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Looking back at Bodyline

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Bodyline_Ashes_Australia_England_CricketIn the history of sports, very few events have managed to create such controversy as Bodyline. Its effects were so pronounced that the ripples have stayed on for generations.

The infamous Ashes 1932-33 between Australia and England was termed the ‘Bodyline’ series. What had begun as a tactic to tackle the strongest batsman of the opposition threatened not just the tour itself, but political relations between the United Kingdom and Australia. It has been several decades since that controversial tour, and yet the memories of Bodyline resurface every time the Ashes are played.

The Bodyline series began in earnest from December 1932 in Australia and this month marks 85 years of the mighty contentious episode. While we reflect on the recently concluded Ashes series, it is time to relive Bodyline.

How it all began

The birth of Bodyline originated from an idea – negating the genius of a young Don Bradman, who had averaged a staggering 139.14 on Australia’s 1930 tour of England. However, the ideas escalated much beyond that and went on to test and batter the other Australian batsmen throughout the course of the 5-match series.

The idea was simple and innovative in theory. England’s posse of fast bowlers would bowl down the leg at the chest of the batsmen with a cluster of fielders on the leg-side. Since there were no field restrictions at that time, this tactic would thereby restrict them from scoring runs. The English had called this ‘Leg Theory’; a widely known concept that had been around for decades. Though not popular, it was quite effective when executed well.

It is believed that this plan was conceived back in 1931 after some English players had noticed that Bradman’s discomfort against rising balls. He had winced a few times when the ball had knocked him on his body and had looked rather uncomfortable handling short-pitched deliveries targeted at his chest.

Douglas Jardine, England’s captain, decided to hatch the ‘Leg Theory’ plan for the Ashes 1932-33. While it had been around for some time, Jardine decided to go ahead with it on this tour as he had fast bowlers who could implement it. Nottinghamshire's Harold Larwood – known as one of the most fearsome and fastest bowlers around at that time – would spearhead the attack and the others would rally around him to execute the plan successfully.

The idea was not just to restrict runs. But to intimidate.

The first Test of the 1932-33 Ashes at Sydney passed without any controversy. Jardine was not compelled to use the Bodyline tactic much as Larwood took 10 for 124 and England went on to clinch the game by ten wickets. Bradman had missed the game after a tiff with the board officials, which perhaps motivated Jardine to hold back his Leg Theory tactic a little bit.

The second Test at Melbourne saw Bodyline in full effect. The bruises and wickets mounted and the Aussies protested in anger, claiming that they were being physically targeted. The strategy was considered vicious and unsporting by the press and the public in Australia. But there was more to follow.

In the third Test, at Adelaide, Larwood struck Australian batsman Bill Woodfull right above the heart and then went on to hit Bert Oldfield on the head with a pacey one that fractured his skull. Oldfield slumped on the ground and had to be given immediate medical assistance. This, obviously, did not go down well with the Australian players and their board. The local public was outraged and booed the English players on the field. At one stage, the police had to be mounted outside to prevent the breakout of a riot.

Wisden summarized the game as "probably the most unpleasant Test ever played ... altogether the whole atmosphere was a disgrace to cricket."

The relations between the two boards had been embittered, and they were at a stalemate. The situation reached a point where, on the fourth day of the Adelaide Test, the Australians released a statement that said:

 

"Bodyline bowling has assumed such proportions as to menace the best interests of the game, making protection of the body by the batsmen 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 two boards continued to exchange bitter and hostile messages but nothing came of it. Both backed their players and neither gave in. Australian fans and media wanted the series to be cancelled but the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) had their hands tied. A mid-series scrapping would have resulted in massive financial loss and hence they had to bear with the untoward happenings on the field.

England went on to win the Test at Adelaide by 338 runs. Undaunted by the criticism, Jardine continued his Bodyline tactic and clinched the Ashes with a six-wicket win at Brisbane, courtesy another match-winning Larwood performance where he took seven wickets. By this time, ferocious the Leg Theory tactic was not going down well with some of the English players as well. Fast bowler Gubby Allen refused to bowl Bodyline and performed superbly anyway.

England ended the series by winning the final Test by 8 wickets, where Larwood was again a prominent performer. He finished with 33 wickets at 19.51 from the series and was the wrecker-in-chief for Australia.

The Australian batsmen had endured hours of punishment because of Bodyline and even Bradman, despite being the highest run-getter for his team and scoring at an average of 56, looked unsettled at various points while tackling it. The tactics that were being deployed by Jardine and his bowlers were out of accord with anything they had previously seen in the game and roused intense passions among fans.

While England registered a comprehensive 4-1 series win, they had lost a lot of fans and come in for severe criticism from all over the cricketing world. The matter was even raised at cabinet meetings in London and it was clear that the implications of this Bodyline tactic, and the shock it created, would last.

The aftermath of Bodyline

On returning home from their victorious yet controversial Ashes win, the England side were given a mixed welcome. The MCC summoned Jardine and Larwood to Lord's, along with the managers Pelham Warner and RNC Palairet. It was found out that Warner was vehemently against the use of Bodyline but his voice was ignored as the others largely saw it as a productive strategy.

However, England soon got a taste of their Bodyline medicine as the next summer, in a Test at Old Trafford against the West Indies. Opposition bowlers Learie Constantine and Manny Martindale bowled relentlessly on the leg side at the England batsmen’s chests. This act shocked many who had not seen firsthand the effect of Bodyline, and merely dismissed the reports from Aussie papers.

Now that English players were being threatened, the MCC passed a resolution at the end of the season that "any form of bowling which is obviously a direct attack by the bowler upon the batsman would be an offence against the spirit of the game".

Bodyline still continued in some county games and subsequently the MCC added a clause to the Laws relating to unfair play: the number of fielders allowed behind square on the leg was restricted to two, which rendered Bodyline ineffective.

While the laws of cricket were amended to ban Bodyline bowling, the scars it had caused lingered for decades.

Initially, the relations between the two countries remained bitter. Larwood became the hated hero in England and was asked to apologize by the authorities. He refused, saying he simply followed his captain’s orders. Larwood never played for his country again. Jardine largely retired from first class cricket soon after, playing only a few matches in the next ten years.

The 2017-18 Ashes were played with fierce rivalry but without the toxicity of the Bodyline series. Hopefully, the game will never have to bear witness to such an event again.

The unpleasant memories of it will remain etched in the history of the game forever.

 

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