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Tuesday, February 27, 2001

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The Don, 1908-2001

FEW SPORTSMEN, IF any, dominated their sport in the manner that Sir Donald Bradman did. His supremacy was total, his stature unrivalled, his achievements incomparable. He was cricket's greatest hero; about this there is no argument. More astonishing is the likelihood - something that seems more and more probable by the day - that no batsman will ever surpass him. All sporting records get broken at one time or another but Bradman's wears a look of astonishing invincibility. His average of 99.94 runs from 52 Test matches towers above the rest of the batting world. No one has come close and the second batsman on this list, the hugely-talented Graeme Pollock, averaged an impressive but still distant 60. Statistics may lie but in Bradman's case they only reinforce his peerless ability. In his exceptional career, this Australian legend notched up a century every three times he went out to bat, scored a phenomenal 974 runs in his first tour of England, as many as 309 of them in one single day. If Bradman's career had not been curtailed by the outbreak of the Second World War, he would have rewritten the record books even more thoroughly.

In a perverse way, perhaps the greatest tribute paid to Bradman was the devising of a controversial strategy to counter him. In the 1932-33 tour of Australia, the dour and shrewd English Captain Douglas Jardine directed his two strike bowlers, Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, to employ Bodyline - the use of consistently intimidatory short-pitched bowling aimed at the body. It destroyed the Australians but if the tactic worked against Bradman, it did so only partially. The Don ended that series with an average of 56 which, even if somewhat low by his own standards, is a figure most other batsmen would be proud of. He was 39 years old when he captained Australia in a Test series against India and close to retirement. But he crossed the 100 mark four times during the series (once to make the last of the six double centuries in his career), reinforcing his already legendary status in this country.

Bradman retired from Test cricket in 1948 and among cricket lovers today, only those belonging to a certain generation were privileged to have watched him. For the rest of us, he lived through his statistics, through narratives about his heroic exploits and, most of all, through the hazy black and white film clips which show him cutting and pulling the ball with the self- assuredness that marked his life both on and off the crease. Bradman did not possess the fancy footwork and the exaggerated artistry of Victor Trumper. Neither did he display the natural flamboyance of Garfield Sobers or Vivian Richards. When The Don was at the crease, batting was distilled into science, organised around first principles, built around a ruthless efficiency and shaped for the relentless accumulation of runs. He was the ultimate thinking man's cricketer. Although blessed with tremendous eyesight and natural ability, Bradman's genius was honed by sheer hard work. Anecdotes about the young boy, who was born in New South Wales in 1908, working at improving his batting by practising with a golf ball and a cricket stump are now the stuff of cricket legend. Following his retirement from the game, Bradman served as a administrator and was, over the last few decades, regarded as an elder statesman for the game. His death, on the eve of the first match of the Test series between Australia and India, represents the end of an era. Bradman held a special place in the collective psyche of the cricket world. His passing away will be mourned by all those who love the game.

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