The time the Don flinched

STRIKING TERROR. Harold Larwood (left) scythed through the powerful Aussie line-up using Bodyline tactics.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY STRIKING TERROR. Harold Larwood (left) scythed through the powerful Aussie line-up using Bodyline tactics.

Long after Bodyline hit Australian cricket, it continues to be the topic of heated discussion every time an Ashes series comes along, writes Gulu Ezekiel.

There have been plenty of storms in cricket before and since. But no event has ever created quite as much of a stir as the `Bodyline' tactics employed by England captain Douglas Jardine and his fast bowling henchmen in Australia in 1932-32. Even today, nearly 75 years after Bodyline hit Australian cricket like a bolt of lightning, it is still the topic of heated discussion every time an Ashes series comes along.

Today all those who took part, as well as the umpires and journalists and most spectators too, have passed away. The last of these was the man at whom the tactics were specifically aimed, the peerless Don Bradman, who died in 2001, his batting records unlikely to be ever surpassed.

Bradman decimated England's bowling when he toured in 1930 with a staggering 974 runs in seven innings. No batsman has ever come close to that mark. By the time Douglas Jardine brought his MCC touring side to Australia in October 1932 `The Don' was the darling of the cricket world and a cult hero in his own country. But unknown to him and the rest of the Australian team, the taciturn Surrey captain had been making an intense study of their weaknesses in a desperate bid to win back the Ashes. His chief plotter was his predecessor as Surrey captain, Percy Fender, a cricket eccentric and one of the sharpest brains never to captain his country.

It has been speculated that the seed of Bodyline was planted on the fourth and fifth days of the fifth and final Test at the Oval in August 1930. Australia won by an innings and Bradman peeled off 232. But it had been raining and the damp wicket gave plenty of life to the bowling of Harold Larwood though he captured only one wicket (that of Bradman). As balls flew off a length and endangered the batsmen, Bradman began to flinch and step back. That set Larwood thinking he might have found a chink in the armour.

Though Jardine was not present at the Oval, word soon got through to him via Fender and other English players and this led a celebrated meeting in a London restaurant where the Bodyline plot was hatched in the presence of Nottinghamshire captain Arthur Carr and his two express bowlers, Larwood and Bill Voce.

Notts for some seasons had been adopting intimidatory tactics against hapless county batsmen under the direction of Carr with packed leg side fields waiting like vultures to swoop on catches — in essence Bodyline. The batsmen's choices were stark — either get hit on the body, take evasive action or fend off the ball and be caught on the leg side. Plus there was a man placed on the boundary in case the batsman went for the hook shot.

These tactics were perfected at home in 1932. India were on their first official tour of England and saw a number of their batsmen struck as Jardine and his fast bowling battery used them seemingly as guinea pigs for the sterner tests ahead Down Under later that year. When the touring side was announced, many in Australia were startled to read that it included four fast bowlers and a few medium pacers too, unusual for that era. A sense of dread was spreading across Australia. Further, it was known that Jardine had a pathological hatred of all things Australian. And on the long sea voyage to Australia the ruthless captain instructed his players to in turn hate their opponents.

The lead up to the first Test match was stormy. Bodyline was unleashed in all its fury in the match against the Australian XI at Melbourne. Larwood, Voce and left-arm fast bowler Bill Bowes saw to it that Bradman and the rest were sorely tested.

Bradman scored a frantic 36 and 13. But ironically Jardine was nowhere to be seen — he was resting and had gone fishing! It was left to his deputy Bob Wyatt to unveil MCC's `secret' weapon.

Bradman missed the first Test in Sydney due to illness. Larwood captured 10 wickets, earned the ire of the crowd through his ferocious bowling and now protests began to erupt among Australia's cricket establishment. Bradman returned for the second Test in Melbourne. But the massive crowd were stunned when he was bowled first ball by Bowes, ironically his only wicket of the series. In the second innings, Bradman unveiled a series of daring and risky strokes and scored one of his most notable centuries as Australia won to level the series. But the flat MCG track did much to take the sting out of the visitors' bowling.

Bill Ponsford has a taste of Larwood's fury as the fast bowler makes a mess of his stumps.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Things reached a fever pitch by the third Test in Adelaide. Bradman had released a letter, condemning Bodyline after Melbourne. This only emboldened Jardine, who made it a point to provoke the crowds. Serious injuries to captain Bill Woodfull and wicket-keeper Bert Oldfield saw the Adelaide Oval erupt and there were fears riots would break out.

The Australian Board of Control responded by sending a cable to the MCC in London condemning Bodyline as "unsportsmanlike". The MCC in turn reacted furiously, refusing to believe an English cricket team could behave in such a manner. With no television pictures, and movie footage taking weeks to cross over, few in England were aware of the danger posed to the life and limb of Australia's cricketers and the fury that Jardine and his men were experiencing as a result.

For the next three weeks angry cables flew between London and Melbourne and for the first time it was felt that the ties with the Empire might be snapped. The Prime Ministers of both nations had to step in to cool things down.

The Australians were forced to withdraw their accusations the day before the fourth Test in Brisbane. But there was no let up from Jardine and his men. They swept to victory in Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney (fifth Test) to win the series 3-1 (Larwood captured 33 wickets) but virtually lost all friends.

Bradman and the rest were shaken, battered and bruised. The little champion still topped the averages with 56.57. It was though not a patch on his previous stunning feats.

Bodyline had achieved its aim, at least on the field. It was a miracle though that nobody was killed during the course of play given that protective equipment those days was primitive.

MCC may have won the war, but they lost the peace. A year later with Australia threatening to abandon their tour of England, the authorities accepted Bodyline bowling was "an offence against the spirit of the game". Bradman was back at his ruthless best and Australia regained the Ashes.

Jardine though decided to step down before the tour, never to play against Australia again while Larwood refused to tender an apology. He claimed to his dying day that as a loyal cricketer he was merely carrying out his captain's orders.

Anglo-Australian cricket would never be the same again. The edge that Bodyline brought to the Ashes contests continues till this day.