sims got Fingleton to edge a delivery for 136, the score was 443. The 346 run stand for the sixth wicket was a world record, a feat of collaboration between two men whose relationship all life would remain less than warm. The lead was colossal by now, but Bradman carried on. With McCabe steady at the other end, Australia ended the day at 500 for six, Bradman on 248. As many as 306 runs had been scored in the day for the loss of just one wicket. Bradman had gripped the series by the scruff of the neck and turned it around. It was perhaps one of the most significant days of his career.
The next morning, he carried his score to 270 before falling to Verity. By then England were well and truly out of the game. He did not run all his runs as England had planned to make him do, but there had been as many as 110 singles. Only 88 had come off boundaries. The seven hours and 38 minutes he spent at the crease would remain his longest vigil in Test cricket. He had offered no chance till the ball he was dismissed.
The final lead was 688. Too ill to field, Bradman looked on from the pavilion as O’Reilly and Fleetwood-Smith, now combining again in the much more comfortable role of attacking spinners, bowled England out. Maurice Layland’s fighting hundred showed skill and character, but Australia won by 365 runs.
The dams had opened with a vengeance. According to Cardus, “Once he had got over the difficulties that beset him at the beginning of the tour, his confidence in himself was terrifying in its quiet modesty.”
Bradman followed the 270 with 212 in the fourth Test at Adelaide. Once again scored in the second innings, it was amassed over seven hours and 21 minutes. And once again it was a chanceless effort. Australia drew level with a 148 run win.
In the fifth Test at Melbourne, Bradman spent just three hours and 43 minutes at the wicket, scoring 169, yet again refusing to offer even half a chance. Australia won by an innings to become the first country to clinch a series 3-2 after being 0-2 down.
Australia 200 for 9 decl. (Stan McCabe 63; Hedley Verity 2 for 24, Wally Hammond 2 for 16) and 564 (Keith Rigg 47, Jack Fingleton 136, Don Bradman 270; Hedley Verity 3 for 79) beat England 76 for 9 decl. (Wally Hammond 32; Morris Seivers 5 for 21) and 323 (Wally Hammond 51, Maurice Leyland 116, Walter Robins 61; Chuck Fleetwood-Smith 5 for 124) by 365 runs.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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