Don Bradman, 254, vs England, 1930 Ashes
Every great batter has that one innings. Not their highest score or their most stylish knock but their most faultless performance. For Don Bradman, born 112 years ago today, that performance was an innings of 254 vs England at Lord’s in the second Test of the 1930 Ashes. Bradman’s knock on 28 and 29 June set up Australia for a famous victory that levelled the series.
He was not yet 22 when he made the first of his 12 Test double-hundreds – till date, no one has made more – at Lord’s. Don Bradman and his 254 was the jewel in the crown of a remarkable Test match, of four days of cricket that Neville Cardus, writing in 1956, claimed “could be laid up in heaven, a Platonic idea of cricket in perfection.”
Of those involved, Bradman reached closest to perfection with a flawless innings after England won the toss and ran up 425, having been 405-9 at the close of a breathless first day.
Bradman’s own assessment confirms that Cardus chose the right word. Writing in Farewell to Cricket, the Don addressed the question of his best innings with the following: “Practically without exception every ball went where it was intended to go. Any artist must surely aim at perfection, and that is why I think Lord’s 1930 is my first choice.”
For Bradman, perfection was the elimination of fault, of absolute control in the matter of his craft. Indeed, control so absolute that the ball simply “went” where it was supposed to, as though because he had willed it. On the second and third day, Bradman compiled his 254 runs as much in the mind as with the bat, an exercise in will that took the game away from England.
Also, Read – Most Ashes Hundreds
The Two Bradmans
In 1949, a year after the Don’s retirement, his former teammate Jack Fingleton wrote that “people will tell you that figures do not do justice to the superlative art that was Trumper’s…But as long as cricket lives, figures will tell the revealing story of Bradman.”
It is a remarkably prescient observation, and not only for the enduring weight of Bradman’s statistical achievements. There is somewhere an agonising note to Bradman’s Test average of 99.94. Even the figure itself is agonising; there is a flourish implied by those loopy ‘9’s but after three numerals, their wizardry stumbles over the sharp corners and straight lines of the ‘4’.
The agony, surely, comes from being stranded just short of perfection, completion, and wholeness. It is an important number, not only because it best represents mastery in the craft of batting that Fingleton identified for us more than seven decades ago, but also because it reminds us that the Don, too, was human and therefore imperfect.
This feels like a contradiction. How do two of the most famous numbers in Bradman’s career, 254 and 99.94, imply such contrasting things? Fingleton’s Bradman, however, is very different from the Don who tore apart an English attack of Gubby Allen (on Test debut), Maurice Tate, Jack White, Walter Robbins, Wally Hammond, and Frank Woolley at Lord’s.
Throughout the summer of 1948, those imperfections became more difficult to ignore. The “grim, purposeful” Bradman, in his last series, had slowed down. In his 40th year, with many miles on the clock, his frailty bubbled amidst his lowest Test average in any series since Bodyline, until it leaped off the pitch in the guise of Eric Hollies’ googly and bowled him.
“In absolute brilliance,” writes Fingleton, “Bradman might have been only a flicker of his 1930 self, but we must remember that those who knew him then were judging him in 1948 by his highest standards.” It wasn’t Bradman’s final average that was the last word on his greatness, but rather the heights he touched on the 1930 tour. His aggregate of 974 runs is still the most by anyone in a Test series. Since then, no player has come within even a hundred runs of that tally. Don Bradman excelled that series, even beyond his score of 254.
Australia Fight Back
Countless great innings would never have been played without the foundation laid by teammates, or their obdurate support from the other end while the innings is in progress. In that respect, the Don Bradman 254 owes a great debt to Bill Woodfull and Bill Ponsford. Australia’s openers, keenly aware of their subordinate position in the rubber, played with circumspection.
The openers’ “grim protective vigilance”, as Cardus put it, carried Australia past 160 without loss. One has to admire the simplicity of their plan – wear down the bowlers until it’s safe for Bradman to come in and start swinging. It worked a treat.
It was 3:30 p.m. when Bradman made his way to the crease with the score at 162-1. Immediately, he charged White to long-off for his first run, leaving the bowler astonished at this burst of boldness. That set the tone. “The advent of Bradman on this Saturday of burning English summer,” wrote Cardus, “was like the throwing of combustible stuff on fires that had been slumbering with dreadful potentiality.”
Charging White didn’t just strike a psychological blow. It was a tactic that threw the spinner off his length. Forced to adjust, White bowled short and was accordingly hammered by Bradman. He brought up his hundred in an hour and 45 minutes, having struck 13 fours.
Carnage at Lord’s
After tea, the mayhem intensified. It’s difficult to imagine a more helpless lot on a cricket field than that of a captain whose greatest ambition is to stop the flow of runs because the opposing batters have decided the bowlers will not aspire to anything greater.
Perhaps the desperation of such a predicament will invite us to spare a thought for England’s Percy Chapman, who had to endure what Cardus called “Bradman’s cool deliberate murder or spifflication of all bowling.”
Bradman’s speed was blinding, yet his discipline and control were so magnificent that the only time he failed to keep the ball on the ground was his 376th delivery – his dismissal. In all, he plundered 25 fours (and no sixes) in the course of his innings.
On day two, Australia were 300-1 at 5:20 p.m. Ten minutes later, they had crossed 350. At stumps, they were 21 runs behind England with eight wickets in hand, Bradman batting on 155 with Alan Kippax.
The pair then elected for a more measured approach in the morning session of day three, limiting themselves only to punishing the loose deliveries. This proved successful: they raised the score to 544-2 at lunch – a lead of 119 runs.
The Comeback King
It was more than just good batting. Bradman is cricket’s most enduring myth of excellence, a floating signifier of greatness. It is a myth captured in a pithy adjective like ‘Bradmanesque’, sufficient to indicate a general largesse of runs even without specifying a number, or the fact that, without much exaggeration, most worthwhile batting records have a Bradman version and another for the rest.
As a result, the myth sometimes obscures the human that gave rise to the myth in the first place. The risk with reducing Bradman to a signifier is sometimes treating his finest batting as an emergent property of his singular genius – as though he simply marked his guard and divinity issued forth.
(As an aside, that’s possibly why Bodyline felt so shocking – it was like violently clipping an angel’s wings, albeit the angel averaged 56).
It was quite the opposite here. At Lord’s, Bradman overcame adversity, turning a deficit in the match into a dominant winning position and squaring the series. Even though Woodfull declared at 729-6 and Australia cruised to a win by seven wickets, it is worth remembering that Bradman batted with laser focus on the third morning with Kippax when a bad session could easily have kept England in the game.
He also displayed a steely determination in keeping the ball on the ground. Struggle, concentration, and triumph over adversity – these are important, deeply human elements of Bradman’s story. The value of his runs in the 254 cannot be measured by their numerical weight (highest score by Australian, highest against England) or their record-setting gravity (youngest Test double-centurion, highest score by an overseas batter at Lord’s for 73 years).
The Run Machine
What, then, is the appropriate measurement? Perhaps the answer ironically lies in the England camp. What multiplied Chapman’s difficulties in the field was that his opponent upset all rational calculations. No reliable pattern could be derived from his responses to various kinds of bowling.
Bradman’s profile as one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year notes that “he showed English spectators so frequently last season, and particularly against England at Lord’s, he will send two consecutive and similar deliveries in different directions.”
It is difficult enough to develop a strategy for great players. It is downright impossible to devise a plan when their reactions display no consistency. When Philip Lindsay wrote that “to me Don Bradman became that symbol of achievement, of mastery over fate”, he could have been referring to the 254, such was the mastery over fate that Bradman displayed.
Control, moreover, is a zero sum game – Bradman’s control meant Chapman and the bowlers didn’t enjoy that particular resource. In that respect, Bradman charging White on his first ball opened a mental wound far deeper than anyone realised at the time.
The Birth of Bodyline
In the next series, Douglas Jardine specifically devised a dastardly plan to break him. Writing in Bradman’s profile when he was unanimously chosen as one of the Five Cricketers of the Century, John Woodcock called Bodyline “the shameless method of attack” devised by the England captain.
Its roots were the ‘gunshots’, to use Cardus’ word, which departed Bradman’s bat for the fence at Lord’s. His game achieved some kind of perfection with that innings in the elimination of risk and maximisation of efficiency (“every shot dead in the target’s middle, precise and shattering”) that was machine-like in its singular objective of ruthlessly accumulating runs.
This is a recurring theme in writing about Bradman. Fingleton called him “the greatest batting automaton the game of cricket had produced.” The point, though, isn’t whether machines can be beautiful, or whether industry and aesthetics are compatible.
Rather, Bradman stretched the limits of human ingenuity and resourcefulness to a point where unaided sense perception and cognition weren’t enough to win at sport. There was no acceptable intuitive reply to 974 runs.
In that way, however, it forced cricket to modernise. Humans turned to technology for insights that would help make further gains. Jardine watched footage of Bradman to identify, isolate, and eventually exploit his weakness – a notable early success for video analysis. The experience changed him as a player; Fingleton notes that “Bodyline plucked something vibrant from his art.”
In some ways, it is not surprising that Bradman was the opponent for whom one required mechanical aides. C.L.R. James assessed that “to see Bradman get back, his right foot outside the off stump, pointing to mid-on, and hook a fast bowler was to witness not cricket but acrobatics: you knew he had got there only after he had made the stroke.”
In short, Bradman was too fast for the human eye. To discern any further one would require a mechanical eye. Contemporaneous with Bradman was the philosopher Walter Benjamin, who wrote of the optical unconscious, revealed to us by the eye of the camera.
Essentially, the world appears to the camera in a manner very different from the one it does to the senses alone. This suddenly-manifest register of visibility, the precise biomechanics underlying Bradman’s monstrous appetite for runs, was only visible on Jardine’s camera.
Fingleton remembers an incident from the 1948 tour when the Australian players met with the King and Queen at Balmoral in Scotland. His Royal Majesty, with light mischief, inquired of the official Australian scorer Ferguson, “do you use an adding machine when the Don comes to bat?”
He could have been only half-joking. Ferguson, Fingleton writes, was kept extremely busy by the flow of runs from the Don’s blade. Furthermore, he had seen numerous scoreboards and their operators stretched thin, even falling behind, trying to cope with Bradman’s incredible rate of scoring.
Even armed with technologies like scoreboards, clunky though they were, other humans couldn’t keep up with Bradman – and they weren’t even playing. Imagine bowling to him. Imagine Don Bradman smashing 254 against you.
The Don and Us
Before any details of the match are mentioned, Cardus’ recollection of the Lord’s Test of 1930 more than a quarter-century later begins with how the match found him: “at the prime of forty years then, fulfilled in work and happy in home, love and health, the mind still unstaled, yet critical enough.”
He was not the only one. Something about Bradman provoked profound reflection in people, causing them to realise something about themselves. Cardus, James, Lindsay – all have stories to tell about how Bradman stirred something in their soul.
Lindsay famously wrote that the Don “made me feel somehow that I must not let him down as he had not let me down.” The spell that transfixed Lindsay and so many others was first cast over two glorious days in June 1930 by the Don.
Don Bradman and his 254 was truly a work of art. As were all his other innings.
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