Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Ashes advent calendar: Bodyline

If there is one word in the cricketing lexicon that's bound to arouse controversy, it is "Bodyline". The tactic devised by Douglas Jardine to counter the prowess of Bradman, carried out to devastating effect by Harold Larwood, created a full-blown diplomatic incident at the time and has a lasting legacy in Anglo-Australian relations to this day.

The seed of Bodyline was planted during the 1930 Ashes series, during which Bradman scored at the astonishing average of 139.14 (a series record which still remains unbroken) to ensure victory for the visitors. At the Oval Test of that year a brief period of dampness in the wicket caused the ball to rear up, and Bradman was seen to be in some discomfort facing such balls. Even though the Don eventually made 232 that spell was much discussed among cricketers, as any potential flaw in Bradman's tecnique inevitably would have been, and when Jardine saw film footage later he exclaimed "I've got it! He's yellow!"

It's important to differentiate between leg theory and fast leg theory. Leg theory was a strategy that was pretty well established in English county cricket and not at all frowned upon, because it tended to be enacted by slow and slow-medium bowlers, and involved bowling on or outside leg stump with a field set with a heavy leg-side bias, particularly behind square leg. Naturally, this tended to prevent the batsman playing his natural game and either dried up the runs or caused the batsman to give his wicket away playing a poor shot.

What made Bodyline so infamous was that the ball was pitched short and aimed at the batsman's upper body, and also that the bowlers carrying out the plan were VERY quick. Harold Larwood was England's premier fast bowler of his day, and by all accounts could have given Lee, Tait and Aktar a run for their money in terms of pace. Voce was no slouch either. Quite deliberately, Jardine intended his tactic to be a test not just of a batsman's skill but also his nerve.

Australian crowds were already incensed by Jardine's tactics but the major flashpoint of the Bodyline series came at the Third Test in Adelaide. England had beaten a Bradman-less Australia in Sydney but the home side had won in Melbourne thanks to an unbeaten 103 from the Don in the second innings. So with the series all-square, Jardine ruthlessly employed his fast leg theory to sickening effect. Firstly on day two Australian captain Bill Woodfull was struck around the heart by a ball from Larwood, to which Jardine's response was to say "Well bowled, Harold" and organise a leg-side field for the next delivery. After Woodfull's innings had ended England's team manager went to express his sympathies only to be met with a polite but firm response from Woodfull:
I don't want to see you, Mr Warner. There are two teams out there, one is playing cricket. The other is making no attempt to do so. The game is too good to be spoilt, and it's time that some people got out of it. Good afternoon.
The following afternoon Bert Oldfield was struck on the head, again by Larwood, and collapsed to the ground, his skull having been fractured by the blow. As he came round Bert's first words were "my fault", but the crowd were in uproar and every subsequent ball bowled by Larwood was met with loud and clear boos from beyond the boundary. At the end of the day's play, having narrowly avoided an all-out riot, the Australian Cricket Board sent the MCC a cable:
Bodyline bowling has assumed such proportions as to menace the best interests of the game, making protection of the body by the batsman the main consideration. This 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.
Both sides then became locked in a stalemate - Australia were outraged by England's tactics, while in England the MCC were outraged by the accusation of being unsportsmanlike, and replied with their own cable:
We the Marylebone Cricket club deplore your cable. We deprecate your opinion that there has been 'unsportsmanlike' play. We have the 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. We have no evidence that out confidence is misplaced.
We hope the situation is not now as serious as your cable appears to indicate but if it is such as to jeopardise the good relations between England and Australian cricketers and you consider it desirable to cancel the remainder of the programme, we would consent but with great reluctance.
Incredibly, this perceived questioning of English honour was taken so badly by the English establishment that there was even briefly some talk that the mother country could demand immediate repayment of some of Australia's debts, at exactly the time when they and the whole world were trying to recover from the Great Depression!

Of course, what made Australian complaints about "leg theory" so incomprehensible in England was that they largely failed to understand the physical threat being imposed on Australian batsman, assuming it to be the same leg theory they had seen many times before. The 1933 Wisden, published half-way through the tour but after that infamous third Test, went so far as to say:
"It may at once be said that, if the intention is to hit the batsman and so demoralise him, the practice is altogether wrong-calculated... That English bowlers, to dispose of their opponents, would of themselves pursue such methods or that Jardine would acquiesce in such a course is inconceivable."
By the time of the following year's edition Wisden had changed its tune somewhat:
A method of bowling was evolved - mainly with the idea of curbing the scoring propensities of Bradman - which met with almost general condemnation among Australian cricketers and spectators and which, when something of the real truth was ultimately known in this country, caused people at home - many of them famous in the game - to wonder if the winning of the rubber was, after all, worth this strife.
England eventually won the series 4-1, and softer wickets ensured there were no further serious injuries to the players. However, the ill-feeling created persisted for a long time. In an attempt to diffuse this, the MCC made a written apology to the Australians a condition of Larwood's future selection. Larwood refused outright, insisting that he was following his captain's instructions and that responsibility lied with Jardine. Larwood never played for England again, and emigrated to Australia where, despite Bodyline, he was warmly regarded in his new home.

Subsequently a number of rules were introduced by the MCC (rather slowly it has to be said) to prevent the use of Bodyline tactics in cricket, but so deep were the scars it left that the tension created between England and Australia can still be felt nearly eighty years later.

Did you know: Bodyline was the original code-name given to Operation Crossbow, the Allied campaign to minimise the threat from Germany's V1 and V2 missiles during World War 2. Cricket jargon was an obvious choice for military code-names due to Germany's lack of understanding of the game.

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