Donald Bradman holds up a trophy

Bradman at 21, about to set sail for the 1930 Ashes, with a trophy for his world-record 452 made earlier in the year

© Getty Images
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Feature

Bradman as a boy

There were plenty of early indications that he would go on to be a cricket great

Ashley Mallett |

At Bowral Primary School in the summer of 1915-16, Don Bradman, not yet eight years old, built a reputation as a cricketer.

When the bell tolled to end another school day, Bradman didn't dally to chat with others. In a desperate rush to get home, he ran helter-skelter through the small township of Bowral, turned into Shepherd Street, hurdled a white picket fence, breezed through his front door, and tossing his school bag in the hall and grabbing his cricket bat, yelled, "C'mon Mum, how about bowling me down a few?"

Emily Bradman smiled. She discarded her apron, shifted the kettle on the stove and dutifully followed her son into the backyard. As Mrs Bradman wheeled down her own brand of left-arm deliveries, she could never have imagined that the small boy facing her at the other end of the back lawn would one day become the greatest batsman the world has known.

Born in Cootamundra on August 27, 1908, Bradman was the youngest of five children. His brother Victor was four years his senior, and there were three sisters, Islet, Lilian and May.

Using the round tank stand in the backyard, Don would take up his stance in front of the back door, which was the "wicket". Using a cricket stump as a bat, he would throw a golf ball at the tank stand, then attempt to hit it on the rebound

After the first two years of his life were spent in Yeo Yeo, the Bradmans moved to Bowral, where his father, George, a carpenter by trade, tried his hand at farming. As there were few boys of his age living nearby, Bradman pretty much was left to his own devices. More often than not he was forced to train alone, and his isolation became the mother of a remarkable method in gaining batting practice.

Using the round tank stand in the backyard, Don would take up his stance in front of the back door, which was the "wicket". Using a cricket stump as a bat, he would throw a golf ball at the tank stand, then attempt to hit it on the rebound. If he missed, he was usually "clean-bowled", as the back door presented a large target.

The golf ball came back at him at lightning speed and it helped him develop amazing reflexes. Don not only had to contend with the speed of the ball but also the manner in which it reacted after hitting the uneven ground on its way towards him.

He developed a method of recording the score. He wrote the names of famous cricketers such as Charlie Macartney and Johnny Taylor (Australia), Jack Hobbs and Frank Woolley (England) on scraps of paper and kept a running score. The power of the stroke determined how many runs he gave himself. If he belted the ball hard, it constituted a boundary. A stroke of slightly less power registered three runs, and so on.

Bradman (right) with his brother, Vic

Bradman (right) with his brother, Vic © Don Bradman

Games usually lasted two hours, each innings running half an hour. Whenever a left-hander batted (such as Woolley), Don would take his stance as a left-hander.

One day when his mother dropped a ball short to Don he swiftly went back and across and he pulled it like a shot out of a gun. Then mother and son watched in horror as the ball careered straight through the lounge-room window, where Lilian was at the piano practising her scales. So ended both lessons.

Don too was fond of the piano, and Lilian taught him well. For a number of years, Don was a choir boy at St Jude's Anglican Church in Bowral, where he regularly attended Sunday school. Later in life he entertained team-mates and tourists with his music on board ship and in taverns during his four trips to England with the Australian team. One of his own compositions, "Every Day is a Rainbow Day For Me", was introduced during a performance of the pantomime Beauty and the Beast at the Grand Opera House in Sydney in February 1931.

When Bradman was a boy, Bowral Primary School boasted little in the way of sporting facilities. He walked to school, and before lessons began, in the 15-minute recess, and in the 45-minute lunch break, the boys played a crude form of cricket. Stumps were drawn on the bell post and a bat was hewn from a branch of a gum tree. The ball was a composite of cork and rubber, and the pitch was red dirt.

He ran helter-skelter through the township, hurdled a white picket fence, breezed through his front door, and tossing his school bag in the hall and grabbing his cricket bat, yelled, "C'mon Mum, how about bowling me down a few?

The boys wore no pads or gloves, and helmets were something soldiers wore in the trenches of the Somme. The common playground separated the junior school from the high school. There was a "gateway" between the two pitches and Don would often stand there, longing to try his hand against the seniors. His chance would come soon enough.

An above-average student, he had a particular liking for mathematics, for which he won a gold medal. From early on, he yearned to be one up on all the others, and he used to try and race the master to find the answer to a maths problem before he had written it on the blackboard. Often he won the day, calling out the answer, much to the delight of his peers and the chagrin of the master.

He could express himself well and became a capable writer and good public speaker. Don played rugby union for the school, and in age-group races he was the school's champion at the 100 yards, 220 yards, the quarter-mile and half-mile. He was also an excellent tennis player.

Bradman's first bat, displayed at auction in 2008

Bradman's first bat, displayed at auction in 2008 © AFP

At the age of 11, he played in his first big cricket match. He was still in primary school, but made the team, which comprised mostly high-school boys and some from the junior school. They played a match at Glebe Oval (later renamed Bradman Oval). Don came in at the fall of the second wicket, facing a hat-trick. The first ball almost bowled him neck and crop, but he survived to hit 55 not out.

Next season Don scored his maiden century - the first of 211 hundreds he was to hit in all matches. This time he was representing Bowral Intermediate High School against their old rivals Mittagong. Don thrashed the Mittagong attack to the tune of 115 not out in a team total of 156.

Don's last match for the school was also against Mittagong. He hammered 72 not out and Bowral won. Some schools refused to play against Bowral if Bradman was in their team, and Mittagong went as far as to make a formal request to Bowral to leave Bradman out of the team or they would forfeit the match.

At the age of 12, Don acted as team scorer for the Bowral Town cricket team, which played in the Berrima District competition. When they went to games, his father drove an old truck and Don sat on a wooden box in the back.

Don stopped near the players' entrance at the SCG, the thrill of Macartney's enthralling batting fresh in his mind, and he said to his father, "I shall never be satisfied until I play at this ground"

George Bradman had been a good country bowler and handy batsman. As a youngster he won a gold medal for his efforts with the ball one summer and he wore the medal with pride on his watch chain.

One day a team member didn't turn up to the game, so Don got his chance, against Moss Vale. He batted at the fall of the eighth wicket, scoring 37 not out. The next week he was promoted to open the batting. Again he was unbeaten, hitting an unconquered 29.

Senior player Don Cupitt was so impressed with Don that he presented him with a full-sized cricket bat. It was his first real bat. The others he had owned had been fashioned from gum-tree branches. Don's father cut 7cm off the bottom to help the boy better handle its weight.

In the summer of 1920-21, George Bradman treated Don to a day at the Sydney Cricket Ground to watch an Ashes Test match. They caught the steam train from Bowral to Central Station, then a tram to the ground. The journey itself was an adventure for Don, who wore knickerbockers, a freshly pressed shirt, tie, waistcoat and cloth cap. His shoes shone like the new ball taken by the Australian fast-bowling pair, Ted McDonald and Jack Gregory.

Thanks to the fast men, England were dismissed for 204. Father and son sat near the fence at the Paddington End. Don was enthralled by the batting of Macartney, the dashing Australian No. 3, and his heart leapt when Macartney launched into a magnificent cover drive off the wily medium-pacer Percy Fender.

On the sidelines of a match against a West Indian side in New York, during Australia's tour of the USA in 1932

On the sidelines of a match against a West Indian side in New York, during Australia's tour of the USA in 1932 © Corbis

The history and tradition of the ground were as important to Don as the brilliance of the cricket. At the tea interval the Bradmans strolled about the famous SCG, revelling in the atmosphere. Don stopped near the players' entrance, the thrill of Macartney's enthralling batting fresh in his mind, and he said to his father, "I shall never be satisfied until I play at this ground."

Don left school at the age of 14, taking a job as a clerk in a real estate firm. Amazingly, at the age of 15 he gave cricket away completely, concentrating on his other sporting love, tennis. However, he returned to the fold the next season, and by the time he was 17, Don was a team regular and secretary of the Bowral Town cricket team.

Late in the 1925-26 season Bowral found itself pitted against Wingello. More than just a rivalry, the Bowral-Wingello contests were tantamount to war. Wingello boasted 19-year-old Bill O'Reilly, a big, cumbersome quickish spinner who was something of a "warrior bowler".

The much awaited Bradman-O'Reilly clash was seen by many as local cricket's version of David and Goliath. The day arrived and O'Reilly smiled when he saw Bradman struggle in his oversized pads to get to the crease, but he soon learnt not to take the youngster lightly. After three let-offs early in his innings, Bradman flayed the Wingello attack, O'Reilly included. At the end of the first day, Bradman was unconquered on 234.

The day arrived and O'Reilly smiled when he saw Bradman struggle in his oversized pads to get to the crease, but he soon learnt not to take the youngster lightly

Big Bill threw back his head and bellowed for justice. The match was played over two Saturdays, so O'Reilly spent all week bowling at his family's unguarded gate, hell-bent upon revenge.

My poem tells the tale:

The Battle of Bowral

The Battle of Bowral in '25
Saw Bradman the Boy come alive.
His first joust with Tiger, Goliath of Spin,
200 not out, Don Bradman must win.

At 30 a leg-break caught The Don's bat,
An edged chance to slip; a drop and a drat.
Young Don escaped the chance of the flight:
First slip, the skipper, was lighting his pipe!

A flurry of fours and sixes to boot,
O'Reilly at day's end a sorry young coot.
The Don stood supreme, the hint of a grin;
Bill's belly on fire, his head in a spin.

Don so fluent, so strong and so keen,
Tiger's red hair stood out from his spleen.
The cocky young bat from Bowral had done
More than enough to ensure they had won.

At two-thirty-four, the Don left the field,
Raging O'Reilly refusing to yield.
All through the week Bill bowled at a gate,
Bradman the Boy made the Tiger irate.

O'Reilly the demon had n'er been caned,
Don hammered Big red, he cannot be blamed.
For Spin King O'Reilly to fume and to scheme,
The Don, bowled O'Reilly: 'Impossible Dream?'

Fuming O'Reilly bowled full steam ahead,
He dreamed of revenge as he tossed in his bed.
Seven days of pure hell, no fitting reward,
For Spin King O'Reilly put to the sword.

Second day of the match yet to be played,
O'Reilly's revenge: no more to be flayed.
Townsfolk in droves arrived just in time
To see the young warriors: a battle sublime.

They saw O'Reilly bowl that first spinning ball,
Young Don tapped his bat, a wicket must fall.
Arms wheeling away in the hot noon sun,
O'Reilly moved in; his homework was done.

Don eyed with suspicion that O'Reilly first ball,
His footwork so keen, his score so tall.
The ball fairly buzzed, an ace and a trump,
It pitched leg perfect and hit the off-stump!

Where it all began: the cottage in Cootamundra where Bradman was born

Where it all began: the cottage in Cootamundra where Bradman was born Andrew Taylor / © Fairfax Media/Getty Images

Bradman was soon playing for the St George Club in Sydney. At the age of 18 he was the A grade captain. He had found digs with the leading New South Wales Cricket Association administrator Frank Cush.

One Friday, Don called in to see a doctor for a dental check.

In a letter later in life, Sir Donald wrote: "The dentist said I had pyorrhoea and must lose one of my double back teeth."

"Always trusting my medical advisers, I said 'okay.' But before I left the chair, he had removed six teeth, three on each side."

Nursing a bruised and swollen face, young Don caught the bus home, where he lay on a sofa, a large bowl by his side. When Mrs Cush arrived home from shopping she found Don on his side. Alarmed at the sight of all the blood she rang the doctor, who advised Don not to play next day.

Don left school at the age of 14, taking a job as a clerk in a real estate firm. Amazingly, at the age of 15 he gave cricket away completely, concentrating on his other sporting love, tennis

"I was captain and I didn't want to let the side down, so I played," Bradman recalled. He sent the opposition in and St George bowled them out by 4.30pm. Much to the annoyance of the big crowd, Bradman didn't come in at the fall of the first wicket. He waited until the eighth wicket fell and then walked out.

"I was roundly booed by the spectators - the only time I can remember - who knew nothing of the drama being enacted behind the scenes."

Don Bradman survived to fight on the following Saturday. This time he was fully fit. He scored 116 not out. St George won the match and Bradman wrote: "I went from villain to hero."

Like he would many times in future on the biggest stages in the game, he had taken the game by the scruff of the neck and dominated like no other batsman.

Ashley Mallett took 132 wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson, Ian Chappell, and most recently of Dr Donald Beard, The Diggers' Doctor

 

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