The Don’s Last Game
There might never have been another occasion like it in the history of Scottish cricket, as the two days in September in 1948 when Don Bradman and his Australian “Invincibles” travelled to Aberdeen’s Mannofield ground.
For “The Don”, here was one final opportunity to ply his trade with flashing blade in Britain. For the supporters, it was a chance to behold masters at work against the SCU’s amateur brigade.
And even at this distance, it’s amazing how many people grabbed their tickets in unprecedented numbers. There is a picture on the wall inside the clubhouse, split into three parts, which perfectly captures the excited, effervescent mass of cricket aficionados who flocked to the contest, which was played out on September 17 and 18, following the baggy-green ensemble’s ruthless dismantling of England during that summer’s Ashes series.
Historian Neil Leitch estimates there might have been 8000 spectators on the first day and 10,000 on the second, which was when Bradman struck a magnificent 123 in only 89 minutes with a string of sumptuous boundaries and a couple of towering 6s.
Most of the spectators are gone now, of course. This was 68 years ago, in a different age, where the sport still commanded large crowds, north of the Border.
But, via the very modern method of Twitter, I managed to track down two of the fans who were present and, despite having amassed 172 years between them, Ally Main and Colin McKenzie still retain vivid memories of the fixture where maestros and Mannofield merged to glorious effect.
McKenzie was just 16, but this wasn’t his first encounter with that special group of Australians. On the contrary, he and three friends had cycled all the way from Aberdeen to Leeds two months earlier to watch the Fourth Test between the Ashes adversaries at Headingley – where the tourists famously chased over 400 in the last innings to triumph by seven wickets – and they were in thrall not just to Bradman, but many of his compatriots as well.
“It was a special summer, and we didn’t think twice about making that long journey, even though it took us four days to get down and the same time to return home,” says McKenzie, who now lives in Sutton Coldfield, outside Birmingham, and loves cricket as much as he did nearly seven decades ago.
“There was no Forth Road Bridge at that time, so we took our bikes, travelled down via Perth, then jumped on the ferry at Queensferry, and we slept in farmers’ fields – with their permission – during the nights.
“It was worth it in every way, because despite so much of the talk being about Bradman, that was an incredibly talented team. They had Neil Harvey, Ray Lindwall, Arthur Morris, Keith Miller, Lindsay Hassett, Colin McCool….wherever you looked, they were very strong, and we all understood that Scotland had no hopes of beating them
“But none of us cared about that, not in these days. I remember that we just turned up and got admitted to the ground and it was as if everybody in Aberdeen was there. The Scots batted first and they did pretty well [they actually reached 156 for 4, before collapsing to 178 all out], and our lads stuck to their task and George Youngson dismissed Harvey cheaply [for just four].
“They finished the first day at 90-odd for three and there was no appearance by Bradman. So everybody went home and returned the next morning [which was a Saturday] and the place was even busier than before.
“Eventually, the Don came to the wicket and he and McCool were in peerless form. They made batting look very easy and both scored hundreds and once they declared [on 407 for 6], their bowlers got to work.
“There was never any doubt about the outcome, but Guy Willatt hit a half-century and although Scotland lost by an innings, there was no disgrace in that. Let’s remember we are talking about one of the strongest-ever Australian line-ups. Everybody was cheering them on. It was a pleasure to watch them.”
Ally Main was also in attendance and, oblivious to being 90, the former Forfarshire captain, who now resides in Broughty Ferry, was thrilled to witness Bradman’s last hurrah to Blighty.
As somebody who joined the Royal Navy in 1942 and served his country throughout the rest of the Second World War, he understood the sentiment once expressed by Keith Miller – “Pressure is having a Messerschmitt up your a**e, playing cricket is not” – and revelled in the atmosphere.
“You have to remember that we were used to drawing big crowds back then. We would get 3000 to 4000 fans when we played Perthshire in the [Scottish] County Championship and people absolutely loved the game,” said Main.
“We also had some superb professionals on the circuit and I’ll never forget when we played Aberdeenshire and we managed to remove [the great West Indian batsman] Rohan Kanhai fourth ball. Very few teams managed that, so we were delighted and we eventually won the match.
“But it was still a different experience to watch the Australians, because they had so much quality in their squad they could afford to rest people like Miller and Hassett for the Scotland game. Nobody expected us to win, and especially not after what had happened in the Ashes, but we made a decent fist of it on the opening day.
“Once Bradman came to the crease, it all changed. But you have to say he had the talent to do that to any opponents in the world and it was a privilege to see him producing a marvellous array of shots.
“Nobody went home disappointed. And the beer tent was always busy. Unforgettable.”
The years may pass, and fashion trends might come and go, but nothing really changes for these boys of summer.