He was the youngest of five children, one of whom was a brother, Victor, but these two never waged the fierce backyard "Tests" which many champions count among their dearest memories. Learning to bat was for Bradman a solitary process, and the pastime which was no less than the making of him featured the now famous props of a water tank, mounted on a brick stand at the back of his house, a cricket stump and a golf ball. The boy would throw the little ball at the brick stand and hit the rebound with his stick. He would do this for hours at a time, day after day, for years.
By the age of eight, without knowing it, he'd taught himself the essentials of footwork: back to short balls, forward to fuller ones. He realized that balls of the same trajectory could be struck to different points with subtle alterations in footwork and the angle of the wrists. He began to throw the ball faster, to the point where it's likely he faced nothing quicker in Tests than he did as a boy, alone at the back of his house. "If he has a fault," wrote English reporter Trevor Wignall in Bradman's heyday, "it is that he makes cricket look too much like child's play."
As a callow bowler in the opposing XI, what would it have been like to confront this man? Bradman's entry onto the ground was an amble, which some interpreted as him basking in the applause. In fact, he was allowing his blue eyes to adjust to the sunlight. From narrow shoulders hung muscular arms; this was the result of nothing except overuse of a bat. More striking was his unmistakable half-smile, reflecting both supreme self-confidence and pleasure. He was nerveless in the moments before his first ball. "I couldn't wait to bat," he said. "The bigger the occasion, the tenser the atmosphere, the more I liked the game."
On arrival at the crease, he studied the field; he did not perfunctorily glance about as most batsmen do. Satisfied, he'd utter a shrill "right" and crouch over his uncommonly light bat. That single word sent a powerful message: Bradman was ready. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about him was that his determination matched his ability. He brought both qualities, in freakish amounts, on every outing. The latter never softened the former, and the former never smothered the latter.
As the bowler moved in, Bradman revealed two more idiosyncrasies. First, he did not tap his bat, a habit observed by virtually every batsman at all levels. He was perfectly still-and still smiling. Second, his grip was unusual, his bottom hand turned more toward the front than the textbooks recommend. Though this grip should have made certain strokes awkward to play, it didn't seem to: his horizontal-bat shots went straight to ground, and it was this as much as anything that caused his discovery.
At 18, Bradman was batting in the Sydney Cricket Ground nets, one of 20 youngsters chosen to show their bowling talents (young Bradman was also a talented leg-spinner) to state selectors. One selector, Harold Cranney, noticed how Bradman's hooks, pulls and cuts were rifling into the base of the net. On closer inspection, he noted the youngster's fast feet and daring: the lad treated the crease not as a precipice, but as a dance floor. Cranney summoned his fellow selectors. He also urged the swiftest, tallest youngster present to throw all he had at the Bowral boy. Bradman played him expertly. Two years later, in 1928, he was selected for Australia.
During the ball's split-second journey from the bowler's hand to the batsman, Bradman would show still more of his peculiar method. His backlift wasn't straight but in the direction of second slip, and his rear foot moved back and across the stumps. He liked to score from his first ball, then assess the vagaries of the pitch from the other end. He was most vulnerable early-he made seven noughts in 80 Test innings-but, once settled, an all-out attack was likely. These consisted of shots of all types, with a weighting toward late cuts and pulls, sometimes off balls that weren't short, just made to seem so by Bradman's movements. "As I ran up to bowl," recalled England's Jim Laker, "Bradman seemed to know where the ball was going to pitch, what stroke he was going to play and how many runs he was going to score." He wasn't a beautiful batsman-he lacked the grace of Victor Trumper, Ted Dexter or Mark Waugh-but as his late teammate Jack Fingleton wrote: "He was such a genius that he could well have indulged himself in the artistic flourishes of batting, but he was too much of a realist to permit himself to do this. Every spectator in Bradman's heyday sensed that he was using not a bat so much as an axe dripping with the bowler's blood and agony."
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