The scourge of Bodyline in its ugliest form. Perhaps the most acrimonious Test match in history : Excerpt from Indra Vikram Singh’s book ‘Don’s Century’


Bert Oldfield struck on the head by Harold Larwood in the Adelaide Test of the Bodyline series.

Jardine won the toss at Adelaide and set out to open the innings with Sutcliffe. Soon Wall brought one back to knock off his leg-stump. The paceman then got his out-swinger to Hammond to rear, and the snick was taken by Oldfield. O’Reilly, who had shared the new ball, got Sutcliffe to edge the other way, and Wall, stationed at short-leg clutched on to a one-handed catch. The left-armer Ironmonger bowled Leslie Ames middle stump. England were reeling at 30 for four.

With early morning freshness gone from the wicket, the left-handed Yorkshireman Maurice Leyland and Wyatt set about consolidating the innings. Leyland was belligerent, hitting 13 fours in his 83 before he played on to O’Reilly. The stand was worth 156. Wyatt’s was the more orthodox approach, but he seized the opportunity of hitting over the short boundaries square of the wicket. Undeterred by a dropped catch in the slips, Wyatt hooked Wall for a six, and swept Grimmett for two more over the ropes. Astonishing, though it may sound today, Wyatt then, and for many years later, was the only English batsman to hit three sixes in an innings in Australia. Grimmett got his revenge, with Wyatt holing out to Richardson for 78. Eddie Paynter did a good job of enhancing the team’s position helped by the tail. The diminutive Lancastrian southpaw put on 96 with Hedley Verity before he mishooked Wall to Fingleton. His 77 off 216 balls with 9 fours was marked by fleet-footed driving against the spinners, and cuts, pulls and hooks off the quicker men. England totalled 341.

More significantly, Leyland’s innings justified his inclusion in the side at the expense of the Nawab of Pataudi. Jardine put down the dropping of Iktikhar, who scored a century on debut only two Tests earlier, to his slow scoring. There was certainly much substance to the captain’s reasoning, for the Nawab had indeed batted at a leisurely pace, scoring his 122 runs at less than 1.5 runs an over, or a run every four deliveries, spending 7 hours over them. This laid back approach might, or might not, have been the main reason for Pataudi’s banishment but there seem to have been other underlying factors as well.

Along with Gubby Allen, Pataudi was a dissenter in the Bodyline plan. Added to this was his tactless and intemperate remark aimed at the skipper. Having exhorted his close-in leg-side fielders not to flinch at the Australian batsmen’s pulls and hooks, Jardine himself once took evasive action. Seeing this, the Nawab is believed to have told his captain, “Skipper you seem to have forgotten your own instructions.” Jardine, already under pressure, what with severe criticism in the press, hostility of the crowds, and deteriorating relations with the opponents, perceived Pataudi’s remark as an act of indiscipline. Further, just before this Test, Bowes had knocked over Jardine’s stumps in the nets. The group of people watching from behind the wicket first applauded in mirth and then heckled the English captain. He stormed off and filed his protest with the Australian Board of Control. As a result, the tourists practised behind locked gates and under police watch. Tension had been simmering since the first Test and now this unsavoury incident before a crucial match turned the air electric. Pataudi’s jibe only precipitated action. The Indian, in any case, was an outsider in more ways than one, and that is where he found himself eventually – on the outside. He could only remark wryly, “It’s a dangerous thing to score a century in our team – you’ll get yourself dropped.”

Be that as it may, things were going quite well for England in this Test. And when Fingleton nicked Allen into Ames’ gloves for a duck, the sense of elation must have overridden the acrimony that had already cast a dark shadow over the series. If that was the feeling, it was short-lived. The fifth delivery of Larwood’s second over was short and outside the off-stump, but seamed back viciously to strike Woodfull over the heart. The bat fell to the ground as the captain clutched his chest and doubled over in agony. The crowd, many of whom had seen photographs of Woodfull being hit in a like manner at Melbourne earlier, was up in arms. While some of the fielders, including Jardine, rushed in to help the aching batsman, at the other end of the wicket Hammond reassured Larwood that he need not bother about the hollering multitude. When Woodfull felt settled enough to continue, Jardine cantered up to the bowler exclaiming, “Well bowled, Harold!” within earshot of the non-striker Bradman, with the obvious intention of unnerving the star run-getter.

Larwood completed that over, but in this innings so far he bowled just as he always did with the new ball, four slips waiting to catch any edge off the swinging delivery. Bodyline tactics were used when the shine was off. Then he would deliver from wide of the crease, and short, forcing batsmen to fend, with a horde of catchers hovering a couple of steps away. As Larwood was beginning his next over, Jardine stopped him and signalled the slip fielders to move across to the leg-side. There was pandemonium at the sight of the deployment of this despicable method just when a batsman had been delivered a painful blow.

And when the inevitable bumper once again caused the bat to fly from Woodfull’s hands, the uproar was deafening. Abuses were hurled from every corner, and each time Larwood bowled, the protests would be raised a further pitch. Many bouncers were hurled at Bradman, one of which hit the splice of his bat to land into the hands of Allen at short-leg. Not long after, McCabe too guided a Larwood delivery straight to Jardine. The century makers of the first two Tests were gone for eight runs apiece. Woodfull hung on grimly for nearly an-hour-and-a-half, taking several deliveries on his hips and thighs before he edged Allen onto his stumps, having made a resolute 22. Australia were 51 for four.

As Woodfull lay on the massage table, having that nasty bruise on his chest attended to, the English manager Pelham Warner walked in to enquire of his welfare. Woodfull was a dignified, well-mannered man and he must have discomfited Warner with his uncharacteristic volley. The Australian skipper shot back, “I do not wish to discuss it, Mr. Warner.” Taken aback, Warner fumbled, “Why, what is the matter?” Woodfull came out with his famous reply that was to reverberate around the cricket world: “There are two teams out there; one is playing cricket and the other is not. It is too great a game to spoil. It is time some people get out of the game. The matter is in your hands. Good afternoon.” Warner was on a sticky wicket. He disapproved of Bodyline tactics, but as manager could not make an outward show of dissent.

Ray Robinson revealed in his book The Wildest Tests: “From later talks with Woodfull I gathered that his words might bring home to the team managers the necessity to do something about tactics that threatened to ruin the game. In this his utterance was ineffective, but news of it had an impact on public opinion like a flour bomb on a university chairman. Numbers of people who had not seen the tactics like the folk at home (in England), regarded it as inconceivable that an English team could resort to the tactics reported. That such an eminently fair-minded man of Woodfull’s high principles should have been moved to speak so, caused many of them to take a closer look, among them Sir Robert Menzies.”

Voce had to leave the field an hour before stumps with an ankle strain, and when a public address announcement sought the services of a doctor for him, the crowd mistook it as a cry of help for their own captain. Jardine was abused; Larwood was heckled each time he bowled. Mounted police kept vigil. Ponsford and Richardson saw the second day through with a gritty, unbroken half-century stand.

When the sun came up on Day Three, little could people have realised that what happened on the previous afternoon was only a prelude to the real drama. Ray Robinson wrote: “As Bill Ponsford walked from the stand stairways to the arena gate a friend in the crowd, wishing to know the name of his hotel, called: ‘Where are you staying, Ponny?’ The sturdy Victorian answered: ‘Out in the middle for as long as I can.’ Three-and-a-half-hours he stayed. His 85 contained a few chances but eight fours came from the middle of his heavy bat and he endured punishment in a manner that gave the attackers no encouragement.” Harold Larwood recollected in his book The Larwood Story, “Ponsford suffered more than anybody in this match and showed he could take a hiding.” Ponsford, it was reckoned, was suspect against the fastest bowling. This innings was a courageous effort. His stand with Richardson was worth 80, and then he put on a further 63 with Oldfield before he was bowled round his legs by Voce after lunch.

Oldfield played well for his 41, having glanced Larwood, operating with the new ball, to the boundary. Then the paceman bowled a short one well outside the off-stump. Ray Robinson takes up the story, quoting Oldfield as saying, “I think I could have hit it to the off for maybe two but – as an admirer of Charlie Macartney who influenced my outlook on batting – I was not satisfied to score fewer than the maximum number of runs from any ball. So I decided to step across and hook it for four. I hooked a fraction too soon.” The ball struck Oldfield on the right side of his forehead, just below the hairline.

To be fair, as in the Woodfull hit, “Larwood was not bowling to a bodyline field as all the recognised batsmen were out,” wrote Robinson. The fast bowler himself said: “Critics and spectators had been prophesying that bodyline would kill someone sooner or later. It now seemed that moment had arrived. Bert dropped his bat, clutched his head in both hands, staggered away from the wicket and fell to his knees.” Oldfield recalled later, “The blow knocked me over and for a while I lay stunned.”

We let Larwood take up the horrifying story again. He recalled, “As a low rumble of hooting and rage swelled from the crowd I ran to the crumpled figure and said ‘I’m sorry Bertie’. ‘It’s not your fault Harold’ Oldfield mumbled as soon as he was able to speak.” We return to Oldfield, “Billy Woodfull came hurrying out in civvies to where I lay. Though naturally a mild-mannered scholastic type of man he came out in a way clearly indicating that one of his men had been hurt and he was going to take over. He helped me up, saying ‘Come along, Bertie’. With his arms supporting me I was able to walk off, although still dazed and shaken by the shock.”

Robinson continued, “Thousands of infuriated onlookers began counting Jardine and Larwood out. From the mound they beefed: ‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, OUT, you b…..d!’ Others bellowed: ‘Go home you Pommie b……s!’ As Allen brought a jug and towel to bathe Oldfield’s head many in the crowd worked themselves into a frenzy. Maurice Tate, watching from in front of England’s dressing room, said in a low voice: ‘I’m getting out of here,’ and went inside. Larwood thought that if one man jumped the fence the whole mob would go for the English team. He and others moved towards the stumps, ready to grab them if a mob rushed the field (as happened in 1879 when barrackers’ invasions after a run out dispute stopped play at Sydney and A.N. Hornby seized and marched off a larrikin who menaced Lord Hawke with a stick). The whole ground was in uproar for five minutes. It seemed longer. The next batsman O’Reilly, took some time to get on to the field as he had to force his way down crowded steps between rows of incensed members standing on their seats as they gave vent to their indignation.”

Australia were all out at the same score of 222, with Oldfield ruled out of the next Test as well. Jardine, on his part, was not a man to be deterred by accidents on the field, or the furore off it. Instead of the blue English cap, he donned his bright multi-coloured Harlequin, and took first strike himself instead of Herbert Sutcliffe. The crowd yelled out to Tim Wall to give Jardine a dose of Bodyline. Wall, though he had one of the longest run-ups one would ever see, was hardly in Larwood’s class and in no position to unsettle top-quality batsmen. Fifty-nine years later I was in correspondence with Bob Wyatt, then aged almost 91, and he made exactly this point in his letter dated February 12, 1992: “I know of only one man who could have bowled that form of attack economically. It was Larwood’s amazing speed and accuracy plus the uneven bounce which made it so difficult for the batsman. The Australians tried to bowl similar stuff at us but it was innocuous because the bowlers although fast had neither the speed nor the extreme accuracy of Larwood.” The unrepentant English captain hung on doggedly and by the end of the third day was unbeaten with 24 in a total of 85 for one, with Wyatt giving him company at 47 not out.

The Australian Board of Control had not acted on Bradman’s suggestion after the previous Test to speak to the English management about the Bodyline tactics. Now they had no choice. With Jardine standing steadfast, they were asked to take up the matter directly with the MCC at London. Then began a series of telegrams that totalled 12 – six from either side – by the time the year 1933 was out.  The Australians sent a strongly-worded cable:

“Bodyline bowling has assumed such proportions as to menace the best interests of the game, making protection of the body by the batsmen the main consideration. This is causing intensive bitter feelings 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.”

Meanwhile that evening Jardine called a team meeting where he received an overwhelming vote of confidence to continue leg-theory tactics. The captain did offer to withdraw the strategy as, he told the team, they would have a much happier tour. At this Maurice Leyland quipped, “What? Give up leg-theory just because it’s got ‘em licked?” That was just the endorsement Jardine needed. For him the end wholly justified the means.

The cable from Australia raised the hackles of the high-brow stiff upper-lipped committee at Lord’s. The imperial masters, custodians of the noble game, could not reconcile to being labelled as ‘unsportsmanlike’ by one of the dominions. So incensed were the British by the charge of unsportsmanlike conduct that the MCC honchos were summoned to Downing Street by J.H. Thomas, Secretary for the Dominions. The raging controversy grabbed the headlines with such intensity that even the serious situation developing as a result of the dissolution of the German Reichstag by the newly-appointed chancellor Adolf Hitler, was relegated to the background. The indignation and condescending attitude in London were reflected in a reply that had a bit more finesse:

“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 the remainder of programme, we would consent, but with great reluctance.”

Here it must be considered that the MCC could not have realised the seriousness of the situation because, unlike in present times, there were not many means of communication in 1933. There were no long-distance telephone services, nor any overseas radio broadcasts. Telecasts were a long way off. Even the print media was limited, and oriented in such a way that for many years people in England did not fathom the extent of the hostilities and the adverse impact that Bodyline had. The Reuters correspondent on the tour was Gilbert Mant, an Australian working as a general reporter in the London office, where not long ago he sat alongside Ian Fleming, who later became famous as the creator of James Bond. Mant was sent out on the six-month 1932-33 trip instead of James Southerton, a cricket writer who had covered the 1928-29 series, and soon became the editor of Wisden. Mant was a newsman, not a perceptive cricket journalist, his forte being transmitting factual, objective reports quickly and accurately.

The newspapers in England subscribed to the Reuters service, and hence carried Mant’s account of the action on the field, crisp, to the point, meeting deadlines. The only other career journalist was Bruce Harris of the London Evening Standard, who knew more about music than cricket, and was an avid supporter, even sycophant, of Jardine. He would not report anything derogatory of English methods. In fact he wrote a book during the voyage back home, predictably with a foreword by the captain. Harris was just the man Jardine would want to hang around him.

In addition there were two former captains in the press box. There was Warwick Armstrong, scourge of the English and contemptuous of them, whose word the MCC would not take even if it was the last they ever heard. Finally, the scribes had the distinguished company of the great Jack Hobbs, whose columns were ghosted by Jack Ingham of the London Star. It was during the course of one of these cabled reports that a correspondent compressed the two words ‘body’ and ‘line’ together, and thus was coined the never-to-be-forgotten cricketing symbol of hate,  ‘bodyline’.

Hobbs found himself in a difficult predicament. Many of those in the England team, including Jardine and Larwood, had played alongside him in Test matches. He still played county cricket where Jardine was his Surrey teammate, and the others his friends and colleagues. He was the doyen of batsmen, looked up to by all these players. Hobbs did not endorse Bodyline, and had in fact admonished Bowes for using the tactics against him for Yorkshire at the Oval. But for the duration of the series, he did not criticise the English outfit, saying later, “I did not wish to embarrass Mr. Jardine and the team.” The MCC, therefore, did not really have a true picture of the situation on the ground. Decades later, even Bradman stated that at the time MCC did not have a clear picture, but when they did understand the problem they dealt with it effectively.

The tour went on despite the rebuff from the MCC, as the Australians did not wish to disrupt a venture that was a huge financial success. Jardine was much the immovable object at the crease in this innings, and the more he stonewalled, the sharper became the barrackers’ ire. When he tried to wave away flies, a heckler yelled, “Don’t swat those flies, Jardine, they are the only friends you’ve got in Australia.” There was great jubilation when the villain of the piece was finally trapped in front of the stumps by Ironmonger after nearly four-and-a-quarter hours of obdurate defence. He had eked out 56 runs from 266 deliveries. Hammond and Leyland were more forthright, putting on 91 for the fifth wicket.

When, towards the close of play, Woodfull brought Bradman on to bowl just for a change, the batsmen did not quite know what to expect. The first ball was a half-tracker that Ames hammered to the boundary. The next was a full toss off which the wary wicketkeeper took a single. Hammond cautioned him, “There are only two overs to go, so don’t try to make a meal of Braddles. We don’t want to lose a wicket tonight.” Following his own advice, Hammond blocked the third delivery, but when he saw another one that would not land he aimed a mighty heave. To his dismay he missed, and the ball hit the sticks behind him. That night he was to rue a missed century as well, having walked off seething with 85 to his name. Ames and Verity kept the Australians on the field long enough to stretch the lead beyond 500.

Larwood was again Australia’s nemesis, sending back Fingleton for a duck and Ponsford for three. Bradman met Woodfull in the middle and when the obstinate Jardine set a Bodyline field once more, hooting followed as a natural reaction. Bradman was in a belligerent mood, and when Larwood and Allen were taken off after their early burst, he breezed to his half-century in just over an hour. He cracked 10 fours, and in a rare sight, lofted an on-drive off Verity for a six. Amazingly, this was Bradman’s first six in Test cricket, well into his 5th series, 21st Test and 30th innings! If proof were required that he rarely lofted the ball, it was this. The high hit may have disturbed his timing just enough, for he straight-drove the next delivery ferociously but uppishly, for the bowler to hang on. Bradman had blasted 66 off 71 balls, rocketing 10 fours besides his six.

Thereafter it was left to Woodfull to display the third method to tackle Bodyline. After McCabe’s courageous hooking at the SCG, and Bradman’s backing away at the MCG to exploit the vast open spaces on the off-side, the Melbourne High School master in Woodfull set an example to emulate by getting behind the line of the ball and defending resolutely. That, after the painful blows he received and the grievous injury to Oldfield, in the first innings was a feat to admire. He stood rock-like for nearly four hours, carrying his bat for 73 runs as his team packed up for a total of 193, a staggering defeat by 338 runs. One of the most dramatic and acrimonious Tests in history had come to a close. The British Empire was intact for now, though besmirched. The Bodyline plan was proving to be a success, but it scarred a noble game.

Before the next Test Jardine insisted that the insinuation about his leg-theory being unsportsmanlike be withdrawn. Under threat of cancellation of the tour, the Australian Board of Control had no choice but to grudgingly take back the charge.

….. 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

Don's Century cover

Biography of Don Bradman to commemorate his birth centenary, and a panorama of batting from the 1860s to the present times.

‘Don’s Century’, published by Sporting Links, ISBN 978-81-901668-5-0.

Distributed in India by Variety Book Depot, Connaught Place, New Delhi, Phones + 91 11 23417175 and 23412567.

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