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Sidney Downer - by Michael Sexton

In the MCC Museum at Lord’s there is a small volume about cricket that tells the story of an extraordinary South Australian.

It is entitled Goodbye Bradman (pictured above)) and it’s 223 pages cover the history of the sport between the wars, a series of essays and character sketches plus comprehensive statistics.

This is the only copy in existence and the contents are less remarkable than the torturous circumstances under which they were written.

The author was Sidney Downer (pictured above), an Adelaide journalist who fell in love with cricket as a boy. As a sixteen-year-old in December 1925 he scored a patient 130 for St Peter’s College in the Intercoll against Prince Alfred College. His dreams of playing higher grades didn’t eventuate but he found a career in journalism that allowed him to stay close to the sport.

When the Second World War broke out, he moved to London with the Australian Associated Press and in 1940 enlisted with the RAF. The following year he was posted to Singapore and when the island fell to the Japanese, he briefly escaped before being taken prisoner in Java.

Flight Lieutenant Downer was interned at Karenko Prison Camp in Formosa (now Taiwan) and when that camp closed in June 1943, he was transferred to a new camp called Shirakawa #4. It was converted from a former Japanese military training camp and barracks. Up to 500 prisoners were used as forced labour on farms.

The camp was one of many across South-East Asia where an estimated 140,000 allied military personnel were held. Their experiences were horrific and the battle for survival was a daily challenge. It is estimated one in three died of either starvation, illness or the result of torture and beatings.

Keeping up morale was a significant need and cricket played a small role. At Changi in Singapore, Test matches were played between Australian and British servicemen. Among the prisoners was E.W. ‘Jim’ Swanton - the English cricket writer – who was an entertainment officer at Changi and later on the infamous Burma Railway.  Swanton had a copy of the 1939 Wisden which the Japanese classified as non-subversive literature and it became so well-thumbed that it had to be repaired several times. In the evening, Swanton would create simulated commentary of famous Test matches and on occasions give lectures including one entitled ‘The life of Don Bradman’.

Reflecting later on his experiences in Wisden, Swanton wrote that ‘we were never so thankful for having been cricketers as we were when we were guests of the Japanese. It was a subject that filled countless hours in pitch-dark huts … and it inspired many a daydream, contrived often in the most gruesome setting, whereby one combated the present by living either in the future or the past.’

So it was for Sidney Downer at Shirakawa #4. The prisoners routinely worked from sunrise but late in the afternoons had recreational time. For several months in 1944 they were given access to typewriters and a crude printing press. The men produced drawings and wrote poems, plays and stories that were published in a camp magazine called Raggle Taggle. One who kept the keyboard clattering was Sidney Downer.

In addition to contributing to the publication, Downer began writing a history of cricket. The motivation was to relieve boredom and distract his mind from the deprivations of the prison camp.

‘I found I could palliate the present by submerging it beneath a past crowded with memories of Hendrens, Bradmans and Tates,’ he later wrote.

Working on scraps of paper, entirely from memory, he detailed 49 Test matches. Such was his intellect that after the war when the pages were checked against official records there were only two errors that required correcting. Each piece was read aloud and shared with other prisoners. The pages grew and grew until it became a book. Fellow prisoners found materials to crudely bind it and Downer hand drew a cover page and contents table. The Japanese guards were aware of the manuscript and after examining the text they cleared it by stamping a neat permission seal under the title Goodbye Bradman

The back of the book features a page entitled MY PUBLIC (pictured below). Across it is scrawled signatures and service details of three dozen men who were keenest. The front of the book features a tiny comment – the only one handwritten by Downer. It is a simple dedication.

To my darling John from the author.

John Downer was only six when his father became a prisoner of war. It was two years after his capture before any news of his survival reached Adelaide. Sidney Downer wrote the cricket book imagining in his head his son reading episodes about the game.

‘It was my aim to supply John with a sort of cricket bedside book to dip into in an idle moment, to consult when in doubt, to be amused by when in the spiritual doldrums.’

After the war Downer returned to Adelaide and resumed work in the Advertiser sports department. His fascination with cricket detail continued and he began writing a history of the SACA to be published in the centenary year of 1970-71. After completing much of the manuscript, Downer was hospitalised with pneumonia and passed away just after his 60th birthday. Sir Donald Bradman finished the book and oversaw the publication of 100 Not Out: A Century of Cricket on Adelaide Oval. The work remains a compelling source of cricket lore in South Australia.

John Downer also had a rich career but rather than journalism he chose engineering. His parents divorced in February 1948 and Sidney Downer was married two more times. The book that he had written in captivity was passed to E.W. Swanton after the war and then when Swanton died in 2000 his library went to the MCC.

Goodbye Bradman remains stored at the home of cricket. A testament to the significance sport can have and the resilience of the human spirit.

To read more of Michael Sexton's work, purchase SACA 150: A Celebration here.