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Busting myths about the Bradman Era: The Don’s average on sticky wickets was 20.29!

Wally Hammond (L) with Sir Don Bradman

Studies reveal that Don Bradman (right) scored at 61.5 and Wally Hammond (left) at 45.4 – pretty fast even by today s standards © Getty Images

Whenever batsmen of the Bradman Era are discussed, one takes it for granted that uncovered pitches and inadequate protection against fast bowling loaded factors against them. Arunabha Sengupta looks at facts and figures to point out that much of the supposed handicaps are imagined.

 

 

After this writer wrote in a recent article that Virender Sehwag is the second fastest run-getter in history, there was a deluge of questions about the strike-rate of Don Bradman, Wally Hammond and some other venerable cricketers of the past.

 

There have been some excellent studies in this regard which estimate that Bradman scored at 61.5, Hammond at 45.4 and so on.

 

Well, that makes Bradman pretty fast even by today’s standards, and Hammond was just a tad slower. However, in many quarters, it required severe mental readjustment to align these commonplace numbers beside the great heroes who have been painted in mythological colours by the pens of Neville Cardus and his tribe.

 

The rationalisation was predictable. And it is not limited to discussions on strike rates. Whenever batsmen of the Bradman era are discussed alongside modern masters, the argument follows the unwavering: “Batting in those days without adequate protection and on uncovered wickets …”

 

We tend to believe that the days when Hammond and Bradman played, things were loaded in favour of the bowlers – especially the fast ones.

 

The past rolls towards us along the bejewelled memory lanes, picking up gold dust of time, and when finally it stands side by side with the present, the current suffers in contrast. We tend to attribute superhuman skills to people whom we have seldom seen, at least never on television, playing and missing like a modern day mortal.

 

 

For Don Bradman and his contemporaries, even YouTube videos are few and grainy. We are left to prosaic records on paper, and the eulogies scripted by the likes of Cardus that cloak the achievements in a lustre relegating whatever chinks there might have been to rare unread archives.

 

 

Bradman’s not-so-flattering numbers
 

  

Let me assure all that I am as much in awe of the amazing stats of Don Bradman as the next man. The numbers do tell his story so eloquently that argument is both foolhardy and farcical. Bradman stands head and shoulders above any batsman in history before or since, Victor Trumper, Viv Richards, Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar included.

 

 

However, my peeve here is the undue importance given to the playing conditions of that era. There is no way that Bradman and the worthy men of his times batted in more difficult conditions.

 

 

Uncovered wickets may have been faced frequently, but Bradman’s numbers are not very respectable in those conditions.

 

 

If there is anything that undermines Bradman’s genius, it is his batting on sticky wickets. To put it in blasphemous but irrefutable figures, the average dipped by around hundred when the wickets became rain affected.

 

 

Bradman on sticky wickets

 

Wicket

I

Runs

Ave

100s

50s

0s

Normal

65

6712

119.90

29

12

3

Sticky

15

284

20.29

0

1

4

 

 

 

There is genius written all over the numbers produced on good wickets – no other batsman could afford a dip by hundred. The point is that one cannot add to the eulogies because he had to bat on uncovered wickets.

 

Indeed, there are still many who swear that Victor Trumper, Stan McCabe or even Herbert Sutcliffe was better on sticky dogs.

 

And apart from this, the stats of Bradman and the overall numbers for this period underline how good these wickets were when it was not raining.

 

Fast bowling fables

 

Let us now turn our attention to the question of playing fast bowling. By many accounts a most distressing task in days when protection was flimsy and helmets unheard of.

 

At the risk of bursting several bubbles, let me point out that if anything, it was the fast bowler’s job that was painstaking, unenviable.

 

“Cricket is a batsman’s game. The pitches are prepared to suit run-making. The laws are made to preserve the batsman’s wicket. It was so biased in favour of the batsmen (in the 1920s and 1930s) that there was no pressure on them at all. If we got four wickets down in a day, we’d done a good day’s work. If we got five, we had an extra drink,” these are the words of the greatest fast bowler of the Bradman era – Harold Larwood.

 

Harold Larwood

In Australia, when Larwood used to run in and bowl at furious pace for five over bursts, his socks would be covered with blood, his sides would ache and his feet would feel the jarring impact of running on to the concrete pitches that had no give © Getty Images

 

Legendary Essex paceman Charles Kortright, who bowled during the turn of the last century, had this to say about the fast men of the 1930s. “I have little patience with modern bowlers who condemn these shirt-front wickets and ask how they can be expected to get men out when the pitch will not help.”

 

In Australia, when Larwood used to run in and bowl at furious pace for five over bursts, his socks would be covered with blood, his sides would ache and his feet would feel the jarring impact of running on to the concrete pitches that had no give.

 

Besides, fast bowling is an art that requires scientific training methods, stipulated regimes, and careful nurture. All these were in their nascent stages during that period. According to Larwood again, “The best exercise I took was walking miles to get to the ground.”

 

Apart from the brief period surrounding the Bodyline series, fast bowling was seldom successful during the era of Bradman, Hammond and the rest. If we go through the scorecards, most of the Tests were played with attacks spearheaded by two to three spin bowlers.

 

The myth in numbers

 

If lack of protective gear really made facing fast bowlers a threat in those days, would it not reflect in their records?

 

Let us take a look at the story told by numbers. In the 1920s and 1930s, we find none of the fast men with 100 Test wickets. Neither did their average and strike rate end up better than the spinners. Only four fast bowlers made it into the top 15, and none of them led the list.

 

The period was ruled by batsmen, spinners, medium pacers and fast bowlers – in that order.

 

No

Bowler

Type

M

Wkts

Ave

SR

5 WI

10 WM

1

CV Grimmett (Aus)

Leg-spin

37

216

24.21

67.1

21

7

2

MW Tate (Eng)

medium pace

39

155

26.16

80.7

7

1

3

H Verity (Eng)

slow left arm

40

144

24.37

77.5

5

2

4

WJ O’Reilly (Aus)

leg spin

26

136

23.68

72.8

10

3

5

AA Mailey (Aus)

leg spin

21

99

33.91

61.8

6

2

6

W Voce (Eng)

Fast

24

97

26.04

60.3

3

2

7

JM Gregory (Aus)

Fast

24

85

31.15

65.6

4

0

8

CL Vincent (SA)

slow left arm

25

84

31.32

69.6

3

0

9

WR Hammond (Eng)

medium pace/
 off-spin

77

83

37.77

95.9

2

0

10

H Larwood (Eng)

Fast

21

78

28.35

63.7

4

1

11

GOB Allen (Eng)

Fast

22

76

28.60

54.1

5

1

12

H Ironmonger (Aus)

slow medium

14

74

17.97

63.4

4

2

13

WE Bowes (Eng)

medium pace

14

67

21.58

51.9

6

0

14

AP Freeman (Eng)

leg spin

12

66

25.86

56.5

5

3

15

RWV Robins (Eng)

leg spin

19

64

27.46

51.8

1

0

 

As this writer pointed out in an earlier article, batting conditions stabilised after the First World War. Since then, the overall batting average was unusually high (32.41) in the 1920s, almost at par with the first decade of this century. It was still on the higher side in the 1930s (30.41) and reached the peak in the 1940s (33.00). These decades cover the very period the Don and Hammond played.

 

According to the numbers, the most difficult period of batting were the 1950s (27.66) followed by the 1990s (29.21). There were uncovered pitches and the occasional painful blow, but unplayable or extraordinarily difficult conditions are mythical.

 

Bodyline did shift the balance in favour of the fast bowlers for a year or so. Almost immediately, laws were brought into place to counter the pace dominance. We see that Larwood himself did not have as staggering an average as the bowlers of the 1970s to 1990s. In fact, he got 33 wickets at 19.51 in the five Bodyline Tests. In his remaining career, bowling within the normal conventions, he managed 45 wickets at an average close to 35.

 

Jack Gregory, who famously tormented the English batsmen in 1920-21 along with Ted McDonald (43 wickets at 33.27), finished with an average of 31.32

 

Fast men seldom caused problems unless they bowled in tandem with the infamous leg-theory tactics.

 

A word about helmets

 

In fact, successful fast bowlers evolved later, with Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller showing the way, followed by Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith and others. With time they became more numerous.

 

Helmets according to many have changed the way fast bowlers have dominated the game. This is not really a statistically-verified fact. The story that numbers tell has been demonstrated in this article, but this is another favourite half-truth that we like to cling on to.

 

If we come to think about it, the helmet is not a very sophisticated technical marvel. If lives of batsmen were really in constant peril because of dangerous fast bowling, such contraptions would have come into play a lot sooner. Necessity is after all the mother of invention.

 

Soon after the Bodyline series, when Manny Martindale and Learie Constantine started to mete out the same leg-theory treatment to the English batsmen, Patsy Hendren already started experimenting with rubber enhanced headgear. However, soon MCC stepped in and changed the rules, and the necessity disappeared.

 

It was only post 1976 that Clive Lloyd introduced the famed pace quartet, and changed the equation again. The life and limb of the batsmen were in perceptible danger yet again. And this hastened the introduction of helmets and other protective gear.

 

The sudden requirement can also be derived from numbers. A total of 78 batsmen retired hurt in the period 1976-1995, the phase of West Indian pace dominance. There were 6.2 incidents per every 100 completed team innings. This meant a sudden rise in injuries by more than 100%.

 

During this period, West Indies played 109 Tests and inflicted 34 blows which caused the batsman to retire. This translated to about 17 injury incidents per 100 team innings, beyond the normal by around 500%.

 

Injuries had taken place earlier as well. One recalls the Charlie Griffith bouncer that almost killed Nari Contractor. Yet, those were exceptions. The Windies pacemen made it more of a natural order, and the game had to evolve to safeguard batsmen with protective gear. And within two years, Graham Yallop walked wearing the new-fangled headgear in 1978.

 

This is in no way to undermine the physical courage required to play fast bowling without adequate protection.

 

However, it has to be said that some of the beliefs that cricket followers cling to can do with some reality check – if only by casting a more analytical eye at the scorecards.

 

(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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