When Sir Donald Bradman passed away in February 2001 it was said by many that he epitomised everything it means to be Australian. As our nation celebrates the 100th anniversary of his birth on August 27, we recall again that he became synonymous with all that it means to be Australian. During the latter years of his life he was often quoted as being the most famous living Australian. However it was more than his extraordinary cricketing prowess that led Don Bradman to have such an influence over the Australian psyche.
His influence over the mood of Australia from the time he burst onto the first class cricket scene in the late 1920s, until his retirement from the game after World War II, is described by one of his team-mates on the 1948 tour of England, Sam Loxton. In 2001 I was fortunate enough to see Loxton and Neil Harvey, two of the few remaining survivors of that epic team, speak at a sporting function. Loxton remarked that night that while many Australians were struggling through the grim days of the Depression, Bradman “lit up the nation”.
Bradman’s response to his own fame was usually the seeking out of solitude and a quiet place to rest.
In responding to criticisms of his apparent aloofness, biographer Michael Page notes that Bradman said that, “I was often accused of being unsociable, though I fear the charge was applied in a very loose sense. In substance it boiled down to my dislike of artificiality and publicity.” Such intolerance of pretence has become a defining characteristic of Australians and it was certainly true of “The Don”.
The world-beating feats of Bradman came to the fore with the utmost intensity during the infamous Bodyline series in 1932-33. This was the series during which tensions between the “Mother Country” and Australia reached fever pitch and have never been more bitter, before or since.
The target of Australians’ frustration during the Bodyline series was the English captain, Douglas Jardine. This was a time when Australians were being asked by the English to reduce their standards of living as a means of countering the problems of the Depression. As a result, Page states that Jardine was, to Australians, “the personification of the “toffee nosed Englishman”: arrogant, aloof, almost incapable of expressing himself to anyone outside his own strata of English society”.
Page goes on to state that, as Jardine was also characterised as “the Australian notion of the type of upper-class Englishman who looked condescendingly upon ‘colonials’”, it is little wonder that he was hated by a young Australian nation with a short history of mistreatment by British authority.
It is against this background that Bradman’s legend, along with the Bodyline series, became a defining notion in the creation of an Australian sense of national identity.
The performances of Bradman during the Bodyline series were highlighted first, during the second Test in Melbourne, when, before a world record crowd of 68,188, he scored 103 against Jardine’s bodyline tactics. Already a hero in Australian culture, this performance only heightened his status as the hope of Australia and an inspiring example of someone who could challenge the might of the British Empire and succeed. Page describes the feeling at that time “as that of a nation waiting for the declaration of war”, remembering that this “war” was against Mother England.
Bodyline was instrumental in creating a sense of national identity for Australia in that it cemented in the minds of Australians a sense of determination against the odds, of standing up to the might of the British Empire. Against the personification of British greed and arrogance that was Jardine, and bodyline as a symptom of Britain’s determination to keep Australia inferior to the homeland”, Bradman represented the hopes and dreams of a nation still in its youth.
While it is true that Bradman’s cricketing record is far above that of all others, it was the time at which he produced his extraordinary deeds and the manner in which he performed them that had such a startling impact on creating a sense of national identity in this country.
Another reason that Bradman had such a remarkable impact on Australia is because we have always found our identity, at least partly, in the deeds of its sporting (and particularly cricketing) heroes. Charles Williams, who wrote a biography of Bradman in 1996, states that, because of our history, Australia has never had a military or political hero like the USA or other prosperous nations have.
The Australian nation “has never had a war of independence, it’s therefore never had a George Washington, it’s never had a civil war, never had a Lenin, it’s never had a war against a close enemy, it’s therefore never had a Joan of Arc, and so on and so forth”.
It is interesting to note the comparison given between Australia and other nations with regards to their national heroes and people who have provided them a sense of national identity, especially during hard times. As M. McKernan stated in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on March 3, 2001, just as Winston Churchill “gave his people the spirit to keep on fighting when defeat looked inevitable”, Bradman was also seen “as the symbol of his country's indomitable spirit”.
Don Bradman’s influence in contributing to a sense of Australian national identity was not only seen during the 1930s. Following World War II his influence was probably just as great as Australians attempted to return to a semblance of normality in their daily lives.
When Test cricket resumed in Australia in 1946-47, there was much speculation about whether or not Bradman would resume his Test career. He was suffering from ill health and there was the inevitable talk that he would not be the player he was in the 1930s. Despite this, however, to not play against England would have been to Bradman, as Page describes, “like desertion of the game which meant so much to him - and still needed him so badly”. He also personally felt a keen responsibility to do all he could to restore post-war Test cricket, a debt he felt he owed to the game before he retired.
This principled attitude of Bradman to the game of cricket was significant in the healing of the Australian mood following the war.
Bradman was known by many to always put principles before his own self-interest. As The Sydney Morning Herald stated soon after his passing, his decision to play once again for Australia after the war comes across as all the more noble today as it “fuse[d] nationalism and sport in an heroic and pure way that has now been lost forever to the trivialities of commercialism and celebrity”.
Bradman’s significance at this time was that he helped bring not only Australia, but also England, together as a nation again by his decision to resume playing cricket. Commenting on the opening of the First Test of the 1946-47 series, Page says that one newspaper “described Bradman as ‘the young man who has arrived in our lives again to take our minds off post-war problems’”.
However it was the 1948 Australian tour of England, in which Bradman captained Australia for the last time, which was, in terms of Bradman’s influence, the most significant post-war event that helped cement a sense of national identity in Australia.
The 1948 team, and Bradman in particular, helped fuse the national psyche once again in a nation that had been ravaged by the war. It has been stated that, because we did not have any real Australian icons, “all our desires for national validity were tied up with this extraordinary team” (Allen 2001, p. 8), particularly with Bradman leading it. Additionally, the fact that Bradman was playing once again helped Australians to take our minds off the troubles of post-war Australia.
Don Bradman, through his unparalleled cricketing deeds as well as his exemplary attitude in the playing of the game, was both an inspiration and a hero to ordinary Australians during the years of the Great Depression in the 1930s as well as during the rebuilding of Australia in the years following World War II.
He was the one person to whom Australians could look in their desire to be recognised as equal to the rest of the world. He was the image of the “Aussie battler” taking on the might of one of the most powerful empires the world has seen, and beating them at their own game.
The man we knew and loved as “The Don” showed us that through determined effort and hard work, we could be as good as anyone. He lifted our national self-esteem and indeed “lit up the nation” as evidenced by his great mate, Sam Loxton.
At a time when we never needed it more, Don Bradman helped unify the nation and helped us define who we are as Australians. We are forever indebted to him for leaving us his legacy.
The is an abridged version of an article. The longer version can be found on the author's website www.soulthoughts.com (PDF 87KB).