It was my turn to be Australia and I had won the toss and decided to bat. While I strapped on the single pad that constituted the entire stock of our available equipment beyond the bare necessities of bat, stumps and ball, my mate Tod – whom we both saw as bearing an uncanny resemblance to Alec Bedser – warmed up at the other end. I would face ‘Bedser’s’ first ball in my guise as Arthur Morris and as soon as I picked up a sharp single or leg-glanced for three with the peculiar nonchalance that left-handers often bring to that shot, I would become Sid Barnes.
Padded up and twirling my Gray Nicholls bat autographed by Neil Harvey, a recent Christmas gift from my father, I gazed around the field – at the boxthorn bush at square leg, the stunted and decaying apple orchard stretching round from mid-wicket to long-on, the potato patch that would become my family’s front lawn at point. Then I checked the exercise book lying open immediately behind the stumps in which was recorded in a large, round schoolboy hand my batting order: Morris, Barnes, Bradman, Hassett, Miller, Harvey – quite a handy line-up.
I carefully took block, settled into my stance and watched Tod Bedser come rolling in to bowl. The first ball of the first Test for the school holidays of 1949-50 (the strictures and interruptions of innumerable authority figures always ensured we were a few months behind our models) pitched just short of a length and on middle stump, which it knocked out of the ground after not bouncing even an inch and skidding through like a lawn bowl. Sensation! Arthur Morris out first ball. Obviously, despite assiduous attention with my mother’s best kitchen broom – manic sweeping took the place of the heavy roller for us – some small pieces of gravel must have eluded my scrutiny. The packed dirt track was a tough surface for bounce at the best of times; sabotaged by loose gravel, it sapped the best deliveries of all resilience. As I recorded nought next to Morris’s name, I reflected that if my mother hadn’t caught us using her broom and taken it away, the team might have got off to a much stronger start. Yet, I was not down hearted because Morris’s fall had led to my great moment: I was Don Bradman.
For this arrival at the wicket, with applause ringing in my ears and Bedser politely clapping at the other end, I put on my school cap. Loathed, derided and shamefully mistreated throughout the year, this battered survivor was the nearest I could get to a baggy green: it was actually a fitted light blue. But neither the wrong cap nor Bradman’s miraculous necessary conversion to a left-hander could break the spell in the theatre of our dreams. When Bradman took guard and looked around the field, I was nine feet tall, in charge, a friendly rival to the hugely talented Bedser but too good for him as well. Too good for all of them. The equal of any challenge.
Bradman the name, Bradman the diminutive figure – whom Tod had never set eyes on except very rarely in newsreels on a Friday night at the Dendy, but whom I had actually seen (and more of that later) – Bradman the architect of victories and counter attacks, was the magician whose towering and pervasive presence in our imaginations was crucial to the illusion that so entranced us. We inhabited a fragile cocoon of romance and fantasy that was always on the verge of cracking apart if concentration flagged or disbelief became suddenly suspended. To gaze at the pitch, for instance, in the intense heat of a January afternoon, perhaps after the England openers had weathered Lindwall and Miller’s withering opening spell, and to see not the slightly yellowing, hairline cracked consistency of a three-day old Test wicket but the ruts made by Mr Davis’s wood truck and the stones and rubble deployed by the council in response to my father’s vigorous complaints, and to admit that that’s what you were seeing was death to the whole make believe construction. And very bad for line and length.
But sometime reality was irresistible. The bright summer lit world outside our fantasy was populated with people who did not understand our drama or who willfully refused to. Traffic was rare along the back track where our titanic struggles were acted out, but every so often a car or delivery van, their drivers almost invariably lost and looking like it, would trundle round the bend at the bowler’s end (we never changed ends, the pitch had only one usable section and in any case we had only three stumps) – and come rolling down towards us. We adopted the habit of getting out of the way and off the road with an ostentatious show of speed, obedience and co-operation designed to make up for the fact that we had left the stumps in the ground in the middle of the track. Bradman, we reckoned, would have managed it like this, probably waved the vehicle helpfully round the obstruction, though we confined our assistance to idiot grins of good will. Bradman was not only the captain of the Invincibles (as they later were known), he was also the captain of our drama, its very raison d’être as we would not have said at the time.
Every now and then, to our utter stupefaction, a driver would respond to these manoeuvres and to the mighty spirit of Don Bradman behind them by running our stumps over. One bloke actually broke two of them and signalled his satisfaction through the open window as he departed. Such occasions placed the whole fantasy under critical stress. Untutored though we both were in the ways of international cricket, having seen few games and not being able to fall back on television to provide us with insights, we nevertheless were pretty certain that vehicular traffic was not one of the problems that teams encountered in the middle – no matter how far flung the venue.
When I faced up as the left-handed Bradman to play the captain’s innings that whatever top order crisis made necessary, I fancied I looked quite like him in gesture, mannerism and stance, though not in technique or impact. This was because I had, as I’ve mentioned, actually seen the great man in the flesh. My later fantasies were fed by lively, ever-embellished memories. It happened like this.
When my father came back after an extended wartime absence, he set about getting to know his young son – not then nine years old. One of the things he did was take me to my first VFL Grand Final. This was extremely memorable for me but the experience did not accomplish whatever he’d hoped it might because, as many of you would know, the 1945 Grand Final has gone down in history as the Fighting Final – an enormous public brawl between Carlton and what used to be known as South Melbourne which did not show either the skills or the sportsmanship of the game in the way my father had envisaged though it excited me beyond endurance. More successfully a few years later he took me to Don Bradman’s testimonial at the MCG. This too, however, was a nightmare for my father because he wanted me to see a Bradman century yet he didn’t want me to expect it. As we walked towards the ground, he kept saying things like, ‘He doesn’t make a hundred every time, y’know,’ and ‘We can’t expect miracles, he’s not the batsman he used to be,’ and ‘We might see him get a really good thirty or forty,’ none of which dented my juvenile certainty that I was about to see the kind of triumph by the great man that I’d only heard about.
When Bradman’s XI lost its first wicket, the crowd all stood in anticipation, and, as a small, compact figure came through the gate, they cheered him all the way to the wicket, at which point commentators and crowd slowly realised they’d been had. Bradman had sent in Ron Hamence ahead of himself. But at 3 o’clock on the Saturday afternoon, with his team’s score at 2-138, Bradman came in, took guard, looked around in a way I would faithfully try to reproduce a little later, took a single off the first ball he received then swept on stylishly past thirty, forty, fifty. When opposing captain, Lindsay Hassett, took the new ball after tea, Lindwall gave Bradman some hurry-up creating excruciating moments of anxiety but the great man weathered the storm and cruised into the nineties. The crowd was silenced by tension; my old man was beside himself, chain smoking and telling me in a strained voice that ‘even if he got out now it wouldn’t matter, we’ve seen a great innings.’ On 97, Bradman got a leading edge and the ball ballooned out to wide mid-on and Colin McCool ran a few paces to get under it and a long, distraught gasp gusted out like a sad breeze from the stands and terraces and my old man grabbed me so hard by the arm that it hurt and said, ‘Christ, if he catches it they’ll lynch him’ and McCool expertly dropped the catch and then managed to accidentally kick the ball a bit further on while the batsmen ran three and so I saw the Don make a century.
It was the only possible way for him to finish; it was the only possible result I could have imagined. Fantasy dictated a Bradman century, a dropped catch, my father’s grinning, effusive relief. Like the first ball of a Test match on that dusty outer suburban track, the rigours of real life went into suspension: sometimes, magically, they do.