On This Day: The Monarch of all he surveyed

Sir Don Bradman was a cricketing monarch who will never have a successor. On the occasion of his 17th death anniversary, we dig out a tribute to the Australian great penned by the late Nirmal Shekar.

MELBOURNE, JANUARY 1997: An American lady, who works for a television company in New York and is visiting Australia to cover the year's first Grand Slam tennis championship, is busy finalising her post-tournament holiday itinerary down under. "Sydney habour.,.1 want to spend some time there. Then, the Gold Coast and the Great Barrier Reef," she says. "But, most of all, I want to get here, to this little town called Bowral." Bowral? What's in Bowral? Ah, yes, the museum! But, then, why would a woman from baseball country, one who has never witnessed a cricket match of any significance in her entire life, want to visit a museum commemorating the achievements of a cricketer?

PESHAWAR, OCTOBER 1998: Spurning a golden opportunity to become the first batsman to cross the 400 mark in an innings, or at least become the highest single innings run getter in history, Mark Taylor, the Australian captain, declares the innings closed with his personal score on 334 in the second Test against Pakistan. Why would he do that? Why would a cricketer let go of a marvellous opportunity to put his name in the record books, all alone, on top?

CHENNAI, SEPTEMBER 1998: A few kids are busy discussing their collection of cricket memorablia, sitting in the pavilion of the Madras Cricket Club, oblivious to the action on the field in a senior division league cricket match on a Sunday afternoon. "You know what?" says a chirpy 10-year old. "My uncle in Bombay got me Sachin's autograph." "So what?" asks another. "I have both Sachin's and Sourav's." The game of one-upmanship goes on and on until a boy of about 12 says something that silences everybody in the group. A hush descends when he mentions the name of the cricketer whose autograph was part of his collection. But why? Why would 10 and 12 year olds in Chennai even care to seek the autograph of a cricketer who, at that time, was 90 years old, one who played his last Test match in 1948, at a time their own fathers were not even born!

If all this doesn't seem real, then the answer to all these questions did not seem real, too, for a long time. And the answer is a name, THE name of cricket: Don Bradman.

When he did what he did — which is, bat like no man ever did, before or after — the Don didn't seem real because he didn't appear to be human. Could a mortal, a mere mortal, do all this, people wondered in disbelief in the 1930s and 1940s as the most prolific run-maker in history rewrote records by the dozen.

And the passing of time did nothing to alter the image of Bradman as some sort of superman, a freak of nature perhaps who functioned at an altitude no man, mere mortal, could aspire to, at an exalted zone that no other cricketer could so much as dream of.

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In an ephemeral world where everything has a limited appeal, in a sports world where every great accomplishment, every great career, has a limited shelf life when it comes to popular appeal, here was a man whose legend outgrew itself with each passing year, and whose persona seemed so hugely larger than life that no man who ever played the game of cricket - or, anybody who will ever play the sport in the foreseeable future - could remotely attempt to match it.

There were cricketers. And then there was the Don. There were mortals. And then there was the Superman.

Little wonder an American lady who's never seen a cricket match wanted to visit the Bradman Museum in Bowral. Little wonder Mark Taylor said that he'd rather be "bracketed with the Don" than go for Brian Lara's record. Little wonder 10-year old kids in Chennai recognise that the Bradman autograph is the most sought after in the world of cricket. Ah, Superman, that's the answer.

The Bradman Museum, in Bowral, always attracts a steady stream of visitors. Photo: The Hindu Archives

 

Let's pause here for a moment.

For, now, more than ever, now that the greatest is gone at the ripe old age of 92, it is important that we realise that Sir Donald George Bradman was no Superman. It would be a greater tribute to the memory of the greatest cricketer of all time if we realised that the Don was a mortal, a mere mortal, and that he accomplished all that he did within the limitations imposed by the qualification "mortal."

The most revered cricketer of all time did what he did not because he was a Superman but simply because he was resourceful enough, single-minded enough, resilient enough to stretch the limits of human possibility on a cricket field like no man before him, or after him, managed to.

Debilitating illnesses, occasional bouts of self-doubts, petty jealousies, war-like situations brought on by rivals willing to hit below the belt....the Don battled everything on his way to becoming the greatest cricketer that ever lived.

No batsman ever had such swift co-ordination of the eye, feet and brain as did the Don but more than everything else, more than even his compact technique and hunger for runs, the Don's greatest strength was his mind.

From the time he made 236 in his first match on English soil while still only 21, from the season during which he hit up a 131 in his first Test against England and then went on to make 254 at Lord's on debut and 309 in a day in Leeds, until the day he departed from the Test stage with a second ball duck, four runs short of the magic career Test average of 100, Bradman's was the finest mind in the sport.

Sir Donald Bradman poses with a bat in Adelaide, Australia, in this May, 1996 file photo, after he gave his first exclusive interview to a TV channel on his 87th birthday. Photo: The Hindu Archives

 

And it is precisely because of this it would be ridiculous to hang the tag Superman on The Greatest, simply because in a sporting context such a term would mean extraordinary physical prowess and reflect little of the sort of mental attributes that the Don brought to a cricket field.

It was this astonishing combination of physical and mental virtues that saw Bradman become the greatest batsman in history by miles rather than metres. To find comparisons to the great man, you have to reach beyond his sport, beyond cricket.

What other sportsman was so indisputably the best in his field? Muhammad Ali in boxing? Rod Laver and Pete Sampras in tennis? Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in golf? Michael Jordan in basketball and Pele in football?

Each of these sporting legends has done enough to be rated as the best in their own sport. But, perhaps, none of them has outstripped the competition as much as Bradman. For more than three quarters of a century, in a sport that is a numbers game more than most others, the all-time ranking list debate started from No. 2 down. Nobody even talked about or debated who the No. 1 was.

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About the time guns started booming signalling the beginning of World War II, in the Who's Who in England, Bradman was given 21 lines. Adolf Hitler had only eight more. And Josef Stalin had 17 fewer than the Don. That was how important a figure Bradman was in the cricket playing world.

And in a world where the spotlight keeps on moving, where yesterday's heroes often plummet to obscurity today, the Bradman mystique has endured more than 50 years after his retirement not long after the end of the Second World War. King George VI once asked a scorer if he used an adding machine to keep up with Bradman. Had the Don been playing in this era, the monarch's daughter would hardly have considered such a query in the age of super-computers.

But there can be no doubt at all that Bradman would have been as brilliant and prolific in any era, although in the one in which he played there was, occasionally, a question mark over his ability to last on sticky wickets.

Actually, men like Ray Robinson and Neville Cardus believed that Bradman's so-called problems on damp wickets were because he hated playing on less than perfect pitches, that technically he was wonderfully well equipped to play on any kind of minefield. But to have expected Bradman to be as prolific on bad pitches as he was on true surfaces was ridiculous. For, he was not Superhuman, merely the greatest man ever to touch a cricket bat.

Then again, from a larger perspective, to have the Mozart of cricket play on a damp wicket was like inviting a monarch to have dinner at a road-side eatery where truck drivers feast! And this was a monarch who'd never have a successor. The throne Sir Don Bradman occupied will always remain vacant, as empty as one's memory is brimful, overflowing with the gems of the great man's cricketing genius.

This tribute was published in Sportstar issue dated March 10, 2001.