Bodyline – the cricket bowling tactic that caused massive controversy

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I remember as a kid watching the West Indies destroying England with what was simply a brutal fast bowling attack. Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding, Courtney Walsh, Curtley Ambrose, Joel Garner…the heart of West Indian bowling was fast and powerful. Aggressive and accurate, the often tore teams to pieces and individual players apart. Always brutal, often animalistically savage, the West Indies bowling was unplayable at times. English batsmen like Andy Lloyd and Mike Gatting were hit and hurt with Mike Gatting’s nose after a hit from Michael Holding looking particularly savage.

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Before that incident, in 1976, England captain Tony Greig had said that he intended to make the West Indians ‘grovel’. With blacks in South Africa suffering the outrage of murder at the hands of the Apartheid government at Johannesburg in the very same summer, many thought South African-born Greig’s motivational words were a step too far. Brian Close felt the backlash of the fierce West Indian bowling.

Fast leg theory and ‘bodyline’

However, whilst hostile, the bowling of the West Indies didn’t quite raise the same level of scandal as the bowling of the England team that visited Australia as members of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) tour in 1932/33. Led by captain Douglas Jardine, England were reliant upon the bowling of 28-year old Harold Larwood, the son of a Nottingham miner. Larwood was a right-arm fast bowler who melded blisteringly quick speed with unerring accuracy. What he and England did that series, largely to limit the prodigious batting output of legendary Australian batsman Don Bradman who, during the Australian’s 1930’s tour of England averaged a staggering 139.14 runs with a century in the First Test, a score of 254 in the Second Test, a further 334 in the Third test and a score of 232 in the Fifth and final Test match.

In order to combat Bradman, a new strategy was needed, one of hostile containment that focused on digging the ball in short and aimed at the leg stump where the batsman would usually stand. This plan, put forward by Douglas Jardine, the England captain, was known as ‘leg theory’ and resulted in fast, high-bouncing deliveries that arrowed in on the batsman’s body if evasive action wasn’t taken.

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Bradman was seen by Jardine and those in the England camp as being ‘susceptible’ and ‘uncomfortable’ against deliveries that rose sharply at him from short of a length, these making him [Bradman] shuffle and move inside the line of the ball. It was this tactic that the England management settled on and that Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, England’s two main strike bowlers, practised during the latter part of the 1932 domestic season, honing their technique.

The stage was set, the England tourists to Australia of 1932/33, intent on limiting the dangerous Don Bradman and driven by the opinionated Douglas Jardine were set, not only to play cricket, but to also open up a rift that threatened the cordiality between the two nations. Although England did aim for the batsmen’s body during the opening tour games, they didn’t set a fully packed leg-side field (see picture below) until they played against an Australian XI, captained by full Australia captain Bill Woodfull, in what effectively was a test rehearsal. Deploying the full ‘bodyline’ tactics of leg-side bowling and stacked leg-side field for the first time on the tour, the match was a draw with Australian captain Woodfull making only 18 and a duck (0) in his two innings; allied to this, Bradman was also ineffective in the game.

Bodyline fielding

The Test furore and soured relations

The English players didn’t term their bowling tactic ‘bodyline’; that particular term was coined by the Australian press, the English team and management referring to it consistently as ‘fast leg theory‘. Saying that the England team were hell-bent on damaging Australia would not be entirely accurate with five players (Bob Wyatt, Freddie Brown, Nawab of Pataudi, Walter Hammond and Les Ames) expressing private concern over the tactic whilst England bowler Gubby Allen refused to bowl the tactic. Employing the tactic to its fullest in the First Test saw England, spurred on by a 10-wicket haul from Larwood, win the game by ten wickets. Australia did have some success with batsman Stan McCabe standing his ground and smashing 187 runs in what was described as one of the best innings of cricket played in a test match.

The Second Test, played in Melbourne, saw Australia victorious with the fit again Bradman returning to the Australian team. However, Australian hearts sank when, in the first innings Bradman edged a wild hook from a Bill Bowes and was dismissed for a first-ball golden duck. However, he did score a match-winning century in the second innings, his only three-figure return of the series. With the victory, many thought that Australia had unlocked the secret to the successful overcoming of England’s adoption of the fast leg theory tactic. The Australian captain, Bill Woodfull, won respect in some quarters for his refusal to fight fire with fire, his refusal to sink to the perceived depths shown by the English tourists. Woodfull’s deputy, Victor Richardson, recalls that his [Woodfull’s] response was,

“There is no way I will be influenced to adopt such tactics which bring such discredit to the game. I know Tim could do it but I am not going to participate in actions that can only hurt the game.”

However, if the first two Test Matches lit the blue touch paper, it was Day Two of the Third Test when the bodyline firework exploded massively, sending sparks in all directions. Shortly after the start of Australia’s first innings, Woodfull was struck under the heart by a short delivery from Harold Larwood. Woodfull was doubled over in severe pain for several minutes, it was then the partisan Australian team started jeering, hollering and verbally abusing the England team. After Woodfull resumed his stance, Jardine ordered that England take up a full bodyline field on the legside; the derision that the Australian crowd felt was heard after every ball. The atmosphere was so intimidatory and intense that police had to be called in to ring the field and act as a barrier between the England team and the baying crowd. During that over, another short, fast delivery from Larwood tore the bat from Woodfull’s hands; Woodfull hanging around for 89 minutes before being out for 22. The next day, another short-pitched delivery from Larwood, although  this was an orthodox delivery, fractured the skull of Bert Oldfield, the Australian wicketkeeper [below].

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At the end of the fourth day’s play in the Third Test, the actions of the prior two days led the Australian Board of Control for Cricket to send a cable 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 situation then went stratospheric with the MCC, supported by the British public and still seeing the fast leg theory as legitimate, taking huge offence at the term ‘unsportsmanlike’ being used. Jardine led the protests in Australia threatening to withdraw from the final two tests unless the ‘unsportsmanlike’ accusation was withdrawn by the Australian Board. Two days before the Fourth Test, the Australians withdrew their accusation and the tour was back on. England continued to bowl bodyline in the remaining Tests but slower pitches meant that, even though they were frequently hit and bruised, further serious injuries were avoided. In these Test matches, Bradman employed the technique of moving toward the leg-side and away from the line the ball was taking, effectively cutting the ball in to the offside field. In doing so, Bradman averaged 56.57 in the series; this being well down on his career average of 99.94. The test performances of all the Australian batsmen in the Bodyline series of 1932/33 were markedly down on on their overall batting averages [below].

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Rounding it all up

The ramifications from the Bodyline series transcended far beyond the individual innings played by individual players. International relations were strained and almost broken over what was seen to be attempts to damage the very fabric of the gentleman’s game, a version of cricket that left a bitter taste in the mouths of some. Harold Larwood never played for England again after that tour to Australia in 1932/33. The Laws of the game were changed to eliminate and make illegal the bowling to a leg-side field with restrictions put in place that effectively banished true Bodyline bowling to the dusty pages of the history and record books.

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