A gentleman’s disagreement
The contest for cricket’s Ashes is being fought again. Mike Cronin and Richard Holt consider the place of the Bodyline Series, in the context of its times
(see bottom of blog for ‘The rules of cricket)
This winter, cricket fans in Australia and in England will be captivated by cricketing battles between the two nations. While this current Ashes series will be tense, it will surely never equal the notorious Bodyline Series of 1932–33 for drama on the field and rancorous politics off it.
Why is it still so controversial? Why do books and films still ponder the ethics of a test series of 70 years ago in which the gentleman amateur Douglas Jardine, (ex-Winchester School and Oxford University), ordered his fearsome fast bowlers, Larwood and Voce, both working class professionals, to bowl at the upper body of the Australian batsmen. The theory was that they would either be caught out by a ring of close leg side fielders or be so intimidated they would lose confidence and give their wicket away. Contrary to widespread public perception, there was no intention to knock them out though that was clearly a serious risk.
The plan worked. England regained the Ashes with a 4–1 series victory. The bodyline tactic was aimed at the brilliant young Australian batsman, Don Bradman, who had destroyed England’s team on their home ground in 1930 with an astonishing series average of 139.14. Jardine came to believe Bradman could be intimidated and that it was legitimate to do so. It was not forbidden by the laws of the game and therefore in his view not against the code of sportsmanship by which Englishmen were supposed to live and the ethic of fair play through which the British supposedly governed their vast Empire.
It was precisely this sacred code which the Australians claimed that Jardine had broken and his methods were denounced in a mysteriously leaked telegram to Lord’s as “unsportsmanlike”. In a reversal of the established stereotypes, the English became ruthless win-at-all-costs Aussies and the Australians the decent English gents.
Cricket– but not as we know it
England’s cricketing authorities defended their captain during the series, only to distance themselves later and dangerous fast bowling from both ends. In fact, it was the declare bodyline bowling against the laws of the game. After a couple of years the moral order of the British Empire symbolised by cricket had been restored. The narrative that wrapped itself round the Bodyline Series was simple and monolithic. Douglas Jardine emerges as an upper class snob who despised the Australians.
His bowlers, Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, are seen as honest but misdirected working class professionals who unquestioningly did the bidding of their fl awed captain. Set against the pantomime villain and his stooges there is Bill Woodfull, the brave Australian captain, and most famous victim of Larwood’s fast bowling onslaught, hit over the heart at Adelaide in the third test, and uttering the most famous words in the long history of the Ashes: “there are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket and the other is not”.
While the established narrative of bodyline makes a nice moral tale – essentially a battle of good against evil – this history of the event is far too simple. Jardine is branded as the instigator of intimidating batsmen with dangerous fast bowling from both ends. In fact it was the massive Warwick Armstrong who started this in 1920 when he led the Australians to the only 5–0 whitewash of England in Ashes history. Armstrong used his fearsome pace attack of Jack Gregory and Ted Macdonald to terrify batsmen both in Australia and on the return trip to England in 1921 where one batsman after another was injured by the captain’s ruthless tactics.
Perhaps the 1932–3 Australians got things out of proportion.Warwick Armstrong, by then a journalist, thought so. Here the economic and political context come in, as the game was played against a background of world depression. Trade and constitutional disputes were aggravating the painful memories of the First World War, in which many Australians felt their lives were sacrificed because of the arrogance of the British public school officer class – the Jardine type, the colonial ruling class so many Australians had left Britain to escape.
As Brett Hutchins (author of a book on Don Bradman) noted, the whole series, for the Australians at least, spoke of “a transcendent nationalism represented by Bradman, ‘the legend’, is squared off against the English enemy”. In a similar vein, one writer in the Sydney Morning Herald noted “the Bodyline Series of 1932/3 had special significance. It was not only the Old Country determined to win in a way that was not cricket; it was young Australia coming to maturity and a new sense of independence. Leading the resistance, striking blows for Australia, was ‘our Don Bradman’. The Bradman legend was created by bodyline bowling”.
It’s war out there
That Australia had its own national agenda tends to be forgotten in all the furore over bodyline. Another factor was that the British public was largely unaware of what was happening. Reports from the English press in Australia that arrived in England one or two days late largely ignored Australian reactions to Jardine’s tactics. Similarly newsreel footage didn’t make its way into English cinema until three or four weeks after the event. By the time the English team arrived home, in May 1933, what mattered to the public was not how Jardine had played the game, but the fact that England had won back the greatest prize in cricket. Despite his rejection by the gentlemanly establishment, Larwood remained popular with most fans, especially in the north.
As English supporters watch the Ashes unfold this winter they must decide what kind of captain they want. A man like Jardine who persevered, used everything in his cricketing arsenal and brought the Ashes home, or a captain who plays to the spirit of the game before he plays to win? Significantly neither England nor Australia seem to ask this question now.
The old cultural bond of sportsmanship has largely gone as the links between the two countries have been loosened by the nationalism on both sides. In the 2005 Ashes series, Australian batsman Ricky Ponting’s treatment at the hands of Steve Harmison and the refusal of the England captain, Vaughan, to show any concern for Ponting’s injuries (he had been hit in the face) prompted the other Australian batsman, Justin Langer, to remark “This really is war out here, isn’t it?” Like it or not, far from being the outcasts of English cricket, perhaps Jardine and Larwood have turned out to be its inspiration.
Jardine – the contemporary hero
Born in India in October 1900, Jardine was very much a son of empire. He was not an aristocrat but the son of a solicitor and as such perhaps even more conscious of his status as a gentleman and more active in asserting it. Narrowly missing the First World War, he volunteered for the Second despite being past the normal age for active service. Between the wars he fought his own battles on the cricket field. He was aloof, superior, stern and commanding; he was also loyal, fiercely protective of his players and mellowed somewhat with the years, hardly the monster depicted in the Australian press. He left no autobiography and his deeper psychological motivations remain obscure.
His upbringing and education were rooted in Victorian certainties of class and behaviour, Britain’s role as an imperial power, and the superior place of Wykehamists (pupils from Winchester) within that society. But the First World War shook these certainties. The amateur ideal of sacrifice was challenged by a new emphasis on the popular hero as a winner.
The heroic ideal became more ambivalent, still influenced by imperial and Victorian visions but subtly transformed by the advent of the mass media, especially popular reconfigurations of the hero such as Bulldog Drummond, Sexton Blake, Tarzan and Biggles, who moved quickly from the pages of comics and novels into radio and cinema. These fictional heroes were accompanied by real life heroes such as Egyptologist Howard Carter, Everest climber George Mallory and world water speed record holder Sir Henry O’Neal de Hane Segrave.
What the fictional and real life heroes shared with Jardine was a degree of selfishness. None of them were particularly interested, as their Victorian counterparts had been, in ideas of service, team spirit and the common good, but were driven by a desire for mastery, success and recognition.
These were modern themes which challenged the established rules of society. Jardine, acting as he did in pushing the rules of cricket and seemingly caring little for the general good of the imperial game, challenged the committee men of cricket and pursued selfish victory whatever the cost. In that, he was a thoroughly modern and contemporary hero.
Stiff Upper Lips and Baggy Green Caps: a Sledger’s History of the Ashes by Simon Briggs (Quercus 2006);
Bodyline Autopsy by David Frith (Aurum 2002);
Don Bradman. Challenging the Myth by Brett Hutchins (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
External Link: http://www.bbchistorymagazine.com/
Overseas visitors keep asking me about the rules of Cricket, here we go:
You have two sides, one out in the field and one in.
Each man that’s in the side that’s in goes out, and when he’s out he comes in and the next man goes in until he’s out.
When they are all out, the side that’s out comes in and the side thats been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out.
Sometimes you get men still in and not out.
When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in.
There are two men called umpires who stay out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out.
When both sides have been in and all the men have out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game!
Hope that helps…………………………
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