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Bradman and Bubba

May 10, 2014, 5:44 p.m. (ET)

Some of you may know I was fortunate to live in Australia for a period over two years in order to grow their game in each of their major cities.  I walked Kessel Road in near the Queen Elizabeth the Second Rec Center in my months in Brisbane, woke up for months to kookaburras singing in old gum trees in Adelaide, fly fished with men from Snowy River while in Sydney, breathed the cleanest air in the world in Tasmania, and saw the swans of Perth that inspired the title to Nicolas Taleb’s great book on the impact of the highly improbable – The Black Swan.  

I also learned some important ideas from a sport that is popular with billions around the world – yet basically unknown here in America – cricket. Yes it is played at a very high level of sportsmanship – including serving tea mid match – over many days, or more recently in “quick” matches that take just a day to finish.  I learned enough that when I came down to Sydney to prepare for my role at Team Leader for our USA Beach Teams in 2000, our hodgepodge USOC staff/team leader group of baseball/sports players was able to win a friendly cricket match over our Australian hosts, much to their chagrin.  In my office I have displayed a statuette of Brian Lara, honoring his record for the highest individual score in a test match when he scored 400 not out against England in Antigua in 2004. He is also the only batsman to have scored a century up to a quintuple century in top level competition.  

The one person that stood out among the millions of amazing sporting Australians, was an athlete who played cricket at a level no other person has ever come close to. Sir Donald Bradman.  His fame led Australia to honoring him. He competed for Australia for over 20 years, despite being declared physically invalid and dropped from the Service in World War II – and despite having poor eyesight. He played no organized junior cricket growing up, and received no coaching.  When he started playing on real, grass fields, he resisted all attempts to change his batting style to a more orthodox style.

Then there is a guy who just won his second Masters, the lefty Bubba Watson, a player who also has never had a golf coach or lessons, just like the best athlete in ball sports – Bradman - had no coach growing up in the sport. A recent Sports Illustrated article on Bubba made me smile – in that his dad, Gerry, was purported to only have offered Bubba one piece of advice as he hit whiffle balls in the back yard – “Swing hard.”  Like Agassi in tennis, Wagner in baseball – when young it was about speed first and accuracy second.

Ben Crenshaw said of the new two time Master champion – “He’s out of this world. I mean, that drive on 13, are you kidding me? What game is he playing?  It’s not golf. It’s different than that. It’s like a symphony, a painting, a sculpture. It’s artistic expression. Bubba sees the course in big parabolas and arcs, not in straight lines. The power is one thing, but what makes him so unique is the creativity. Put those together and he can play this course like nobody else.” 

We all know the importance of the mental game. PGA golfer Ricky Fowler when asked if his friend Bubba is finally maturing said, “yeah he’s gone from like 12 ½ to 14.  He’s getting there. He’s always going to be a kid at heart but mentally and with his golf game and as a dad and as a person, he’s definitely growing up.” PGA caddy Paul Tesori said “As he becomes older and a little wiser, people are starting to get what he’s all about. And you know what, as big a talent as he is, his heart is even bigger.” 

Bradman grew up by playing backyard cricket. bouncing an old golf ball off a water tank and hitting it on the rebound with a cricket stump 'The run-making machine,' as he would become known in his later life, showed talent throughout his younger years, scoring his first century for the High School cricket team while still only twelve. At 17 he was a regular player for the Bowral senior team and during the 1925-1926 season, he made 1318 runs in 23 innings. He moved up to the state side in 1927 then in 1928 played his very first Test match representing Australia against England in the Ashes series,. He scored only 18 runs in the first innings and 1 in the second. He was dropped from the Second Test, but was given a second chance for the Third Test and did not disappoint. In the 1928-1929 season he amassed 1690 runs of which more than 700 were scored in the form of a century on the batting oval.  He hit the record books as the youngest ever player to score a Test century at the age of 20 years and four months.

Tony Shillinglaw in his book Bradman Revisited did a biomechanical analysis of Bradman’s style which concluded that the hook in his swing that coaches wanted to change technically, actually created a rotary action that gave extra power and kept the ball on the ground.  “The Don” also ALWAYS stood completely still as the bowler began his run – again simplifying his reading of the bowler’s intent.  The only weakness seen in his skill over time was in batting during “sticky wickets” when it would get hot and sunny after a heavy rainfall. From my experience watching cricket I don’t think any batter was too good during such conditions

So what makes him someone to be a role model for all sports?  Simple, his performance – especially compared by standard deviation to all others playing not just cricket, but any ball sport.  His average was 99.94 per – the next three closest batsmen in the sport’s history are at 60.97, 60.83, and 60.73.

Bradman's Test career batting performances  with red bars for his innings, blue dots capping where he finished “not out” and the blue line being is 10 most recent inning average.

Bradman’s records still exist over half a century later in Test Match cricket – 99.94 as the highest career batting average, 201.5 for the highest series batting average, 36.25 for the highest ratio of centuries per innings played and 15% for the same double century ratio. He also scored the most runs in one series – an astounding 974.  Statistician Charles Davis analyzed the top athlete’s stats, comparing the number of standard deviations that they stand above the mean for their sport.

Athlete

Sport

Statistic

Standard
deviations

Bradman

Cricket

Batting average

4.4

Pelé

Association football

Goals per game

3.7

Ty Cobb

Baseball

Batting average

3.6

Jack Nicklaus

Golf

Major titles

3.5

Michael Jordan

Basketball

Points per game

3.4

Over a career in baseball, the batter would have to bat .392 (current record is .366) and in basketball the shooter would have to average 43 points (current record is 30.1)

One of Australia's most beloved heroes, he was revered abroad as well. When Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, his first question to an Australian visitor was, "Is Sir Donald Bradman still alive?"

The eyes are important, but it really is less about how good your vision is and what you direct your vision towards. Too many players watch the ball, in no small part based on doing drills and not learning through the net game flow.  Arizona USA Volleyball Region’s outreach director just posted a great blog on what the eyes see that I urge you to read. In closing, I will offer a comment to start off other comments. From Orioles manager Buck Showalter about Derek Jeter – “He didn’t take himself too seriously, but he took the right things seriously.”  Thanks for your help in growing the game together and enjoy the return to the summer weather that lets everyone play doubles outside!

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