After Bradman’s carnage during the 1930 tour and the wresting of the Ashes by Australia, the stakes were extremely high in the 1932-33 series. There was considerable debate over the selection of the M.C.C. captain. Ultimately the decision was in favour of the taciturn Winchester and Oxford-educated Douglas Jardine of Surrey. Jardine turned to his county captain Percy Fender, who had already been at the receiving end of Bradman’s reprisals, for advice. Consequently, he invited the Nottinghamshire skipper Arthur Carr to join him in the grill room of London’s Picadilly Hotel along with his fast bowling pair, Harold Larwood and Bill Voce. That is where, over steaks and bitters, the seeds of an aggressive ‘leg theory’ were sown, with salt cellars to denote fielders who were to be posted on the leg-side.
Leg-theory, or short-pitched bowling on the leg-stump, was not a new tactic. It had been deployed earlier to curb well-set batsmen from plundering the bowling. Jardine’s idea went a step further. Leg-theory was to be used to intimidate the batsmen, notably Bradman, by bowling fast and short aimed at the body, with at times seven fielders on the on-side. In the run up to the tour, M.C.C scorer W.H. Ferguson’s batting charts, showing all the shots played by the Australians in each Test were studied closely. Larwood and Voce, along with Yorkshireman Bill Bowes, were made to practise long hours in the nets, stressing on speed and accuracy. The exact positioning of each fielder was worked out and rehearsed.
The preparation was akin to planning a war strategy rather than devising a way to win back the Ashes, and more particularly to throwing a run-machine called Don Bradman out of gear. Calling such a conspiracy ‘leg theory’ was a self-righteous way of giving it a cerebral spin; during the series it came to be known by what it really was ‘Bodyline’. More than a decade-and-a-half later, Jack Fingleton, one of those at the receiving end of Bodyline, wrote in his Brightly Fades the Don, “Nothing that I have experienced or read since has influenced me to alter in the slightest, the bodyline story which I told in Cricket Crisis, and that historic happening in cricket was unimpeachably because of Bradman’s influence and dominance in cricket.” Larwood himself confirmed: “When I bowled against Bradman I always thought that he was out to show me up as the worst fast bowler in the world. There was only one man we were after – Bradman. There’ll never be another like him. I’ve never seen such quick footwork. Bowling to Australia’s batsmen was rather like potting pheasants on the wing but with Bradman it was like trying to trap a wild duck, his movements were so swift.” Indeed.
From the moment the SS Orantes docked at Perth harbour, Jardine’s men carefully calibrated their sinister plot like assassins on a mission to make a VVIP hit. They tested their strategy at Melbourne in November before the first Test, peppering Woodfull with five fielders around his hip. He took a pounding on the chest.
There were four fast bowlers in Jardine’s squad counting Sydney-born Gubby Allen. In addition there was the fast-medium veteran Maurice Tate. To have such an array of pacemen in a team was unheard of in those days. Batsmen obviously did not use the kind of protection they do now. There were no thigh pads, no one thought of arm guards and chest pads, and helmets were for wars, not cricket fields.
Larwood had genuine speed, and through intensive practice he was bowling extremely fast and short with pin-point accuracy. Perhaps inarguably the best fast bowler in the world then, at 28 years of age the coal miner was at his peak. He would bowl from over the wicket and direct the ball into the batsman’s body. Though he was only 5 feet 8 ½ inches tall, and weighed under 175 pounds, he could generate frightening pace. He had a relaxed and rhythmic 14-pace run-up, and just prior to wheeling his arm over would lift his left knee high. The momentum that he thus built up would be followed up by a quick side-on hurling forward of the strong body. The ball would be propelled at a great velocity by the high arm, and leap up at the batsman in a sudden burst that would leave the hapless recipient shell-shocked. Left-armer Voce, much taller at 6 feet 1 inch and weighing about 200 pounds, was not as quick, but certainly lively, and he would come on over the wicket, the angle thus created would have the ball following the striker. The duo complemented each other perfectly.
When employing his leg-theory Jardine would employ six close-in fielders on the leg-side from short fine-leg to mid-on, some within touching distance, and one long-leg out on the boundary. A gully and silly mid-off would also be waiting for a catch should a batsman fend on the off-side. At times he would have one fielder out in the country on the off, and – should a batsman adopt an aggressive posture – even he would be despatched to the other side of the wicket. The batsman had nowhere to go.
Before the pace hounds could get at him, Bradman had other issues to deal with. He complained of feeling unwell, weighed down by the stress of too much cricket. But he was also embroiled in a dispute with the Australian Board of Control over his contract to write for the Sydney newspaper The Sun, which was owned by Frank Packer, father of Kerry Packer who in 1977 took on the world’s cricket establishment and floated his own rebel series. As a result of the wrangling, Bradman did not play the first Test at Sydney. Ironically, the contract that saved him for Test cricket, now kept him out of this Test match.
….. the story of the Bodyline series of 1932-33 from ‘Don’s Century’ continues next week.
(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email email@example.com).