Saturday, February 22, 2014

Academics against The Don

Don Bradman was ''peculiar''.  That is the startling finding of a pair of Monash University academics.  Of course, anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of cricket already knew that to have a Test batting average of 99.94 was clearly ''peculiar''.  Yet our Don Bradman's prodigious feats with the bat are not the reason why Monash duo David Dunstan and Tom Heenan claim he was ''an extremely peculiar Australian'', but rather because they believe he was an ''acquisitive, ruthless, and self-interested loner''.

Writing in the New Daily, the academics make it clear their real motivation for demolishing the ''myth'' of Bradman is because they regard praise for Bradman as part of a shift which sees Australia's ''popular history now being built on nationalistic self-aggrandisement in war and sport''.

The fact that John Howard once praised Bradman as ''the greatest living Australian'' is apparently enough evidence of guilt by association for members of the intelligentsia to decide that besmirching Bradman's reputation is an important aspect of fighting the culture wars.  The fact that Bradman is admired by plenty on the Left, such as former Wran government minister Rodney Cavalier, who has written vigorously in defence of The Don, is no obstacle to those on an ideological mission.

Apparently, in academic land, it is ''peculiar'' that a boy from a humble background used some of the connections he got through cricket to secure good jobs and endorsements.  This seemingly rational response to the opportunities which were presented to him is described as ''intense acquisitiveness''.  Oddly, having criticised Bradman for being too commercial in the 1930s, Dunstan and Heenan then turn around and accuse him of not being commercial enough as an administrator in the 1970s.

The authors claim that his teammates' criticisms of Bradman's personality have been ''swept under the carpet''.  While it is true that some works have tended to eulogise Bradman, these have been counter-balanced by numerous books and articles detailing the gripes of the likes of Victor Richardson, Bill O'Reilly, Jack Fingleton and Keith Miller.  Of course, Bradman was not popular with all his teammates, for the same variety of reasons which mean that, even in the most successful sporting teams, not everyone is great mates.

Dunstan and Heenan seem to be firmly in the camp of the ocker Aussie bloke wanting to booze with his mates for hours after the game, rather than the more ''new age'' Bradman who preferred to head home.  As we saw with the post-game bust-up between Michael Clarke and Simon Katich in the recent past, the divide between the drinkers and those wanting to get away to do something else continues to have a contemporary resonance.  But it is surely stretching things to try to make the sides of that divide fit into the competing sides of the culture wars.

The academics suggest that ''in many respects Bradman was more a sportsman of our age than his'', citing the ruthless manner in which Clarke and his team dispatched England this summer as being in Bradman's style (though surely in their sledging the current team owe more to the 1970s Chappell legacy than the 1930s and 1940s Bradman one).

So determined are Dunstan and Heenan to demonstrate that there was ''not much about Bradman that was great, or deserving of the adulation heaped upon him'' that as well as attacking Bradman's alleged character flaws they are unable to resist the temptation to undermine his on-field performances.  They claim that, while Bradman was a ''ruthless destroyer of ordinary bowling'', he did not do so well ''when the going got tough'' and ''often got out''.  This is presumably a reference to the Bodyline series of 1932-33 when Bradman averaged a mere 56.57, something that could only be considered a failure compared to his own lofty standards, not compared to anyone else's.

Reading the article one almost gets the impression that Bradman was the sole opponent of bodyline in Australia and that he got it banned for his personal benefit.  It seems that the Australian cultural Left are now happy to place themselves in the camp of snobbish English captain Douglas Jardine, who considered Bradman ''scared of the quick stuff'', and against the Depression-era Australian hero Bradman.

It does not fit the authors' narrative, but it is worth remembering that Bradman was an innovative captain and remains the only leader to have inspired a comeback from 2-0 down to win a five-test series.  He did this in 1936-37, engineering a comeback on a sticky wicket in the Third Test at the MCG by an early declaration in the first innings and a rearrangement of the batting order in the second.  In the latter dig, Bradman himself made 270 while suffering from a severe bout of influenza.  The aggregate attendance of 350,534 at that Test remains a record, so maybe Bradman's contemporaries appreciated his batting more than his modern critics.

Although they lecture in Sports Studies, Dunstan and Heenan are also happy to engage in a spot of medical diagnosis.  They suggest that Bradman might have been on the autism spectrum, commenting that ''he certainly lacked empathy and had a near obsessional ability to concentrate intensely for long periods on repetitious tasks''.  Normally, it might be regarded as poor form to pick on someone because of a condition with which they were born, but obviously that does not apply if attacking an alleged conservative.

However, they do have a contemporary authority for their view.  In 1939 the NSW Cricket Association vice-president commented that Bradman lacked ''social charm'' and was ''intensely suspicious''.  The vice-president was one Bert Evatt, the very same Bert Evatt whose own ''charm'' helped split the Labor party in the mid-1950s;  and, as for ''suspicious'', Evatt was probably the most paranoid figure in Australian public life in the 20th century.  But because he was on the Left, Evatt was presumably ''normal'' whereas Bradman, a conservative, was obviously ''peculiar''.

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