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Bodyline still resonates after 75 years

Roar Rookie
1st December, 2007
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4240 Reads

The Ashes Urn - AP Photo/Rob Griffith
Seventy five years ago on Sunday (today) the first ball was bowled in the infamous Bodyline series between Australia and England. John Coomber looks back on cricket’s most tumultuous contest.

It was high noon when former Nottinghamshire miner Harold Larwood pushed off from his mark at the Randwick End of the Sydney Cricket Ground and began his long, smooth run towards the wicket.

Awaiting him was the Australian captain Bill Woodfull, tapping his bat calmly on the crease, baggy green cap jammed on his head and eyes narrowed against the midday glare.

Forty-seven thousand souls held their breath as Larwood reached his delivery stride, drew back his right arm like an archer’s bow and hurled the ball into the strip of brown earth before him.

The world seems to stop spinning for the first ball of any Ashes series. This one, however, was like none before or since. This was the first shot fired in the cricket war that came to be known as Bodyline.

Even 75 years later, the mere mention of the word arouses fierce passions that seem to tap into Australia’s very sense of nationhood.

Bodyline was not just an assault on its primary target Don Bradman – not to mention the spirit of a wonderful game – but for a nation still feeling its way in the world it seemed nothing less than betrayal by a trusted parent.

In December 1932 Australia was gripped by depression. Men went bush in the hope of finding work, wearing out hope and shoe leather in equal measure as they trudged from property to property.

Australians desperately needed something to hold on to in those dark times. Characteristically, they turned to their sporting heroes.

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The giant chestnut horse Phar Lap had died mysteriously in the United States some months previously, arousing suspicions of a plot, and perhaps helping instil in Australians a feeling that powerful allies were playing them for mugs.

Now it seemed The Don himself was in peril.

The kid from country NSW had slaughtered England’s bowlers on a tour of the old country two years earlier, and from England’s point of view, he had to be stopped.

The Marylebone Cricket Club, under whose colours England toured in those days, hatched a plot that would prey on Bradman’s perceived vulnerability against fast, short-pitched balls aimed at his body.

They had the weaponry to do it – the world’s fastest bowler Harold Larwood and several accomplices led by left-armed Bill Voce – and in Douglas Jardine they had a captain who would prosecute the campaign with the ruthlessness of battlefield general.

The key to Bodyline (a term coined by Australian journalist Hugh Buggy) was not only to put the batsman in fear of life and limb, but to crowd him with a predatory ring of leg-side fieldsmen in the only area where he could hope to score.

Until his dying day, Jardine referred to it as “leg theory”, a euphemism that served to mislead the English authorities on exactly what was happening on the other side of the world in that pre-television era.

Jardine, a hook-nosed patrician who took the field in neckerchief and harlequin cap, appeared to loathe Australia on sight and the feeling was largely reciprocated. “Leave our bloody flies alone,” shouted one barracker when the England captain was seen to swat an insect from his face.

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Despite the misgiving of some of his own team, Jardine never wavered, even when his tactics threatened to spark a riot.

He was here to do a job and, by Jove, he wasn’t about to be deterred by a bunch of lily-livers such as the Nawab of Pataudi, who refused to field in the leg trap, and Gubby Allen, who was asked to bowl Bodyline and replied: “Douglas, I have never done that, and it’s not the way I want to play cricket”.

Bradman, in fact, was missing from the first skirmish in Sydney as he recovered from acute exhaustion.

Australia lost by 10 wickets, despite a breathtaking knock of 187 not out by Stan McCabe that is still ranked among the finest innings ever played.

Bradman was back for the second Test in Melbourne, and after a first innings duck made a century to square the series.

He devised a method of stepping away so he could score through the off-side, which to Jardine’s mind smacked of cowardice.

These were the days before helmets and body padding, and Larwood was seriously fast; indeed England wicketkeeper Les Ames routinely stuffed raw steaks into his keeping gloves to dampen the shock.

The storm broke in the third Test in Adelaide, when one of Larwood’s thunderbolts struck Woodfull a sickening blow to the chest.

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As the Australian skipper staggered to retain his feet, Jardine was heard to call out “Well bowled, Harold”.

After some delay Woodfull opted to continue his innings, but when he faced up to Larwood again, Jardine clapped his hands and provocatively called more fielders into his leg-side trap.

After that day’s play England team manager “Plum” Warner went to the Australian dressing room to see how the captain was faring.

Woodfull then uttered the response that has gone down in history: “I don’t want to see you Mr Warner. There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket and the other is not.”

The crowd almost rioted later in the match when Australian wicketkeeper Bert Oldfield, who already had a steel plate in his head from a shell blast in the World War One battle at Polygon Wood in 1917, had his skull fractured when he deflected a legitimate delivery from Larwood into his temple.

As passions reached melting point, mounted police gathered outside the ground ready to deal with the consequences.

Australian cricket authorities sent a stern cable to Lord’s complaining at the unsportsmanlike tactics.

The MCC cabled back a stiff response, rejecting the charge and offering to cancel the rest of the series.

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The dispute reached the highest government levels, souring relations between the two nations.

The Australian board, concerned then as now with the financial side of the game, sent a more conciliatory response to the MCC and the series continued.

England won the third, fourth and fifth Tests to take the series 3-1, making it the most successful England side ever to come to Australia.

That summer changed the game forever, with new laws subsequently introduced to restrict leg-side fields and ban direct attacks on the batsman.

Bradman was reduced to an average in the 50s, around half his customary return, but went on to many more triumphs.

Jardine played Test cricket for another 12 months before drifting out of the game. He died of lung cancer in Switzerland at the age of 57.

Larwood took 33 wickets at less than 20 runs apiece, but never played for England again. On his return home he was asked to sign a letter of apology for the tactics, but refused on the grounds that he was merely obeying his captain.

Disillusioned, he emigrated to Australia and settled in Sydney, not far from where he bowled that first ball, and struck up a warm relationship with his old adversaries.

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In 1993, at the age of 88, Larwood was awarded an MBE by cricket-loving British Prime Minister John Major.

Until his death in 1995, he kept a small presentation ashtray, engraved with the words: “To Harold for the Ashes – 1932-33. From a grateful Skipper.”

THE BODYLINE QUOTES

+ “Douglas, I have never done that, and it’s not the way I want to play cricket.” – England fast bowler Gubby Allen, refusing Jardine’s order to bowl at the body.

+ “Douglas Jardine is loathed and, between you and me, rightly, more than any German who fought in any war … some days I feel I should like to kill him.” – Allen, in a letter home during the tour.

+ “Well bowled, Harold” – Jardine after Harold Larwood had struck Australian captain Bill Woodfull a sickening blow near the heart in the Adelaide Test.

+ “I don’t want to see you Mr Warner. There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket and the other is not”. Woodfull to Pelham Warner, when the England manager came to the dressing room to see how he was.

+ “Bodyline bowling assumed such proportions as to menace best interests of game, making protection of body by batsmen the main consideration. Causing intensely bitter feeling between players as well as injury. In our opinion is unsportsmanlike. Unless stopped at once likely to upset friendly relations between Australia and England.” – Cable from Australian Cricket Board of Control to MCC during Adelaide Test.

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+ “We, Marylebone Cricket Club, deplore your cable. We deprecate your opinion that there has been unsportsmanlike play. We have fullest confidence in captain, team and managers, and are convinced that they would do nothing to infringe either the Laws of Cricket or the spirit of the game. If [the situation] is such as to jeopardise the good relations between English and Australian cricketers and you consider it desirable to cancel remainder of programme, we would consent with great reluctance.” – MCC’s response.

Source: Bodyline Autopsy, by David Frith (ABC Books, 2002)

© 2007 AAP