Don Bradman and Wally Hammond had never been the best of friends.
The series that saw The Don make his entry into Test cricket was the same one that established Hammond as the best batsman in the world. As the 20-year-old Bradman fought his way to a few sterling innings in his very first series, the Gloucestershire maestro hammered 905 runs in that 1928-29 encounter. A record for Ashes and any other series, firmly underlining his claims as the supreme willow wielder in the world.
Alas, the triumph was all too brief. When Australia landed in England in 1930, Bradman reeled off 131, 254, 334 and 232. A total of 974 runs in 5 Tests, at 139.14, a record that stands intact till today.
Bradman took over the mantle of the world’s foremost batsman and held it for the next two decades. And Hammond, a man with a sour disposition, supposedly caused by mercury treatment of a near-terminal disease, could never quite digest it.
In quiet moments at Bristol, his Gloucestershire team-mates could often hear him exclaim “f**** Bradman!”
Both men were loners. And they never saw eye to eye.
When Hammond waited for the medical certificate assuring that Bradman would not be able to bat at The Oval in 1938 and only then declared with the score at 903 for 7, it did not amuse The Don. In fact, much of the demolition rendered by Australia after the Second World War was a result of that mammoth innings and the way it blackened the mind of Bradman.
Yet, when the post-War Englishmen travelled down to play against Bradman’s men in late 1946, the captains smiled at the camera. It was billed as the Goodwill Tour, a celebration of cricket and peace as the mayhem of the past years was finally over.
But, to Bradman Ashes was no place for Goodwill. Hammond had been part of the ‘Victory Tests’, the wonderful series contested by the Australian Servicemen and the English side to celebrate the end of the War. Cricket had been spellbinding, entertaining and full of excellent spirit. He had promised his men the time of their life as they had embarked for Australia.
But Bradman had had a completely different War. He had joined as a student at the School of Physical and Recreational Training at Frankston, Victoria. Some say he desperately wanted to portray himself as ready to serve in the War effort. In fact, his biography Farewell to Cricket is full of such claims.
However, he soon developed physical problems. A ‘muscular trouble which had bothered me on and off before’ now plagued him. It was fibrositis. His eyesight was also below par. In April 1941, he was taken off the Army roster. Just 5 days later, he was placed on the retired list. With his wife and newborn daughter, he retired to Bowral, his hometown, and painfully battled his ailment. He found it difficult to even raise his arm and lost all feeling in the thumb and index finger in his right hand. According to Bradman, the feeling did not return even when he played Test cricket again. In June 1941, he was formally discharged from the Army.
The Biggest War Bradman knew had been fought on the cricket grounds, and was always billed as The Ashes. He had planned his War Campaign, recruiting the fearsome fast men named Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller. Lindwall specifically delighted him. He had not forgotten the Bodyline attack with Harold Larwood baying for his blood. Lindwall’s approach reminded him so much of Larwood.
What about his own form? Was he up to the rigours of Test cricket after his illness during the War?
Bradman did not tour New Zealand when Bill Brown led the men across the Tasman Sea. He was too ill. He did score 112 against the Services Team for South Australia at Adelaide, but it was a hesitant innings. Numerous leg-before appeals against him were turned down.
It was yet to be seen whether he could get back to his fantastic ways in Test cricket.
So, at Brisbane, when debutant Arthur Morris was caught at slip off Alec Bedser, the focus of the cricket world turned to the 38-year-old walking out with the score at 9 for 1. He was playing his first Test innings after 8 and a half years.
He began uncertainly. JM Kilburn wrote, “Bradman’s success through his opening minutes was close to miraculous.” Hammond, however, did not mince any word: “He began like a schoolboy.”
Bedser beat him time and again. Sidney Barnes actually at the other end supposedly shielded his captain. After an hour or so, Barnes was brilliantly caught by Bedser at square-leg off the leg-spin of Doug Wright.
Then it happened.
Bill Voce was in his late thirties, not remotely as scary as his Bodyline days, but still, fit enough to bowl for England. Bradman, having progressed to a chancy 28, tried to chop him wide of the slips. The stroke flew to Jack Ikin at second slip, at chest height. The Lancashire man clutched it, delighted. Hammond, standing at first slip had no doubt at all that it was a catch. The fielders converged upon the bowler, in obvious glee, running and clapping.
And then they noticed that Bradman was standing his ground.
Was there a need to appeal? The Englishmen did not think so. In any case, the question was asked, confused, belated.
In Hammond’s words: “Bradman was idly looking away over the square-leg boundary as if there was nothing to decide.”
Bradman himself said that he would not have remained there had he been sure that he was out.
Umpire George Borwick was not sure. He looked towards his colleague standing at square-leg. There stood Jack Scott, a man who had given Bradman not out to Cec Pepper’s appeals for a leg before wicket again and again during the 112 at Adelaide. And Scott said he could not be sure.
At the end of the series, Scott wrote that it had indeed been a bump ball.
So, to the shocked disbelief of the English fielders, Bradman was given a reprieve. According to a fellow England fielder, Hammond was ‘blazingly angry’. At the end of the over, the England captain passed Bradman on the pitch and made his famous remark, “A fine f***ing way to start a Test series.”
Within 90 minutes of the first day, the Goodwill part of the series had gone up in smoke.
And Bradman? Well, he scored 187. The innings ensured that his Test career continued without missing the huge 8-year beat. In the next Test, at Sydney, he hit 234.
In fact, when the War had paused cricket, The Don had 5093 runs at 97.94. His post-War career saw 1903 runs at 105.72.
Would he have been able to return to the highest form of the game in this blazing glory if he had made just 28 in his comeback innings? Well, he was Bradman after all. Chances seem to be overwhelming he would have returned with some humongous scores immediately after that.
Yet, Bradman, like any great name in cricket, had his share of critics. Keith Miller for one felt it was a clear edge, although how he could be so sure from the distant pavilion remains a mystery.
Some of the critics do voice the opinion that a quick dismissal for Bradman that day could have seen a completely different history of cricket, The Ashes, and the man himself.