The Bodyline Chronicles

Harold Larwood was the chief weapon Douglas Jardine used to implement Bodyline, with the help of a packed leg side field.


Part IWeapon of Choice

The absurdly high importance of certain sporting contests have sometimes resulted in countries pushed to the brink of war (on rare occasions even actually starting a war) or at the very least strained diplomatic relations. The Ashes, the 70th edition of which gets under way next week, has been one such contest with stakes so high that it warranted England captain Douglas Jardine pushing the envelope on the spirit of cricket so much as to almost suspend diplomatic ties between England and Australia. His affront to the spirit of the game came in form of the Bodyline series of 1932-33 where he deployed intimidation tactics that put the Australian batsmen in the line of grievous physical harm. 85 years on, Bodyline still remains a scar on the game, one that led to much soul searching and became a cultural, sporting and political marker for both countries involved in the contest.

Dazzled by the Don

Since its inception in 1882 as the result of a mock obituary in a newspaper, The Ashes had been the most high profile contest in the cricketing world, and in 1930 England’s claim of a reasonable amount of superiority over the old enemy, Australia, had been severely dented by the emergence of a young phenomenon – Don Bradman. The Don had amassed 974 runs (average 139.14) in a series win for Australia where the English bowlers simply couldn’t seem to get him out. Australia won the series humbling the hosts. 

There was a return series in the horizon a couple of seasons later and the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) needed fresh thinking for England to turn fortunes around and recapture the urn. They made their first move by deciding to appoint Douglas Jardine as the England captain.

New tactics

The new captain began in earnest to look for ways to dull the Aussies’ dominance. He expectedly trained his sights on one batsman in particular, Bradman. Jardine figured, based on what he had seen and discussed with fellow cricketers, that Bradman was vulnerable against short deliveries that darted into his chest. In those days when the batsmen had no helmets and relatively austere protective gear (chest, elbow guards etc were still sometime away), the realization that the unstoppable looking batsman could be cowered into submission with a sustained attack on his body was the cornerstone on which Jardine based his strategy.

He called it ‘leg theory’ because it effectively involved having the bowler direct a short delivery at the batsman’s body with a field that had a ring of fielders on the leg side, most of them standing in close. 

‘Leg Theory’ was not exactly a new invention; it had been used in cricket in England but not widespread because of two reasons – one, it was seen as running contrary to the spirit of the game (something that was more than empty rhetoric in the days of cricket yore) and two, you needed someone to be able to bowl at good pace to really make the tactic work in terms of fetching wickets. You needed a spearhead. 

Mining for talent

Jardine, who by consensus of historical hindsight, had already more or less trampled on the ‘spirit of cricket’ the moment he hatched the idea, needed a weapon to make it work. And his weapon of choice was a miner from Nottinghamshire – Harold Larwood. Larwood had achieved fame and notoriety in equal measure in the English cricket scene as a young tearaway fast bowler who was both viciously accurate and devastatingly fast. He was not averse to bowling the bouncer, a delivery that was sparingly used in the game at that time more as a consequence of a gentlemanly code of conduct than anything else. There were no speed guns around but numerous studies from later days peg his speed at 95 miles an hour or faster. That, for a modern perspective, is Jeff Thompson and Shoaib Akhtar territory.

His side on action would perhaps find a contemporary equivalent in Waqar Younis. Larwood had made his test debut in 1926 against Australia and captured six wickets in his first Ashes series and then impressed on his first tour to Australia in 1928-29 capturing 18 wickets. Then came the 1930 Ashes where Bradman ran amok and Larwood and his colleagues were reduced to mere spectators of pure batting awesomeness. But amidst the dazzle of Bradman’s willow, the England wicketkeeper had spotted a shadow of a doubt. George Duckworth mentioned to his teammates that the Don seemed unsure and hesitant when batting at the Oval where the ball was taking off on an uncovered pitch that had received some rain. 

This bit of tactical insight would balloon into the most controversial cricket strategy of all time. The wheels were set in motion as Larwood tried the tactics out for Nottinghamshire against their county opponents along with fellow fast bowler Bill Voce. Both of them were picked for the 1932-33 Ashes tour, half of the pace quartet assembled by Jardine to implement Bodyline. But there was no doubt as to who the spearhead would be – the 28 year old former miner from Nottinghamshire. Little did Larwood or his captain know the havoc their actions and tactics would wreak on the cricketing world as the RMS Orontes with the English cricket team aboard set sail for the Australian coast.

***

Part II

Fractures, friction and fissures 

Armed with the ‘fast leg theory’ plan that was to later be christened Bodyline, you would think Douglas Jardine and his handpicked set of fast bowlers, spearheaded by Harold Larwood, got down to business right away hurling short and uncomfortable deliveries at the Aussie batsmen in general and Bradman in particular from the first test onwards. In reality however, things did not quite progress like a heist movie script. Ironically, the Sydney Test, which began on December 2, 1932, didn’t even feature Donald Bradman who was left out after a row with the board. Larwood bowled accurately and menacingly though evidently not with any of the leg theory malice. In fact, Jardine did not even employ the signature feature of his tactic – the packed close in leg side field. 

Despite Stan McCabe’s 187 in the first innings, Australia lost thanks to Larwood’s heroics (he took 10 wickets in the match) and Australia’s poor second innings (they were all out for 164 just about avoiding innings defeat) which handed England a 1-0 lead. The superior side had won, and it wasn’t hard to see that a Bradman-less Australia had struggled to cope with absence of both his batting prowess and his leadership. 

The theory in practice

The perception of those looking back at Bodyline now is that it became a bone of contention right away when the series commenced. The truth is that there was barely even a murmur about it even as the second test began at Melbourne with Don Bradman back in the team. The Don’s return wasn’t exactly stellar; he scored a first ball duck in the first innings. But he more than made up for that blip in the second innings with a century on a difficult pitch and O’Reilly picked up 10 wickets to lead Australia to a series leveling win. England peppered the opposition batsmen with some short bowling – newspaper columns did talk about it – but the home team’s win and the dust of history masks the fact that the plan was already in action. Incidentally, Bradman counter attacked the short deliveries by getting inside the line and playing them on the unguarded off side for runs.

Neville Cardus would later write:

“Against Larwood, Bradman was beginning to reveal his genius in a more gallant light than it has ever been seen before: given a few more innings, he might have mastered it.”

Maybe Jardine’s tactic was not so effective after all. Maybe the leg theory wasn’t as impressive in practice. However, things were about to change dramatically in the next match.

Lighting the fuse

Bodyline would precipitate into a full blown crisis like most crises in history have precipitated, with an immediate and shocking event that jolted everyone out of their ‘all-is-fine-with-the-world’ reverie. Australia were batting at Adelaide in the Third Test when Bill Woodfull was struck just above his heart by a Larwood bouncer. The Aussie was taken aback and held up his hand to clutch his chest, clearly in discomfort from the pain. In a moment of competitive coldness that would make even the most rabid ‘sport-is-war’ kind of fanatic blush, Jardine rather than check in on Woodfull shouted out ‘Well bowled, Harold!’ This particular instance became the defining scene and lasting imagery of the acrimony of the tour thanks to the Bodyline TV series that aired in the 1980s. But it is easy to forget that Larwood had only bowled a ‘conventional’ bouncer and was not employing a ‘leg theory’ field till that delivery.

But as is history’s wont, nuances get obliterated in the quest for a straightforward narrative. Jardine did not help the cause by employing his leg theory field the very next ball that Woodfulll was struck. The Australians had been simmering from the second test onwards and when Bert Oldfield tried to duck under another Larwood bouncer and it struck him on the head causing a fracture, the baying crowd threatened to boil over onto the Adelaide Oval. 

The English players feared a crowd invasion (it is said that Larwood was speaking to a team mate about the possibility of using the stumps as weapons if the extreme need arose) as police was deployed along the boundary, an unprecedented instance. No wonder Wisden would note that this was “probably the most unpleasant Test ever played” terming the atmosphere a “disgrace to cricket”. Recalling that test in an interview with Australia’s 12th man that day – Leo O’Brien – David Frith wrote in the Wisden Cricket Monthly in April 1983 “the crowd was close to invading the oval to do Lord knows what to the England players, Larwood and Jardine in particular.” 

Later in the day, the English manager, Plum Warner visited the Australia dressing-room to check in on the injuries to Woodfull and Oldfield. What followed was one of the most immortal lines ever uttered by a cricketer. A furious Woodfull dismissed Warner curtly saying “There are two teams out there; one is trying to play cricket and the other is not.”

Escalation

The Australian board followed the next day with a cable to the MCC: “(Bodyline) is causing intensely bitter feeling between the players as well as injury. In our opinion it is unsportsmanlike. Unless stopped at once it is likely to upset the friendly relations existing between Australia and England.”

The controversy now had a name and it was officially on. The on field frictions and the unfortunate fracture to Oldfield’s skull (although the Aussie himself clarified that he got hurt because of his own fault) had led to a deep fissure between the players, their respective boards and threatened to escalate into a diplomatic incident (both countries’ cabinets discussed the issue seriously). Leo O’Brien, the 12th man in the Adelaide test, felt that the word ‘unsportsmanlike’ freaked the MCC out and they went into defensive overdrive. 

The MCC stood by their captain and replied that they were convinced “that they (the captain, team and manager) would do nothing to infringe either the Laws of Cricket or the spirit of the game.” They also pointed out that the Woodfull and Oldfield instances, while regrettable, were not the bowler’s fault. Despite rising tensions amidst accusations and counter accusations from the boards, the series went ahead, mainly because the Australian board did not want to risk a financial disaster. 

England went on with their strategy firmly in place and won at Brisbane and also the final Test at Sydney recapturing the Ashes with a thumping 4-1 series victory and having successfully curtailed Bradman’s series average to an ‘ordinary’ 56. Larwood took 33 wickets at 19.5 in the series leaving no doubt statistically, and anecdotally, as to who the wrecker-in-chief was.

But Larwood and his captain’s actions had caused other seismic shifts in the world of cricket, something they would have to reckon with once they were done soaking the hero’s welcome they received on their return home.

***

Part III

The aftermath and the legacy
The reclamation

England and Douglas Jardine had recaptured the Ashes in spectacularly controversial fashion but the controversy over their tactics overshadows the fact that England were indeed a very good team on that tour. “Nobody will deny that the better side won the rubber” wrote Cardus. In each test Australia put up decent first innings totals (1st Test – 360 followed by 228, 222, 340 and then 435 in the final test) but England’s riposte in each case (524, 169, 341, 356 and 454) put them in a better position. Curiously, Australia’s poor run of second innings scores (they never crossed 200) was what let them down.

Looking back now, it is easy to think of the series as one where England kept bowling short deliveries at the bodies of the Aussie batsmen with a packed leg side ring which fetched them a majority of the wickets winning them the series. That narrative is dodgy. Firstly, among the English bowlers, Gubby Allen refused to bowl to the ‘leg trap’ or Bodyline. Secondly, Larwood was devastatingly accurate but even he did not bowl Bodyline all the time and quite a few of his wickets among the 31 he took in the series were bowled, hardly a dismissal you get off a bouncer aimed at a batsman’s body. Thirdly, Bill Voce did not have the pace and accuracy to match Larwood. And finally, 11 key wickets were picked up by the spinner, Hedley Verity.

Jardine’s secret lay in the fact that the balls that were bowled to the leg theory field planted the doubt and the apprehension in the mind of the batsmen, which is exactly what he wanted. Tight and disciplined bowling mostly did the rest. He silenced the Don’s superhuman flow of runs but even then the Don scored at a strike rate of almost 75 in the 1932-33 Ashes. It was eventually a team effort that won England the Ashes, but one that did at some points stretched the boundaries of propriety as defined by cricket’s law and spirit back in the 1930s.

Heroes and villains

Once back in England, the captain, Jardine, and his weapon of choice, Larwood, were called to appear before the MCC to explain why the Australian Board had been sending alarmist cables about this new ‘Bodyline’ tactic. The hearing did not have any immediate consequences, although the MCC did later accede to Australia’s stipulation that neither Jardine nor Larwood should feature in their tour of England in 1934. Larwood would not play another test for England ever again and later (in 1950) emigrated to Australia. Jardine retired from first class cricket in 1934.

Towards the end of the 1933 season, MCC finally put a revision down on paper passing a resolution declaring “any form of bowling which is obviously a direct attack…upon the batsman” violated the spirit of the game. It would also later amend laws to restrict the number of fielders behind square on the leg side to a maximum of two, thus obviating the possibility of a leg theory field. While the spirit of cricket remains an important cornerstone of the sport’s history and heritage, Bodyline’s aftermath did prove insidious. As Jon Hotten wrote for The Guardian in 2013 “part of Bodyline’s devastation was its newness, its intimations of the future.”

Bodyline reborn

Generation of bowlers to come, from the West Indian pace quartet to Jeff Thompson and Dennis Lillee would go ahead and terrorize batsmen bowling fast and short at their body. Granted, by that time protective gear had evolved for batsmen (During the Bodyline series, they barely had much protection – imagine if Woodfull had a chest guard on or Bert Oldfield was wearing a helmet) making such tactics to some degree less dangerous than in 1933 but the intimidation became a part of the game, restrained by later day laws like the two bouncer rule but enough of a menacing presence to inject both thrill and scandal in many a series to come. The West Indian team of the 70s turned it into a virtual art form. A A Milne wrote a memorable ‘In Defence of Bodyline’ letter to the Times on January 20, 1933 where he attacked the hysteria over sportsmanship:

“It is definitely the laugh of the year that season after season, batsmen should break the hearts of bowlers by protecting their wickets with their persons, and that, at last when the bowler accepts the challenge and bowls at their persons, the outraged batsmen and ex-batsmen should shriek in chorus that he is not playing cricket.” 

The righteous anger that Bodyline stoked ultimately led to a fundamental shift in cricket but its unintended consequence was that it broke the taboo of what aggression meant on the cricket field. Tactics like these in today’s more cynical world would be seen as strategic, genius even, by talking heads and cricket pundits. But back in the day when the MCC was worried about how best cricket can represent the very British values of gentlemanliness and fair play across the Empire and the Commonwealth, it was seen as blasphemous.

If the series was being broadcast live on television, maybe the MCC would have seen that the Australian cables were overstating the case. Maybe if Jardine had not threatened to withdraw his team after the acrimonious third test, the matter would not have escalated to a diplomatic level. Maybe if Bradman had played that first test, the series would have been closer. But those are what ifs we can simulate and pontificate about in our heads. 

For the Australian batsmen standing out there in the heat of that Australian summer in 1932-33 with minimal protective gear, the thought of whether the next delivery is going to be aimed into their rib cage gnawing at the back of their minds, the danger seemed very real. And that feeling of clear and present danger is the real lasting legacy of Bodyline.

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