I don’t want to see you, Mr. Warner. There are two teams out there, one is playing cricket. The other is making no attempt to do so.
- Australian Captain Bill Woodfull to Pelham Warner, when the English team manager visited his opponent’s dressing room to express sympathies after the batsman endured 89 minutes of Bodyline bowling on January 17th, 1933.
To many in North America, including myself, cricket is foreign. I mean that in both senses of the word. It’s foreign to me in that I’m unfamiliar with it, but it’s also foreign to me in that I associate it with other nations. When I think of the sport, I’m just as likely to think of Australia, England, India, South Africa, Sri Lanka or the West Indies (which, as it pertains to cricket, actually refers to several Caribbean nations) as I am the oddly shaped bat or the fancy white clothes.
In my ignorance of the sport’s culture, I always imagined a measure of civility that governed cricket – both its players and its fans – in a fashion that other, more North American sports seemed to lack. This stereotype was quickly laid to rest by watching an amateur match with a couple of Australian friends who taught me how to cut a hole in the box with which we carried our beer to make a sun-blocking hat. What I remember of that day was fun and anything but civil.
While the reputation that preceded my first cricket experience might not extend to spectators, there is at least some element of truth to it in terms of how the cricketers handle themselves on the field. The Marylebone Cricket Club, an organization that governs the sport’s rules in tandem with the International Cricket Council, refers to something called the Spirit Of The Game in its preamble to the rule book.
Cricket is a game that owes much of its unique appeal to the fact that it should be played not only within its Laws but also within the Spirit of the Game.
Any action which is seen to abuse this spirit causes injury to the game itself. The major responsibility for ensuring the spirit of fair play rests with the captains.
I don’t believe it unfair to suggest that there is a standard of sportsmanship in cricket that doesn’t necessarily exist in other sports. That’s a good thing. It’s not meant to connote a lack of competition or intensity to the sport, but rather express the importance of tradition and respect present in it. It’s also meant to provide some context for a fascinating story from cricket history that happened 80 years ago today, when a riot almost occurred and diplomatic relations between two nations soured all because of a controversial cricket strategy, called Bodyline.
The story begins with the young Donald Bradman, an Australian batsman who struck fear into the hearts of English bowlers during a tour of their chief rival’s homeland in 1930. With apologies to cricket fans for the baseball analogy, Bradman dominated the English like Barry Bonds would if he was to face Minor League pitching while playing at his peak. England was terrified of the prospect of Bradman dominating their bowlers yet again at The Ashes.
The Ashes are a biennial cricket series that has been played between England and Australia since 1882. The name of the two-team tournament originated from England’s first-ever loss to Australia inspiring a satirical obituary in The Sporting Times that referred to the English cricket team’s ashes being taken to Australia. The series of test matches are serious business. They’re serious now, and they were even more serious back then.
In order to quell their fear of Bradman’s exceptional dominance, England named Douglas Jardine, a petulant shit if ever there was one, the team’s captain. There are two stories about Jardine that will inform the unknown as to his character better than any other biographical context.
The first is from his school days at Winchester College, where his cricket team won the inter-house competition. He celebrated by posting the team sheet of the winning team which read:
The following might have been included had they not been unable to bat or bowl, or even to field.
This was followed by a list of his remaining teammates.
The second story doesn’t involve him directly, but rather one of his cricket mentors, Rockley Wilson. When asked about the newly appointed captain of the English squad ahead of The Ashes, Wilson, in perhaps the greatest premonition of sports history, said the following to the inquisitive journalist:
He might well win us the Ashes, but he might lose us a Dominion.
Jardine devised a plan to combat Bradman and the Aussies after seeing their star player shirk away from the ball when it was bowled inside on his body. The newly installed captain specifically selected a bowler who was willing and able to utilize the leg theory of cricket: Harold Larwood.
The strategy amounted to loading up fielders on the batsman side of the field (as seen in the photo under the title) while putting the batsman on the defensive by basically bowling right at him. While the practice wasn’t necessarily new, utilizing it as a form of intimidation rather than restriction was. Not helping matters for the Australians was that Larwood had a well-deserved reputation for speed and accuracy with his bowls.
Unsurprisingly, the Australians weren’t pleased with the latest development in the English game, having been given a taste of it in a pre-tournament test match. When The Ashes began, England won the first test match in Sydney. This was with or without the Bodyline strategy, depending on who you ask. In defense of the Australians, Bradman sat out due, once again depending on who you ask, to either a dispute between him and the Australian board or an illness. Meanwhile, Jardine openly theorized that the star’s absence was due to his fear of Bodyline tactics.
The Aussies came back in the second test with Bradman’s participation. However, the victory wasn’t without some controversy as the Australian board requested that the national squad fight fire with fire and employ the same strategy as the English. Team captain, Bill Woodfull, refused to allow his team’s bowlers to retaliate. The match was delayed as speculation arose that the selectors might remove Woodfull as captain as a result of his standard of sportsmanship.
The board eventually acquiesced, and Woodfull, with Bradman’s support, led his team to victory. Then, disaster struck during the third test of the series in Adelaide. Without employing the full Bodyline tactic, Larwood bowled directly at Woodfull, hitting him in the chest. After the Aussie took several minutes to recover, Jardine, just finished hollering congratulations to Larwood on his previous bowl, employed a full Bodyline formation with his fielders.
Several reports from those present at the time suggested that the stadium was on the verge of storming the field to attack Jardine and Larwood. Asked about it later, both cricketers would admit to making defensive plans in their mind should an attack from the crowd commence. The defensive shift was an obvious bit of insult added to the batsman’s injury. Woodfull went on to take his punishment for almost an hour and a half, never engaging in the slightest bit of public complaint.
At the end of the day, with the test yet to be completed, England manager, Pelham Warner, who would later represent the lone voice of dissent to the tactics when questioned by the Marylebone Cricket Club upon the team’s return to the Mother Country, visited the Australian dressing room to check on Woodfull. The captain of the team refused to accept him, giving the response quoted at the beginning of this piece. He added:
This game is too good to be spoilt. It’s time some people got out of it.
The next day, Australian wicket keeper Bert Oldfield had his skull fractured by Larwood.
The Australian Cricket Board sent the following cable to the Marylebone Cricket Club 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 MCC responded, likely without full realization of what had occurred over the first three test matches:
We, Marylebone Cricket Club, deplore your cable. We deprecate your opinion that there has been unsportsmanlike play. We have 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 programme we would consent, but with great reluctance.
When asked about the famous incident, ESPN contributor, Faraz Sarwat, who also authored the book The Cricket World Cup: History, Highlights, Facts and Figures, suggested that a more earnest response from England might have avoided a diplomatic row by taking the Australian complaints to heart, rather than dismissing them outright.
Matters were not helped by the board in England, which dismissed Australian concerns in no uncertain terms, and fully supported England captain Douglas Jardine. The matter escalated and virtually became a diplomatic row. That England were in the wrong was however clear enough given that there were those in their camp who did not support Bodyline tactics including bowler Gubby Allen.
Back in Australia, Jardine threatened to withdraw his team from the remaining tests, after winning the third, if the Australian Board didn’t withdraw its accusation of unsportsmanlike behavior. The Australian team had no issue with such threats as they believed that what the English were doing wasn’t truly cricket anyway. Meanwhile, both nations were expressing outrage at the other, with statements and threats being issued by the parliaments of both countries.
According to several sources, the standoff was only settled when Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons informed the Australian Cricket Board about the economic implications of a potential British boycott of Australian goods. The Board withdrew its allegations, and The Ashes continued. England won the remaining two tests to win the series. They continued to employ their bowling and fielding strategy, but did so at reduced speeds. Say what you will of Jardine and his tactics, but they proved very effective in defeating the Australians and bringing The Ashes back to England.
Upon the team’s return, they were called before the English Board, who again proved deaf and blind to the methods of the English squad in Australia. Among the players and managers who were interviewed, only Warner voiced criticism of the tactics.
In the summer of the very same year, the English were routed in a test match by a West Indies squad employing a similar strategy to the one that was used to win The Ashes in Australia. Shortly after this, the MCC changed the rules to claim 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.” Eventually, a more effective resolution was needed to limit the number of fielders allowed behind square on the leg to two, thus making the Bodyline strategy unworkable.
Asked about what makes this incident so captivating to those who love cricket – it is the subject of several books and even more opinions – Sarwat sums up the entire story well:
Bodyline was shocking because it flew in the face of what cricket was all about – tough competition but where fair play was paramount. Bodyline was primarily about hurting the batsman under the guise of making scoring difficult. It wasn’t against the laws of the game but, it was certainly against the spirit of it.
When we compare this event to sports with which North Americans might be more familiar, we begin to understand why the spirit of the game, or rather the Spirit Of The Game, is something so well protected by those governing cricket, beyond when it merely makes sense for the English team. It’s something that makes the sport unique, and for that it’s deserving of all the care that can be mustered by the game’s guardians. This could only happen in cricket, and the fact that it did makes it a special and fitting story.
Bodyline by Martin Williamson [ESPN].
Bodyline: 80 Years Of Cricket’s Greatest Controversy by Greig Watson [BBC].
Stiff Upper Lips and Baggy Green Caps, A Sledger’s History of the Ashes by Simon Briggs [Amazon].