A 'greatest ever' athlete won Aussies some pride

Cricket fans the world over remember Don Bradman.

Outside the world of cricket, the passing of Sir Donald Bradman isn't likely to cause much comment. But from Bangladesh to Britain, among those millions of people for whom "googleys" and "silly mid-offs" are meaningful terms, the name Bradman carries the same power as Muhammad Ali or Joe DiMaggio. His career batting average alone - 99.94 runs per inning - qualifies him as the greatest cricket player ever. The day Nelson Mandela was released from a South African prison in 1990, this was one of the first questions to an Australian diplomat: "Is Don Bradman still alive?"

To Australians, who Sunday woke up to news of the nonagenarian's death, he stands out as one of only a handful of national icons, a figure historians and politicians go so far as to credit with helping create a national identity. "He was a dominant Australian personality in a way that I don't think any other person has been in the last 100 years," Prime Minister John Howard, a self-confessed cricket fanatic, told reporters.

In a remarkable sign of the esteem with which Australians held the man most knew simply as "The Don," the first half of Australia's half-hour nightly news Sunday was taken up with a tribute to Bradman, and Sydney's daily newspapers all rushed to publish special editions marking his death.

To try to explain the allure of Bradman the player to noncricket fans is as difficult as, well, explaining a sport that can last for days and is laced with obscure rules. Simply put, Bradman's batting average means that statistically he hit the cricketing equivalent of a grand slam every time he came to bat during a career that stretched from 1928 to 1948.

Less taxing is understanding the role Bradman played in Australian history and how he helped the one-time penal colony assert its independence from London.

According to historian John Molony, Bradman's rise in the 1930s acted as a distraction during the darkest depths of the Depression. He became a homegrown symbol of achievement for a country that had always looked to its colonial parent for models. "You've got to put Bradman as a cricketer in context ... the relationship between Australia and Britain," Mr. Molony says.

Cricket for years had provided the one thing Australians could do as well or better than the English, and Bradman's rise provided such a threat to the British that they devised an unsavory tactic to neutralize him. During a 1932-33 tour Down Under that became known at the "bodyline" series, England's cricketers bowled at the body, the baseball equivalent of pitching at the head of every Australian batter.

That series caused a change in cricket's rules and created Bradman the hero. He took blow after blow to his unprotected body and emerged having taken the high road, despite Australia's eventual loss. He gave Australians a self-confident role model they had never had before. It also, for almost the first time, cast the English as more than just friendly rivals and former colonial masters.

Bradman's greatness puts him in a select group of four as Australia's most sacrosanct icons, Molony says, with Ned Kelly (a 19th-century gangster and heroic version of Jesse James to Australians), Phar Lap (Australia's greatest racehorse), and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) soldiers who built a reputation for bravery on World War I battlefields.

One of India's most famous cricketers, Sunil Gavaskar, told Reuters that India, where a series of matches between Australia and India begin today, was in deep mourning for Bradman, who was knighted after retirement. "To Indians, for most of whom cricket is a religion, Sir Donald Bradman was god and there will be immense sadness ... at his passing," Mr. Gavaskar said.

An intensely private man, Bradman was typically more modest than his fans and urged a similar modesty in fellow athletes. For athletes to become great, Bradman once said: "They don't need wealth. They don't need power. They don't need anything else except the love of their family and some natural ability."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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