BRADMAN’S LAST INNINGS CONTEXT Sir Donald Bradman, born in 1908, is the most renowned and respected of Australian cricketers who, although of retiring demeanour, attained heroic stature in the interwar period and captained Australia in test matches against England from 1936 to 1948. He represents an era, long gone, when sportsmen were gentlemen and the love of a game, not dubious ‘star’ status and huge financial rewards, was the inducement to play.
In this way, too, he represents an Australia that has now receded into the romantic past, when the kind of man he was and the principles he espoused embodied a unified nation’s beliefs about itself an understated confidence, even in hard times, a sense of fair play and a simplicity (sophisticates, today, would say ‘a simplemindedness) about life and its purposes. The affection of that society for Bradman was enunciated in the opening phrase of the popular song that was written about him: ‘Our Don Bradman’.
Foulcher recalls the cricketer’s reputation, in this poem, and subjects it to his keen poet’s scrutiny. ‘Bradman’s last innings’ is framed by the event commemorated in the title – Bradman’s last appearance at the crease, and the irony of his unceremonious dismissal, on that occasion, without a single run to his credit: Bowled for a duck, you could have asked for better…. At the end of the poem, the experience of his last match is more bitterly registered four runs short of that century / average, at the last, betrayed by your own game – as the cruel summation of a brilliant career.
Between, Foulcher sketches the great batsman’s life in the context of its significance in Australian history and the momentous national and world events of the earlier part of this century. In making these connections, the poet indicates the national and international renown of Bradman in these tumultuous years. During the grim time of the Great Depression, in the 1930s, ‘so many came to see you’, and were momentarily lifted out of their gloom by his skill forgetting the dole queues, the homes dull with a long democracy.
Foulcher’s political comment here is apt in the historical setting of the vigorous challenges to democracy, by Communism and Fascism, especially in Europe, in those days. Australia, though suffering from the worldwide economic slump, was all but immune from such ideological ferment. The adjective ‘dull’ indicates, critically, the sleepiness of the Australian backwater and sets the excitement of Bradman’s appearances both against that dullness and, in praise of old Australia’s isolation and detachment, against the grim excitements of Hitler and Stalin, occurring on the other side of the world.
It is an ambiguous compliment, however: while the rest of humanity was being stirred politically, Australians were being distracted by sport. It is a criticism that remains relevant. During the Second World War, Bradman remained an inspiration, though Foulcher, in speaking of women waiting for their Saturday oval husbands does remind us – again, with a touch of criticism – of the sexual inequalities of that society. There is something ambiguous, too, about these ‘husbands’.
It is not their wives, precisely, who wait for them – but ‘women’. Are these the men, not at war for a variety of reasons, some valid, some not so, who were reviled (as non-fighting men always are, in wartime) and who often replaced, in women’s affections, the absent husbands? If so, the world in which Bradman continued to be a hero, for such people as these, was by no means as innocent as the game he played. CFAIRJONES KGS 2010 After the war, once again he ‘padded up’ – an icon of constancy in a changing society.
But now, the disjunction between what Bradman represented and the world that came to see him is vast. In Foulcher’s analysis (as, indeed, in those of many historical commentators), the moral principles of western civilisation seemed to have been finally destroyed by that conflict, which climaxed in the atomic bomb. Yet Bradman perpetuated the old ideals: you gave people / something the world lacked: rules to / play by, winners, clear white flannels // sharp against the green turf.
However, even this image of perfection (beautifully visualised in that crisp whiteness and brilliant green) is imperfect – and, even more disturbingly, Foulcher argues that all ideal conceptions are fallible, in an insistent repetition: But it never works out, never – as he recalls that even Bradman fell short, at the last, of the achievement expected of him. Addressed directly to Sir Donald – in the use of the second person singular – Foulcher’s poem is unique in combining at once a tribute and a lament.
He is not bent on diminishing the generations’ celebration of Bradman’s greatness, but his honesty is such that he must set that achievement in the larger context of his interpretation of the human condition – of fate. In other words, with rare poise, Foulcher both communicates the almost mythological stature of Bradman and the fact of the even greater forces in human life – here articulated through the betrayal which cricket, personified, inflicts on its champion – from which even heroes are not immune. CFAIRJONES KGS 2010