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“As Virat Kohli’s men take the field in Sydney to try and wrap up India’s first series victory in Australia, perhaps the top order can take inspiration from this knock played 87-years ago by the world’s greatest cricketer less than eighty miles away from the SCG. Their strike rate this time could even be Bradmanesque”

As a dogged and determined Indian top order piled on the agony faster than runs last week at the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, endless discussions on strike rates once again dominated social media. Was there a devil in the pitch or was it just Pujara’s defensive mindset? Had Virat Kohli forgotten how to play his strokes? Was Rohit Sharma batting slowly to reinvent himself as a Test batsman? Would India pay dearly for this approach? The repartees and rejoinders came faster than the strokes from the reluctant Indian bats.

My history-obsessed mind (as it often does) shut off the chatter and wandered far from the slow-moving match to one played 87-years ago, a few hundred miles away from the MCG.  The pace of cricketing activity that summer’s day in 1931, had been substantially different.

Blackheath in New South Wales was hosting an exhibition match in the midst of the Blue Mountains just outside Sydney. Playing for the combined Blue Mountains team on a newly laid malthoid (usually used as a waterproofing layer on concrete or timber) wicket against the Lithgow Pottery Cricket Club, was a certain Donald Bradman.

Bradman walked in at the fall of an early wicket and set about scoring a scintillating 256 runs, 200 of which came in boundaries, keeping the spectators enthralled. But three special overs in the middle of this knock, were truly special and destined to go down in the history books.

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Bradman had just gone past his 50 when the Lithgow captain threw the ball to off-spinner Bill Black. Many years later Black would recall: “I stood at the bowler’s end and while I placed my field, Bradman was talking to the wicketkeeper, Leo Waters.” At the time Black paid no attention to the conversation. As things turned out, it might have been to his advantage if he had tried to listen in.

Black had come into the match with a certain reputation. Exactly two months earlier, in another exhibition match against the Kippax XI, he had clean bowled Bradman, as much to his own surprise as everyone else’s. In the early 1930’s, this was an event whose occurrence was so unprecedented in the countryside of Australia that the news had spread like wildfire. The ball had been mounted and presented to Black, who soon found himself treated as a celebrity. So when the captain of the Lithgow team threw Black the ball, it was with the expectation of a repeat of the performance from two months before.

The conversation between Bradman and wicketkeeper Waters then went as follows:

Bradman: What sort of bowler is this fellow?

Waters: “Don’t you remember this bloke? He bowled you in the exhibition match at Lithgow a few weeks ago and has been boasting about it ever since at your expense.” 

Shaking his head, Bradman wandered down the pitch to talk to his batting partner Wendell Bill. “I think I will have a go,” was reportedly the short message.

A Cricket Massacre Like No Other

Jack Fingleton, writing about Bradman in the June 1968 issue of World Sports in an article titled ‘The Most Remarkable Batsman I Knew’, had this to say about Don’s attitude towards batting:

“His fundamental thinking and love of Cricket were, if you like, basically sadistic. He loved the crash of the ball against the boundary-fence; he delighted in seeing the figures revolve against his name on the scoreboard; he loved to murder bowlers and make the opposing skipper look foolish.”

Fingleton goes on to add in the same essay: “To suggest – and he [Bradman] missed nothing of such suggestions – that a particular bowler had his measure, was to invite that bowler’s annihilation.”

Never would this be more apparent than in the next three overs at Blackheath that November day of 1931.

The second of the three overs were bowled by Horrie Baker. Bradman scored 40 off the over – 6,4,4,6,6,4,6,4.But right before that, it had been Black’s turn.

Armed with the insight from wicketkeeper Waters that Black had been boasting about his dismissal, the great man launched an onslaught rarely seen on Australian soil. 6,6,4,2,4,4,6,1 was the result, Bradman retaining the strike off the last ball, paving the way for his assault on Baker.

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The Lithgow captain, now at a loss about how to contain Bradman given the 40 runs that Baker had conceded, decided to give another chance to Black to work his magic. The results were spectacular.

Black was hit for 1,6,6,1,1,4,4,6 – Bradman’s partner Wendel Bill taking singles off the first and fifth deliveries. In three overs Bradman had knocked up 100 of the 102 runs scored.

Irving Rosenwater, in his essay – ‘Fireworks at Blackheath’ recounts that Black had to plead with his captain to be taken off. His figures at that point read: 2-0-62-0.

Contemporary accounts put the time taken for those three overs, including the not infrequent fetching of the ball from beyond the ropes, at eighteen minutes. If that is indeed the case, this might well have been the fastest 100 runs scored in terms of time, even taking into account the modern T20 game.

Bradman would say years later: “It’s important, I think, to emphasise that the thing was not planned. It happened purely by accident and everyone was surprised at the outcome, no one more than I. Wendell Bill became one of my staunchest friends, and in later years he said he got more notoriety out of the two singles he scored in those three overs than anything else he ever did in his life.”

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At the conclusion of the match, Blackheath’s Mayor Peter Sutton asked Bradman if he could keep the bat as a memento. Bradman replied that he could have it when he was finished using it. Some months later the bat arrived with an accompanying letter from the Don asking him to receive it as a gift as promised. The undated letter also mentioned that “I broke (the bat) at Callen Park last Tuesday’.”

The record books show us that Bradman played at Callen Park Mental Hospital on Tuesday 19 January, 1932. Between 02 November 1931 and 19 January 1932, Bradman scored a significant number of international runs, including a trio of three-figure knocks against South Africa – 226 on 27th November, 112 on 18th December and 167 on 31st December 1931. We can only assume that Bill Black was not the only opposition bowler that Aussie summer who pleaded with his captain to be taken off the firing line when Don Bradman with his self-branded Sykes bat went on the rampage.

As Virat Kohli’s men take the field in Sydney to try and wrap up India’s first series victory in Australia, perhaps the top order can take inspiration from this knock played 87-years ago by the world’s greatest cricketer less than eighty miles away from the SCG. Their strike rate this time could even be Bradmanesque.

 

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