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He unified Australia with a swing of a bat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Cuthbert has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. There is sentiment among many Australians that she should light the flame to open the 2000 Olympics, expected to be a feel-good Games staged in state-of-the-art facilities designed to illuminate the physical gifts of the world's athletes.

The picture Australia presents today of a vibrant, modern society confidently embracing the world is far different from that of Bradman's day, in the early years of the 20th century.

"We weren't a country until 1901," Gordon says. "We needed a sense of unity and oneness. Sport is the glue. It gave us the binding."

And Bradman gave the people a hero in the darkest of times.

"In the period when day after day went by without hope for a large section of Australia's manhood and in unremitting drudgery for Australian women, Bradman was the one hero with whom it was possible to identity and who stood firm for the pride of a young nation," Charles Williams writes in the biography "Bradman: An Australian Hero."

Bradman's story - and legend - is carefully preserved in the museum. Encased in glass is his first bat, with a cut-down handle and early scores that Bradman etched in the worn wood.

There's a beautiful picture of his late wife, Jessie. Childhood sweethearts, they were married for more than 60 years until her death in 1997. It is said that even before they were teens, Bradman walked her across the cricket pitch outside his family's home and told her they would one day be married.

There are snapshots and newsreels, footage of his glory days in the 1930s, as he helped Australia defeat its biggest rival, England. There are exhibits chronicling the life of Australian cricketers in the days before jet travel. It would take two months to make the voyage from Australia to England, and for a young man, it was an eye-opening journey.

Bradman wrote: "The shipboard life, with stops at Colombo, Aden, Suez and Port Said was exciting. Rome was a highlight. Even now I think St. Peter's Cathedral the most wonderful structure I have seen, with Milan Cathedral also marvelous. Switzerland was incredibly beautiful and in its own way, so was Paris, though, to an unsophisticated lad like me, somewhat overpowering."

There's a vivid display of the biggest controversy to hit pre-war cricket, as England defeated Australia in the "bodyline" series of 1932-1933. Essentially, the English bowlers, cricket's version of pitchers, threw at the Australian batsmen. It wasn't cricket. And it made for a storm in the newspapers.

"It was the closest England and Australia ever came to war," Mulvaney says. "It did a lot to raise the consciousness of what it meant to be Australian."

Bradman gave Australians hope. And when it came time for his retirement in 1948, a crowd of 94,000 showed up at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch his final match. Even in athletic retirement, he was never far from the game, eventually becoming chairman of the Australian Board of Control, the body that ran the sport. He was a broadcaster, author and stockbroker. He never courted public fame, and in recent years has slipped out of the limelight, issuing occasional statements on his birthday or, in the case of the Olympics, at times of national celebration.

"To represent your sport and your country is an honor for any athlete," Bradman wrote in a message read the night the Olympic torch passed through his hometown. "I know that selection is a result of practice, sacrifice and hard work. It is an extremely exciting time for all Australians, whether they are athletes or spectators, as we host this wonderful world event."

The cricket statistics that Bradman compiled would make no sense to American fans. But to cricket fans, they are matchless numbers, making him the 20th century's greatest player.

Once during his career, his path crossed that of the great American baseball player of his generation. There they are, in a grainy photo taken in 1932, sizing each other up. Ruth, the Bambino, told Bradman that "us little fellows can hit 'em harder than the big ones."

Recently, the museum put together an exhibition comparing the exploits of 10 great athletes, from Bradman to Carl Lewis, Fraser to Jordan, Muhammad Ali to Jack Nicklaus.

Ruth originally was among the 10. But he was dropped from the presentation, Mulvaney says, because "we didn't think baseball was a world-enough sport."

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