Dan Coliasimone, in ABCnet, 1 February 2020, where the title runs “The inside story of Don Bradman’s final innings duck”
“Out from the pavilion came the short, slight, little figure whose name will still be in bright lights as long as cricket is played.” This is how a contemporary newspaper report set the scene for Sir Donald Bradman’s last innings.
Bradman b. Hollies… 00 — Photo supplied by State Library of South Australia
“What a reception the crowd gave him. All the way to the wicket they cheered that human frame to whose near-infallible secrets no one has yet been able to find an adequate answer.”
It was 5:50pm on Saturday, August 14, 1948 at The Oval cricket ground in London, and there were 40 minutes of play left in the day.
“Don came in to bat, facing Eric Hollies, the leg-spin bowler,” says legendary Australian allrounder Neil Harvey. At 19, he was 20 years younger than his hero. Playing in just his second Test, he sat in the pavilion waiting to bat, watching it unfold.
“The reception he got when he went out to bat at The Oval, from the English team and the public — because the ground was packed, absolutely packed … the English players all got round him when he came in to bat, all took their caps off and gave him his three cheers … and you can’t tell me that doesn’t affect somebody. And I don’t think Don would be immune from that.”
The English players were gracious, but not about to go easy on the figure who had menaced them for four tours and two decades.
“We’ll give him three cheers when he gets on the square, but that’s all we’ll give him. Then bowl him out,” England captain Norman Yardley told his team.
The English people loved him and he loved them back, says Harvey. “He really wasn’t expected to go on the tour but he felt he owed it to the English public. He had health problems, fibrositis and such. He didn’t want the English people to be let down. And because they’d been suffering so much during the war, he felt compelled to go. That’s the reason he went.
“The English adored him right till the finish. At 39 years of age, he went to England in 1948 and captained this great Invincibles team, and he still made two centuries. That’s not too bad for 39, is it?”
The farewell piece in The Times called him a “miracle”. “To have seen Bradman at the wicket is to have enjoyed the precision of the art of batting,” it said.
“Larwood’s fierce attack and the cunning of Verity’s spin — and in the last chapters, Bedser’s patient industry — tested his almost inhuman quickness and certainty of reaction, but only to remind spectators that he was a miracle of flesh and blood and not a little robot under a long-peaked green cap.
“At the top of his form there was no getting him out. Some baby now toddling after a soft ball in New South Wales may grow up to be the scourge of English Test teams in the sixties. Old stagers who then watch him piling up a century will be able, however finely he plays, to murmur: ‘Ah, but you should have seen Bradman.'”
This would be Bradman’s final knock. That was almost assured when he strode out in the fifth Test of the Ashes series, with Australia on 1-117 and looking to complete an unbeaten tour. England had been dismissed for 52 in its first innings, meaning the Australians would not have to bat again.
He walked to the wicket in front of a crowd of 20,000, having scored 6,996 Test runs and lost his wicket 69 times.
His average was 101.39. If he was to be dismissed for a 70th time, he needed just four more runs to reach 7,000 and end his career with an average of 100. But nobody knew that. “In those days, statistics were nothing,” Harvey says.
“Nobody had a clue. The press didn’t know. There was no television, of course. And if the press didn’t know, nobody’s going to know. So that’s how it was. We just played the game as a normal session.”
In the BBC radio coverage, Rex Alston handed over to his junior commentator, John Arlott, as Bradman walked out to bat: “The crowd settles down again — they’ve got 40 minutes left to play and Bradman is now taking guard. Hollies is going to bowl and John Arlott shall describe the first ball, so come in, John.”
Arlott’s description of events was fairly magical, in an understated, mid-20th century British way. “Well, I don’t think I’m as deadly as you are, Rex, I don’t expect to get a wicket. But it’s rather good to be here when Don Bradman comes in to bat in his last Test. And now, here’s Hollies to bowl to him from the Vauxhall End.”
Hollies might not have even been there. The blond leg spinner, who now has a raucous stand at Edgbaston named after him, felt he would have been better used playing for his county side, Warwickshire.
“When the invitations to Hollies to play arrived, he told Leslie Deakins he would rather play for Warwickshire,” wrote Leslie Duckworth in his book, The Story of Warwickshire Cricket.
“The rubber had already been decided and it would have meant missing two county games when he could well be spared. It was the Warwickshire Committee who persuaded their ‘home boy’ to play; if they had not succeeded cricket history would almost certainly have been different.”
Despite his reluctance to attend, Hollies had a plan for Bradman. When he had bowled to the 39-year-old Australian captain for his county side earlier on the tour, he came to the conclusion Bradman could not pick his wrong ‘un — a leg-spinner’s sly alternative delivery which, when executed well, turns in towards a right-hander, rather than away.
Hollies did not bowl the wrong ‘un in the second innings of that tour match, saving it in case he was picked for the Oval Test.
“I know I can bowl him with it and I’ll give it to him second ball at the Oval,” he told his Warwickshire teammate Tom Dollery.
Whether Bradman was thrown by the emotional reception he was given by the English fans and players is a matter of conjecture. He was famously imperturbable while at the crease.
“I was forced to admire the cool way Don batted,” former England captain Walter Hammond said. “On one or two occasions, when he was well set, and when he saw me move a fieldsman, he would raise his gloved hand to me in mock salute, and then hit the next ball exactly over the place from which the man had just been moved.
“Reluctantly I had to admit once more that he was out of the ordinary run of batsmen — a genius!”
Another English opponent, CB Fry, said: “This man owes half his perfection to an outright power of concentration.”
He was more than comfortable on the Oval pitch. His previous Test scores on the ground were 232, 244 and 77. On the 1948 tour he had batted twice there against Surrey and scored 146 and 128.
Before summoning three cheers for England’s great nemesis, Yardley said these words: “In saying goodbye to Don we are saying goodbye to the greatest cricketer of all time. He is not only a great cricketer but a great sportsman, on and off the field. I hope this is not the last time we see Don Bradman in this country.”
After all that, Bradman himself admitted in 1950’s Farewell to Cricket that he was struggling to focus. Though he always maintained it was a “great exaggeration” that tears blurred his vision.
“I dearly wanted to do so well. It was not to be. That reception had stirred my emotions very deeply and made me anxious — a dangerous state of mind for any batsman to be in.
“I played the first ball from Hollies, though not sure I really saw it.”
Back to commentator John Arlott on the wireless: “He bowls, Bradman goes back across his wicket, pushes the ball gently in the direction of the Houses of Parliament, which are out beyond mid-off. It doesn’t go as far as that, merely goes to Watkins in the silly mid-off. No run, still 117 for one.
“Two slips, a silly mid-off, and a forward short leg close to him as Hollies pitches the ball up slowly and … he’s bowled.
“Bradman bowled Hollies … nought … and what do you say under these circumstances?
“I wonder if you see the ball very clearly in your last Test in England, on a ground where you’ve played some of the biggest cricket in your life and where the opposing side has just stood round you and given you three cheers and the crowd has clapped you all the way to the wicket.
“I wonder if you see the ball at all.”
Two balls, and the innings was over. Sir Don’s career was done. Harvey says the complete silence around the ground also reached into the Australian dressing room. “I’m sure that emotion was one of the main reasons why he didn’t pick a wrong ‘un from Hollies, got an inside edge onto the stumps, and that was it.
“I was padded up, ready to go in and he walked in and sat down beside me and said, ‘Fancy doing a thing like that.'”
Australian international and commentator Jack Fingleton later remarked: “The game that had given him so much had denied him at the very last Test appearance.”
Hollies had no time for sentimentality: “Best f***ing ball I’ve bowled all season, and they’re clapping him!” he said to his teammates.
Bradman’s batting partner Arthur Morris watched the historic moment from 22 yards away. His contribution would also be outshone by Bradman’s famous failure. He would tell the story in the decades to come.
“I often say to people, ‘Yes, I was there.’ I am asked, ‘Were you playing?’ I reply, ‘Yes, I got 196.'”
Harvey says it was a sad way for a remarkable career to end. “He was most disappointed. But he took it on the chin. I’m sorry that he didn’t have a hundred average, because nobody will ever do it.
“These guys today like [Steve] Smith, they call him another Bradman. They’re like the rest of us, mate, they’re only half as good as he was. Simple as that.”
He also takes some supererogatory culpability. In the previous Test at Leeds — Bradman’s penultimate — Harvey came on for a cameo in the second innings (after scoring a century on debut in the first), to hit the winning runs.
“We were left with 404 to get in about 340 minutes. And I happened to witness one of the greatest partnerships, between Bradman and Morris, that’s ever been played. Anyway, it came to be my turn to bat and there was only four runs to get. Bradman was up the other end, and I just played like a normal game. It was bowled on my leg stump and I hit it through mid-wicket for four and we won the game.
“And I can still see Bradman running past me at 100 miles an hour because the ground was packed because England had been expected to win the game, and the fans were streaming onto the field. And he rushed past me and says, ‘Come on son, let’s get out of here.’ So we dashed off the field.
“So that’s the reason I take the blame for Bradman not averaging a hundred in Test cricket. If he had’ve hit those four runs to win the game, he’d have averaged a hundred. So it’s my fault. I’ll accept the blame.”
Hundreds of Englishmen turned out to wave goodbye to Bradman’s train as it left St Pancras Station for Tilbury docks, where the team would board the SS Orontes for home. They saw him off with the words, “Well done, Don.”
The team would arrive home eight months after leaving Australian shores, undefeated; The Invincibles.
When asked about the most honoured statistic in Australian sport — Bradman’s average of 99.94 — Harvey admits it has a certain romance to it.
“It probably does, you know, when you look back it. But personally, I’d have liked to see him average a hundred because he was that good. He was so much better than anyone else.
“But I suppose 99.94 is not too bad.”
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