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Don Bradman recovers from near-fatal illness to construct his fastest hundred in Sheffield Shield

Don Bradman was seriously ill after England's tour of Australia in 1934 © Getty Images
Don Bradman was seriously ill after England’s tour of Australia in 1934 © Getty Images

March 2, 1936. Don Bradman played yet another masterpiece at Adelaide Oval, this time a gem amounting to 369 against Tasmania. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the spate of run-making which dispelled all doubts about his recovery from near-fatal illness and included some records that were extraordinary by Bradman’s standards.

Near death experience

Don Bradman had been seriously ill. The Australian legend who was the sole spot of brightness in the desultory lives of his countrymen during the drab days of depression had himself struggled for his life.

He had been taken ill in London, just as he was preparing for his trip home after the 1934 Ashes. The great man experienced sudden and severe abdominal pain. The diagnosis was acute appendicitis. He was immediately operated on by a surgeon.

The procedure took four hours, and Bradman lost an immense amount of blood. Soon peritonitis set in — usually a fatal condition back in 1934. Penicillin and sulphonamides were still at the experimental stage for treating the condition. By late September, a statement was issued that Bradman was fighting for his life and blood donors were urgently required.

They came in incredible hordes to save the greatest batsman of all time. The hospital could not accommodate all the donors and the number of telephone calls made them close down the switchboard. Bill O’Reilly was telephoned by the secretary of King George V, with the request that His Highness wanted to be kept informed of Bradman’s condition. When Jessie Bradman travelled from Australia to join her husband, on board the ship, she was stricken by a rumour about his death. Thankfully it turned out to be false.

Bradman started a process of slow, stuttering recovery. It took him several months to return to his homeland, and as a result, he missed the 1934-35 series altogether.

Doubts dispelled

Now that Bill Woodfull had retired, the southern winter of 1935 saw the selectors wanting Bradman as captain of Australia. He was requested to lead the team on the tour of South Africa during the 1935-36 season. However, in August there was an announcement that Bradman had made himself unavailable due to illness. The captaincy went to Vic Richardson.

To the relief of the Australian fans, however, Bradman turned out in the Sheffield Shield in the summer. He led his new state side South Australia for the entire season.

If there was lingering uncertainty about his ability to rediscover his cricketing greatness after the near-fatal illness, the doubts were dispelled with increasing definiteness during his first three innings in the Shield. Against New South Wales he cracked 117, against Queensland 233 and Victoria was plundered for 357. In the innings against Victoria. ,he scored 229 on the first day and added 109 before lunch on the second. It was his fifth triple hundred — a world record. It also surpassed Warren Bardsley’s Australian record of 53 hundreds in First-Class cricket.

After that, the great man actually went through a poor run. Scores of 31 zero and one followed. In the third of these failures — in the match against Victoria — Bradman was caught in the second slip in his first over at the crease off the bowling of Hans Ebeling. The fielder, Jack Ledward, threw the ball in the air several times in absolute glee. However, it did not help the Victorians as opener Jack Badcock got 325.

His three low scores did not quite affect his popularity, though. When BC Harkness, the chief inspector of schools in New South Wales, visited a small school in Cooma towards the end of January 1936, he asked one of the students, “Who is the greatest man alive today?” The answer was instant: “Don Bradman.” The inspector was not amused. He asked all the boys who agreed with the answer to stand up. All but one of the children sprang to their feet.

Don Bradman © Getty Images
Don Bradman was in fabulous touch for South Australia against Tasmania in 1935-36 © Getty Images

Terrorising Tasmanians

However, it did not take Bradman long to get back to his colossal feats of run-making. When South Australia met Tasmania at the Adelaide Oval, the poor visitors felt the full weight of his mighty willow.

The match started on February 29 of that leap year. Tasmania won the toss and elected to bat. They were knocked over for 158, and Bradman walked out with the score on 23 for one.

By the end of the day, he was unbeaten on 127. The hundred was the fastest he would ever score in his career, brought up in just 70 minutes. As he walked back at stumps, he had already put on 191 with Ron Hammence for the third wicket, and the home side were on 222 for two.

After well-earned rest on Sunday, they continued in the same fashion, going on to add 356 in 181 minute. Hammence contributed 121 of the runs. During that entire season, Bradman scored more than twice as fast as his partners.

However, the legend slowed down distinctly after his century, taking 103 minutes to get from 100 to 200. He made up for it in the remaining 80 minutes he batted, pulverising the attack to score 168 more.

The 369-run innings had a number of unique aspects. Bradman got the runs in 253 minutes, at 87.50 runs an hour. Given that his side scored at 125 an hour, it was a rather bizarre gap between his rate and that of the others.

As many as 146 runs were added with Brian Leak for the fifth wicket. The latter’s share was 19.

His innings was etched with four sixes and 46 fours. He thus scored 208 runs in boundaries — the highest he would ever get with fours and sixes in an innings. Was it because of his unwillingness to run too many after a long season on the back of prolonged illness? It may have been the case, but the bowlers were ready to swear that he had never been better.

It was the highest score ever made for South Australia, as also the highest amassed at Adelaide Oval. Clem Hill had held both the records with his 365 not out scored in late 1900. A telegram duly arrived from the former Australian captain, “Congratulations you little devil for breaking my record.”

It was also the only time in his First-Class career that Bradman scored a triple-century in a three-day match. His next best innings in a three-day game was 278 for the Australians against the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at Lord’s in 1938.

Ultimately, he hit a ball back to leg-spinner Reginald Townley to bring an end to the carnage. Whether it was because of this enormous wicket is debatable, but Townley later went onto become the leader of the Tasmanian Liberal Party.

South Australia totalled 688, amassed in just 104.2 overs. Granted they were eight-ball overs, but the scoring rate was exceptional in any case. Townley’s three for 169 came off just 20 overs. The South Australians scored 466 on the second day, and yet left enough time for the visitors to get 29 runs of their own.

The Tasmanians had been rendered shell-shocked. They collapsed on the third day, mainly to the bowling of Frank Ward and were bundled for 181.

It was the last match of the season and Bradman finished with 1173 runs in eight games at 130.33. The next man in the Australian batting cards was Keith Rigg with exactly 400 less runs, at an average of 59.46.

Another spellbinding fact is that in the season Bradman scored 65.47% of the runs scored when he was at the crease —  and that included extras. It was again the best proportion he would manage in his career.

The last shred of doubt was removed. Bradman was still by far the best batsman of the world.

His First-Class commitments over, the greatest batsman of all time enjoyed himself in the Adelaide district league, scoring 194 in 131 minutes for Kensington against Port Adelaide. This innings was compiled with a steel-shafted bat.

Brief scores:

Tasmania 158 (Ronald Thomas 42, Edward Smith 62; Frank Ward 3 for 35) and 181 (Ronald Thomas 44, Alf Rushforth 73; Frank Ward 6 for 47) lost to South Australia 688 (Don Bradman 369, Ron Hammence 121, Mervyn Waite 43, Tom O’Connell 53; Reginald Townley 3 for 169) by an innings and 349 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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