Wednesday 9 January 2013

Greatest Sportsman of All Time - The Case for Sir Donald Bradman

Test record: 6,996 runs in 80 innings at an average of 99.94 (29 centuries)

It is a rare phenomenon indeed where an individual can be undisputedly and universally acknowledged as the finest to have ever participated in a sport. It is rarer still for that individual to be recognised as the greatest there ever will be, despite seemingly no human being beyond Mystic Meg and the recently unmasked Eric Bristow possessing the gift of foresight. 

For Pele, there is Maradona. For Nicklaus, there is Woods. For ‘The Don’, there is no rival. He stands alone.

Such are the statistics of Donald George Bradman. Plying his trade throughout the 1930’s and 40’s in the famous ‘baggy green’ of Australia, Bradman compiled a record almost twice as formidable as anyone else in the history of Test cricket. In a sport harking back to 1877, that is an astonishing feat. Bradman’s final Test average of 99.94 grows all the more impressive when you consider that the widely recognised barometer for a modern batsman attaining greatness is, in comparison, a mere 50. For a sportsman to be so far afield of his predecessors, contemporaries and successors is surely unique.

Perhaps indicative of the supremacy asserted almost every time The Don walked to the crease, former Australia captain Bill Woodfull proclaimed Bradman to be “worth three batsmen to Australia.” Where a team scoring 300 in one day is classed as operating at a fairly brisk pace, Bradman once single handedly made 309 on the first day of a Test against England at Headingley. Such dominance of bat over ball was unusually rare in the age of uncovered pitches, and remains so in today’s comparatively batsman friendly era.

Despite being the holder of records that will likely never be challenged in anger, let alone broken, statistics are but one facet of what makes a great sportsman. It often takes a truly inspirational individual to transcend the sport within which they participate. Much as Muhammad Ali transcended the sport of boxing, Don Bradman transcended cricket. Bradman emerged during a period of great economic hardship in Australia, and through the sheer force of his on-field performances it is said gave happiness and hope to a populace in the midst of depression.

You can't tell youngsters today of the attraction of the fellow. I mean, business used to stop in the town when Bradman was playing and likely to go in - all the offices closed, the shops closed; everybody went up to see him play. – England bowler Bill Bowes, 1983

Bradman would go on to exhibit a further trait of any world class sportsman: success in the face of adversity. After scoring an extraordinary 974 runs at an average of 139.14 in the 1930 Ashes tour of England, Bradman was infamously targeted by hostile and aggressive ‘Bodyline’ bowling during the 1932-33 return series in Australia – a theory designed with the sole intention of taking Bradman’s wicket, whereby the English fast bowlers would deliberately target the body of the batsman with a packed leg-side cordon of fielders lying in wait – The Don was almost rendered mortal with a series average of 56.57 (still a world class average by anyone’s standards). It was his own controversial tactic of combating bodyline by backing away and hitting the ball in an unorthodox manner in to the vacant off-side that won Bradman plaudits for attempting to find a solution to Bodyline.

It should be noted that, despite the whole of Australia being in uproar over the “vicious and unsporting” tactics employed by the English captain Douglas Jardine, and despite his own misgivings, Bradman conducted himself with dignity throughout and fought the onslaught in the way he knew best – by scoring runs. ‘Bodyline’, or ‘fast leg theory’ as it was also known, would later be outlawed.

Somewhat ironically, and perhaps unfortunately, the great Don Bradman is as much remembered for his final innings than the unsurpassed genius that had carved a path of destruction through the cricketing world wielding but a plank of willow in the preceding years. Striding to the crease at The Oval in 1948, Bradman required a mere 4 runs from his final Test innings to ensure an overall perfect Test average of 100. Whether through the emotion stirred in The Don through the adulation of the English crowd and opponents as he walked out that day (as much cheers of relief that his utter dominion over England’s bowlers was nearing an end, perhaps?), or the cricketing Gods inflicting a cruel twist of fate as if to reclaim the immortality they had lent him, Bradman was bowled for a duck by Warwickshire leg-spinner Eric Hollies, thus ending his career with that infamous average of 99.94 – a now magical figure in its own right. It will never be bettered.

Next to Mr. Winston Churchill, he was the most celebrated man in England during the summer of 1948. His appearances throughout the country were like one continuous farewell matinĂ©e. A miracle has been removed from among us. So must ancient Italy have felt when she heard of the death of Hannibal – cricket writer R.C. Robertson-Glasgow upon Bradman’s retirement, 1949

Sir Donald Bradman died in February of 2001 aged 92. It would have come as a surprise to many that he failed to get out of the 90’s. There are numerous others with a rightful claim to being the greatest sportsman that ever lived, but in Bradman there has surely never been another so superior to their peers. A genius, an icon and a gentleman; The Don satisfies all of the criteria. 

Sir Donald George Bradman was, without any question, the greatest phenomenon in the history of cricket, indeed in the history of all ball games. – Wisden Almanack


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments of this piece.

    For me the most important measure of how goo Bradman was is that he was so far ahead of those he played with and against. They are many arguments, and many of them fair, as to why it is tough to compare eras but with an average more than 40 ahead of the next best in his own era tells the tale.

    1. And it's not like the rivals he averaged 40+ more than were ordinary cricketers. Some people try to say the Don played in easier times and that his average is therefore inflated. But this does a huge disservice to other fine batsmen of his age. For instance, both Hobbs and Hammond are regularly included in all-time England XIs despite averaging much less than the Don in those so-called easier times.

  2. Completely agree, guys.

    I saw one comment suggesting that Bradman's average translates to '50 or 60' in today's terms. So, by that reckoning, would the likes of Hobbs and Hammond average in the 30's? I think not. It takes an incredible amount of talent, skill, dedication and concentration to average nigh on 100 regardless of the bowling attack and pitches confronted with; the fact that Bradman managed this in the face of Bodyline, uncovered pitches and minimal protection says a heck of a lot about just how extraordinary he was.

    Thanks for the comments.