Page last updated at 12:06 GMT, Saturday, 23 August 2008 13:06 UK

Australia's 'Elvis of cricket'

If Australians were asked to name a national hero, they may well refer to Sir Donald Bradman. Nick Bryant made a pilgrimage to the hometown of cricket's first superstar.

Sir Donald Bradman
Sir Donald Bradman died on 25 February 2001

To visit the sleepy town of Bowral, New South Wales, feels a little like making the journey to Memphis, Tennessee.

For lovers of the bat and ball, it offers the same sense of pilgrimage as Graceland does for fans of rock and roll.

True, there is none of the gaudy glitz and little of the tacky memorabilia that adorns the home of Elvis.

But as you drive into Bowral, you are greeted with an over-sized cricket ball, just as the gates of Elvis's mansion are adorned with electric guitars. This the home of a man known reverentially as "the Don", Sir Donald Bradman, cricket's unrivalled "king".

Schoolboy century

The museum in which he is memorialised is a treasure trove of baggy green caps, antique willow bats and dog-eared newspaper clippings which record his batting heroics.

Outside is the most holy of turf, The Bradman Oval, where, at the age of just 12, "the Boy from Bowral" scored his first century.

There is also a bronze statute featuring the diminutive batsman in characteristic pose, raising his cap to receive the approbation of the crowd, as he celebrated yet another hundred.

Like most cricket fans, I have never seen Bradman play. I have watched only a few grainy snippets of black and white news reel and heard the warm crackle of a few radio commentaries.

Rare duck

Instead, I know Bradman by a number - 99.94 - his batting average when his test career was brought to a sooner-than-expected halt.

The baggy green cap worn by Australian cricketers
Donald Bradman was knighted in 1948 for services to cricket

The story behind that fabled statistic offers cricket's Heartbreak Hotel. In his final innings for Australia, at the Oval in 1948, Bradman needed just four runs to end his career with a magical average of 100.

But he was deceived by a googly and suffered the agony of scoring nought.

Whatever the reasons, he ended with an average of 99.94, the game's most celebrated statistic.

That frustrating, four-digit figure continues to wield a special fascination. Days before the official centenary, cricket tragics (as fanatical fans are known here) gathered in Sydney for a special celebration to mark the 99.94 anniversary of his birth. It was a dinner where duck did not feature on the menu.

At a shade under a 100, Bradman's average is still 30 runs better than that of his closest rival. Indeed, so complete has been his domination of cricket that his name is attached to sport's ultimate accolade, "the Bradman of...".

By this standard, Tiger Woods is viewed as the "Bradman of golf". Michael Phelps is surely the "Bradman of swimming". Perhaps the Jamaican Usain Bolt will become "the Bradman of sprinting". The superlative figures in their respective sports.

Wartime codeword

Well known is how Bradman was the subject of a diplomatic row between Australia and Britain, the famed Bodyline series of the early 1930s, when English fast bowlers targeted their deliveries at his small physique in an unsporting attempt to negate his extraordinary skills.

Less well known is that his name has been used a codeword in war.

When the Allies stormed the Italian mountain stronghold of Monte Cassino in 1944, they did on the signal: "Bradman will be batting tomorrow."

Bowral, Australia

Of course, Bradman also occupies a uniquely special place in the Australian national imagination.

Only the outlaw Ned Kelly has inspired more biographers, while the Howard government felt the need to pass legislation to protect his name from corporate exploitation.

New immigrants wanting citizenship of Australia are asked to identify him in their qualifying test.

The question was apparently included at the insistence of Australia's former Prime Minister John Howard, whose career is thought to have gone into decline when a sycophantic cabinet minister labelled him "the Bradman of Australian politics".

International recognition

Bradman was certainly central in moulding his young country's national identity, and the simple fact that he became the scourge of English bowlers only heightened his patriotic appeal.

Through the years of Great Depression he provided long summer days of entertainment and escape. He also proved to be the ideal figurehead as Australia sought international recognition through sports.

In other ways Bradman defies the national stereotype. He was serious-minded and frugal, the temperamental polar opposite of the irreverent larrikin that Australians often like to venerate.

With a strict Calvinist work ethic (remember that backyard water tank), he was far from laid back.

Perhaps Bradman's hero status also speaks of the biographical gaps in Australian history. The country cannot boast an Abraham Lincoln or a George Washington, so Bradman is left to satisfy that national need for an idol, a sporting and cultural force.

Personally, I am tempted to call him the "Elvis of cricket", or is Presley the "Bradman of rock and roll?"

From Our Own Correspondent will be broadcast on Saturday, 23 August, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Bradman's last Test cap sold
30 Jun 03 |  Cricket
Cricket mourns Sir Donald Bradman
26 Feb 01 |  Death of Don Bradman


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