Captain Invincible: the war Bradman was determined to win

War of words ... Don Bradman in action during the First Test at Trent Bridge.
War of words ... Don Bradman in action during the First Test at Trent Bridge.

During the 1948 ''Invincibles'' tour, Don Bradman had a running battle with his star all-rounder, Keith Miller. Twice during the Test series, when Bradman threw Miller the ball to bowl, Miller threw it back, refusing. In the dressing room at Lord's, the bickering went on, and Jack Fingleton, covering the tour, was told that Bradman ''grumbled apropos of Miller not bowling''.

''I don't know what's up with you chaps,'' Bradman said. ''I'm 40 and I can do my full day's work in the field.''

To which Miller allegedly replied: ''So would I - if I had fibrositis during the war!''

Miller had been a fighter pilot during the war. Bradman, on the other hand, had never seen battle. Suffering fibrositis, a nervous muscular complaint, he had been discharged from the army in 1941.

Miller's resentment towards his captain went back to the contrasting ways in which they had spent the war. Miller had on his side several of the English and Australian cricketers, who had come out of the war feeling that cricket should be played in a new spirit. The clash between this idea and Bradman's, which was to continue the combative atmosphere of cricket in the 1930s, was going to determine the path of Ashes cricket for decades to come.

When World War II ended, Lindsay Hassett's Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) cricket team remained under orders in Britain, on meagre military pay depending on their rank. The men were desperate to go home, but the summer of 1945 in England was infused with a once-in-a-generation mood of optimism. Workers and returned soldiers dreamt of building a new society. Their vote for a new Labour government repudiated 16 years of Depression and conflict.

In his novel The Linden Tree, a J.B. Priestley character carried this hope for a new democratic socialism: ''Call us drab and dismal, if you like, and tell us we don't know how to cook our food or wear our clothes - but for Heaven's sake, recognise that we're trying to do something that is as extraordinary and wonderful as it's difficult - to have a revolution for once without the terror, without looting mobs and secret police … We're fighting in the last ditch of our civilisation. If we win through, everybody wins through.''

On the cricket field, four ''Victory Tests'' were scheduled between Hassett's Australians and an England Services side boasting pre-war heroes such as Wally Hammond, Denis Compton, Len Hutton and Bill Edrich. The teams enjoyed a camaraderie that promised a friendly new dawn for international cricket. Dick Whitington, who played for the AIF, recalled fondly: ''The English and Australian teams shared the same dressing room, a situation surely unique in the history of matches between the two countries. They did more than change in the same room. They travelled to and from the ground in the same motor-coach and stayed at the same hotel. Nobody lost anything by this. Nor did the cricket.''

Whitington said the ''Victory Series gave the cricket-starved public almost everything it wanted from cricket''. It gave the players just as much, and they took it in good humour. One of the Australians, after a week of constant rain, looked at the barrage balloons tied to the ground and asked: ''Why don't they cut the wires and let the dump sink?''

No surviving Test player had more cause to ponder the strange relationship between those two stages of conflict, war and sport as the nuggety Londoner Bill Edrich. In his last pre-war appearance, for Middlesex against Warwickshire, he had scored a century. As far as he knew it would be the last top-level match he would ever play.

One Saturday morning in June 1941, Edrich had been flying Blenheims out of Great Massingham. His squadron lost two aircraft with all crew. He flew back to Norfolk in time for a 12.30pm cricket match against a Village XI. ''I shall always remember this match,'' Edrich said. ''At times it seemed like a strange dream. There were the big elms throwing grave shadows on the English grass, the wild roses in the hedges, the lazy caw of a rook passing overhead, the old village in the distance, and the quiet sound of bat and ball; then would come a sudden vision, as real as the other, of a 5000-ton ship heeling over, with pathetic little black figures scrambling up her tilting deck and trying vainly to escape the blast of the flames that belched and flickered out of her blazing hold, the drowning and burning sailors, the stab of the tracer coming up at us, the interminable roaring of engines punctuated by the heart-thud of exploding bombs … As I batted I wondered whether, perhaps, young Germans who had rained down death and terror on London's civilians the night before were now slowly cycling through some fairy glade of the Black Forest and thinking what I thought … why, why, why?''

The Victory Tests began with a common resolve between the captains, Hassett and Hammond, to play ''differently''. Inspired by Keith Miller, the Australians drew the series 2-2. Many on both sides would say it was the happiest cricket of their life. Whitington recalled: ''Cricket was meant for making friends, not enemies; for making fun and friendly fight, not money.'' The experience of war had put the game into perspective.

When they returned home, however, after an arduous series of matches in India, the servicemen began to detect, or imagine, a bias against them. The Australian selectors picked a team to tour New Zealand for the first Test cricket after the war, and Hassett was not even vice-captain, let alone captain. Miller was the only other Services player chosen. Whitington wrote that they ''sensed the existence of what might be called 'a thing' concerning those who had served abroad''.

If there was a ''thing'', the most likely suspect was Don Bradman, who helped select the squad.

Bradman had spent most of the war convalescing from illness and building his career in stockbroking. He had enlisted with the RAAF in June 1940, saying he ''felt the urge of all patriotic citizens to do my duty in a sterner sphere''. He was nearly 32, and the nation's greatest sporting celebrity. The Adelaide Lord Mayor, Arthur Barrett, who had flown in World War I, said: ''Let us hope now that Don will get centuries in the air as readily as he got them on the ground.''

After passing his medical, Bradman was given the rank of lieutenant and attended training classes. When it was clear that he was surplus to the RAAF's requirements, he transferred to the army in October 1940 as a student at the School of Physical and Recreational Training at Frankston, in Victoria. The plan was for him to go to the Near East as a divisional supervisor of physical training.

Bradman said he genuinely wanted to serve, but after he played four fund-raising cricket matches in 1940-41 his health went into a sudden decline. During his training at Frankston he suffered ''muscular trouble which had bothered me on and off before''. Then he had his eyes tested. He scored 18 runs in four innings. He blamed his eyes, saying he ''couldn't see the ball at all''. Suffering fibrositis, a nervous muscular complaint, he went into hospital on three occasions. He ran in an All-Services Athletics meeting in Melbourne on February 14, 1941, but then asked to be taken to the Repatriation General Hospital in Keswick, Adelaide, where he could be closer to his wife Jessie, who was entering her last months of pregnancy.

On April 2, 1941, Bradman was taken off the army's roster. That month his daughter Shirley was born with mild cerebral palsy, and three weeks after that he was given indefinite sick leave from the armed services. ''The only hope of cure,'' he wrote, ''was a long convalescence and complete rest.'' In June 1941 he was formally discharged.

By the time the Allied forces evacuated Dunkirk - when Bill Edrich was suffering the double-vision of death in the morning and village cricket in the afternoon, when Lindsay Hassett was sitting on unexploded mines and Keith Miller was contemplating taking to the air - Don Bradman's war was already over.

After recuperating in Bowral, Bradman moved back to Adelaide to resume his job in the sharebroking offices of Harry Hodgetts, a member of the South Australian Cricket Association and the state's delegate to the Board of Control. Bradman's return to civilian work did not give him great solace, and if he ever suffered depression, it was then. ''They were dark days,'' he wrote. ''Cricket, then or in the future, never crossed my mind. I am quite certain that the over-exertion of my earlier cricketing days was exacting retribution in full measure.''

In Sydney, Bradman's journalist friend A.G. ''Johnnie'' Moyes heard ''stories that he had broken down very seriously in health''. Bradman wrote to Moyes: ''I'm good only for a job as an ARP Warden.'' Moyes detected ''a depth of sadness behind the words … That he would be able to play first-class cricket again seemed impossible''.

Nonetheless, Bradman was well enough to play some golf and tennis in 1943, and was elected a member of the Adelaide Stock Exchange. Work was cushioning him from the disappointment of his army discharge and the likely end of his cricket career.

As the war drew to an end, Bradman's social and professional world almost collapsed around him. An affidavit was lodged in the Adelaide Bankruptcy Court showing that Hodgetts had embezzled £83,000 out of his firm. As many as 238 unsecured creditors were owed £103,000. Hodgetts would go to jail some years later. Bradman, described in the affidavit as a ''former employee'' of the firm, was owed £762.

In his autobiography, Bradman was vague about the details of Hodgetts's scam, and indeed about Hodgetts's responsibility. ''For me personally there suddenly came a disaster. Overnight the firm by which I was employed went bankrupt. In the midst of a long struggle to regain my health, and through no fault of my own, I became the victim of another's misfortune. There was no time for reflection. I had to make an immediate decision as affecting my whole life. Despite the unprecedented difficulties there were trustworthy friends whose loyalty was responsible for my decision to commence my own business. I wasn't really fit to carry the strain of the next few months. It would be idle to try to explain the numerous troubles which had to be surmounted.'' What he was referring to was how quickly he fell on his feet.

Don Bradman and Company opened in Grenfell Street, in the same building as Hodgetts's firm. It inherited many of Hodgetts's clients. Bradman also took over Hodgetts's positions in cricket administration. By 1946, when the Services team returned, Bradman was able to turn his attention once more to cricket. And he had plans.

After the war, how was the game to be played? Was the ''cavalier'' approach of Hassett's Services team the decent way to pay respect to what had taken place between 1939 and 1945? Some thought it was, and should continue to be so. The strongest faction of those thinkers comprised English Test players such as Hammond, Edrich, Washbrook, Compton and Hutton, citizens of a country that was embarking on building a welfare state, a new experiment in fairness that promised to shake off old ways. The crunch of repaying the war debt had still to set in; depressing postwar austerity didn't arrive until 1947. The democratic socialist plans of a National Health Service and public-owned transport were still in prospect. In foreign policy, the hawks were in retreat, and the reality of a ''cold'' war with Russia had not arrived. Britain was yearning for a bright new dawn.

Australia, meanwhile, had a different situation off and on the field. In no way had it suffered like Britain. Its alliance with the United States and the inevitable worldwide demand for its primary resources promised economic prosperity. The government was stable under the Labor Party of Curtin and Chifley. This comparative innocence extended to the cricket field, where the prevailing mood was to pick up where the game had left off in 1940. The first postwar Australian team won their Test and four first-class games easily. Most of the team had seen service, and they flung themselves into their cricket with the joy of just-released prisoners. With a ''couldn't-care-less attitude'', as Ian Johnson put it, they ''partied'' their way through New Zealand, ''a gay band to whom Test cricket was a pre-war dream''.

Even international cricket was fun, for men who had witnessed its opposite. ''Cricket was very much a game after the intensity of five and more years of war,'' Johnson said. ''It was a game to be enjoyed and, by golly, we did enjoy it. I doubt if first-class cricket before or since has been played in the same light-hearted atmosphere. It was a good time first, last and always.''

It was a good time, however, with a short lifespan. From Australia, Bradman was studying the team's form. Most exciting was the super-fast bowling of Miller and Lindwall, which scared the New Zealanders so much they inquired about wearing helmets.

(The ''fun'' side of the game had its limits!) Lindwall reminded everyone who saw him of Harold Larwood, and very soon he would be giving Bradman an idea for how he could finally avenge the insult of Bodyline - England's 1932-33 bowling assault on Australian batsmen with bouncers that targeted their heads and upper bodies. That insult had only grown sharper with the years.

Australia's two series of postwar joy, the non-Bradman larks in England and New Zealand, were over. ''Bradman cricket'' was about to resume.

This is an edited extract from Bradman's War by Malcolm Knox, published by Viking on Wednesday, RRP $39.99

This story Captain Invincible: the war Bradman was determined to win first appeared on WA Today.