Over a 15-year period from the late 1970’s, 40 batsmen of different opposing teams were taken to hospital for broken ribs, fractured arms, stunning blows to the head and shattered hands caught in the process of protecting delicate facial muscles and bones. Four West Indies fast bowlers hurling down bouncers were rotated all day long in a relentless attack on hapless batsmen by captain Clive Lloyd through this period. And yet, Lloyd and his bowlers remained largely immune from the kind of vitriol directed against Douglas Jardine and his two weapons Larwood and Voce fifty years before, despite the fact that the tactics were not dissimilar. In fact, while the ‘bodyline’ tactic was actually employed, there were no serious injuries that resulted.

The difference was that ‘bodyline’ was looked at as more than a strategy. As David Frith says in his book Bodyline Autopsy, “Bodyline bowling was worrying on two levels. Physically it was aimed at Australian throats. Figuratively, the “mother country” seemed to be hitting below the belt…..it was thought by the majority to be against the spirit of the game. Ethics had been firetorched.”

The Origins of the Strategy and the term Bodyline

In 1928 Douglas Jardine made his Test debut against the West Indies who were playing their first ever Test series. In 1928-29 he went to Australia with the MCC as a part of a very strong batting side and gave a good account of himself playing in all five Test matches and scoring 341 runs at an average of 42.62. His cautious batting and his perceived superiority complex, however, got him into trouble equally with the crowds and the press. During his third century at the start of the tour, during a period of abuse from the spectators, he observed to a sympathetic Hunter Hendry that “All Australians are uneducated, and an unruly mob“. After the innings, when Patsy Hendren said that the Australian crowds did not like Jardine, he replied “It’s fu***ing mutual

Such then was the relationship between Douglas Jardine and Australia when he was handed the England captaincy for the 1932-33 tour down under. A plan was needed to tackle the rampaging Don Bradman and going through footage and reports of the previous series and the Australian domestic season, and after discussions with Percy Fender, Jardine came to the conclusion that Bradman was weak against pace bowling on the leg side. In his not so subtle style, Jardine is said to have exclaimed: “He is yellow!” and thus was born ‘Bodyline’, although it would need to wait for the series to start on this day, 85-years ago, before the term would be thrust upon an unsuspecting cricketing world.

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It is interesting to trace the origins of the word, and given how quickly myths turn into facts in sport, it is not surprising that many contemporary cricket historians have conflicting and often incorrect takes on this in their writing.

The first reported instance of the use was when John Worrall, former Australian Test batsman and top Aussie Rules footballer reporting on an early tour match against an Australian XI at the MCG referred to Bill Voce’s “half-pitched slingers on the body line”. RWE Wilmot of the Melbourne Herald had a similar thought using the phrase “on the line of the body”, which his sub-editor Ray Robinson changed to “bodyline”, but the conservative editor of the Herald, Syd Deamer, ruled against publishing Wilmot and Robinson’s description.

Finally, on the evening of the opening day of the first Test, when it was clear that England would employ the tactic on an ongoing basis, and Robinson had approached him for the second time, did Beamer relent and allow Hugh Buggy’s report to go through with the word ‘bodyline” in the Melbourne Herald.

Buggy, who Frith describes thus: “forever looking for the clever angle, the colourful phrase, and he spoke tersely, between pauses, out of the corner of his mouth.” would enter history books as the man who first brought the dreaded word to the world.

The opening day defines the series

After all the pre-tour planning and the consternation caused by early tests of the ‘bodyline’ tactic, it must have been a severe let down for Jardine when he found Don Bradman’s name missing from the Aussie roster for the first Test. Bradman informed the world that he had been “completely run down” presumably after all the strain of cricket travel and argument with the board about the conflict of interest between his playing and reporting assignments which had preceded this series. Jardine, of course, thought Bradman had had a nervous breakdown at the prospect of facing the bouncers. Be that as it may, young Stan McCabe replaced Bradman in the team for the first Test at Sydney, a move that would bring some comfort to the Australians by the time the Test had ended.

The first over of the series from Larwood had only a short square on the leg side and a strong slips cordon. The sixth ball missed Bill Woodfull’s head by a hair’s breadth. But when Bill Voce steamed in from the other end for the second over there were no slips. Instead, it was a concentrated leg side field. England was ready to test their strategy on the big stage.

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Larwood put in his all against his old adversary Bill Ponsford, but on a pitch that was not very fast, the batsman got away with some smooth swaying and inspired ducking. Gubby Allen, who replaced Larwood had already had a run in before the Test with Jardine and refused to bowl at the batsmen’s bodies with a leg side field. So it was left to Voce from the other end to implement Jardine’s plan. Woodfull was the first victim of the tactic, caught by wicketkeeper Leslie Ames above his head trying to hook Voce.

That first morning and indeed throughout the Test, Larwood bowled with a conventional field. But Voce at one time had so many fielders on the leg that the square leg umpire had to cross over to the off side to maintain his view of the pitch from square of the wicket. At that point, it all became too much for the Nawab of Pataudi. He walked up to Jardine and expressed his unwillingness to field in the leg trap. Jardine responded with uncensored sarcasm: “I see His Highness is a conscientious objector! Very well, you go, Hedley.” Pataudi, perhaps because of his origins and royal status, would live to regret standing up to Jardine given the impact on his subsequent career. Gubby Allen would get away with it because Jardine needed Allen’s bowling on the tour more than he needed Pataudi’s batting.

On the field, what Voce’s persistence achieved, however, was worth far more than four wickets that he took. Batsmen were getting struck trying to move out of the way of Voce’s well-directed barrage, and at the other end, they were unable to cope with Larwood’s fiery pace and bounce, even on the relatively slow pitch. Larwood would end up taking five wickets in that innings.

And Hugh Buggy would file his famous report with the Melbourne Herald that described England’s tactics as ‘Bodyline”.

Stan McCabe plays a classic

One short and stockily built 22-year old stood tall while mayhem was being wrought around him, and made it look almost as if he was batting in a parallel universe. Before going in to bat, with his whole family having travelled to Sydney to watch him, McCabe had told his father: “If I get hit out there, make sure you stop Mum from jumping the fence.”

With Vic Richardson (grandfather of the Chappell brothers) for company, McCabe went about dealing with the bowling with a determination and resolution that had escaped his fellow batsmen. He was to remain unvanquished at 187 when the Australian innings finally ended at the score of 360, an innings that would feature in time to come on every sensible list of the greatest Test innings’ ever played.

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As David Firth describes it, “It was brave, exceptionally skilful, and by his own admission, touched often with good fortune as some balls found the bat’s edge and some hooked balls just eluded deep fielders.” At the end of the first day, McCabe was 127 not out after a 129-run two-hour stand with Richardson. Richardson finally fell to Voce with his score at 49, the second highest score in the Australian innings. Ray Robinson was to employ all the imagery that seemed to flow from his pen, when he remarked about McCabe’s knock, that it was “like a blood transfusion for a sinking innings.”

What McCabe’s innings and his partnership with Richardson did was to tire out Voce and Larwood. England’s back-up bowling consisting of Allen (who still steadfastly refused to bowl at the body), Wally Hammond’s almost innocuous seam and Hedley Verity’s probing spin could do little to stop the rampaging McCabe. Vic Richardson was to remark later that had the partnership been extended by another hour, Bodyline may have had an early demise.

But that was not to be.

And what did McCabe have to say about his innings? Thirty years later McCabe was to recall in an interview: “I merely did what my impulse told me to do – that was to attack the bowling. The only shot to play against bodyline was the hook. It was my favourite shot…it was just that with the crowd yelling and clapping and my blood up, my reaction was to hit Larwood and Voce with everything I had.”

England goes 1-0 up in the series

Australia did not have a pace attack that could even begin to compete with England’s. They did, however, have two of the greatest legspinners the world has ever seen. Tiger O’Reilly and Clarrie Grimmett would bowl for hours in tandem in that England first innings, sending down 131 overs between them and picking up 4 wickets. But a 194 from Herb Sutcliffe and two well-made centuries from Wally Hammond and debutant Nawab of Pataudi Sr. would take England to 524, and a lead of 164 runs.

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The Australian second innings would go much as the first did, with the batsmen unable to cope with Larwood’s pace bounce and accuracy from one end and Voce’s bodyline tactics from the other. The difference this time would Stan McCabe’s dismissal for 32, hooking Voce for a beautiful six but failing to read a slower ball from Wally Hammond that swung into his pads. Australia would be dismissed for 164, leaving England 1 run to win the Test, which Sutcliffe would take without much ado in the first ball of the innings.

Bradman Returns

To the collective relief of an embattled nation, Bradman came back for the second Test. Before the match, he worked out a strategy to combat bodyline. His theory was that unlike McCabe, if he wanted to score runs consistently against this attack, which he was sure would intensify with his return, he could not rely on his hook and his best bet was to move outside the leg stump and hit into the empty spaces on the off, unless the ball was of fuller length, when he would not move but instead defend his stumps. He was to stick to his plan for the rest of the series.

But the first morning of the second Test which saw 63,933 people show up at the MCG was to witness bodyline in all its glory. As Arthur Mailey described it, “Just with a nod of the head Jardine signalled his men, and they came across on the leg side like a swarm of hungry sharks”.

Larwood started with this leg side field firmly in place, hurtling down deliveries at a great pace that got the crowd going. At 67 for 2, Bradman walked into thunderous applause that would not stop.  He faced up to the lumbering bespectacled Bowes with his sharp fast medium offering, hooked the first delivery, only to see the deflection off the inside edge shatter his stumps. A stunned silence from the crowd accompanied his slow walk back to the pavilion in contrast to the unending applause that had greeted his arrival.

The only reaction came from the normally reserved Douglas Jardine. Bowes describes the scene as it happened after he dismissed Bradman: “Jardine, the sphinx, had forgotten himself for the one and only time in his cricketing life. In his sheer delight at this unexpected stroke of luck he had clasped his hands above his head and was jigging around like an Indian doing a war dance.”  And as for Bowes himself, he just put hands on hips, turned to the umpire and the non-striker Fingleton and said in a strong Yorkshire accent: “Well I’ll be foocked!

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Notwithstanding a defiant 83 from Jack Fingleton, the back of the Aussie batting was broken, and before the end of the day they were all out for 228. England didn’t fare much better as O’Reilly ran through them taking five wickets to restrict the total to 169.

In the second innings, the Don waged a lone battle. This time when he walked in 27 for 2, there was to be no respite for the English bowlers. Larwood sent down a barrage of bouncers with a leg side field but Bradman was equal to the task. Denzil Batchelor described that innings thus: “He played that fantasy of a stroke, half square-cut, half drive, that went faster to the boundary than any other shot in anybody else’s locker. He used his feet audaciously. He was prepared to move away from the line of the ball on the leg stump, and cut it sumptuously through the desert once inhabited by the slips.”

Australia made only 191 despite the unbeaten 103 from Bradman, but Bill O’Reilly took another five and Bert Ironmonger bowling his left arm spin with the stub of a forefinger on his left hand, the result of a sawmill accident, was unplayable off a perfect length. He caused a collapse after he dismissed Pataudi and Jardine on his way to a haul of four wickets. Jardine later said that he had never faced three such perfect deliveries in a row. O’Reilly with his flighted spin at the other end dismissed Hammond to ensure that no major partnership would result. The England innings ended at 139, leaving Australia victorious by 111 runs and the series tied 1-1.

 Australia had won. Was bodyline over?

Douglas Jardine’s less than gracious statement to the crowd from the balcony at the end of the game: “Well, you have won. Why not go home?” should have been a warning sign that this battle was far from over. But for that evening at the MCG, it was time to rejoice at Bradman’s return and the restoration of Australia’s prestige and to the hosts, Bodyline now looked like a little distasteful threat that could be managed. Subsequent events would prove just how wrong this conclusion was. The unimaginable was about to happen.


In Part 2 of the series we look at what happened next when the teams moved to Adelaide for the third Test and Bodyline was to touch its notorious lows.


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