An unspectacular concrete strip in the southern highlands of NSW has become a battleground for memorabilia fetishists and property developers
People love to feel close to notable figures from the past. Here is the spot in the cafe where Picasso used to sit. This is the bar where Hemingway drank. This is the house where Harriet Tubman lived. Irretrievably separated by time, we seek to ease that by eliminating physical distance. Like if we stand where they once stood, we might somehow thin the density of years in between.
In that context, you would think the childhood cricket pitch of Sir Donald Bradman would have been assured that sort of reverence. The greatest player in the international game, with a statistical lead the equivalent of running the Olympic 100m in six seconds. His feats a huge Australian source of pride. The place where he supposedly learned his craft, with all the overtones of innocence and destiny, innate to stories of youth.
For whatever reason, that did not happen. In the country town of Bowral in New South Wales, Bradman’s childhood home became a tourist attraction, centred around the story of him learning the game by bouncing a golf ball off the water tank and hitting it with a cricket stump. The tiny courtyard and tankstand have been restored and visitors are encouraged to try his game for themselves. But the concrete pitch behind his church where a school-age Bradman batted was largely ignored, to the point that property developers now want to build 13 townhouses on the site.
You can see why someone would be inclined to dig it up. Diagonally next to St Jude’s Anglican, what was once an open field has become a regular square block enclosed by houses on all four sides. Where one corner meets the street, a lane is worn bare by tyres, presumably before access to the church was fenced off. The rest of the block is ratty with dead grass and weeds. At an off-set angle near one corner is a chewed-up slab flanked by metal star-pickets. Reportedly this is the same pitch that was laid in 1892, though a lot of concrete would not have survived so well in the weather for 130 years. Repairs or replacements would raise the question of whether it is truly the surface that Bradman played on, or a grandfather’s axe scenario.
There is another question it raises: do we need this? With a history that is famous enough, do we need to keep everything? Must we commemorate every park bench where the Don parked his cheeks while eating a sandwich? If we auction or display his baggy green cap, do we auction his slippers and his spectacles and the empty wrappers of his Werthers Originals? After a point doesn’t it become like digging into sepulchres to steal the toe-bone of some saint – fragmentary and grim and pathetic?
The remnant of a landscape where a future sports star may have passed some adolescent afternoons probably does not tell us much about the player or his development. On its own it might say very little. In context, though, it can come to mean something else.
The unspectacular piece of earth in question, enclosed as it is by the urban centre of Bowral, sits literally a block to the east of the Bradman Oval, a beautifully kept ground that sits next to the Bradman Museum and International Cricket Hall of Fame. The restored Bradman house is another block to the north and the west.
Bowral’s major export is Donald Bradman. He is the name that draws tourists, and the power of that name is unlikely to wane while cricket is still loved at home and by a couple of billion people overseas. It makes patent sense for the site to form a Bradman Triangle within the streets of the town. It could be reconnected to the grounds of his church, with the empty block replanted and restored, and the pitch preserved. It would be a quick skip for visitors to the museum, combined with the Bradman house to form a modest historical walking trail. Finishing up outdoors with soil under one’s feet would add an earthiness to the experience, the desired proximity to alleviate temporal distance.
After the site was closed to the public in 2014, the local Wingecarribee Shire Council belatedly made a move to list it on the heritage register in 2017. Now they are about to face off against the developers in the NSW Land and Environment Court. The obvious option would be for the council to work out a way to buy out the developers and get hold of the block for themselves. Councils usually struggle for cash, but state and federal governments love the electoral boost of parochial displays.
Surely assistance from up the chain for something like this would be a gimme. Black-and-white nostalgia, Australia besting the world. Bradman, a name that is the safest of bets. Glory reflected by association. Donald Bradman the man exists a long way away, on the other side of time. The version that we create lives in the present with us. Anything that might ground that story a little more firmly cannot do any harm.