Bradman, see Badman" was the piquant suggestion offered by an ill-informed internet search engine a few years ago to anyone seeking information on Australia's most-renowned cricketer. Brett Hutchins is not going that far, but it is his intention to rescue Sir Donald Bradman from the canonisation inflicted on him following his death in 2001. Such treatment, once described by Harold Laski as " de mortuis nil nisi bunkum ", is not of course an exclusively Australian tradition. The memory still lives on of a BBC reporter remarking on children in the streets of Stoke-on-Trent watching the funeral procession for Sir Stanley Matthews and saying how appropriate this was "because Sir Stan was a great family man", evidently unaware he had left his wife of 33 years for another woman.
This book is not an attack on Bradman. If it were, it would hardly exclude the devastating conclusion by Lindsay Hassett, his successor as Australia's cricket captain, that "he got what he deserved from cricket - a lot of money and not too many friends". It acknowledges that the bedrock of the myth is Bradman's remarkable record as a batsman, with an average of 99.94 runs per test innings placing him further off the statistical scale and less subject to standard human fallibility than any other performer in any sport.
It is, though, less concerned with Bradman than with the uses and misuses to which he has been put. Hutchins locates him in the context of a variety of Australian myths and stereotypes - the bushman and mateship among them - and looks at the extent to which he was commodified even in his lifetime.
He argues that interpretations of Bradman have been harnessed to a nostalgic, conservative world-view. This is not to suggest that Bradman was an active, knowing party to any distortions, although there is little doubt that he was predisposed to such views himself.
Hutchins' real villain and target is Australian prime minister John Howard.
He does not deny that Howard's idolatory of Bradman is genuine, but indicts him for using his hero to project a narrowly distorting view of the nation - harking back to a simpler "golden age", implicitly endorsing the former "white Australia" over the diverse nation he leads and privileging sport over other areas of achievement. It also, he points out, has the effect of denying Bradman's singularity, the fame and achievements - and the single-minded temperament necessary for them - that set him apart. To turn him into an Australian archetype is, paradoxically, to undersell him.
This is a valuable book, a genuinely different addition to a mountain of writing on Bradman, much of which simply rehashes the same, admittedly remarkable, story. The prose, not unlike Bradman's batting style, is more functional than stylish. The gap still remains for a full-scale revisionist biography, examining the myths and pieties and incorporating some of Hutchins' insights. Melbourne cricket writer and historian Gideon Haigh, whose dustjacket endorsement will do this book no harm, and whose immunity to the pieties is well established, is probably the man for the job.
Huw Richards is visiting researcher, International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University.
Don Bradman: Challenging The Myth
Author - Brett Hutchins
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 224
Price - £40.00
ISBN - 0 521 82384 6