Don Bradman © Getty Images
Don Bradman played in the Island Nation twice, 18 years apart © Getty Images

Don Bradman played twice in Colombo, in 1930 and 1948. The former match was the very first he ever played outside Australia. Arunabha Sengupta recounts the tale of the two visits to the wicket.

Sojourn in Serendip

The pearl drop of an island in the Indian Ocean had always been the traditional stop as Australian teams sailed to the Old Country to engage in their cricketing contests. READ: Don Bradman scores hundred in 3 overs

In 1882, embarking on the tour that would give rise to the lore of The Ashes, the Australian XI did moor at the Galle harbour on a delightful morning. Tom Horan, one of the cricketers of the party and a chronicler of the early days of Australian cricket under his pseudonym ‘Felix’, remembered: “The view that opened up as we stood on the deck and looked about was simply magnificent. The vegetation all around the shore being of the richest tropical kind, and altogether novel to the passengers fresh from Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, and the effect of the luxuriant foliage and the grand umbrageous trees altogether was … really beautiful.”

The Australians of 1882 did not play any cricket on the island. They spent their time among jewellery traders who had come aboard, looking at sapphires, rubies, moonstones, cat’s eyes and other precious stones; haggling and negotiating the prices. For sport, Hugh Massie, Fred Spofforth, Horan himself and a few others engaged two catamarans and made it to the shore, enjoying the scenery and the spices, and visiting a local Buddhist monastery once on land. READ: Nazir Ali becomes first Indian to dismiss Don Bradman

The first side to engage in cricket in the island were the Australians of 1884. At Galle Face, Colombo, the tourists faced 18 men of Ceylon in a one-day single-innings match, and were bowled out for 75. That however proved sufficient, almost twice over, as the 18 men of Ceylon were soon dismissed for 39. It must be noted that almost all the entire local team comprised of ex-pat Britons and Australians.

On their way back from England, the 1884 Australians played again and drew a two-innings match while playing 13 of their own against 18 expatriates.

In the years that followed, there was the occasional game that the travelling Australians played when their ship moored in the lovely island, but it did not become a regular feature of the Ashes calendar, certainly not a serious one.

As Frank Laver wrote in his fascinating An Australian Cricketer on Tour, in 1899 they passed the cricket ground but did not play. They passed the golf course too, and proceeded to the Galle Face Hotel where they had their refreshments while watching ‘Hindoos turn nuts into trees, and produce pigeons out of apparently empty boxes, whilst a cobra watched the proceedings through his spectacles.’ There was a cricket match organised for the passengers who travelled from the city to the port by train. It was ‘between the First and Second Saloons, and was played on the day after leaving Colombo, but there was no go in it. The players themselves took no interest in the game, so it was not to be wondered at that the passengers were indifferent.’ READ: Mahatma Gandhi’s son goes to jail to watch Don Bradman bat!

After the Great War, the fixture was supposed to be made a permanent one. Warwick Armstrong’s all-conquering Australians would have played there in early 1921 had their ship not been delayed on the way. Hence, it was in 1926 that the event was made regular and Herbie Collins led his men to a 37-run victory in the one day-one innings game at Colombo Cricket Ground.

The Don connection

When the Australians toured four years later, the one new name that filled the ground to capacity was a 21-year-old Don Bradman. A one-day game was arranged on April 2, against All-Ceylon at the Colombo Cricket Ground.

The match was played from 11 in the morning to six in the evening, attracting the biggest crowd ever in a cricket ground in Ceylon. However, that was not the only activity of the Australian tourists that day. READ: Clarrie Grimmett clean bowls Don Bradman, loses money

Their day started at 9 AM when the Colombo Cricket officials came on board the Orford to meet them. After equipping themselves with a topi each to combat the equatorial sun, the team travelled to Mt Lavinia by car, halted at Galle Face Hotel and had their full share of ‘rickshaws, cars, honk honk, policemen, bungalows, squirrel, native quarters and people’.

Their first stop was the Buddhist temple, where they went in after taking their shoes off. They mingled inside the orchids and perfumes for a while, before quickly scanning the Racecourse and the Fernandez Studios before reaching the cricket ground.

Australia batted against a spirited blend of local and expat talent. After Frederick Siedle had dismissed the youthful Stan McCabe for 20, the young genius walked in to join Bill Ponsford. Incidentally, it was The Don’s first ever innings outside Australia, and he made a sound, cautious 40 before being curiously hit-wicket off Neil S Joseph. The said bowler, an old Royalist boy, was playing for the first time for Ceylon, and primarily as a batsman. Bradman would be hit-wicket only once in his First-Class career, during the 1947-48 Test series against India.

Bill Ponsford batted on and made a fine 62, and Woodfull got 54 as Australia ran up a total of 233. It rained after that and the local team could bat only 19 overs to score 52 for 1. After the match, the players proceeded to have dinner at the Galle Face Hotel, the meal presided over by the Governor. It concluded at 10:30 PM when they caught the launch back to Orford. The ship pulled out at 11 PM. In his diary, Bradman noted the magnificence of the day, the quaint buildings, the foliage, lawns, gardens and coconut palms. He also mentioned that the standard of cricket in the island was quite high.

The Australians played in the island again, at the Nondescripts Cricket Ground in 1934, and the Vihara Mahadevi Park in 1938. In the latter game, there was cause for cheer as Jack Badcock and Lindsay Hassett scored centuries. But in both these matches, Bradman did not participate.

In 1934, he played deck tennis and deck quoits, but decided to sit out for the match in Colombo.

In 1938 he was the captain of the side, and a young five-year-old Colin Cowdrey, travelling to India on another ship, was told by his father that the yonder Ontores carried the Australian team and Don Bradman was among them. Cowdrey recalled later, “Clearly the Australians excited him (his father), but Bradman was God, or that was the impression he gave me.” However, the deity remained in the background as McCabe led the visitors in their match against the Ceylon team. READ: Don Bradman faces Englishmen for the first time

The second and final time he played in Colombo was in 1948, on the way to his farewell tour in England. By this time, according to RC Robertson-Glasgow, Bradman was ‘next to Winston Churchill as the most celebrated man in England.’

He was as celebrated elsewhere. One March 27, 1948, Colombo Oval was packed to see him play there for the first time since 1930. Bradman, who until a few days back was not sure whether he would be able to stand the strain of another tour of England, nevertheless, decided to go on the voyage, and to the immense delight of the local people, walked out to toss with Mahadevan Sathasivam.

(Bradman was NOT leading the Australian Services team in that photograph with Sathasivam. Checking the facts is not too difficult in today’s modern world, and it is unfortunate to witness uninformed nonsense dished out to the world. Bradman did not serve the Australian Army apart from briefly as Physical Training instructor, and did not ever play for the Australian Services side.]

Under the fierce sun, Bill Brown was leg before wicket for 3. Bradman was in earlier than he would have wanted to and scored a sedate 20 before being caught at cover off the off-spinner Russel Heyn.

The match ended in a tame draw with Australia declaring their innings at 184 for 8 and Ceylon reaching 46 for 2 when time was called. Incidentally, it was discovered later during the day, well into the second innings, that the match was being played on a 20-yard pitch. READ: Don Bradman: What if he played outside Australia and England?

The day ended with a sumptuous dinner at the Grand Oriental Hotel after which the Australian party boarded the Strathaird and proceeded to Bombay. Bradman decided to remain in the ship as it docked alongside Ballard Pier, even as Vijay Merchant, Pankaj Gupta and Anthony de Mello were obliged to come on board for a brief presentation ceremony. But that is another story.

The match on March 27 marked the end of the great man’s cricketing experience in the island. He did not set the island on fire with his exploits at the crease, but did lace it with an intriguing piece of history.

Brief Scores:

1930

Australia 233 (Bill Ponsford 62, Don Bradman 40, Bill Woodfull 54; Edward Kelaart 6 for 65) drew with Ceylon 52 for 1.

1948

Australia 184 for 8 (Sidney Barnes 49*, Keith Miller 46; Sathyendra Coomaraswamy 4 for 45) drew with Ceylon 46 for 2.

(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)