Monday, April 26, 2010

Brightly Fades the Don by Jack Fingleton

I’ve just finished reading Brightly Fades the Don, Jack Fingleton’s account of the Australian tour of England in 1948, Don Bradman’s last appearances in test cricket as captain of a team that crushed the hosts four-nil in the tests.

Fingleton was a test batsman himself, and a good one, with an average of 42 from 18 Tests, three of which were in the Bodyline series of 1932/3. He was also a trained journalist who covered national politics when not at the cricket, and the reporter’s eye that he casts over post-war Britain makes the book much more than just an account of cricket matches.

Inevitably, Bradman is the book’s central character. It is known that Bradman did not get on with Fingleton when they were teammates (or with Bill O’Reilly, the great leg-spinner who was also reporting on the ’48 tour). Religious differences were thought by some (probably including Bradman) to be behind this, but it might be that their different denominations merely signposted contrasts of character that were at the heart of the matter: Bradman was of work-ethic Presbyterian stock, while Fingleton and O’Reilly were feisty Irish Catholics. Bradman’s experiences with the press had led him to distrust journalists, which wouldn’t have helped.

A notorious incident during the Bodyline series compounded matters. Australian captain Bill Woodfull entered the England dressing room at the end of a fraught day on which he and several teammates had endured painful blows, the worst of which was an agonizing strike to wicketkeeper Oldfield’s face (the British newsreel commentator said “Larwood was the unlucky bowler”). He famously told the hapless England manager Pelham Warner “there are two teams out there, but only one is playing cricket”.

We know this because someone told the press. Fingleton, the journalist, was the prime suspect but always denied it (he repeats the denial here). He thought it the reason for his omission from the 1934 English tour. But if not Fingleton, then who? The writer and cricket historian David Frith, who knew Fingleton well in his later years, has concluded that it was Bradman, a view that Fingleton almost certainly shared.

The depth of the animosity between the two is not evident in Fingleton’s comments about Bradman here, which are scrupulously fair and moderately expressed. Bradman the batsman is praised almost unconditionally, Bradman the captain only slightly less so, though there is criticism that his determination to go through the tour unbeaten caused him to deny the fringe players fair opportunity.

It is Bradman the man about whom Fingleton holds the strongest reservations, for his “somewhat indifferent, cold and unfriendly attitude towards most of those with whom he played”. Several anecdotes that support this view are spread through the book, though Fingleton concedes that this singlemindedness may have been part of what made Bradman cricket’s greatest batsman.

Bradman’s team became known as “the Invincibles”, and feature early in any discussion of the greatest-ever team. Do they justify that title?

Not according to Fingleton, who selects a combined XI from the 1921 and 1948 sides that includes only four members of the latter. He explains that part of the reason for this is the weakness of the England team in 1948, with a poor standard of domestic cricket combining with inconsistent and eccentric selection (themes repeated many times since) to produce a side that had was not a proper test for Lindwall, Miller and the rest, so their worth was not truly tested.

There are numerous unexpected delights. Fingleton, proving himself to be a man of taste and discrimination, liked Bristol.

Not even London, I thought, had more character about it than this hilly city of churches and types.
It came as a shock to read that the rather bleak stone building at the far end of the Bristol ground was still an orphanage.

There is gay but sad colour in the uniformed orphans who cram the walls along the side of the ground and their huge home.
When I first started watching at Bristol, in the late seventies, that far end of the ground was still sometimes referred to as the Orphanage End, a usage now, I think, obsolete. The function of the buildings as a refuge for waifs, strays and the listless remains; it is now part of Bristol Polytechnic aka the University of the West of England.

While in the north, Fingleton leads an expedition to track down his old Bodyline adversary Harold Larwood, who he found running a sweetshop in the back streets of Blackpool. Fingleton, using that reporter’s eye again, notes that Larwood does not have his name on the shop, odd for a famous sportsman, even in those commercially unsophisticated days.

He finds Larwood welcoming, but bitter, not at the Australians, but at the English cricketing establishment, which shunned him when it became expedient to place distance between itself and the events of 1932/3. The meeting had unexpected consequences. Fingleton was surprised to hear Larwood contemplating emigration to Australia, “the country which once flamed from end to end over his bowling”. The encouragement that they received from Fingleton helped the Larwoods and their five daughters to take the momentous decision to emigrate. He lived happily in Sydney for another 45 years.

At various points Fingleton rails against the disruption and intrusiveness of the new-fangled loudspeakers that were a feature of the English grounds. This might appear to date him hopelessly, but I reckon he was onto something. There’s nothing an announcer can say that the spectator cannot tell by looking at an efficiently operated scoreboard, or by consulting the small reference library that should accompany him or her to the game. And it’s led to the cacophony that is an ODI at the Cake Tin, and elsewhere.

They should have paid heed to Fingleton, over that, and much else.

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