Don Bradman landed in England in 1930, more eagerly awaited than any other cricketer had ever been.
The tales of his run-making were already approaching legendary proportions. 1586 runs at 113.28 in the just-ended Australian season, with the highest score of 452 not out, the highest ever in First-Class cricket till then, a score that most teams would be happy to achieve with all their eleven pitching in.
The Old Country had heard a lot about the 21-year-old, and not least because of his deeds in the Tests of the 1928-29 Ashes. True, that series had been the triumph of Wally Hammond. The Gloucestershire great had raced to 905 runs in the Tests, with two double hundreds, and a century in each innings of a Test. However, the young Bradman had also started with a bang, after his disappointing 18 and 1 on debut. 79 and 112 at Melbourne, 40 and 58 at Adelaide, and 123 and 37 not out when the series returned to Melbourne.
Percy Fender had written that Bradman was a curious mixture of good and bad batting, someone who was thoroughly unsound. Maurice Tate had quipped that he would never get a run in England. The words must have haunted these excellent gentlemen to their graves.
Bradman started the tour with 236 against Worcestershire, 185 not out against Leicestershire, a quiet period of the fifties and forties in four outings, before hammering 252 not out against Surrey. Surrey was led by Fender, who also opened the bowling attack in the match. By the time Bradman hit 191 against Hampshire, he had already passed 1000 runs in May.
They got him for 131 in the first Test at Trent Bridge, and when he was bowled by Walter Robins, the Australian challenge ended and England went one up. Curiously, that would be by far his lowest score of 100-plus in the Tests.
At Lord’s he hit 254 sublime runs, and England lost even though they had piled more than 400 in the first innings of a four-day Test.
Then there was Headingley. Bradman raced to 105 before lunch and ended the day with 309 against his name, taking his total on to 334 the following day. A world record in Tests at that time. And by the time he was caught behind off Harold Larwood for 232 at The Oval, newspaper headlines had to read just ‘He’s Out’ or people to make out what was going on.
All this while, back in Bowral, the tiny town from where this wonder-batsman hailed, a girl named Dorothy Pickle was busy jotting down the enormous scores that the local hero was amassing. She sat by the wireless for the news and learnt that Bradman had raced to score 85 before lunch on the third day at The Oval, thus reaching 112 by the break. On hearing of the century, she could not control her excitement. She gasped and swallowed the fountain-pen with which she had been documenting the scores.
Bradman took his score to 130 on the rain-truncated day and proceeded to score 98 more before lunch on the fourth morning. It was on the third afternoon, after rains, that the wicket developed a bit of spice and a fast and furious Larwood hit both Bradman and Archie Jackson on their bodies. And Douglas Jardine was watching. But that is a different story.
Back in Australia, Dorothy Pickle was rushed to a hospital in Sydney. Worried doctors treated her and managed to remove the pen lodged in her throat. And on recovering consciousness, Ms Pickle’s first words were, “He’s a great boy, isn’t he?”
Yes, Bradman’s saga of superlative run-making touched many lives … during the late 1920s and through the 1930s, while Australia, along with the rest of the world reeled from Great Depression, his runs, feats and milestones often provided the one ray of sunshine in gloomy, dark, despondent lives.
There was a certain amount of madness associated with the way folks followed the legend’s cricketing journey. And this madness often went a long way in keeping them sane.