Unpopular Opinions: Bradman Was Not The Greatest

Today we welcome new writer Abhishek Ghan to TFT. It’s a brave debut. Who is / was the greatest of all time if not the Don?

Now before I begin, let me just say that I’m as much in awe of the staggering statistics of Don Bradman as anyone else. But it is important to establish the fact that numbers do not tell the complete story.

Don Bradman played all his international games either in Australia or England. Both these countries have been known to assist seamers more than spinners. So, Don Bradman’s skills as a batsman were never really tested beyond this point. After all, it’s when conditions aren’t in your favour, and you don’t have home support, that you’re really tested as a player.

In Wisden’s ranking of the top players of all time, Bradman is the clear leader above everyone else. But although he played on uncovered pitches, Bradman’s average wasn’t nearly as impressive on sticky wickets as it was on normal pitches.

WicketIRunsAve100s50s0s
Normal656712119.9029123
Sticky1528420.29014

There’s no saying as to how Bradman would have fared against spinners on subcontinent pitches. We have seen many players who averaged more than 45 on seaming tracks struggle on spinning wickets – Ricky Ponting, Graeme Smith, Adam Gilchrist, Desmond Haynes just to name a few.

During the Bradman era, the strongest side other than Australia was England. There was no other cricket playing nation that was even remotely close to these two sides. India during that era, for example, played 15 tests of which they won none, lost 10 and drew 5 tests. Obviously Bradman could only score runs against the opposition in front of him, but subsequent greats of the game had to face broader challenges that tested their techniques in different ways.

Apart from the brief period surrounding the Bodyline series, fast bowling was never as successful on uncovered pitches. Most teams used to play with two or even three spinners. The most successful fast bowler in that era, Harold Larwood, played 21 tests between 1926-1933 and took only 78 wickets at an average of 28.4. Yet he is considered by many commentators to be the best paceman of his generation. This just goes to show how unfair the pitches were to quick bowlers. 

And then there’s the helmets issue. If not wearing a lid was such a big disadvantage, shouldn’t it be reflected in fast bowlers’ records? Let us have a look at the top 5 leading wicket takers in 1920s and 30s:

NoBowlerTypeMWktsAveSR5 WI10 WM
1CV Grimmett (Australia)Leg-spin3721624.2167.1217
2MW Tate (England)Medium pace3915526.1680.771
3H Verity (England)Slow left arm4014424.3777.552
4WJ O’Reilly (Australia)Leg spin2613623.6872.8103
5AA Mailey (Australia)Leg spin219933.9161.862

There isn’t a single fast bowler on this list! Batting on uncovered pitches against fast bowlers must have been tough but it wasn’t as unplayable as many people believe.

In conclusion, there is absolutely no denying that Bradman is one of the absolute greatest to have embraced the game. But is there really enough evidence to prove that Bradman was the undisputed best batsman of all time?

Bradman’s average was phenomenal. But we shouldn’t write off subsequent cricketers in this debate simply because they averaged less.

Let the debate begin …

Abhishek Ghan

49 comments

    • I tend to agree. Anyone who averages almost 40 more than his nearest rival on uncovered wickets is like comparing the Beatles to the Bay City Rollers. Bradman was and is unique amongst batsmen (sorry I don’t do batters), and would have been exceptional on any wicket in any era.

  • Bradman’s margin of superiority over the rest for me makes his case indisputable. You point to the fact that he did not play against a great range of opposition, which is correct, but as against that he did not get to feast on the minnows very often for precisely that reason. He played one test series against India, at home, and took them for four centuries. He also played one test series against West Indies in which he was dominant. Other than that all his test runs came against England and South Africa.

  • I think his stature stems from the folklores of cricket as much as it does from the pure numbers. He was a leader for the entire nation of Australia, not just the other ten Australians he played alongside. While I do agree about the fact that he probably played on less diverse surfaces than today’s batters, we can only judge him on what we have seen. For reasons beyond his control, he was more prolific than anyone else ever will be in Test cricket.

    Also, the modern era’s numbers are comparatively lower because of the same reason – there is so much diversity amongst the oppositions and in the surfaces now. Everyone’s breaking down your technique and preferences with video analysis, statistics and better fitness levels for bowlers. It’s tough to succeed, and that’s why the modern metric of 50 runs as a great average stands correct.

    I suppose Steve Smith might claim to be the greatest ever after Bradman by the time he’s done, but I simply can’t see anyone ever overtaking what he did – not merely because of his numbers, but because of the circumstances in which he earned each run in his tally.

    • His stature stems from the fact he averages 40 more per innings than anyone else who’s ever played the game!

    • To be honest, I think you’re looking for controversy where there is none.

      Shortly before he died, Bradman was asked what he thought his average would be if he was playing now. “Around 40” was his estimate. “Oh” said the interviewer “Is modern bowling and fielding so much better?”. “No” said Bradman “but I am 89 years old” !!!

      Is it really necessary to denigrate the unique achievements of Bradman for the sake of some copy ?

      • Denigrate is harsh! The author says he admires Bradman hugely. It’s just an opinion to spark debate. I thought it would be interesting.

  • Hee hee. Nice try, but no-one else averaged over about 60 then and no-one has since. Bradman was an off-the-scale genius. He may not have faced much of certain types of bowling, but he also didn’t get to feast on dross from some of the second-rate Test teams of today. There are great batsmen (Headley, Hobbs, Sobers, Pollock, Richards, Sachin, Lara off the top of my head), and then, way above them all, is The Don.

  • It’s always been well nigh impossible to compare players of different eras as only physically seeing the player can you make a telling assessment. Sufficient to say the greats of any time would likely be great in any era.
    To be the greatest, stats have always been misleading on their own. Here undoubtedly Bradman reigns supreme. It’s what you leave out; like the conditions, quality of opposition and state of the game that cannot be realistically quantified. Personally I would like to see some sort of De Loitus rating along the Dexter line to take these comparative issues into account.
    For me the greatest in any sport are those who can do something no other competitor can. It’s that ‘genius’ quality. Here in cricket I look no further than Gary Sobers, whom I saw frequently playing for Notts as well as the Windies. Apart from his unrivalled all round abilities the speed he moved in the crease meant he could change his shot mid stream and still middle the ball. I’ve not seen another player do that. Even Bradman watching a double century from him in Australia said he’d never seen the like. Lara and Richards may have been more prolific and exceptional as batsmen but not as cricketers.

  • I have always found wickets per match a better indicator of quality than total wickets or averages. For those above:
    Grimmett – 5.83
    Tate – 3.97
    Verity – 3.60
    O’Reilly – 5.23
    Mailey – 4.71
    As for Bradman – he stands alone.

    • Could I add that I have not found a site where bowlers are ranked according this criterion – nor one where I can work it out other than individually. Can anyone help?

    • I agree with you that wickets per match is a good shorthand guide to bowling quality. However, don’t forget that tests in Australia pre WW2 were timeless, meaning that potentially more wickets would be taken per test more often. There’s always another little factor to take into consideration when doing these cross-era comparisons. Another would be to pick up the author’s lazy comment “Both these countries have been known to assist seamers more than spinners”. Through the 1930s, who were the dominant bowlers for Australia – Tim Wall? Ernie McCormack? Actually, a succession of spinners. Does that suggest the pitches in Australia may not have favoured seamers? Things change over time.

      Another incidental aside – to me, the most impressive stat of Bradman’s is that if you apply any reasonable number of innings played criterion, his career average is more than 50% (61.5%) higher than the career average of any other player anyway. More than 50% better. You don’t fluke that.

      • Johnb,I agree with you completely!! You can not fluke an average of 99.94.I just wanted to shed light on something that wasn’t much talked about, about whether the playing conditions were really as unplayable as people have made us believe and what if Bradman played in different conditions? Would his average still have had read 99.94?

  • The interwar period was a time of relatively weak fast-bowling and some high acoring on batsmen-friendly pitches. Obviously there were fewer teams and SA and WI were not the forces they would become.

    All that said, the trouble for the Bradman dethroners is that none of the other batsmen of the period (Sutcliffe, Hammond, Ponsford, McCabe, Paynter, Leyland, Headley, whoever) could average within 39 of what Bradman achieved. Case closed – except for deranged Indian nationalists.

    Would Bradman have averaged 99 against Roberts-Holding-Croft-Garner? Almost certainly not. What would he have averaged against the WI attack of the last two decades? A lot more, I would suggest.

    Bradman was a Freemason. Make of that what you will except note it doesn’t get mentioned much. So were: Jardine, Sutcliffe, Woodfull, Oldfield and Bill Bowes from the Bodyline series and who’s in the public domain. Others from later on include Frank Worrell, the Nawab of Pataudi and Clive Lloyd. Oh, and so was almost every England football manager up to at least Ron Greenwood.

    • I’d like to request James to make sure that this debate does not get personal at any stage. Everyone’s free to express their views just like others. Author hasn’t mentioned any Indian name in this article and yet he’s accused of being partial.
      Maybe Simon wants author to name an Indian Batsman who he himself considers better than Bradman but he’s in denial and is hence being so aggressive.

  • A great study only a fan of don can do, Thanks for sharing this, hope to hear more blog posts from you dude!!🥂

  • Thank u Simon H for calling out my nationality even though its not nothing to do with the article. The purpose of this article as mentioned in the article itself is not to belittle Bradman’s achievement in any way. No batsman should ever get written off just because of Bradman’s superior average. That’s it!! Those times were different. I just wanted everyone to be aware of these facts before they declare Bradman as the GOAT.

    • Also, I knew this was going to be controversial but it has gotten too intense too quick and quite frankly,I’m loving it!!

  • I’m going to play Devil’s advocate for a bit. Being almost twice as good (statistically) as any other Test batsman ever seems strange to me. Are there other sportsmen in other sports who have achieved this? I can’t think of any. In fact, whenever a new ‘genius’ comes along and smashed world records then it’s often down to something unique (or drugs) rather than an inherent advantage in terms of pure talent.

    Consequently, I’m going to suggest that there’s something odd about Bradman’s statistics that deserves closer scrutiny. I just refuse to believe that there was one single genius who played the game twice as well as any other human that ever lived. It seems impossible. Therefore I appreciate Abhishek’s efforts to delve into the statistical quirks above.

    Would it be possible for another batsman to average 99 today? Absolutely not imho. Therefore it’s fair to ask what The Don might average in this day of endless analysis / video exposure in which his technique would’ve been deconstructed like everyone else. It would certainly be a lot less than 99. And if it’s less than 99, then how much less? One could argue that Steve Smith, for example, has done just as well to average 60+ in this day and age as Bradman did to average 99 back in the day.

    My point? I guess one could argue that it’s simply impossible to say who the best batsman ever was. It might well have been Bradman. But I can’t say that with 100% certainly. Ahem.

  • In the summer of 1948, I was \privileged to watch the greatest batman batsman of all time score a ton against Surrey at the Oval whose bowlers included AV, JC and Alf Gover. I am probably the only reader and commenter who can claim to have seen the great man in the flesh on this post, yet alone watch him score a ton. My only comment is a well known Latin tag. Res ipsa loquitor. (The facts speak for themselves)

    Ron

      • So? Conditions are different there.

        And last time I checked, India, New Zealand gained Test status after Bradman made his debut. West Indies gained Test status a few months before he made his debut. So if in 2324 Finland gains Test status, that should be held as a massive failure on the part of the current crop of players that they never batted there. In fact, hardly anyone who has debuted in the last 10 years will not have played in Pakistan, and therefore cannot be judged decent players of the game.

        Or maybe, we could argue that say Kohli’s failure to even compete against Pakistan (for instance) in Whites is actually not that relevant to judge him as a great of the game. Likewise, we should not hold it against say Dennis Lillee that he never bowled in South Africa. Or Gavaskar must have really sucked, since he never played in or against South Africa, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Ireland or Afghanistan. If you think that is ludicrous, that is Gavaskar, who averaged “just” 50. But apparently it is completely sensible line of questioning, when it is a guy who averaged nearly 100.

        • Darthez, you started by making really good points but now you’re just saying whatever is coming to your mind (which I’d recommend you to stop). Does longevity hold any value in this supposedly open debate? Also,I admire your audacity to term the average of 50 of a batsman who has played in more diverse conditions against variety of opponents as “just”.
          You know what,Bradman doesn’t actually hold the record of the highest average, that honour goes to a West Indian batsman(who averaged 113), but here’s the catch, he only played 1 test innings and got dismissed at 113. Now here’s my question, will he considered as the GOAT? Obviously not. Because Bradman has played more matches than him, played under diverse conditions and hence his average being less than that WI batsman is “justified” . You’ve a funny way of twisting logic,facts to your advantage. I know you’d use the concept of longevity for Bradman but you would have a problem if anyone uses this logic for Tendulkar or Lara actually just Tendulkar.

          • And as far as not playing in Finland is concerned(LOL), we can’t hold that against anyone. I’ve maintained this that it’s not Bradman’s fault that he didn’t play in WI, India,NZ,SA. He was a batsman par excellence when it came to things that “were” in his control and as far as the things that “weren’t” control, all we can say is that we don’t know. That’s why I call him the greatest of his generation and not GOAT, because I think it would be unfair to all those who played under diverse pitch and weather conditions,against variety of opponents for much longer and their average is still quite exceptional(Tendulkar,Kallis,Sangakarra, Dravid,Ponting,Gavaskar, Lara to name a few).

  • By that logic, we can’t call anyone the strongest, since none of the international batsmen have ever batted in Finland.

  • If you look for people dominating a sport, Marion Tinsley in checkers is a pretty good shout. Just lost 7 games in a career of several decades, with two of those losses coming against a checkers playing engine (checkers has since been solved).

  • “Batting on uncovered pitches against fast bowlers must have been tough but it wasn’t as unplayable as many people believe.”

    One thing you should bear in mind is that the run ups were left uncovered. I think it might only have been in the 1980s that run ups were covered on a regular basis. That means that fast bowlers would not have been able to bowl even when play resumed after rain.

    Also, before the 2nd World War, Tests were played to a finish outside England. The last match between England and S Africa in 1939 lasted 10 days and was left unfinished because the team had to catch a boat to return to England. Another match in the West Indies lasted 9 days and Tests in Australia often lasted over 6 days! Not an easy life for fast bowlers because the pitches were rolled rock hard. There was rarely much rough even for spinners to exploit. The outfields were less grassy as well, so the shine left the ball after 10 overs or so. Even tougher for the quicks.

    The only times when Bradman averaged significantly less than 100 per Test series were the Bodyline series, where England fielded 3 quicks, of whom only 2 bowled Bodyline (Larwood and Voce), and versus West Indies in 1930-31, who played 3 fast bowlers.

    It is possible, even probable, that his average would have been lower in modern times, with grassier pitches, covered run ups and more fast bowlers but he would have found an answer. There were signs towards the end of the Bodyline series that he was working out a counter-method, by backing away and slashing into the empty offside. Phil Hughes did this with some success when he was starting out but he stopped doing it when people criticised him for cowardice. I don’t believe Bradman would have been bothered about that

  • For all the advances that are made that could have helped bowlers bowl to Bradman, the corollary is hardly ever discussed: that the same advances might well have HELPED Bradman to do even better.

    Better fields might also have made it easier for him to hit boundaries. Better bats might have made it easier for him to smack bowlers all around the park. Video analysis might have helped him decipher bowlers even better. Fitness regimes for fielders? Might have reduced the runs, but if Bradman had been even fitter, who knows how many singles he might have pinched in addition.

    Reduced workloads might have helped. WW2 not happening might have helped. Easy teams to bat against might have helped. Better travel arrangements might have helped. Better pay might have helped. Bradman did not really shine in his debut series. Better medical care available might have helped him as well.

  • Well it seems to me that far from convincing anyone that Bradman was not the greatest batsman, the author has simply generated posts which demonstrate that he clearly was. If the author enjoys generating pointless controversy, as he himself claims, why not an article suggesting that Tendulkar was not one of the top five batsmen of his era ? Good luck with that one as well !

    • Clearly John you haven’t read the article properly. I’m not here to convince anyone that Bradman wasn’t the greatest and that’s why its called as an “opinion” and not the ultimate truth. There have been discussions from a long time about how everytime Bradman came out to bat, the conditions were unfavorable. So, it was important to point out that there were a lot of things that went in his favor which are not talked about much.

      • Also, why are so many people obsessed with me naming an Indian Batsman even though I haven’t mentioned any Indian names. Might it be that they are in denial that a batsman who has 200 tests, scored 51 centuries ended his career with an average of over 50, might just be better than Bradman.

        • I can speak only for myself, but the answer to that question is ‘no’! If you want to suggest that Bradman wasn’t the greatest – as your headline states quite clearly – you haven’t convinced me. If you want to make the case that Tendulkar is, fine, do so, but you haven’t in this piece which, I can assure you,I did read properly contrary to your rather patronising assertion that I didn’t.

          • John, I’ve mentioned this before that I’m not here to convince anyone anything. Its just an opinion that there’s just not enough evidence that he was the greatest. Few things didn’t go in his favor, few did. I just found it rather hypocritical of people who dub Bradman as the greatest and then say that its unfair to compare player from different generations. Because if you call anyone as the greatest, you should be aware of it implies!! It implies that that player is greater than anyone who has ever played the game. To say this and then say that Bradman should be compared to noone but his contemporaries just goes to show the inconsistency.

        • Even if you take a stretch of 52 consecutive Tests of any other Test batsman, the best average over these 52 Tests they’d come up with would be “just” 75. Not that 75 is bad, but even the best of the rest in their golden period still falls short of the sheer numbers Bradman posted, by a huge margin as well.

          And that is WITH all the advantages Bradman did not enjoy, such as Tests against Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, and other so-so sides (if applicable for such a 52-Test series) a depleted West Indies, money being in the game, better health care, better transportation etc.

          • You’re correct dArthez!! But just imagine how much Steve Smith would have averaged had he played most of his matches in Australia . Even after playing against almost all(if not all) the test playing nations in diverse conditions, he still averages more than 60!! I can’t help but wonder what his average would have been in the above-mentioned scenario.

            • The only batsman who played more than ten matches against a particular opponent at home and has a 100+ average against that opponent is Zaheer Abbas. Against India. Mudasar Nazar came quite close (97.54) against India as well. Miandad is also pretty high up on the list, again against India (I cannot begin to imagine how depressing it must have been to an Indian supporter to follow those Tests in the 1980s).

              If you look at playing a particular opponent (home and away) Chanderpaul leads the charge averaging nearly 150 against Bangladesh, followed by Weekes with a more modest 106.78 against India. Incidentally those are the only two batsmen who have averages over 100 against a particular opponent, while featuring in at least 10 matches against that particular opponent.

              And other than Weekes against India (I am really not certain how highly one should rate those 1948-1953 sides though), the best effort against non-bottom of the barrel teams (Bangladesh and Zimbabwe) belongs to … Bradman, who averaged just below 90 per innings against England.

              There are batsmen from all countries that are doing well against particular opponents, but those opponents are usually weak (Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, the modern West Indies feature quite often)

              Incidentally India’s best two efforts on that metric were by Sehwag and Navjot Sidhu, both against Sri Lanka (in the low 70s). Sidhu is definitely before my time, so I can’t comment on his efforts, and the strength of the Sri Lankan side(s) he faced.

              I have maintained for years that Sehwag in particular is grossly underrated. One of the best players of spin the game has ever seen.

              Transporting people forward or back in time is also often discussed with regards to chess players. But it is fraught with many difficulties, as it would be completely unfair to assume that say Emanuel Lasker would have only the same opening knowledge available to him in 2020 that he had in 1920. And would Fischer really have thrived playing chess in say 1840? That is doubtful, simply because his method of studying the game might have been far less effective then than it was in the 1960s and early 1970s.
              Not sure if Steven Smith would have done that well in say the 1930s. He would not have had the equipment he has now for one. And probably not the fitness, (let alone good diet) etc.

              • You’ve raised some very good points,Darthez!! Bradman was a batsman par excellence when it came to things that “were” in his control and as far as the things that “weren’t” are concerned,all we can say is that we don’t know. There was a chance that he would have thrived on subcontinent pitches unlike many overseas player. But its not Bradman’s fault that he never got to play in those conditions. So, now the question remains was Bradman the greatest player of his generation or is he the greatest of all times? For me former is true but the latter needs evidence to say anything concrete.

  • Sorry to arrive to this late – but it reminded me that I had published a research paper 15 years ago in which I compared Bradman with SF Barnes to see who might be the ‘Most Valuable Player’ for their team, based on a types of statistical analysis I had devised of Extra Runs Saved per Match, for measuring and comparing bowlers (which took into account wickets per match).

    Anyway, my conclusion was that SF Barnes was more valuable to his team than Don Bradman (based on the assumptions of the model) by 22 runs per match.

    The whole paper is here: https://the-doosra.blogspot.com/2006/11/

    My point is that somebody might be the greatest batsman ever, but nonetheless might be less valuable to his team in a test match than one of the greatest ever bowlers – presumably due to the nature of test match cricket.

    A recent example was perhaps Muralitheran – more valuable to Sri Lanka than any possible batsman.

  • Well what I would say is this; in my opinion the chief reason Ronaldo must be regarded above Messi is because he has played in the top three leagues and tested himself against all types of opposition. This doesn’t detract from Messi’s achievements but puts them into perspective.

    • I agree with you completely Harry and that’s why nowhere in the article will you find me saying that XYZ is better than Bradman. I’ll leave it to the reader’s judgment. I just want people to be aware of these facts before they pass any judgment. I just thought it was unjust on the side of Kallis, Dravid, Lara, Ponting, and Sangakkara, who had proven themselves over a longer period of time, in a variety of circumstances, against every test-playing nation, and still averaged very high when they retired to be written off just because they average less than Bradman.

  • Peter Drake (playwright, teacher and cricket fan)
    A good, if controversial, article.
    Can I pitch in the idea that the equipment was very different then? Bats these days are at least 50% heavier, and are better made. Balls are harder too. Add to that the absence of a helmet and the backfoot rule for bowlers and you add to, rather than subtract from, the argument that the Don was the greatest of them all

    • Cricket is a batsman’s game. The pitches are prepared to suit run-making. The laws are made to preserve the batsman’s wicket. It was so biased in favor of the batsmen (in the 1920s and 1930s) that there was no pressure on them at all. If we got four wickets down in a day, we’d done a good day’s work. If we got five, we had an extra drink,” – Harold Larwood.
      This is what the greatest fast bowler of his generation had to say about an era that was apparently ruled by fast bowlers.
      Few things went in Bradman’s favor, few things didn’t. If not playing with heavier, high-quality bats didn’t go in his favor, many other factors did!! Larwood’s socks, when bowling in Australia, used to be covered in blood, his sides used to ache when bowling in Australia due to the bowling on concrete pitches which offered nothing to the bowlers.
      Fast bowling is something that has science closely associated with it, a lot of work has to be done to be able to swing the ball consistently which was absent in those days. There weren’t any scientific warm-ups before the match. According to Larwood again, “The best exercise I took was walking miles to get to the ground.” All these things went in Bradman’s favor.

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