As a grim and un­com­pro­mis­ing com­peti­tor

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Tom Gilling

ex­pe­ri­enced com­bat. ‘‘ Most fa­mously,’’ Knox writes, ‘‘ Miller derided the pres­sure a mere crick­eter faced, no mat­ter how Brad­man-like his sta­tus; real pres­sure was ‘ hav­ing a Messer­schmitt up your arse’.’’

Knox con­tin­ues: ‘‘ That lay at the heart of Miller-ver­sus-Brad­man: one man, his nerves dam­aged by war, wish­ing to play cricket as a game, ver­sus an­other one who spent the war as an in­valid, yet re­turned to the field to wage cricket as war with­out the shoot­ing. It also lay at the heart of Eng­land’s am­biva­lence over the way Brad­man led his 1948 team.’’

Af­ter the se­ries was over, some of the top English play­ers ‘‘ wrote scathingly of Brad­man’s sports­man­ship’’. As Edrich saw it, Brad­man brought ‘‘ an el­e­ment of grim­ness, sav­age com­pe­ti­tion and un­com­pro­mis­ing search for vic­tory that no other coun­try has equalled’’. On the ques­tion of sports­man­ship (or games­man­ship), Knox in­ti­mates that Brad­man’s influence was crit­i­cal in chang­ing the new ball rule to ben­e­fit Aus­tralia’s fast bowlers. (Eng­land’s pace at­tack had with­ered since the days of Lar­wood, so it had lit­tle to gain and much to lose from the change.) He also demon­strates the hypocrisy in Brad­man’s re­liance, as cap­tain, on the in­tim­ida­tory use of bounc­ers: a tac­tic he had bit­terly com­plained about a decade ear­lier when he was on the re­ceiv­ing end.

Most in­trigu­ing of all, per­haps, is Knox’s sug­ges­tion that Brad­man, through his close friend­ship with the English se­lec­tor Wal­ter Robins, might have in­flu­enced the se­lec­tion of teams that played against him, for in­stance in hav­ing Eng­land’s most dan­ger­ous bats­man, the York­shire­man Len Hut­ton, dropped for the third Test.

Knox places con­sid­er­able weight on his dis­cov­ery that ‘‘ among Brad­man’s team­mates few spoke of the 1948 tour as their favourite’’, set­ting this against the ortho­dox view that the tour was ‘‘ a tri­umphal march through war­rav­aged Bri­tain — a tour that re­stored cricket’s supremacy as a pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment and re­sus­ci­tated the mother coun­try’s bat­tered morale’’. Yet one need not fal­sify the other. The of­ten fierce per­sonal an­i­mosi­ties that Knox por­trays among and be­tween the two Test teams don’t be­lie the ex­cite­ment and adu­la­tion that seems to have greeted the Aus­tralians wher­ever they went, gen­er­at­ing record crowds and rev­enue.

Brad­man him­self, Knox writes, ‘‘ re­sem­bled a mod­ern St Paul, re­ceiv­ing 100 per­sonal let­ters a day, up to 600 at peak times’’. Broad­caster Andy Flana­gan re­marked: ‘‘ To travel throughout Eng­land with Brad­man is a unique ex­pe­ri­ence. Cities, towns and ho­tels are be­flagged, car­pets set down, and dig­ni­taries wait to ex­tend an of­fi­cial wel­come.’’

As part of his re­search Knox in­ter­viewed the four sur­viv­ing play­ers, Neil Har­vey, Arthur Mor­ris, Sam Lox­ton (who died in De­cem­ber last year) and Eng­land’s John Dewes, find­ing, per­haps un­sur­pris­ingly, that the quar­tet had ‘‘ mel­lowed’’ with the re­al­i­sa­tion that they were now ‘‘ cus­to­di­ans of a cor­po­rate mem­ory, tal­is­mans of na­tional myth-mak­ing’’. Their vivid rec­ol­lec­tions, com­bined with con­tem­po­rary com­men­taries by the likes of John Ar­lott and Bill O’Reilly, make Brad­man’s War an ab­sorb­ing read for those who like their cricket played in white rather than tree-frog green.

Knox, as al­ways, writes with great in­sight and in­tel­li­gence, chal­leng­ing us to look be­yond the im­age of Brad­man as ‘‘ the na­tion’s shy grand­fa­ther, to whose subur­ban Ade­laide home great men went to pay homage’’, and in the process re­veal­ing a more un­set­tled and un­set­tling fig­ure.

His pur­pose in writ­ing this book, he says in his ac­knowl­edg­ments, is to pro­duce a ‘‘ dif­fer­ent kind of book about the In­vin­ci­bles’’. On that score he has suc­ceeded bril­liantly, deep­en­ing and com­pli­cat­ing a cher­ished Aus­tralian myth with­out dis­pelling it.

A stunned Don­ald Brad­man is out for a duck in his fi­nal Test in­nings at the Oval in 1948

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