Literally, tomes and tomes have been written about Bradman the batsman. However, very little has been written about Bradman the captain. It is indeed ironic that his impressive captaincy record of 15 wins and 3 losses in 24 matches is often attributed to his exemplary batting skills and not his astute captaincy skills.
Perhaps that is the story. Probably it also helped that he led a side called the Invincibles, which with the formidable batting talent of Morris, Hassett, Harvey and Barnes, and the hostile pace attack of Lindwall, Miller and Johnston, would not have cocked a snook at taking on the Avengers in a battle for supremacy.
But then you have had exceptions to the rule too. If we were to go by sheer player quality, I would rate any South African side of the nineties and noughties higher than any of their opponents. I would also attribute the fact that their not-up-to-the-mark performance during this period can be attributed to the lack of a charismatic leader. Despite his long reign of the top, I am not a big fan of Graeme Smith because of his lack of consistency in decision making. Hansie Cronje could have been THE difference had he not succumbed to his failings.
You also have the Pakistani team from the same period – probably the most talented team on paper or tablet or otherwise. Post-Imran, however, they have struggled to find a leader who can galvanise them into a unit instead of being a box of sparking cracklers which always threatens to implode rather than explode.
This is where I think the Don was a good, if not exceptional, captain. Within a year of moving to Adelaide, Bradman was appointed as the captain as well as a selector for South Australia. He was to assume this double duty another year later for the national team against England in December 1936. Both the captain and the batsman were failures, as Australia lost both the matches he captained, while he accumulated a total of 120 runs at an un-Bradmanesque average of 30. After the series, he had sworn never to lose to England again.
The only other time he would lose a Test match was when he watched a 22 year old Len Hutton crack the then highest test score of 364, breaking his own record of 334 in England-Australia Test matches while nursing an ankle which had been injured while fielding. England would go on to post 903/7 and, with both Bradman and Fingleton (who had strained a muscle) being indisposed to play, Australia were thumped by an innings and 579 runs – the highest margin of defeat yet in Test match cricket. Not something you would credit a candidate for the best captain for.
But then, as I said, it was the last time he would lose. Soon after this match, Hitler invaded Poland and Bradman was struck by fibrositis. No one knew when Test cricket would be played again, and Bradman did not know if, and when, he would play Test cricket again.
When the war ended in 1945, Bradman was elected to the Australian Board of Control as a selector. In 1946, he was back in the team as captain at the age of 38. Three-quarters of his team were on the right side of 30 or just pushing it. Some viewed him as a father figure; others like Keith Miller, who had been a fighter pilot in the war, as someone who had shirked away from battle using his health as an excuse. The opposition was a strong English team led by Wally Hammond. Bradman’s captaincy record till now stood at a middling 4 wins and 3 losses from 9 matches.
In the first two matches that followed, Bradman batted twice, scoring 421 runs with two centuries. England were crushed by an innings and 332 runs in the first match in Brisbane, only to suffer the same ignominy two weeks later at Sydney – this time by an innings and 33 runs. Australia would go on to win the five match series 3-0. The Invincibles’ juggernaut had begun, and Bradman was greasing the wheels.
A year later, this team would raze the visiting team to the ground with Bradman scoring 715 runs in 5 Test matches, with 4 centuries and an astronomical average of 178.75. But the true test (pun intended) of his mettle as a captain would be on the tour of England which followed.
The last time they had played in England, they had lost a Test match by the highest margin of this defeat. This time they would bring the English team to its knees, by not just securing a 4-0 victory margin, but also staying undefeated throughout the English summer. The Invincibles had now truly made their way to the pages of history as one of the greatest teams of all time. And Bradman had played his part here too, by scoring 508 runs with two centuries at a slightly lower-than-expected average of 72.57. This series was to be his swansong and, despite the Invincibles’ heroic performances, it was always about 99.94 – be it Eric Hollies who, overnight, turned into an answer for a popular quiz question, or the purported tears in Bradman’s eyes after the dismissal or “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” which Norman Yardley, his men and the Oval crowd sang for him. The batsman had failed, but the captain had set the record straight – one week short of ten years after THAT crushing defeat, Australia steamrolled England to win the Oval Test match by an innings and 149 runs.
1 Jan 1948: Sir Donald Bradman of Australia in action his last innings during the 1948 England v Australia test at the Oval, London, England
Be it weakened opposition or a strong team, Bradman was a successful captain as the records would tell you. Unlike the likes of Brearley, Bradman led by example. He averaged 101.51 as a captain – 123.90 in victories, 78.42 in draws and 30.00 in defeats. He scored almost 2000 runs in the 15 Tests he played as player-captain-selector after his comeback, with 8 centuries at an average of 105.72.
And this is exactly what I feel made Bradman not just a good, but an all-time great captain. His batting did not suffer because of the rigours of captaincy and vice-versa – the vices of which the latter-day greats like Lara and Tendulkar were to suffer. Even if he were to average half of what he eventually ended up with (which, in any case, would make him a mean player better than many of the latter day greats), he would still be an all-time great for me – for coming back to full-time professional cricket after a lay-off of 5 years and a debilitating disease, moulding one of the greatest teams of all time from a post-war generation brat pack, scoring runs and leading by example, and finally avenging the greatest defeat of all time on his swansong. Stuff that dreams and soap operas are made out of.
To see the other captains who made this list, click here: 15 Greatest Captains