He unified Australia with a swing of a bat

Legend: For grieving and uncertain Australians, a cricket star "shone like a beacon" toward a national identity.

Summer Olympics

September 12, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BOWRAL, Australia - To find the heart of Australian sports, travel 80 miles southwest of Sydney, past suburbs crammed with bungalows, through dense forests and into this storybook town perched at 2,200 feet and set in the 1950s.

From the railway station, it's a 10-minute walk along the covered sidewalks of a main street, past gardens filled with tulips that herald spring's imminent arrival in the Southern Hemisphere, and, finally, down a country lane to an immaculate cricket pitch bounded by a white picket fence, circled by modest homes and shadowed by a museum to a living legend.

This is where Don Bradman, the greatest Australian athlete of them all, learned to play cricket.

To gauge the excitement of what it means for Australia to hold the Olympics that begin Friday, to have an inkling of the true measure of Australian sporting stardom, you have to start here.

Bradman is the original, the greatest sporting star of a sports-obsessed country, cricket's first knight. Some would argue that he is the country's most famous citizen.

More than a half-century after he last played, Bradman remains the mythic figure of Australian sports, the starting point in a line that runs to such modern stars as swimmer Ian Thorpe, runner Cathy Freeman, golfer Greg Norman and tennis legend Rod Laver.

Bradman was Babe Ruth without the swagger, Joe DiMaggio without Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jordan without the endorsements.

With a cloth cap, flannel outfit and scuffed wooden bat, he became a star of sport's golden age in the 1930s, raising spirits in a country racked by the Depression and grieving for a generation of men lost in the trenches of World War I.

He was the first Australian to dominate the international stage in his sport, so renowned for his exploits and classy style that decades later, when Nelson Mandela was released from a South African prison, he asked: "Is Don Bradman still alive?"

"In the 1930s, we regarded Sir Donald as one of the divinities, so great was his impact on cricket," Mandela said recently.

Bradman, now 92, lives in Adelaide. He zealously guards his privacy even while maintaining steady correspondence with fans who still remember him and write to him.

But it is here, in Australia's Cooperstown, where Bradman's career is best remembered. In a town and a museum that evoke the past, Australians come to celebrate all that they once were and will never be again. Others from around the world make a pilgrimage to the museum, with a guest book registering fans from as far away as India, Pakistan, Britain, South Africa, even Texas and Oklahoma.

"Here was a young man from the bush who challenged the best and beat them," says Richard Mulvaney, the museum's director. "He came from a family that was not well off. He lived in the country. He was self-taught. And playing for his nation was the greatest honor. It's that purity of an earlier time that we all hold on to."

Australia was still searching for a sense of itself, a way to separate its identity from that of its mother country, Britain, when this stoic, slight cricketer with thinning hair, marvelous reflexes and quick wrists achieved his fame. He was forever known as the Boy from Bowral.

"Bradman shone like a beacon toward our national identity," says Harry Gordon, historian of the Australian Olympic Committee.

Separated from the rest of the world by oceans, blessed by good weather, and imbued with a zest for hard physical activity, Australia created a sporting culture all its own, grafting its style on sports brought over by soldiers and convicts from England.

This is a country that plays four types of "football" - rugby union, rugby league, soccer and the wildest, wackiest game of all, Australian rules, an 18-a-side rumble that blends kicking, running and tackling in a mayhem-filled affair on an immense field.

It is a country of gamblers who bring the place to a halt during the continent's biggest horse race, the Melbourne Cup. It is a country of sun-worshipers and swimmers, golfers and tennis players.

And it is a country that celebrates sporting achievement and remembers stars such as Dawn Fraser. This mischievous and gutsy swimmer fit Australians' view of themselves as rebellious, nonconformists. She won eight medals in three Olympics and raced in Tokyo in 1964, seven months after being severely injured in a car crash that killed her mother. She ignored team officials and marched in Tokyo's opening ceremonies. Later, she was caught stealing a flag near the entrance to the emperor's palace.

Australia still reserves a place in its heart for sprinter Betty Cuthbert, the "Golden Girl," who won the 100- and 200-meter races and anchored the winning 400-meter relay at the 1956 Melbourne Games. Eight years later, she said she heard a voice from God telling her to run in the 400. So, she did, and won the gold in Tokyo.

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