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I started watching cricket on television and listening to the BBC radio coverage back in the late 1960s. If I think back I can still hear the voices of professional broadcasters John Arlott, Brian Johnston and Jim Swanton. There were ex-players in the commentary box then as well of course, foremost amongst them the great Richie Benaud, although my memories of him come from a later era. In my childhood the expert summarizer I remember above all is Denis Compton, but I also vividly recall the voices of Trevor Bailey and Norman Yardley.

One of the great pleasures of cricket, even then, was listening to these men talk about the great names of the past and their achievements. The current generation of cricket followers will be surprised to learn that the one subject that I cannot remember being discussed at all was that of the Bodyline tour of 1932/33. In fact the first recollection I have of hearing the word is when, at the age of 8 or 9, I became the proud owner of a Subbuteo cricket game. The box proclaimed that it was possible for the game to replicate all varieties of bowling, including bodyline, although I never did work out how that could be done.

I had to ask my father what the word meant, and despite his passion for the game he wasn’t a great deal of help. I cannot recall exactly what he said. I do remember being told about Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, but my abiding memory is of being not much wiser. My ignorance didn’t trouble me of course, simply because the issue, whatever it was, seemed to be of no great importance.

It wasn’t until I was in my final year at University, by which time I had discovered there was rather more to life than cricket, that the subject of the Bodyline tour was to exercise my mind again. I seldom watched television in those days, but there was a room tucked away in my hall of residence that was set aside for that purpose and I wandered in one evening after the bar had closed, still wide awake and looking for some form of entertainment. There were only a handful of channels available in those days so it didn’t take long to chance upon a documentary about the Bodyline series, put together to celebrate its 50th anniversary. It coincided with a couple of new books and a couple of new editions of older ones, and at long last people began to talk about the series again.

In fact interest in Bodyline has never gone away since that anniversary. Books, both original works and reprints of earlier ones, have continued to appear at regular intervals. There was a later documentary produced in Australia, as well as a mini-series dramatising the events of the tour. That one wasn’t entirely accurate, well acted or well produced but was entertaining nonetheless. I suspect the long period of Australian dominance of the famous contest between 1989 and 2005 has helped, but Bodyline remains a marvellous story, even if the increasing difficulty in finding a reason to write about it has led some writers to read rather more into events than can possibly be justified for what was, at the end of the day, just a series of five cricket matches.

By the time the Bodyline series arrived the Great Depression had gripped the UK, and as a knock on effect the trade that Australia relied on from the mother country was adversely affected, causing severe economic problems there, and an increasing feeling of being let down by Britain. In such difficult times following sport was a way of forgetting other troubles in life, and sporting success was of huge importance to both nations, and their rivalry more intense than ever.

When The Ashes resumed after the Great War English cricket was weak and yet to come to terms with the new world order. In 1920/21 Australia secured the first of their three 5-0 victories. The scoreline back in England in 1921 was a mere 3-0 but, in reality the Aussies were no less dominant. Australia were led by ‘The Big Ship’, Warwick Armstrong, a cunning, determined and combative skipper who had at his disposal the first pair of genuine fast bowlers, Jack Gregory and Ted McDonald, who wreaked havoc amongst some timid and inexperienced English batsmen.

By 1924/25 Armstrong was gone, McDonald had turned his back on Test cricket and Gregory, now the lone spearhead, found in Herbert Sutcliffe a new and more obdurate opponent. Gregory still took 22 wickets in the series but England, under the old fashioned amateur Arthur Gilligan, did at least manage a consolation victory. In 1926 England were successful in wresting back the urn with a 1-0 win when, after four draws, Percy Chapman was entrusted with the captaincy and in a famous batting performance Sutcliffe and Jack Hobbs set up an immensely popular home victory.

Chapman was a determined character but also a traditional amateur skipper, as good a diplomat and bon viveur as he was an aggressive left hand bat. He led a fine England side to a 4-1 victory in 1928/29. Walter Hammond batted superbly and rewrote the record books with 905 runs at 113.12. Also in that victorious England side were Douglas Jardine and Harold Larwood. Australia were in transition, but Don Bradman began his great career and his century in the final Test was the major contribution to Australia’s solitary victory.

With much the same side as had triumphed under Chapman available in 1930 England expected to sweep Australia aside. The fact that they didn’t was essentially down to one man, Bradman, who eclipsed Hammond’s remarkable record of just two years before as he scored 974 runs at 139.14. He was only 22. All England feared what awaited them in 1932/33. Bradman was only going to get better, and in those days Tests in Australia were timeless, played to a finish. The wickets were always shirtfronts, and only if the rain fell on them did the bowler ever acquire an advantage.

Larwood knew from his 1928/29 experience that he could only get any lateral movement on the ball for a few overs before the bone hard wickets took all the shine of the ball. He had not been fully fit in 1930 and Bradman had put him to the sword. He could see what was likely to happen. So too could Jardine, the appointed captain. He was an amateur of course, but certainly not in the mould of the Golden Age. Jardine was as hard as nails and determined to win. The fact his experience with the crowds in 1928/29 left him with considerable antipathy towards most things Australian made no difference at all to his desire for victory, but subsequent writers have often concentrated on and overstated the importance of that, no doubt for dramatic effect.

It is sometimes suggested that the root cause of Jardine’s distaste for Australians lay in the events of his appearance against Armstrong’s 1921 side. Jardine was a 20 year old undergraduate at the time and opened the batting for Oxford University in a two day, and thus not First Class, game against the tourists. As the match petered out into a draw Jardine was left unbeaten on 96 at the close of the second day and some felt that Armstrong should have offered to play an extra over or two in order to give the youngster the opportunity to reach a landmark that few Englishman reached that summer. Did Jardine resent that? Given what we know of Jardine’s character it must be doubtful whether he ever gave it a second thought, but some have suggested it was a factor.

Part of the fascination of cricket is its huge scope for varying and changing tactics. If a conventional approach, as it surely would, have resulted in Bradman achieving a four figure series aggregate what were England to do? Jardine famously chose fast leg theory as a means of containing him although his motives for doing so are often questioned. The simple reality however is that Jardine was not expecting his fast leg theory to have the effect that it did. His rationale was that if he couldn’t dismiss Bradman then he must at least try to stop him scoring as fast as he had made clear in 1930 he was capable of. On the huge Australian grounds that was not going to be possible with just nine fielders. The idea was therefore a simple one. Force Bradman to play the ball to leg and put seven or even eight fielders on the leg side. It wouldn’t necessarily get Bradman’s wicket, but if he wanted to score runs he would have to run the risk of finding one of those fielders.

Much of what has been written tells a tale of cloak and dagger as the idea for fast leg theory was refined. Many writers focus on a dinner that took place in London involving Jardine, Notts and former England skipper Arthur Carr and his two charges, Larwood and Voce. Realistically however the suggestion that is in any way unusual seems almost ridiculous. Jardine’s own county captain, Percy Fender, one of the most astute and innovative tacticians of the era is also drawn into the conspiracy theories, although quite why Jardine would have been expected not to speak to Fender about tactics for Australia is beyond me.

The dramatic build up to the events of the tour has doubtless crept into the story because of the contribution to the debate of Frank Foster. In 1911 the 22 year old Foster had led Warwickshire to an unexpected first County Championship and the following winter had played a leading role in England’s 4-1 Ashes victory. A fast medium left arm bowler and hard-hitting batsman Foster had, in company with the great Sydney Barnes, scythed through the Australian batting. He had successfully used leg theory, combining his natural inswing with a leg trap, and Jardine sought him out to learn about his field placings.

Foster was an oddball however. His career had ended after a motorcycle accident in 1915 and in later life there were problems with mental illness and brushes with the criminal courts. In 1933 Foster was so affronted by the use that Jardine had made of the advice he had given that he made a gramophone recording explaining his disapproval of Jardine’s methods and disassociating himself from the Bodyline controversy. His intervention is simply a curious one for historians, but at the time served to add fuel to the fire of Jardine’s critics.

In truth there was nothing revolutionary about leg theory. Others besides Foster had tried it in England its major purpose then being, as Jardine sought, containment. In Australia it had been tried in rather different circumstances. A young South Australian batsman made his debut against New South Wales in January 1925. Lance Gun made a century and in the New South Wales reply bowled fast and short diagonal deliveries to a packed leg side field for eleven overs. He took two wickets but never bowled for the state again. Interestingly his captain in the match was Vic Richardson.

Jack Scott was a temperamental fast bowler who had given England some short stuff in 1911/12. He played for New South Wales in Gun’s debut. A few days later he tried some fast leg theory himself against Victoria, and took a five-fer. One of the Victorian batsmen, although not one of Scott’s victims, was Bill Woodfull. Scott reprised the tactics four years later when, by then almost 41 and playing for South Australia, he met Chapman’s tourists in 1928/29. He bowled some brisk leg theory, dismissing Jardine and Sutcliffe. Larwood wasn’t playing, but a few days later in the Adelaide Test whilst Archie Jackson was compiling his debut century the ‘Notts Express’ gave Scott’s tactics a try, albeit at this stage whilst maintaining a full length.

The selectors had initially given Jardine a touring party of 16, and then at the last minute added another fast bowler, Bill Bowes, to the group. The conclusion drawn later was that, having from the non-striker’s end watched Bowes causing much discomfort to Jack Hobbs with some fierce bowling, Jardine had insisted on Bowes’ call up to strengthen his leg theory attack. In fact at that stage it seemed Maurice Tate would be unable to make the trip (in the end he did although the great medium fast bowler played no part in the Tests) and, having taken 190 wickets at 15.14 over the summer, Bowes was the obvious choice as replacement.

In the lead up to the first Test Bodyline was used sparingly, but the Australians were in little doubt about what to expect. There was no Bradman at the Sydney Cricket Ground, a dispute over a press contract being the cause, but the Australian batting line up was immensely strong nonetheless. It began with Woodfull and Bill Ponsford. To this day the pair are fifth and sixth in the list of all time First Class batting averages, even if that is probably more indicative of the quality of Australian wickets between the wars rather than a true measure of their places in the hierarchy of the great batsmen. They were followed by another natural opener, Jack Fingleton. The middle order began with Alan Kippax, a batsman described as being from the line of Trumper, and continued with Stan McCabe and Richardson.

England won by ten wickets. Larwood took five wickets in each innings and Bill Voce chipped in with another six. Far from being a negative tactic Bodyline had proved to be England’s best attacking option. There were two reasons. The first was that Australian pitches turned out to be rather different from the perfect batting tracks that had been expected. The bounce was uneven and that, allied to the incredible pace that Larwood generated transformed the plan. Voce too benefitted enormously from the unpredictability. He was yards slower than Larwood, but being a left armer his natural line and inswing when put together with the steeper bounce that his height gave him made him a fearsome proposition as well.

Most of the Australian batsmen were, in relative terms, too slow on their feet to deal adequately with Bodyline and they just stood there and took it. Brave, but ultimately futile. Those who adopted the tactic made no more than a couple of decent scores all series and ended up bruised and battered. It made for a grim spectacle but amidst the carnage Stan McCabe played one of the truly great Test innings. He came to the crease with Australia 82-3. McCabe went for the bowling head on in a pulsating innings. He found support from Richardson and the pair added 129 before Richardson succumbed to Voce. Bert Oldfield followed soon after but in Clarrie Grimmett McCabe found a staunch ally and by the close had taken his score to 127.

On the second morning a refreshed Larwood and Voce ripped out Grimmett, Lisle Nagel and Tiger O’Reilly with a mere 15 more runs added leaving McCabe with only Tim Wall for company. Despite the ferocity of the bowling McCabe marshalled the strike so well that the tenth wicket added 55, of which Wall had scored just 4, before McCabe for once failed to keep the strike and Wally Hammond was able to tease a chance out of the number eleven which Gubby Allen at short leg gratefully accepted. The statistics of McCabe’s innings illustrate just what Bodyline involved and, given that only Voce and Larwood were bowling it, the extent to which McCabe went after it. Of his 187 as many as 105 were scored from the Notts pair. Just 18 of his runs came in front of square on the offside and 19 of his 25 boundaries went to the leg side fence, with 13 of them from full blooded hooks.

For the second Test the newspaper that Bradman was contracted to wisely decided to release him from his contract to enable him to play. England unveiled a four pronged pace attack, Bowes replacing his Yorkshire colleague Hedley Verity. Bowes only contribution to the game was to bowl Bradman for a golden duck in the first innings. The huge crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground were stunned into silence and the usually taciturn and undemonstrative Jardine was moved to do what Bowes would always describe with great relish as being something akin to a Red Indian war dance. It was a spinners’ wicket however, Verity was sorely missed and an unbeaten century from Bradman in the second innings set up a morale boosting victory for Australia. The Don is beyond doubt the greatest batsman to have played the game, and he had a couple more options as to how to overcome Bodyline. He rejected the Woodfull/Ponsford/Fingleton approach and that of McCabe – both involved a risk of physical injury that Bradman wasn’t willing to take.

Bradman could have played for himself. He was far too quick on his feet for even Larwood to ever hit him if he eschewed all risk, so he could have just stood there and swayed out of the way of the short stuff. He wouldn’t have scored many runs, but would have had a long run of not outs to boost his average. But Bradman wasn’t selfish and his preferred option was to back away towards square leg and look to cut the ball through the wide open spaces on the off side. The speed of his footwork gave him a fighting chance, and he averaged 56 for the series to prove his resourcefulness. Of course it looked to the Englishmen as if he was running scared.

The third Test was the Battle of Adelaide and was the game when everything began to unravel. Woodfull and Oldfield were hurt by Larwood. Ironically enough on neither occasion was the Bodyline field in place, but it made no difference. The infamous and ill-advised cables that seemed to question England’s sportsmanship were sent. The MCC played them with the straightest of straight bats and the Australians were forced to back down. The game itself was a crushing victory for England who, despite being 30-4 at one stage on the first morning eventually won by 338 runs. There were more wickets for Larwood but, as a further irony, the most successful England bowler was Gubby Allen. The Australian born future England captain steadfastly refused to bowl Bodyline, although his conscientious objection was not sufficient to persuade him to withdraw from a successful side.

In the fourth Test Australia got something of a break because Voce was injured. Perhaps surprisingly there was no recall for Bowes, and Derbyshire leg spinner Tom Mitchell was the replacement. So there was only Larwood to bowl Bodyline at the ‘Gabba and at one point Australia were well on top. It was then that Eddie Paynter was ‘kidnapped’ from his hospital bed and brought to the ground by Voce from where he made the match winning contribution. Larwood was again England’s leading bowler. The series was won with one game left to play.

If anyone thought that Jardine would sideline his much criticized form of attack for the dead rubber they were to be disappointed. He had no intention of loosening his grip on the series and despite Australia batting well in the first innings they could not, thanks to the Notts Express with bat and ball, prevent England taking a first innings lead. First of all Larwood took the wickets of Richardson, Woodfull and Bradman as Australia struggled to 64-3 on the opening morning. Late on the second day, after a middle order recovery had taken Australia to 435, Larwood was then instructed by Jardine to go in as nightwatchman. After a hard day’s bowling Larwood was furious and tried and failed to get himself out when a suicidal single brought him five runs as Bradman’s shy at the stumps just missed and went for four overthrows.

Next morning Jardine still hadn’t bothered to explain to Larwood that the reason he was invited to bat was to ensure that he was fresh to bowl at the start of the Australian second innings. Still livid and batting on spleen Larwood went hell for leather at the Australian bowlers. Luck was with him and he got to 98 before holing out. He was taken by surprise by the standing ovation he got and it was clearly that, rather than the very hostile reception he had had in Adelaide, he remembered after the Second World War when he was offered the chance to emigrate to Australia.

The Australian second innings was a disappointment and there was a poignant scene on Bradman’s dismissal. Larwood, a broken bone in his foot but not permitted by Jardine to leave the field whilst Bradman was batting, limped off alongside Australia’s hero. Verity then ran through Australia. Had the Australian spinners, ‘Dainty’ Ironmonger, O’Reilly and ‘Perker’ Lee bowled as well as the Yorkshireman there might have been an interesting finish, but the trio were found wanting and England ran out comfortable winners by eight wickets.

The Australians reaction after the series ended was rather more measured than the knee jerk reaction that prompted the Adelaide cables. Once the MCC then got to see fast leg theory bowling for itself in the summer of 1933 their attitude changed. There was however just enough time left for another way of playing Bodyline bowling to be demonstrated. That summer West Indies toured England. They had one fine fast bowler in their side, Manny Martindale, and another very fast West Indian bowler, Learie Constantine, was contracted to Nelson in the Lancashire League.

The West Indies management succeeded in persuading Nelson to release Constantine to play in the Old Trafford Test, and to the extreme discomfort of all the England batsmen bar one they treated them to a prolonged demonstration of Bodyline. That one was Jardine, who had always maintained that Bodyline could be played safely. He adopted a similar technique to the slow-footed Australians, except rather than use his body to block the ball he used all his height to get right behind the ball and present the full face of a straight bat to the short stuff. He was finally out after almost five hours for 127, his only Test century. He had proved his point in the best way possible.

Jardine wasn’t in the same class as Bradman, but was still a fine player. At the highest level, where the game was played on good wickets, it might have been reasonable to allow Bodyline bowling to continue. But on pitches that were less than perfect moderate batsmen without any head protection (helmets still more than half a century away) would surely have begun to lose their lives had the laws continued to accommodate Bodyline.

The first attempt to banish the tactic from the game, the outlawing of bowling that in the opinion of the umpire represented a direct attack on the batsman, was unsatisfactory in many ways. Ultimately however it did the trick until in the 1950s the blindingly obvious solution, the restriction of the number of fielders permitted behind square on the leg side, introduced for an entirely different reason, put Bodyline to bed once and for all.

A few years ago I was inclined to the view that developments in the quality of the game’s protective equipment meant that Bodyline could perhaps return, the prospect of another McCabe type innings being my main motivation. The tragedy that Philip Hughes is not touring England this summer is proof positive that I was wrong on that one. But that doesn’t alter the fact that neither Jardine or Larwood broke the laws of the game back in 1932/33, and the way the game’s establishment treated them after the famous series was shabby to put it mildly – that however is another story altogether.

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