The book “Bodyline Autopsy” is one of the most well-researched and detailed accounts on cricket’s most turbulent series played during 1932-33. Surely, it deserves our greater attention.
History was a drab subject in school because one had to memorize dates and study the reign of dynasties. It would leave me exasperated with what seemed like a pointless exercise in knowing the battles, architecture, and their pompous lifestyles. After all, of what use was it to know how the Third Battle of Panipat changed the course of Indian history?
But, as I grew up and began reading more earnestly, I realized there was so much to know that was hidden away from our syllabus in school. Perhaps the subject was not given due respect in the classrooms as it had ought to be. Thankfully, during my final year in school, I had a teacher who mesmerized us for 38 minutes while he narrated from his mind and we took notes (barring the 2-minute break he’d give us to rest our paining palms). That was the first time I learned that history need not be boring, more so when it comes to sporting history.
In cricket, there is no rivalry that has a deeper history than the Ashes. A series of five test matches that are played once in two years between England and Australia, the rivalry is more than 143 years old and has survived two world wars. My first experience of the Ashes was as a six-year-old, when the famous BBC documentary titled ‘Bodyline’ was beamed in India. It was a throwback to cricket’s most controversial series played in 1932-33 that had almost ruptured the relationship between the two great nations – one that had given birth to cricket and the other that played the game with gusto and flair.
What is Bodyline?
Bodyline (also known as fast leg theory bowling) is the term used to describe a ball that is delivered by the bowler at fast pace around the middle or leg stump line aimed at the batsman’s upper body. At a time when today’s sophisticated headgear and ribcage protection were absent, all that a batsman could do was duck under it, or fend off the ball to the leg side where he was likely to be pouched by one of the fielders, or try and hook it towards fine leg, where the fielder will swallow the catch.
This was the norm barring the exception when a batsman had remarkable reflexes to shift his weight to the back leg, swivel, and hit it between gaps or thump it over the fine leg fielder. In essence, it was ‘negative cricket’ because it was intimidatory and could cause serious bodily harm to the batsman. The ploy was clearly devised to reign in Sir Donald Bradman, Australia’s most prolific run scorer, from running amok as he had done during previous tours.
My Earliest Memories of Bodyline
I remember my elder brother and father sitting transfixed watching the BBC drama unfold on our black and white television as the Englishmen celebrated Australian wickets. I asked my dad about what the brouhaha was all about, and he replied, “The English captain is asking his bowlers to bowl at the heads of the Australian batsmen.” He was referring to Douglas Robert Jardine, played by a man who appeared haughty in the drama. Wearing his queer Harlequin cap, he beseeched his bowlers to go full throttle at the Australian batsmen, for whom he seemed to have a lot of contempt. I was intrigued by his gait and his ghoulish personality, but all that I could glean from my father was that Jardine did it to win the Ashes at all costs.
I was petrified because I knew the cricket ball was a hard one and quite heavy too, so I could not fathom it hitting the head of a batsman. At that time, I had only fleetingly heard of the legendary Sir Don Bradman, the main target of English bowlers due to his seemingly unconquerable hunger for scoring runs. Then, in July 1995, I remember reading the obituary of Harold Larwood, one of Bodyline’s most famous protagonists, who had died in Australia, a country whose batsmen he had tormented sixty-two years back. It was a brief article that hardly did any justice to the history that lay within.
Several years passed and I briefly read about Bodyline online, but never had the satisfaction of knowing it completely until quite recently, a friend passed me David Frith’s book “Bodyline Autopsy: The Full Story of the Most Sensational Test Cricket Series: Australia V England 1932-33.” The title of the book and the cover picture which showed the great Don struggling to maintain his balance had me in a spell. I knew that I would find answers to a lot of questions that I had in my mind all these years.
The Book Review
David Frith has beautifully reconstructed the history of Bodyline, its origins in the English county cricket, the voyage of the English team to Australia led by Douglas Jardine, the stormy series that happened in the now legendary cricket grounds, and the aftermath. The book is so comprehensive that there may not be much room for another one retracing the history of it.
Having poured through scores of books on the 1932-33 series, including some written by the central characters who were involved in it, newspaper clippings, letters exchanged between England’s touring members and their families and the MCC (Marylebone Cricket Club), interviews by players late into their lives, and media reports, David has left no stone unturned to tell readers what really occurred during the four months of the Australian summer.
But, instead of going into a detailed review of the book, here is a recount of the events from the book that had a lasting impression on me, some of which I had to read twice or thrice to ensure I understood it correctly.
In the first test at Sydney, Stan McCabe, Australia’s middle-order batsman scored 187 not out in four hours off 233 balls while facing Bodyline bowling. Had his two hour-partnership of 129 runs for the fifth wicket with 48-year-old Vic Richardson lasted an hour longer, Bodyline could have died an early death. Douglas Jardine could be seen losing his grip on the game as McCabe hooked and pulled at anything aimed at the upper part of his body.
He withstood the short ball barrage and fought on until Australia were all out for 360 runs and received thunderous support from the 58,000 fans who had gathered, on his way to the dressing room. McCabe’s match fee was a measly £30, a ridiculous figure even in those days. Despite his heroics, Australia lost the game by 10 wickets as they folded for 164 runs in the second innings after England had amassed 524 runs in their first innings led by centuries from Herbert Sutcliffe, Wally Hammond, and Nawab of Pataudi.
The Don Who Went Missing
Don Bradman, Australia’s most famous batsman did not take part in the first game, having worn out from playing continuous cricket in the months leading up to it and due to an ongoing dispute with the Australian Board. Although many felt that the result of the game may have been different had he played, in hindsight, that was perhaps wishful thinking.
Amid high expectations from his home crowd, Bradman returned to the squad in the second test at Melbourne only to be bowled first ball by Bill Bowes, a Yorkshireman, an incident described by Frith as “cricket’s most famous duck until 1948,” when he was out for zero off the second ball in his final test innings at The Oval. Bradman’s dismissal stunned the crowd into silence. A silence so deafening that led Wally Hammond to write later that he would remember it till his death. In fact, it is said that Bradman’s dismissal saved lives – a man named Hancock, frustrated by what he had just heard on the radio, went for a walk outside his hotel in Launceston, Tasmania. As he neared a river, he found three youngsters fighting for their lives in the water and promptly dived in it to rescue them from drowning.
Bradman scored an unbeaten 103 in the second innings on the third day when 20,000 people queued up three hours before the start of play outside the MCG to catch a glimpse of their hero. Australia rode on his century and scored a 111-run victory. Sadly, this was their only victory during the tour as Bradman managed only 293 runs in the rest of the 6 innings, a far cry from the daddy hundreds he was more used to.
“Well Bowled, Harold!”
The most dramatic test of the series was the third one played in Adelaide. After England had scored 341 in the first innings. despite being 196 for 6 at one stage, Larwood unleashed his thunderbolts at the Aussies. The first to receive it was the Australian captain Bill Woodfull who took an agonizing blow to his chest early in the innings. He staggered away with his face contorted and arms clutching his chest. Jardine is said to have praised his bowler saying, “Well bowled, Harold!”
The 32,000-strong crowd watched as their captain struggled to come to terms with the pain, was now crying foul at the unsportsmanlike tactics used by Jardine. David Frith narrates that had Woodfull or Bradman been seriously injured, the crowd might have run riot on the ground and the mounted police could have been reduced to being mere spectators. Bradman then fell cheaply unable to deal with the furious pace that Larwood was unleashing on the batsmen. But there was more drama yet to unfold.
Australia were 131 for 5 when their wicketkeeper Bertie Oldfield strode in to bat and in the company of Bill Ponsford, steered his team towards the 200 mark. Ponsford was out exposing his stump to Bill Voce who was Larwood’s close friend and a mighty hurler of the cricket ball. Tim Wall joined Oldfield to give him company at the crease with the score reading 212 for 7, still 139 runs in deficit.
While batting on 41, Larwood bowled a short ball at Oldfield, which the batsman tried to pull, but the ball rose steadily to hit him flush on the temple – the sound of it being clearly heard over the radio. Oldfield fell to his knees as blood dripped from his gash as the English players gathered around him. One inch here or there, cricket might have witnessed the most gruesome incident on the field. The uproarious crowd was now raring to go and Larwood had begun eyeing the stumps in case there was a need to protect himself.
Australia lost the match by 338 runs, but what soon followed were the busiest days of telegram exchanges with MCC. The whole series was now under question as Australia threatened to not just rescind the remaining two matches, but also stop trade with Britain. The situation became a bigger political row as officials from both nations strived to keep it from getting out of hand. The Australian prime minister John Lyons had to step in and put an end to the speculation.
Paynter Makes Merry
As much as the Bodyline series is about the outrageous strategies adopted by the touring Englishmen, it is also about the display of talent and spunk by their batsmen led by Wally Hammond, Herbert Sutcliffe, Bob Wyatt, and the Nawab of Pataudi. But, the most heroic innings of the series was played by Eddie Paynter during the fourth test at Brisbane.
After two sweltering days out in the sun, Australia was dismissed for 340, and England were 99-0 in reply at the end of the second day’s play, and Paynter, who was suffering from tonsillitis, was admitted to the Brisbane General Hospital. The next day was a Sunday, a rest day that Paynter spent in the hospital recuperating and soaking in all the attention from his teammates who paid him visits.
But, on the fourth day, England were reduced to 216-6 soon after tea. With his team needing as many hands as it could muster, Paynter dashed back to the Gabba in his dressing gown and took guard to a stirring applause from the crowd. He hung on gamely to finish the day at 24 not out having forged partnerships with Les Ames, Harold Larwood, and Hedley Verity taking his team to 271-8 and returned to the hospital.
He returned to the Gabba for the second time in two days on the fifth morning and stayed at the crease to score 83, pausing in between to take his medicines and gargle. By then, he had batted for nearly four hours and strung a 92-run partnership with Verity to take his team into a lead of 16 runs, a position they dared not imagine the previous day. Paynter’s innings remains a part of folklore even today.
Australia surrendered the second innings at 175 and England were 107-2 at the end of the fifth day’s play needing 160 to win the game. With rain having delayed the start of play on the final day, England were 138-4 as a steady drizzle began with lunch approaching. Paynter walked in again as he threw caution to the winds and whacked a full toss from Stan McCabe for six to win the most memorable games of his life. Frith notes that Paynter was glad to give up his bat in return for the ball that secured them the Ashes. The ball later fetched £4,400 at an auction.
The Final Test
Having conceded the Ashes and much of their energy spent in ducking and weaving away from bodyline balls, Australia had little to fight for in the fifth test at Sydney. Larwood continued to cause more anguish to the Australian batsmen as he hurled his thunderbolts, one of which hit Bradman in the left upper during the second innings triggering an angry response from the crowd. Larwood had already taken his wicket in the first innings, which was the fourth time in six tests, and had himself scored an entertaining knock of 98 runs in England’s first innings score of 454 all out.
However, the most poignant moment of the test arrived during Bradman’s second innings. By now, having stretched his limits as a bowler in the entire Australian summer, Larwood was carrying a serious injury on his left foot and pleaded with Jardine to let him take rest. The England captain was in no mood to relent and replied, “…You can’t go off while this little *******’s in.”
Bradman was finally bowled by Verity having scored 71 off 69 balls with nine boundaries to his name. Jardine was delighted as he cheerfully clapped and called out to Larwood, “Right, Harold, you can go now!” The crowd rose in appreciation as the two biggest players of the sport left the field together for the last time in the series without uttering a word to each other. It is a shame that no footage remains of one of the most emotionally charged scenes on a cricket field.
While other authors might have wrapped up a book as the series concluded, David Frith goes on to uncover the aftermath of the series. The England team received a warm welcome in their country upon arrival. A few of them even served England in the Second World War with the most notable being Verity who was captured and died in 1943 at the undeserving age of 38.
Harold Larwood did not play a test for England after failing recover from his injury until the beginning of the 1934 tour. The MCC asked Larwood to apologize to the Australian public for his bowling, which he refused, but continued to play for Nottinghamshire. He later migrated to Australia where he was warmly welcomed and worked in a soft drink company and supplemented his income with cricket commentary. Douglas Jardine toured India in the winter of 1933-34 before retiring from international cricket and taking up journalism. He suffered from lung cancer and died in 1958 at the age of 58 years after being infected with tick fever during a trip to Rhodesia. England did not win an Ashes until 20 years later in 1953 (with eight years lost to the Second World War).
There are probably many books on Bodyline that capture cricket’s most turbulent series but none so classy as David Frith’s book. His authentic narration and deep research including the mutterings on the ground, adjacent events, and incidents give the reader a view that is unmatchable by any documentary or media report. With this book, I laid to rest my long wait of the answers to the most controversial term in cricket. I consider myself baptized, at least until I come across an even more authoritative book.