Thommo and The Don

This time of year Adelaide’s eastern suburbs are decorated in purple thanks to the blossom the jacarandas shed in early summer. This is also where a lot of the old money lives – in the wide streets between the city mile and the foothills. Here are bluestone villas, wrought iron fences, tennis courts, high ceilings and sultana vines. Homes are designed to use shade, scale and space to resist the searing heat of summer.

Don Beard lives here and he greets me wearing a sports jacket with a fresh yellow rose in his lapel. He is 87 now but his back is still straight and his moustache clipped. The thundering artillery of Kapyong and other battles of the Korean War have dulled his hearing so our conversation can surely be heard several houses away as he leads me through the garden to the rear of the property.

The reason for my visit is to confirm once and for all one of the most beguiling suburban legends that has gently circulated through cricket conversations in South Australia for three decades.

“This is the place where we had the pitch,” says Don as we reach the back of the driveway. The jacarandas have coated one of the cars in purple confetti. There is a long stretch of fine lawn set in a corridor of trees and shrubs. It was once a full length pitch with enough room for a decent run up as well.

“Les Burdett (Adelaide Oval curator) dropped down one day with a trailer load of black soil to get things started,” he explains and then it was just a matter of getting the pitch sorted and rolled.”

It isn’t a surprise that Don Beard had a practice net in his backyard. The blocks in the eastern suburbs are generous enough to fit one in and he was a serious player who according to Gil Langley had a “lovely out swinger”.

He was a grade cricketer before the war and took a hat-trick in Japan in an armed services match as he prepared to serve in Korea.

Returning from the war and to the game, a chap from St Peters Old Collegians asked him to join the club but Don had to confess he wasn’t an old boy so didn’t qualify. Asked if he had ever played for a college at all he mentioned the Royal College of Surgeons side in England. That was enough and he padded up for the club until he was 62 years old working his way from their first eleven down to division 13 where he ended with a premiership.

Before heading outside we had talked cricket in his study overseen by a large black and white photograph of Bradman. The Dons were great mates. At one stage I ask him to describe the master at the crease and he leaps to his feet and finds a bat to demonstrate. Dancing feet – back and across – roll the wrists.

“Not many sixes of course,” but “so much energy through the on side”. With this he pulls the imaginary ball through square leg and I fear for the tiffany lamp on the nearby table.

He puts away the bat and leaves the room returning with a copy of E.W. Swanton’s World of Cricket. Opening the front page it reveals a letter in familiar handwriting offering the volume as a gift and an endorsement as the definitive book on the game.

“I was seeing a patient at the time and the receptionist came in and said that a little man had dropped this off for me. I laughed because she had no idea who he was.”

“I enjoyed his company. A lot of people found him difficult because shall we say he didn’t have the common touch. He found it difficult to mix and people found him standoffish but I think this was largely due to nervousness and embarrassment. I found him kind, generous and a quick wit. Lady Jessie was a wonderful woman who everyone loved. She was better in public than he was. She loved gardens and music and handled things very, very well.”

Each year during the Adelaide test the Beards would host a dinner party in which guests from the Australian and visiting teams would have a chance to relax with Sir Donald and Lady Jessie. They were enchanting evenings. Lenny Pascoe sent flowers the next day to Margaret Beard in thanks.

“Keith Miller was a lovely, lovely man you know,” says Don. “I have a grandson with a handicap and Keith would ring at least once per month to ask after him. When Keith was seriously ill at the end I flew to Melbourne and caught a train and then a cab down to where he was. When I told the cabbie who I was visiting he refused to take a fare from me because of his admiration for Miller as a player.”

Don Beard wasn’t available to treat Jeff Thomson the day he dislocated his shoulder while colliding with Alan Turner in the first test against Pakistan at the Adelaide Oval in 1976. He was at another emergency case where an Italian migrant market gardener had fallen out of a truck and landed on an upturned garden fork.

“Dreadful injury,” he remembers.

Soon he was asked to look at Thommo and remembers that as another confronting injury. He holds up two fingers showing a slice of light between them to demonstrate a normal collar bone injury. Then he widens the fingers three or four centimetres apart to show how Thomson’s injury was. His eyes enlarge at the memory.

“He was a terrific patient though and a wonderful chap.” Although the fast bowler returned home after surgery he continued to consult with Dr Beard including while in the Australian side the next season against India.

“He and his new wife were staying in some motel and I said come up for dinner and of course they did. “

A handful of others including the Bradmans came around and in the balmy evening before dinner went for a walk around the garden. Don Beard’s two sons were keen cricketers and began goading Bradman, nagging him to see if he would have a hit with them.

In a jocular moment the then 69 year old agreed and padded up for a hit in the net. Thommo saw what was going on and blurted out “If he is going to bat then I am going to bowl”.

And so it was that on a warm summer night in Adelaide with the jacaranda blossom still visible on the backyard pitch that Australia’s fastest bowler hurled a few down at its greatest batsman.

“Think of it,” says Don Beard as we look at the old net area. “The last man to ever bowl to Don Bradman was Jeff Thomson. After it they had a laugh and came in through those doors arm in arm talking cricket.”

The only recording of this evening remains in the memory of those who were there.

“How did he go?” I ask.

“Let’s just say the little feet were still dancing.”

 

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About Michael Sexton

Michael Sexton is a journo working for the ABC in SA. His scribblings include "1964", "Fos Wiliams on Football" and the biography of Neil Sachse.

Comments

  1. Great yarn – a nice reminder of why it is we love the Almanac.

  2. Colin Ritchie says:

    Loved the article Michael, wonderful read. Reminds us that there must be so many stories out there just waiting to be told.

  3. Great yarn here too. Thommo to Bradman. Wow. And in this blokes backyard. Stories like this belong in the Smithsonian

    PS: I own the late 70’s E.W.Swanton’s World of Cricket and an early 80’s reisuue … it is the most lavish cricket book ever published. Wish they’d do another

  4. John Butler says:

    Fabulous Michael.

  5. Good story and elaborated on in Thommo’s biography by Ashley Mallett. As a result of the session Thommo ranked the Don as clearly the best batsman he’d seen. Apparently he middled everything bowled at him.

  6. Goodness, where was Youtube in the 70’s ???

    Glen!

  7. Wonderful story, Michael.
    How cricket lends itself to yarns such as this.

  8. Lord Bogan says:

    Great stuff Michael. Would’ve loved to see the Don face Thommo when both were at their peak. Such unconventional and dangerous cricketers.

  9. Pamela Sherpa says:

    Wonderful to read Michael. Thanks for sharing this gem.

  10. Barry Nicholls says:

    Great work..nice depiction of Adelaide as well

  11. Peter Schumacher says:

    I enjoyed every bit of this contribution, as others have suggested the way you interwove a balmy Adelaide summer evening, a magnificent residence, a lovely garden and most of all of course Thommo and Bradman was spine tingling and moving. This is why I too like his site so much, there is so much of interest to read and this was one of the best.

  12. Beautiful, beautiful story, Michael.
    My smile widened with each paragraph.
    “If he’s batting then I’m bowling”. Brilliant.
    Enjoyable because it wasn’t a hackneyed story that we’ve all heard before.

    I’m going to link it on Wicket to Wicket.
    More people need to read this.

  13. Malcolm Ashwood says:

    Wonderful story Mike would have been wonderful to have been there as Glen said where was you tube when you needed it ! You took us along to the evening brilliantly
    Well played Mike !

  14. Outstanding article Michael what I would have given to see that net session.

  15. Enchanting story indeed – made more special by the connection to the familiar images of Adelaide’s leafy suburbs. ‘Old money’ – yep that says it best. The Don was actually a family connection for me and I can vouch for his withdrawn nature at Xmas gatherings – my sister and I were too young to recognise who the elderly man was who happily signed our Harrow bats, and it was Jessy who seemed to understand our awkwardness in the moment. I can just imagine if we had tried the same stunt whether he would have obliged. Thinking about it that would have been 1977 – would have had to be some magic working in that backyard to have faced Thommi :)

  16. Troy Hancox says:

    great story!
    thoroughly enjoyed it Michael.

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