'The Boy from Bowral': The Role of the Bush in the Legend of Sir Donald Bradman

Article excerpt

Sir Donald's supreme mastery of the game of cricket marked a stage in the growth of Australia's nationhood. The 19th century had been full of achievement, from the brave explorers to the innovative pastoralists, from the politicians who fashioned a new democracy to the writers who first gave expression to our national identity.

Sir Donald was a worthy heir, therefore, to an established tradition of achievement by one's own efforts.

(Editorial, The Australian, 14 October 1989)

To become a national hero an athlete must do more than skilfully run or kick a football, shoot for goal accurately, bowl quickly or play a straight bat. In addition to achievement on the sporting arena, a hero must also tap a vein of populist sentiment and appeal to ideals of national and/or regional character, and in doing so capture the popular and historical imagination. As the above quote highlights, the cultural meanings associated with the career and life of Australia's most famous cricketer, Sir Donald Bradman, indicate that he captured this imagination. Bradman's significance as an Australian icon goes wider and deeper than just sport, so wide and deep in fact that he is figured as a symbol of nation building and a worthy successor to the pioneering explorers and pastoralists upon whom the Australian legend was founded. Such symbolism signifies that the story of Bradman as the 'boy from Bowral' draws heavily upon the bush legend that has helped to structure Australian national mythologies.

There are a number of ways of measuring Bradman's heroism. For example, if batting statistics are taken as a measure of achievement, Bradman is by far the best batsman to have ever played cricket. In 52 Tests between 1928 and 1948, he compiled an average of 99.94 runs per innings, easily eclipsing any other Test cricketer. There is also the Bradman Museum in Bowral, New South Wales, at the time of its establishment one of the only museums in the world dedicated to a living individual, which hosted approximately 75,000 visitors in 1996/97. (1) A cottage industry worth millions of dollars annually sells representations and memories of 'the Don' through commercial products such as books, videos, songs, souvenirs, prints, autographed limited edition bats, statuettes, caps, ties, scarfs, jigsaw puzzles, calendars, teaspoons, golfballs, fridge magnets and sunglass cases. Furthermore, Australia has a vernacular term for excellence and endurance: 'Bradmanesque'. For instance, country musician Slim Dusty was described as the 'Bradman of Australian country music' after releasing his hundredth album. (2) Whilst admitting the significance of these items in gauging Bradman's popularity, it is necessary to recognise their limitations in explaining his heroic status. His batting average is only a departure point for understanding this status: Bradman products, words and museum patrons are the result of his heroism and serve as examples of the ways in which it is culturally reproduced, but none of this explains why Bradman is considered a peculiarly Australian icon.

In explaining the Don as an uniquely Australian character, it is crucial to recognise that his country upbringing and an accompanying rural-nationalist narrative are a powerful part of his popular appeal, especially given the celebratory representations of Bradman contained in many biographies, cricket documentaries, the Bradman Museum, and the media. (3) The narrative runs: 'simple country lad excels in the meritocracy of sport, goes on to become a national hero, but never forgets his country roots'. Bradman emerged from Bowral in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, about 100 kilometres outside of Sydney, although he was actually born in the southern town of Cootamundra. (4) As a 19-year-old he was selected for the State side, before making his Test debut the following year in 1928. In the course of his quick rise he was dubbed the 'boy from Bowral', a nickname he wore happily and that stayed with him even after his retirement from Test cricket in 1948. …