One stood on the cricket fields head and shoulder above his peers, a giant among mortals. Another strode across 20 years of cricketing action like a Colossus afflicted with gigantism, reducing such giants to the stature of midgets.
One dominated bowlers across lands and wickets, crossing pioneering milestones that might have been viewed with endless awe; had it not been for the other who rearranged the landscape rendering all such milestones meaningless.
One was the greatest batsman of England in the ‘30s and ‘40s; for a short while in the late ‘20s, perhaps the best in the world. The other was the path-breaking Australian who led the field across time by the comfortable gap of one good batsman between him and pretenders.
For various reasons, both these masters were sullen loners in life. And their rivalry was perhaps one sided, but it simmered and seethed till in the end one could smell the acrid fumes off the wicket.
A Tale of Two Loners
Don Bradman’s aloofness could be attributed to his small town origins and limitless ambitions. He was a man of such fame that fans would stand outside the ground while he batted just for the pleasure of watching the scoreboard tick over. This pressure of adulation went on to adversely affect his health, while his ruthlessness on the field and detachment off it were hard to swallow for many of his mates.
The story of his greatest rival, Wally Hammond, is however more clandestine.
Throughout his career, Hammond was a majestic batsman with a cover drive sculpted in the mould of platonic perfection, and yet, came across as a sad forlorn figure in the fringes of the action. His Gloucestershire team-mates, Charlie Barnett and Charles Dacre, almost came to hate him, and in most circles, he was regarded as moody, aloof and almost arrogant. Hammond once tried to injure Dacre by bowling fast at him as he kept wickets. He also developed friction with the likes of Denis Compton, whose cavalier approach did not amuse him, and Sir Learie Constantine, who believed that the great batsman had insulted him during England’s first tour of West Indies.
During this cricket tour of West Indies in 1925-26, Hammond had been struck by a mystery illness – which according to him was blood poisoning caused by a mosquito bite in his the groin region. However, his biographer David Foot throws some more murky light on the illness.
According to Foot, an unnamed cricketer once remarked that Hammond was ruled by two passions in his life – cricket and his genitals. His physical relationships with many women led to marital problems, including a divorce. This often plagued him during the tours and earned disapproval of team mates like Barnett.
Ben Travers, a humorist and playwright who had travelled with the English team during the Ashes tour of 1928-29, recounts Hammond borrowing his high quality binoculars during every lunch break and sitting quietly in the stands, focusing the field glasses on the Ladies’ enclosure, in which sat some of the most beautiful women in the world.
"Wally, well, yes - he liked a shag," the great Lancashire cricketer Eddie Paynter once commented when asked to sum up his England teammate.
These and other evidences led Foot to conclude that the mystery disease contracted in West Indies was more likely to have been transmitted sexually rather than by a mosquito. And his corollary was that the treatment, which in the days before antibiotics probably involved mercury, adversely affected Hammond's subsequent character and personality, leading to moody and depressive behaviour.
Whatever be the reasons, the rivalry between the greatest batsmen of the 30s and 40s was taken to an obsessive level by Hammond. Playing second fiddle to the greatest batsman of all times was not really to his liking.
Newly-minted record shattered
Hammond started his cricketing campaigns against Australia in 1928-29, totalling a mammoth 925 runs at an average of 113.12.
Widely hailed to be the one to take over from Jack Hobbs as the greatest batsman of his era, he soon found his feats trampled under the juggernaut of Don Bradman. During the 1930 tour of England, Bradman scored 974 runs at 139.14, including that mammoth knock of 334.
During this same summer of 1930, Hammond struggled against the leg- spin of Clarrie Grimmett, and scored 306 at 34.00. The media jumped at it, comparing his lack of success with Bradman’s monumental feats and it did not go down very well with the English maestro. It was probably during this series that he suddenly realised that his career would be one long stretch under the shadow of the accomplishments of the greatest batsman. That he suddenly took outscoring Bradman as his primary goal is evidenced by the tour match between Australia and Gloucestershire. Hammond scored 17 and 89, to Bradman’s 42 and 14, and the match ended in a tie. Other players vouched that they had never seen Hammond more excited than during this match.
From then on, in quiet moments at Bristol, his Gloucestershire team-mates could often hear him exclaim “f**** Bradman!”
Bodyline and broken records
In the second Test of the Bodyline series, the rivalry, mainly from Hammond’s end, was visible to all. The match had become the focus of the cricketing world. Bradman had come back to the side after a one Test gap due to contractual problems and was expected to be the knight who would take Australia to victory over the evil English pacemen.
Hammond, an able medium-pacer who ended with 83 Test wickets in his career, filled the role of a spinner in this Test because of the absence of Hedley Verity. Bradman, out first ball in the first innings, scored a patient century in the second, and when Hammond bowled at him, the air was tense enough for the vibes to make spectators uncomfortable.
In the third Test, Hammond was bowled by a full toss from Bradman when on 85, and his disgust was there for all to see as he walked back to the pavilion.
Soon afterwards, England toured New Zealand, and Hammond, in the two Tests, scored 227 and 336 not out. When he passed Bradman’s then world record score of 334, he had looked skyward, letting out an uncharacteristic scream: “Yes.”
However, much to his chagrin, the cricketing fraternity continued to consider Bradman’s record more prestigious, mainly because of the superior bowling that he had to counter, and when Len Hutton was advancing on his way to 364 in 1938, the score to beat in his mind was 334.
During a 700-mile car journey across Australia, Hammond’s only words to co-passenger Hutton had been, "Look out for a garage. We need some petrol.” One wonders if this was due to his natural reticence or Hutton’s preference for Bradman’s 334.
The 1936-37 Ashes series created further bad blood to Hammond’s view of things. Up 2-0 after the first two Tests, the Englishmen lost 2-3. Hammond performed creditably, scoring 231 in the second Test and a brilliant 32 on a sticky in the third. However, when he was out early on the fifth morning of the fourth Test, enabling Australia to square the series, remarks flew about that had it been the Don, such a dismissal would not have been on the cards.
In 1938, Hammond was made captain of England and he squared off against Bradman in a five Test English summer.
It is conjectured that he turned amateur from professional for the sole purpose of leading England against Bradman’s Australians – which was quite a decision for a financially driven man like Hammond.
After losing the fourth Test, England squared the series in the final Test, where they famously batted on and on to amass 903 for seven declared. Hammond reportedly waited for medical confirmation that the great Australian would not be able to bat due to an injured ankle before closing the innings. Bradman never forgot the three days that the Australians were kept on the field.
Keith Miller recalls in Cricket Crossfire that even during the matches against the counties in 1948, Bradman insisted on piling runs. And when some of the team members asked, “Haven’t we got enough now?” Bradman would give a crooked little smile, and say in his thin, piping voice, “I remember when England made 900 against us and kept us in the field for three days.”
The result of the 1938 summer, one Test each, ensured that the duel would be shelved on immediate even terms while mankind went through the second innings of self-massacre.
The worst phase of the relationship, however, came when both the legends had entered cricketing old age.
When cricket was resumed after World War II, Hammond took the MCC side to Australia to resume sporting ties in what was largely termed The Goodwill Tour.
However, the goodwill seemed to be conspicuously absent in some important quarters.
Bradman, who had never been able to forget the Bodyline series, surprised many, including Hammond, with his ruthless determination to win.
When he went into the first Test, the Don had just come out of prolonged illness, and was battling heavy remnants of rust that had crept into his batting. A failure in the Test would perhaps have ensured a premature end to his career.
During Australia’s first innings, Bill Voce induced an edge off Bradman when he was on 28, and it was held in the slips by Jack Ikin. To the surprise of many, Bradman refused to walk, claiming the ball had gone to the fielder on bounce. The umpires were unsure and allowed him to resume his innings.
Hammond was not amused in the least and remarked after the over, “That’s a fine f**** way to start a Test series.”
Bradman went on to score 187 and Australia won the match, and proceeded to win the series 3-0. Hammond failed with the bat and found Bradman’s attitude so infuriating that he did not exchange another word with the great man except during the toss.
Runs and resentment
Hammond retired from Test cricket soon after the end of the tour, getting married to a Durban-based beauty queen - Sybil Ness-Harvey, his second wife - within 24 hours of his return to England. His collection of 7429 runs at 58.45 with 22 centuries would have stood way above the rest of his contemporaries in any other era, but unfortunately his stay at the wicket corresponded with the phenomenon of Bradman.
The Don played on for another one and a half years, ending with 6996 runs in 33 Tests less than Hammond, at the famous average of 99.94.
Hammond’s record for the highest collection of Test runs, however, survived the batsman who passed away in 1965, and stood till 1970 before Colin Cowdrey went past it.
Officially, the two greats appreciated the merits of each other.
Bradman, on his part, often effusively praised Hammond’s batting. He hailed Hammond’s 240 at Lord’s in 1938 as one of the greatest innings he had ever witnessed. He was also quite generous in his analysis of Hammond’s medium pace, saying that “he was too busy scoring runs to worry about bowling."
Hammond too, in his several autobiographies, always acknowledged the genius of Bradman’s batting.
Yet, the rivalry was there for all to see – the looks that pierced each other like daggers, the meanness that crept into their cricket whenever the greatest of the era faced off against each other.
As Keith Miller put it, “In my opinion the two great players were jealous of one another. There were times in the (1946-47) series when I felt it was not so much a battle between England and Australia as a battle between Bradman and Hammond.”
Senantix (Arunabha Sengupta)