Cricket Bodyline

Published on December 18th, 2018 | by Abhishek Mukherjee

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Cricket history in quotes, part 28: “In our opinion is unsportsmanlike”

🕓 Reading time: 7 minutes

Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series…….

 Complete quote: “Bodyline bowling assumed such proportions as to menace best interests of game, making protection of body by batsmen the main consideration. Causing an intensely bitter feeling between players as well as injury. In our opinion is unsportsmanlike. Unless stopped at once likely to upset friendly relations existing between Australia and England.”

By: Australian Board of Control to MCC, January 18, 1933.

We have already covered in some details the events of the Australian first innings of the Adelaide Test of the 1932-33 Ashes. As we have seen, the controversy spilt over, outside the confines of the ground, into the dressing-room, into the stands, in the newspapers…

But that was not where it stopped. The controversy threatened to put the Anglo-Australian diplomatic relationship at risk. This is that story.

Before we embark upon the incidents behind the scenes, let us run quickly through the proceedings of the Test. Three English fast bowlers (Harold Larwood, Bill Voce, and Bill Bowes), marshalled by Douglas Jardine, unleashed a volley of short-pitched deliveries at batsmen with an umbrella of fielders on the leg-side. In other words, they bowled Bodyline, hatched to tame the indomitable Don Bradman.

On the second day of the Test Larwood hit Australian captain Bill Woodfull just above his heart; Jardine immediately resorted to the Bodyline field amidst much jeering.

England managers “Plum” Warner and Dick Palairet went to the Australian dressing-room to express sympathy to Woodfull later in the day; the home captain turned them away in a rather brusque fashion.

Cricket resumed after the rest day, and Larwood hit Bert Oldfield on the temple. The injury ruled him for the rest of the Test and even the next Test. But once again, there was no Bodyline field in place when the batsman was hit.

England won the Test by 338 runs in front of a crowd on the verge of riot. South Australian Cricket Association were resorted to calling the police in anticipation.

Maurice Tate, not in the side, retreated to the relative safety of the dressing-room as shrieks of “go home, you Pommie bastards” filled the air. “Why it did not end in heavy casualties I don’t know,” Tate would later recall.

All that is documented in detail. A lesser known fact is that Jardine had written to Oldfield’s wife Ruth, wishing her husband recovery. He also sent dolls to Oldfield’s daughters. One must remember that this was the most-hated English captain to have toured Australia; he probably thrived on that reputation.

On the field, he was inscrutably ruthless. The crowd booed him, insisted Tim Wall hit him on the head, and demanded him not getting a drink when he was offered one during a break. But Jardine carried on, batting at a snail-like pace in a multicoloured Harlequin cap, almost certainly to annoy the crowd even more.

One wonders if anyone outside his family understood Jardine at all.

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Day Four had ended with Australia on 120 for 4 (Oldfield had additionally been ruled out) in pursuit of 532. Four days had passed (it was a timeless Test) since Larwood had hit Woodfull. In the interim period, the Australian Board of Control had made up their mind to cable MCC in protest.

Of the thirteen ABC delegates, only four were present when the contents were drafted. They then wired the contents to ABC Chairman AWD Robertson in Melbourne. They found support from four others.

The other five, all of them from New South Wales and Queensland, were against sending the draft for obvious reasons: the next two Tests were scheduled at Brisbane and Sydney.

Here is a complete list of delegates:

 

For Against
State Delegate State Delegate
Victoria AWD Robertson+ New South Wales RA Oxdale
WL Kelly* WC Bull
Ramsay Mailer FM Cush
South Australia BV Scrymgour* Queensland Roger Hartigan
HW Hodgetts* JS Hutcheson
RF Middleton*
Western Australia Harold Rowe
Tasmania Harold Bushby
*  Present at Adelaide during the Test + ABC Chairman

The motion to send the telegram was thus passed on an 8:5 majority. ABC also tried to convince Woodfull and Bradman to add their names, but neither agreed. However, the team voiced support. The only senior who did not, was Vic Richardson.

Richardson had realised the futility of the exercise. He was certain of MCC backing their men, especially after being accused of being “unsportsmanlike”. Instead, he suggested a secret end-of-series report without press involvement; but that fell on deaf ears.

The contents of the telegram underwent several changes before Bill Jeanes of SACA copied it out inside the Australian dressing-room at Adelaide Oval and read it out at an SOS press conference. Its contents have been provided above.

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It was only expected that the British media would slam the cable (which duly happened). Surprisingly, their Australian counterparts criticised ABC as well. The Herald (Melbourne) went to the extent of blaming them for holding a pistol to MCC’s head.

To this Kelly would later respond that “no pistol has been held at the head of the Marylebone Cricket Club on the subject of Bodyline bowling or a restriction by the Australian Board of Control.”

Meanwhile, let us provide a picture of exactly what was going on back in England. The only radio coverage provided in England was “synthetic”, provided by Alan Fairfax from the Eiffel Tower based on wires.

Even print reporting was limited; and the English press invariably toned down the content, preferring to stick to scores and facts and underplaying the impact of Bodyline.

For tour news, they generally followed the Reuters wires. Reuters had sent Gilbert Mant, an Australian who worked for them in London, to cover the tour.

Mant was prompt in sending the contents of this particular cable to England, setting the wheels in motion in London. The pressmen called up MCC President Viscount Lewisham at half past two for reactions. MCC were ready by the time the ABC cable arrived.

Far away in the antipodes, Jardine asked fellow amateur “Gubby” Allen whether the latter had seen the cable. Allen, the only fast bowler in the side who had refused to bowl Bodyline, had still retained his place. He would return to Australia four seasons later, as captain.

 “Yes, I have, and I think it’s dreadful,” responded Allen.

“I know they’ll let me down at Lord’s,” Jardine expressed his worst fears.

But Allen reassured his friend: “No, Douglas, you’re wrong. No one can call an Englishman unsporting and get away with it. They’ve lost the battle with the first shot they’ve fired.”

And that was precisely what happened.

MCC responds

The initial response. drafted by MCC Secretary Bill Findlay, ran: “Much regret contents of your cable. Marylebone assured that no English bowler bowls at the man but at leg stump which is said to be the weakness of certain batsmen. Cricketers of today have not had great experience of fast bowling and the open stance of batsmen necessarily increases risk. Of all considerations friendly relations and the game itself paramount. If remaining Tests cannot be played in this spirit and appreciated by players and spectators alike would it not be well to consider substitution of state games?”

Frith opined that this cable might have led to an amicable solution. MCC, however, was in no mood to let ABC go easily. Lewisham and JEK Studd stepped in for the redrafts. They did not hold anything back in the cable ABC received on January 23.

The final cable, reproduced in full by Frith (among other sources), read: “We, Marylebone Cricket Club, deplore your cable. We deprecate your opinion that there has been unsportsmanlike play. We have the fullest confidence in captain, team and managers, and are convinced that they would do nothing to infringe either the Laws of Cricket or the spirit of the game. We have no evidence that our confidence has been misplaced. Much as we regret accidents to Woodfull and Oldfield, we understand that in neither case was the bowler to blame. If the Australian Board of Control wish to propose a new law or rule it shall receive our careful consideration in due course. We hope the situation is not now as serious as your cable would seem to indicate, but if it is such as to jeopardise the good relations between English and Australian cricketers, and you consider it desirable to cancel remainder of the programme, we would consent with great reluctance.”

Words were clearly not minced. More hurried meetings were held in Australia, but there was only one way out. Cancelling the last two Tests would obviously have serious financial repercussions. There was little they could do after that underlying threat in MCC’s cable.

While all this was happening, the tourists drew against Victoria XIII at Ballarat (Larwood, Voce, and Allen did not play). The trio also missed the NSW match at Sydney, as did Jardine, Herbert Sutcliffe, and Eddie Paynter, but MCC won by four wickets. In the second innings Bradman scored 71 out of a team total of 128. The tourists then travelled to Queensland.

The ABC response went out on January 30. It should suffice that they appreciated MCC’s “difficulty in dealing with matter raised in our cable without having seen the actual play.”

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However, they slammed Bodyline as “opposed to the spirit of cricket and unnecessarily dangerous to cricketers” and vowed to form a committee to obliterate bowling of similar nature from cricket in Australia. They promised to send relevant reports to MCC.

But the most relevant words were at the end: “We do not consider it necessary to cancel remainder of programme.”

MCC had almost clinched the battle. All they needed was to deliver the final blow.

Meanwhile, over the next two days MCC played a Queensland XXII at Toowoomba. Wally Hammond and Les Ames slammed hundreds. Then Larwood took 8/28 bowling neither Bodyline nor at his fastest. Even then seven of the eight batsmen were bowled.

Trivia: The match featured leg-spinner Hunter Poon. In 1923-24, Poon had become the first man of Chinese origin to play Sheffield Shield, for Queensland against Victoria. In the match against MCC, Poon took two wickets. The first was of Sutcliffe, no less, stumped by a certain youngster called Don Tallon.

The MCC cable arrived the day this match got over. The following excerpt should suffice: “May we accept this as a clear indication that the good sportsmanship of our team is not in question? We are sure you will appreciate how impossible it would be to play any Test match in the spirit we all desire unless both sides were satisfied there was no reflection upon their sportsmanship.”

Their cable impressed Warner, who would later admit that MCC “are pretty good at drafting telegrams”. The glee in the tone was unmistakable.

ABC had to concede, albeit grudgingly. There was much criticism in media and from fans, but MCC had achieved what it had wanted to.

Perhaps to drive the message further, Larwood took 2/24 and 6/38 (again, no Bodyline) to help MCC thrash Queensland by an innings at The Gabba and regain the urn at the same ground inside a fortnight. They would claim the series 4-1.

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About the Author

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Abhishek Mukherjee is the former Chief Editor at CricketCountry. A cricket historian and columnist, he can be followed on Twitter @ovshake42.



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