Bodyline: 80 years of cricket's greatest controversy

By Greig Watson
BBC News

  • Published
(Clockwise from top left) Bert Oldfield hit by a ball at the Adelaide Oval, statue of Harold Larwood, the Ashes urn, Bill Woodfull hit at the Adelaide Oval, Australia graphic, Douglas Jardine, Nottingham newspaper coverage of the Adelaide test
Image caption,
The Bodyline scandal helped shape the nature of cricket, sport and relations between Australia and England for years to come

As Australian batsman Bert Oldfield collapsed, his skull fractured by a lightning-fast ball, the booing from the 50,000-strong Adelaide Oval crowd became a deafening howl.

The England players, mouths dry with fear, looked for escape routes - or even potential weapons - in case the mob fell on them.

Bowler Harold Larwood, the focus of the fury, turned to team-mate Les Ames. "If they come," he said, "you can take the leg stump for protection - I'll take the middle."

Never before or since that moment, 80 years ago to the day, on 16 January 1933, had cricket - and arguably any other sport - seen a contest which fired such anger, which reached so far and echoed for so long, as the Bodyline tour.

Image caption,
Bodyline used a more aggressive but still legal method of bowling.

"In Australia to this day, the word Bodyline carries the stench of underhand or unsportsmanlike behaviour; with the series regarded as Australian cricket's most controversial," said David Studham from the Australian National Sports Museum.

The view of the MCC, which organised the tour, is slightly different. The curator of its museum, Adam Chadwick, said: "Was Bodyline unsportsmanlike? By the standards of the day, yes. By the standards of now, it was a stroke of genius."

'Devastatingly fast'

At the beginning of the 1930s, the MCC - Marylebone Cricket Club - still ruled the cricketing world from its seat at Lord's in London.

But it had a problem, in the shape of batting phenomenon Don Bradman.

During their 1930 tour of England, Australia - the arch rivals - had dominated the home bowlers, with Bradman averaging a staggering 139.14.

The MCC looked to austere amateur player Douglas Jardine for an answer, making him England captain.

Jardine believed Bradman struggled against balls which bounced into his chest and formed a tactic to exploit this. But the plan needed the right bowler, and that bowler was former Nottinghamshire miner Harold Larwood.

Duncan Hamilton, Larwood's biographer, said: "He had two things. Firstly he was incredibly accurate, he claimed never to have bowled a wide in his career, and accuracy was essential to Bodyline.

Image caption,
Cricket genius - Larwood and Bradman duelled during Bodyline but faced very different fates in the years that followed

"Secondly he was devastatingly fast. All his contemporaries said he was the quickest they had faced. At certain times during that series he must have got close to, if not passed, the 100mph (160km/h) mark.

"Every fast bowler who sees that old footage says, 'Wow, that's quick!'."

Jardine's plan was to use what was known in England as leg theory. Bowling fast, high-bouncing deliveries on the line of the leg stump of the wicket - where a batsman would usually stand.

The batsman had three choices: to move but risk exposing his wicket, to play the ball with his bat and face being caught by a ring of close fielders, or try to duck and risk painful blows.

The tour began in earnest at Sydney in December 1932, ironically without Bradman playing. Bodyline brought England victory.

Complaints about the tactic quickly appeared. As the bruises and wickets mounted, the disquiet turned to anger, with claims batsmen were being physically targeted.

'Vicious' bowling

Despite Australia levelling the series at the second match in Melbourne, the repeated blows to lightly protected players attracted outraged headlines.

Some batsmen endured hours of punishment and even Bradman looked unsettled.

Mr Studham said: "The tactics employed by Jardine roused intense passions, as they were so out of accord with anything that had previously happened on the cricket field.

"Targeting the bowling along the line of the batsman's body was regarded by the Australian crowds as vicious, unsporting and especially after repeatedly battering the batsmen, 'hitting a man when he was down and certainly no part of cricket'."

Police protection

With everything to play for, and feelings running at fever pitch, the Adelaide match opened in front of packed stands.

Cricket bible Wisden would later call it "probably the most unpleasant Test ever played".

Australian captain Bill Woodfull was left staggering after being struck just above the heart by Larwood.

The booing lasted for three minutes, despite the fact England had not yet deployed Bodyline tactics in the match.

That would change though, moments later, when Jardine called out to Larwood: "Well bowled Harold," and set the fielders in the hated Bodyline formation. Police had to be deployed on the boundary.

The next day, Oldfield had his skull cracked and Larwood had to be escorted from the ground.

It was almost inevitable the problems would overflow from the playing field. But no-one could have predicted it would lead to three events then unthinkable in cricket.

'Hysterical' reaction

MCC tour manager Pelham Warner, seeking to smooth relationships, was sent packing by the normally placid Woodfull with what were, for some years, the 25 most famous words in sport.

"I don't want to see you, Mr Warner. There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket and the other is not."

The comment, made in the previously sacrosanct dressing room, was then leaked to the press.

The next day, Australian Board of Control for International Cricket sent a cable to the MCC which described England's tactics as "unsportsmanlike", the ultimate taboo for guardians of the game.

Mr Chadwick said: "The MCC reacted with incredulity to the Australian messages that the tactics were unsportsmanlike and they felt it was really out of the question that an MCC team led by a gentleman of Douglas Jardine's character could possibly behave in such a manner.

"The archives really do show the feeling was 'Oh, the Australians are being a bit hysterical about it'."

Image caption,
The Bodyline fielding positions - crowding the batsman on the leg-side in the hope of catching deflected balls - were later outlawed

But the situation spiralled. Jardine threatened to withdraw his team from the remaining two matches unless the allegation was retracted.

Stoked by newspaper reports, each country backed its own players.

The standoff only ended when Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons told the cricket board a British boycott of Australian goods could cripple the country.

England won the series 4-1. Bradman's batting average was cut to a merely excellent 56. But the shock lasted for years.

'National disdain'

Mr Studham said he felt Bodyline was one of those sporting "rite of passage" stories all Australian children learn about.

"The on-field tactics and resulting carnage at the third Test in Adelaide split already strained relations between the teams, the game's governing authorities, and even threatened to split the governments.

"While perfectly legal at the time, it left lasting ill-feeling in Australia where it was seen to be outside the spirit of the game.

"The fact that a few years later the laws of cricket were amended to ban Bodyline bowling contributed greatly to its continuing national disdain."

Mr Chadwick said: "The MCC did not have any advance warning of the tactics which Jardine was using and wasn't really aware of the impact - all they were getting was newspaper reports and telegraph messages of the score.

"When they saw it for themselves they realised this really wasn't the sort of cricket they had always set themselves up to promote as containing the best values of Britishness and gentlemanly fair play."

Jardine retired from first class cricket the following year. Larwood's agony was more extended.

Hated hero

Injured through over-bowling, he was then stunned at his treatment by cricket's hierarchy.

Mr Hamilton said: "He was totally betrayed by the establishment. They treated him like toxic waste.

"He was asked to apologise and he rightly refused, saying he had done what his captain had asked. He got no support for his injury.

"On his return to Nottingham he was met by cheering crowds 10,000-strong. He went from that to being vilified. The whole thing was a tragedy."

Larwood never played for England again. On the advice of some of his old Bodyline foes, he emigrated to Australia in 1950 - becoming firm friends with Bert Oldfield.

He was appointed MBE in 1993, at the age of 88. A statue of him was unveiled in Kirkby-in-Ashfield, close to his birthplace, in 2002.

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