Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series…….
Quote: He’s a great boy, isn’t he?
By: Dorothy Pickle, August 19, 1930.
You need not to be mathematically inclined to remember certain numbers. Consider your pin (or zip) code, for example; or your year of birth; or the number of days in a week; or 99.94.
Wherever you are on the planet, the nearest person to acknowledge the phrase “ninety-nine point nine four” is never too far away.
Even after seven decades of his retirement, Don Bradman continues to remain a stumbling block for even the staunchest members of the numbers-mean-nothing cricket fans.
And yet, mind-boggling as they were, the Bradman phenomenon transcends numbers – for unlike almost every other cricketer, Bradman was not merely an on-field performer. The impact was wide and far-fetched enough to enliven Australian spirits in the dark days of the early 1930s.
Our story should begin with the 1929 Wall Street Crash that ended on October 29 (fittingly remembered as Black Tuesday). Never since then has global economy faced a setback of this order.
Several Australian sectors had been hit by strikes even before that, since the second half of the 1920s, when the nation had still not recovered from the 60,000 deaths in The Great War. The economy that once thrived on massive exports of wheat and wool now reached a nadir they had never known before.
Strikes became particularly common in the timber and mining industries, where working conditions were unsatisfactory. Unemployment in Australia was already 12% (source: solidarity.net.au) when Wall Street crashed. Things went further downhill from there.
The Australian GDP fell by 10% between 1929 and 1931. Unemployment rates soared, hitting the 30%-mark by 1932. The slow recovery started that year, but the average unemployment rate between 1930 and 1934 still read 23.4%.
Unlike USA, however, the Australian Government refused to adopt the Keynesian model of spending more to recover from Depression.
Australia were hit by the obvious symptoms of an economic crisis – mass poverty, serpentine queues for a handful of jobs, even an increase in suicide rates.
There was little to look forward to, but the Australians – the great sporting nation that they always have been – found solace in sports. In this, they found two surprisingly contrasting heroes.
Phar Lap, the first, was a thoroughbred racehorse who won 37 of the 51 races he entered in including 14 in a row. This also included the Agua Caliente Handicap of 1932 in Mexico. Phar Lap died under mysterious circumstances in California before he turned five.
The other was Bradman, whose first outstanding summer was the one when the Depression hit Australia. A year into the gloom, Mark Gosling, Chief Secretary of New South Wales Ministry, would acknowledge that “Bradman is the Phar Lap of cricket.”
It was the greatest compliment paid to him, for both transcended the boundaries of mere entertainment. When Sam Loxton (an Invincible of the 1948 tour) mentioned how Bradman “lit up the nation,” he was not exaggerating.
But let us return to cricket. Bradman had an excellent (by anyone else’s standards, that is) debut Test series in the 1928-29 Ashes at home, but his 468 runs at 66.85 were drowned by Wally Hammond’s world-record 905 runs at 113.12.
Nevertheless, he kept dominating Australian domestic cricket. In 1928-29 he had already scored 1,690 runs at 93.88. He improved on that average the next season, with 1,586 runs at 113.28. This included a world-record unbeaten 452 against Queensland, off just 465 balls.
All of 21, he visited England next summer and became the first overseas batsman (and youngest ever) to a thousand runs by May. He would finish the summer with an incredible 2,960 runs at 98.66. Duleepsinhji (2,562) finished second that season but scored at 56.93. In fact, nobody else averaged even 65.
The Test series alone fetched Bradman 974 at 139.14, pushing Hammond’s numbers from 1928-29 into the background. He scored 131 at Trent Bridge, 254 at Lord’s, 334 at Headingley (of which 309 were scored in a single day), and 232 at The Oval – failing only at Old Trafford, a ground he could never master.
Not even WG Grace in the mid-1970s had achieved something this extraordinary. Massive crowds queued up at English grounds to watch him flog their own bowlers to every corner of the ground. And the British media gave in to superlatives.
The English cricket fraternity went overboard: “Bradman, indeed, has become a menace to the gentlemen of the Press. Even with four dictionaries at our elbows, he leaves us gasping … I am tempted to say also that today he is the greatest athlete or sporting figure in the wide world,” wrote Trevor Wignall of The Daily Express.
Spotting a successor to Jack Hobbs was the ultimate honour an English newspaper could pay him, and The Daily Herald did exactly that. “This mere boy is leaving behind records on which we thought any cricketer could safely rest,” they added.
Plum Warner had nothing but superlatives to offer: “You may talk of Alexander, Hercules, Trumper and Macartney, but this young Australian is a super-batsman and the equal of anyone.”
Percy Fender, one of the most astute strategists of all time, had predicted Bradman’s failure in England after he watched him in 1928-29? “Until we saw Bradman this summer, I do not think any of us realised that it was possible to be so really brilliant without taking risks,” he had to admit.
The Times had some good-humoured criticism to offer: “The most ardent of brighter cricket could ask no more of him, except, perhaps, that he should occasionally – say rather oftener than once in a hundred or so – put a ball in the air.”
Umpire Frank Chester, after only the second Test Bradman played on English soil: “I left the Lord’s Test in 1930, after watching Bradman, firmly convinced that he was the greatest batsman of all time.”
Tributes poured in from the Royal Family as well: “It was a great pleasure to His Majesty [George V] … to have the opportunity to watch Mr Bradman bat.”
But the most delightful anecdote of them all was mentioned by Irving Rosenwater in his seminal biography of Bradman. Back in his hometown at Bowral, one Dorothy Pickle was glued to the wireless, keeping scores. When Bradman reached his hundred in The Oval Test, an overexcited Dorothy swallowed her pen and had to be rushed to the hospital. On regaining consciousness, her first words were: “He’s a great boy, isn’t he?”
A similar story has been said of Hanif Mohammad’s 337 against West Indies, but that is generally considered anecdotal.
He was given a hero’s welcome back home when the victorious team returned with the urn. However, not all his colleagues were overtly happy at Bradman’ getting the lion’s share of attention; they made little effort to hide their feelings to the media. “Perhaps bolstered by the confidence of their home surroundings [they] were beginning to talk about Bradman,” theorised Rosenwater.
Having seen the Depression at close quarters, Bradman would set out to accumulate wealth as single-mindedly as he pursued runs, which would make him more and more popular as the years passed by. But none of that mattered.
Throughout the England tour, as reports were cabled back home, the average Australian found something to celebrate. No, they did not hail Bradman as God – a moniker India would bestow upon Sachin Tendulkar in the 1990s. He was no messiah. He would not solve the real problems. That would take years to get sorted.
But he brought rare smiles on faces in destitute families fed by soup kitchens. And his career outlived the Depression, even a Second World War, as Australia regained her stature. It culminated in 99.94, a number even the greatest cynic will hesitate to argue with.
The number is not supposed to evoke romance unless you have sold your soul to mathematics. But then, The Great Depression was anything but an era of romanticism.
“He was, for the army of the unemployed, their beacon of hope,” The Times would write in his obituary over seven decades later.