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Bodyline In Print


The ‘Bodyline’ series of 1932/33 was, at the time of its fiftieth anniversary, responsible for the fascination that cricket literature has held for me ever since. A chance encounter with a copy of The Larwood Story snared a young man who was already fascinated by the game into a trap I would not be able to extricate myself from even if I were to try.

The three main leads in the drama were England skipper Douglas Jardine, his strike bowler Harold Larwood and the Australian batting genius Donald Bradman. On the English sides books were published in the names of Jardine, In Quest of the Ashes, and Larwood weighed in with Bodyline? Bradman made no secret of his disapproval of the tactics designed for the sole purpose of curbing his run scoring, but did not feel the need to publish a book. 

From the press box Bruce Harris of the London Evening Standard wrote Jardine Justified, and the fourth volume from publishers Harrop bearing the title The Fight for the Ashes bore the name of Jack Hobbs, by this time no longer an England player, but still playing under Jardine’s captaincy at Surrey.

In Quest of the Ashes is a bitter book in which Jardine complains about Australian crowds and deliberately eschews the use of the word ‘Bodyline’, preferring to simply refer to ‘leg theory’. It is nonetheless an interesting read and whilst something of a period piece has remained required reading for any student of the period. In Quest of the Ashes has been republished twice, in 1983 with a new introduction from John Arlott, and a quarter of a century later with contributions from Mike Brearley and one of Jardine’s four daughters.

Back in 1932 the cricket correspondent of the Evening Standard was a young EW ‘Jim’ Swanton. More than forty years after the event Swanton suggested in his autobiography that had he been in Australia, rather than Harris, he might have been able to persuade Jardine to give up his leg theory. The notion that Jardine would listen to any journalist, least of all a 25 year old tyro seems fanciful, but certainly the British public might have had a better idea of what was going on. In the event Swanton, apparently, vexed his employers by failing to get his copy in in time to enable the paper to report on Herbert Sutcliffe and Percy Holmes’ record opening stand of 555 during the 1932 summer and the paper sent Harris, its lawn tennis correspondent, instead.

In time Harris went on a number of cricket tours and wrote several tour books, but in cricketing terms in 1932/33 he was a lightweight. He was a loyal supporter of Jardine and his tactics and in return Jardine contributed a lengthy foreword to his book, in the course of which he did actually use the word ‘Bodyline’, albeit in scathing and dismissive terms. Larwood’s book, a straightforward ghosted statement in support of himself was more of the same. Jardine again provided a foreword, on this occasion rather less forcefully in the form of a brief letter of appreciation and thanks to Larwood for his efforts on the tour.

Prior to the 1932/33 tour another Surrey player and inspirational captain Percy Fender had written three important books on Ashes tours. As, supposedly, one of the architects of ‘Bodyline’ his inclination would doubtless have been to be supportive of the tactic, although had he thought matters had gone too far he would at least have been the one man whose views Jardine might have taken note of. As it was The Star, which had sent Fender to Australia four years previously, opted for Hobbs and his ghost instead, so another opportunity for an informed and influential observer to report was lost.   Another English writer whose views would have been respected was Neville Cardus, but unfortunately it would be the next tour, that of 1936/37, before the Manchester Guardian sent their man to Australia.

Hobbs did not approve of ‘Bodyline’ at all, but he was in a difficult position if he sought to criticise his county captain. He was fortunate that he was allowed to adopt a passive and neutral position, albeit even then his reservations are apparent. Another Englishman, Gerald French, also wrote a book on the tour and a mighty 600+ page tome it was. Unfortunately for French he was unable to find  publisher so his effort never saw the light of day, although there is a bound copy of the typescript sat in the Library at Lord’s. In truth it is another account that does not court controversy.

In Australia former Test batsman Alan Kippax wrote Anti-Bodyline, a slim and rather fragile paperback which, despite the title and the drawing of a stricken Australian batsman on the front wrapper, is not as sensationalist as it sounds like it might be. It is nonetheless deeply critical of the tactics Jardine adopted. Rather more hardline was the account of RWE Wilmot who wrote for The Argus and The Australasian. His book was entitled Defending the Ashes 1932/33 and his attitude to ‘Bodyline’ was that it was a perversion. Another former Test player, Arthur Mailey, also wrote a book (in addition to producing one of his by then traditional cartoon style tour brochures). And Then Came Larwood was disapproving in a manner similar to that of Hobbs’, but he also found fault with the Australians and, of the contemporary accounts, his is undoubtedly the most measured and received favourable reviews.

By my definition there is another Australian book, The Sporting English, by someone using the nom de plume of Man in the Street. According to Roy Ramsbottom however it is a pamphlet, so as such is beyond the scope of this post. I will therefore say nothing more than that the position of Man in the Street makes Wilmot read like a neutral.

In the years that followed ‘Bodyline’ cropped up in many books that were not devoted solely to the series and to mention all of them would make this post unrealistically long, but one autobiography merits some mention as it is that of Bradman. Farewell to Cricket appeared in 1950. Bradman’s attitude to ‘Bodyline’ had always been one of the strongest possible disapproval, and his lingering bitterness almost twenty years on is clear from the in relative terms short chapter that he writes under the heading Bodyline.

At least Bradman was never hit by ‘Bodyline’. One Australian batsman who was, and repeatedly, was Jack Fingleton. In the late 1940s Fingo amply demonstrated that he held no grudges when he helped Larwood to emigrate to Australia with his family. In 1946 Fingo, who had always been a journalist even in his playing days, published Cricket Crisis, largely a retrospective account of the 1932/33 series. Fingleton was still critical of Bodyline, but with the benefit of more than a decade’s hindsight his is a balanced and well written book.

In 1965, with the assistance of Kevin Perkins, the first edition of The Larwood Story appeared. The book is a genuine autobiography but at the same time is dominated by a full account of the tour. The book is infinitely better than Bodyline?, and rather more measured, but Larwood’s views were essentially unchanged.

A further important account emerged in 1974 when RS ‘Dick’ Whittington helped George Hele to write his story. Bodyline Umpire is the story of the man who stood with George Borwick in all five Tests. One of the more curious aspects of the whole controversy is that neither side were critical of the umpires.

Four years later historian EW Docker wrote Bradman and the Bodyline and with a new edition of The Larwood Story it was joined in 1982 by Ronald Mason’s Ashes in the Mouth. In 1983 Laurence Le Quesne’s The Bodyline Conspiracy appeared and was, at that stage, the best single account of the episode, a title it continued to deserve right up until 2002, but the last twenty years of the twentieth century saw no let up.

First of all Australian writer Philip Derriman produced two books in 1984, both bearing the title Bodyline. One is a narrative account of the serious, with little outstanding about it, but the other is a very different book as it largely consists of a bewilderingly large selection of images of the series – I have always dubbed it the ‘Bodyline picture book’, and a very fine effort it is too. In the same year Ric Sissons and Brian Stoddart published Cricket and Empire.

An interesting book appeared in 1992. For Gerard French in England in 1933 read Gilbert Mant in Australia. Mant, an Australian, had been the Reuters correspondent throughout the series. Reuters had a reputation they valued for being impartial reporters of news and when Mant sought permission to publish his book, and made it clear he disapproved of the English tactics, he was not permitted to publish at the time and it was therefore almost sixty years on, by which time Mant was the last man from the press box still alive, that Cuckoo in the Bodyline Nest appeared. Interestingly both Mant’s and Hele’s book have on their jackets the same iconic image of Larwood in his delivery stride.

And then in 2002 David Frith’s magnum opus appeared. Surely a book as comprehensive as Bodyline Autopsy, CricketWeb’s Book of the Decade for the noughties, had to be the last word? Well actually not. Since then 2005 saw the publication of Gubby Allen – Bad Boy of Bodyline by Brian Rendell, a book looking at the letters home written by Allen during the tour, and then in 2009 Michael Arnold’s Bodyline Hypocrisy – that was ten years ago now though – so perhaps we have now had the last word?

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