The Ashes: Bodyline Tour
From More Prisoners of Eternity.
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In the summer of 1930, the Australian Cricket Team toured England to compete for the Ashes. They were to win the Series 2-1 but it was one man who was to make all the headlines. The 22 year old right-handed batsman Donald Bradman was a sensation, scoring 974 runs at an average of 139.14. A Test record that remains unchallenged to this day.
Though the Australians had an outstanding team the prevailing view was that if you could stop Bradman you could stop Australia. Two years later England had the opportunity to regain the Ashes on Australian soil, and a plan had already been hatched.
The English Captain for the tour was Douglas Jardine, a humourless, public school martinet who had a reputation for aloofness and arrogance. He had past form with the Australians whom he disliked intensely. During the 1929, tour of Australia he had been jeered for batting too slowly and refused to engage in banter with the crowd. They took an immediate dislike to him. When he wore a public school cap for one match the crowd thought he was being condescending towards them. Once, when he came out to bat someone shouted from the crowd, ” Where’s your Butler to carry your bat for you.” He was regularly jeered whilst at the crease, and his runs were rarely applauded. Likewise, he had little time for them and referred to Australians as ignorant and uneducated. When it was suggested to him by a journalist that the Australian crowd did not seem to like him he replied, ” It’s fucking mutual!”
It had been noticed at the Oval Test during the 1930 Tour, how Bradman had been discomfited by the rising delivery bowled at pace. However, as he went on to score 232 in that particular Innings it was dismissed as a means of getting him out. Jardine didn’t agree, when he saw film footage of it he exclaimed, ” I’ve got it! He’s yellow! He was vulnerable he believed to the short, fast-pitched delivery, on the line of the leg stump.
Following his appointment as Captain for the forthcoming Tour of Australia he arranged a meeting with England’s two leading strike bowlers, Bill Voce and Harold Larwood, at the Piccadilly Hotel in London. Larwood, was the son of a Nottinghamshire miner, plain spoken, and who liked nothing more than a beer and a woodbine during breaks in play. He was also considered to be the fastest bowler in the world. He and Jardine were to have a particularly close relationship at a time when the notion of Gentleman and Players still prevailed. Many County Cricket Grounds still had separate dressing rooms for amateur gentleman and professionals. Jardine discussed with them whether they could tender their deliveries at pace on the leg stump so that the ball would rise into the body of the batsman. They said they could. Jardine would set up a leg-side field to pick up the pieces. Leg theory had been adopted and a strategy born.
Jardine was a man who had the respect, if not the affection, of his players. At a team meeting he told them that to beat the Australians you have to learn to hate them. He also told them to refer to Bradman in the future as “ That Little Bastard.”
The First Test in Sydney saw Jardine deploy his leg-side theory for the first time. The Australians appeared non-plussed by the tactics and seemed incapable of playing it. Batsmen were hit and cricketers at the time were only lightly protected, gloves had little padding, there were no helmets, and body protection was non-existent. The Australians were unable to play their shots against the fast paced, short-pitched deliveries and only Stan McCabe stood up to be counted hooking and cutting his way to a score of 187, described as one of the bravest innings in Test history.
Despite McCabe’s heroics Australian fell to a heavy defeat with Larwood taking 10 wickets. The Australian press were outraged. The English bowlers were not looking to take wickets but to physically hurt the batsmen. They demanded that the Australians retaliate in kind for the next Test Match but their Captain Bill Woodfull refused. He stated quite categorically, ” I will not be influenced to adopt such tactics which bring such discredit to the game.” His adamant refusal to do so almost cost him his job.
Douglas Jardine, however, was delighted. He couldn’t care less what the Australians thought. His tactics had worked to perfection. Moreover, Bradman had missed the Test through illness, Jardine thought it was a nervous breakdown borne of fear.
In the Second Test at Melbourne the Australians had to overcome the shock of losing Bradman to the first ball he faced. The crowd were stunned into silence and the usually subdued Jardine could be seen doing a jig of joy on the field. It was not to last, the Australians came back to win the Test with Bradman scoring a century in the Second Innings. It seemed for a time that the Australians had found a way to combat the short-pitched delivery. It was not to be.
On 14 January, 1933, 50,962 spectators crowded into the Adelaide Oval to see Australia wrap up England’s First Innings. As the Australians came out to bat in their turn the crowd rose to their feet and applauded them all the way to the crease. The England strike bowlers continued to deliver their short-pitched deliveries into the batsmen’s bodies, particularly the express fast Larwood. Not long after coming into bat Bill Woodfull was hit by a ball that struck him just below the heart. He collapsed to the ground in great pain and was unable to resume for a good few minutes. The crowd began to jeer and abuse the England team. On hearing this Jardine shouted so it could be heard, ” Well bowled, Harold!” When he proceeded to call for a leg-side field, indicating that there would be more of this to come, the Police had to be called to cordon off the field and prevent a riot.
Following the end of the days play the England Team Manager Pelham (Plum) Warner visited the Australian dressing room to extend his sympathies to Bill Woodfull. He was greeted with the words, ” I do not wish to speak too you, Mr Warner. There are two teams out there, one is playing cricket, the other is making no attempt to do so. ” Warner tried to explain but Woodfull continued, ” This sport is too good to be spoilt. It is time some people got out of it.” Warner left in tears. Woodfull’s words were intended to remain within the confines of the dressing room but were leaked to the press. Rumours persisit to this day that it was Bradman.
Jardine’s tactics had also split opinion within the England camp. Larwood remained an enthusiastic supporter of Jardine and bowled Bodyline with relish. Bill Voce remained ambivalent. Gubby Allen refused to bowl it at all and would not take the ball if a leg-side field had been set. Some voiced their criticism that the Australians were bad losers, others expressed their misgivings in private.
The following day Larwood split the Australian wicket-keeper Bert Oldfield’s skull with a wickedly rising ball. More injuries followed. At the end of the fourth days play the Australian Cricket Board of Control sent the following telegram to the MCC in London: ” 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.”
The MCC were deeply offended at the suggestion of unsportsmanlike behaviour and the inference that they were cheating. They demanded a retraction and Jardine even threatened to bring the England Team home. The situation was fast developing into a full-blown diplomatic incident. Such was the intensity of public feeling in both countries, however, that a climbdown by either appeared unthinkable. It took the intervention of the Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, who feared that the threatened boycott of Australian goods would cause severe hardship, to force the Australian Cricket Board to back down and withdraw the accusation of unsportsmanlike behaviour.
The Series was saved but the atmosphere at the remaining Tests was an ugly one. Every England ball was jeered and the English players were abused and spat at from the boundary. Jardine persisted with Bodyline however, and England went onto to win the Series 4-1. It was only slower pitches that ultimately reduced the number of injuries.
Jardine’s tactics had worked. Bradman had been stopped averaging only 56 for the Series, a splendid average for most batsman but a failure by his own very high standards, and the Ashes regained. But victory had been bought at a very high price. The reputation of English cricket had been damaged around the world and there had been a near breakdown in relations between two friendly countries. Jardine remained unrepentant, however.
On his return to England, Harold Larwood was asked to sign a letter of apology for his bowling in Australia by the MCC. He refused stating that he had merely obeyed the orders of his “upper-class Captain.” When told that his retention in the team was conditional upon his signing it he still refused. He never played for England again. Often booed at Country Grounds around the country and never given recognition for his achievements he emigrated to Australia in 1950, a bitter man.
Douglas Jardine was retained as Captain for the forthcoming tour of India, as it was thought insensitive to remove him and that such a move would outrage the British public. With the Australians due to tour England the following summer the MCC were faced with a dilemma. Pelham Warner did not want Jardine retained as Captain for the Ashes Series and some Australians had refused to even play against an England team with him in it let alone as Captain. Jardine resolved the MCC’s dilemma by resigning the Captaincy and retiring from First Class Cricket altogether.
Douglas Jardine and Harold Larwood were to remain good friends long after both had retired. Bradman, however, would never speak about Jardine and refused the offer to pay him a tribute when he died in 1958.
Australia regained the Ashes in 1934, winning 2-1 with Bradman top scoring with 758 runs at an average of 75.8. In his final ever Test Match in England he needed to score just 4 runs to average over 100 runs for his Test career. He was bowled second ball for a duck (0). His average remained at 99.94 still a Test record, and one that will almost certainly never be beaten.