Friday, 31 October 2008

The Ashes and Controversy - Bodyline 1932-33

What makes the ashes cricket series so special? Exceptional bowling, spectacular fielding, majestic batting, fierce competitive rivalry between two proud nations, bad losers or controversy – the answer is probably that they have all played a vital and integral part in making the ashes what it is today.

I want to talk about Controversy in this article and in particular the infamous “Bodyline” series of 1932-33.

The tactics in question were reportedly conceived during a meeting at a London hotel by Douglas Jardine (captain of England during the series in question), Arthur Carr (the Nottinghamshire captain) and two of his fast bowlers Harold Larwood and Bill Voce to try and combat the mercurial talent of Don Bradman.

The tactics were referred to by different names in England and Australia. The English players, press and public referred to the tactic as “Fast Leg Theory” bowling whilst their Australian counterparts referred to the tactic by a far more damning name and that was “Bodyline”.

Because the term “Leg Theory” was being used by the England team and press out in Australia and was a common tactic amongst slow bowlers, the English Cricketing Authorities and public back home thought that the Australians were merely bad losers and making a mountain out of a molehill.

“Fast Leg Theory” or “Bodyline” involved bowling a short of length delivery aimed on leg stump that veered up at the batsman (either into the body or head height). A leg-side field of at least five catchers positioned in close proximity to the batsman would be set, meaning that the batsman would either have to take evasive action or fend the ball away with his bat (with the chance of offering an easy catch to one of the close fielders).

The concept behind the tactic was based on the belief that Bradman jolted to the leg side when faced with a short delivery; he was very rarely known to hook the ball. This was seen as a chink in the great mans armoury.

Six members of the English touring party privately opposed the tactic being employed, including Gubby Allen (the fourth fast bowler, who refused to bowl short on the leg side). Gubby Allen was also only critical of the tactic behind closed doors (to the public and press the squad portrayed a united front) but he also sent a number of letters home to England criticising Jardine.

The tactic was successful so far as England succeeded in regaining the ashes with a 4-1 victory. It also kept Bradman’s average down at 56.57 instead of his career average of 99.94. Bradman’s compatriots however, were far worse off with only one other Australian (Stan McCabe) scoring a century in the series.

Matters came to a head when a number of Australians including the Aussie captain Bill Woodfall were hit by the ball. The Australian crowd was incensed with the English tactics and a riot seemed likely.

With their players being placed at risk and a potential riot on their hands, the Australian Board of Control for Cricket sent an urgent cable to the MCC, it read:

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 above cable was sent after the third test and prior to the fourth test. Jardine and the MCC vehemently denied the above accusations of unsportsmanlike behavior, with Jardine insisting that it is up to the Australian batsmen to play themselves out of trouble.

The cable and bodyline tactic caused outrage in both Australia and England with the public of each nation showing anger towards the other. The matter was only settled when the Australian Prime Minister stepped in, pointing out to the Australian Board of Control for Cricket that there would be severe hardship ahead for the Australian public should Britain boycott Australian trade.

The board withdrew the allegation of unsportsmanlike behavior following the intervention by the Australian Prime Minister and England continued to employ the tactic for the remaining two tests. A premature end to the tour was therefore avoided with England winning the series 4-1.

After the 1932-33 series and a number of articles and books later the MCC amended the laws of cricket to prevent anything like it happening again. Umpires were given the power to intervene if they considered a batsman was being deliberately targeted by the bowler with the intention of causing the batsman harm.

Douglas Jardine himself had to face “Bodyline” bowling when the West Indies toured England in 1933 and used the tactic (to much less effect). Jardine didn’t flinch and scored 127 runs.

The author A.A Milne was one of many writers to pen an article on the “Bodyline” tactic; he was incensed by the tactics employed by England and wrote a letter to the Times. In it he stated:

“The game ceases to be cricket as soon as it can no longer be called a batsman's paradise”

There is nothing wrong with aggressive fast bowling, in fact it is exhilarating to watch the pacemen mark out their long run up and hurtle up to the crease with a degree of menace. The popularity and success of the West Indies are proof of that alone. It creates a buzz around the ground when you have Brett Lee or Shoaib Akhtar trying to reach 100 mph. However the line is crossed when the bowling becomes dangerous and the batsman is targeted; no one wants to see people getting hurt in the name of sporting victory.