Friday, September 14, 2007


Jardine: the finest defensive batsman of his generation

So, we're approaching the 75th anniversary of the most controversial of all cricket tours, the 1932/3 Ashes tour, generally known as the 'Bodyline tour'. It now seems to be generally accepted that the English team were unsporting, and out of order throughout the tour, and that Douglas Jardine, the England captain whose prosecution of bodyline tactics made him a hate figure in Australia, was, in the words of Leo McKinstrey in today's Telegraph, cynical, brutal and cold.

Bodyline was, however, an intellectual response to an intellectual problem. The deck was stacked in the batsman's favour in the early 1930s, even more than it is now. The lbw law was such that a batsman could not be given out if the ball pitched outside off stump - encouraging enormously negative pad play. Tactics and techniques had evolved around this, and the Australians in particular had developed some decided peculiarities in technique - of which more later.

As if this advantage weren't enough, Australia were blessed with a prodigy. The genius of Don Bradman should not be overlooked when looking at the origin of bodyline. In the 1930 Ashes he had proved the difference between the two sides scoring 974 runs in the series, at an average of 139.14. At Lords Bradman scored 254, and at Headingley he knocked up 334 - scoring 309* on the first day. England had no answer to the little genius from Bowral, and it wasn't until the final match at the Oval, when the Nottinghamshire fast bowler Harold Larwood got good pace and bounce off a true wicket, that Jardine, who didn't play in the series at all due to business committments, noticed Bradman hopping about a bit. It can't have been too drastic - Bradman scored 232.

Still, when Douglas Jardine was confirmed as England captain, the genesis of a plan was forming. England were strong in fast bowling. Harold Larwood would challenge for a place in any side in history, while Voce and Bowes were pretty rapid too. With support from Wally Hammond, no mean bowler, and Gubby Allen, who was decidedly quick, and with a proper fast bowler's mean streak too, England were heavily reliant on pace.

It was decided that off-theory, bowling on and outside the off stump hoping to induce an edge to slips, was only effective when the ball was swinging. In England, with overcast skies and lush outfields, that could last all day. In Australia conditions were such that swing could only be expected from the new ball for maybe 10 overs. After this it was straight up and down. England could choose to be cannon fodder, or change their line of attack.

Leg theory was simple in conception, but required enormous degrees of accuracy to carry off. Put simply, the idea was to bowl back of a length on the line of leg stump or just outside, with a ring of close catchers on the legside, and one or two men out on the boundary for the hook. Batsman are generally better at picking the line and length of balls on off-stump, and were thus vulnerable to variable bounce on the leg stump - if they tried to fend the ball off their hip, they were likely to offer a close catch, if they went on the hook they were vulnerable to the men in the deep.

The leg trap

Complaints that bodyline was, in effect, an endless stream of bouncers at the head of the batsman are a misunderstanding of the theory - a bouncer is much easier to play than a just short of a length ball that has the potential to bounce sharply. The ability of Larwood in particular to extract bounce from good length balls was the decisive factor in the success of bodyline as a tactic. When bodyline was tried in England, perhaps most notably in 1933 when the touring West Indians used it against England, it was necessary to bowl much shorter to get the required effect. It was not particularly effective as a wicket-taking tactic (Jardine scored his only test century against it) though it did slow the scoring.

The reason bodyline has proved so controversial was the pace of Larwood and the poor quality of the wickets. Though people point to the injuries sustained by Aussie captain Bill Woodfull and the 'keeper Bertie Oldfield, in neither case was bodyline being bowled - simply fast balls being missed by the batsman. It is here that we get to the unspoken truth about bodyline: the Australians were getting hit and getting out largely because their techniques were not up to a leg side attack. Match reports from this site make that rather clear.

Ponsford, after having been struck again, on the rump turning to evade a ball aimed at him, was bowled by Larwood.

Ponsford was cracked on the hand by Voce and ripped his gloves off in agony. Next ball he swayed out of the way of what he thought would be another bullet aimed at his body, only to see the ball smash into his leg stump.

Bowes ran in to bowl the first ball to Bradman. He pitched it short, but not short enough to be a true bouncer. Bradman stepped to the off side and swung a tremendous hook shot at it. The ball, not rising as high as Bradman judged, clipped the bottom of the bat and cannoned into the stumps.
Ponsford's chosen method of dealing with Bodyline was to turn his back to balls aimed at him, and take the blows on his rump and back. He was thus struck at least a dozen times, but thankfully never by a ball rising high enough to reach his head.
Larwood bowled Bradman, stepping back to leg to cut a ball pitched on leg stump.
Bodyline was more in evidence than in Brisbane, with Woodfull again hit several times on the back as he continued to deal with balls aimed at him by turning his back to them.
Larwood hit Woodfull between the shoulderblades, causing a delay as he recovered, then soon after hit him on the thigh
Quite simply the Australian batsman weren't watching the ball. In such circumstances, they were bound to get hit. For any cricketer to get hit between the shoulder baldes he would have had to have turned almost completely around and be looking at the wicket keeper! Look at Bradman's shot above - it was his first ball, and he's - what - two feet outside the offstump having a hook at a ball that's hit the stumps? Bodyline was essentially fast accurate bowling in the line of the batsman's leg stump.
The enormous furore that this caused was attributable in its essence to one thing: England had a strong fast bowling attack and Australia did not. For evidence of this, fast forward to 1948, when the Invincibles came over. As Neville Cardus remembered:
One of the most brightening exhibitions of fast bouncing bowling I have ever seen occurred at Old Trafford in 1948 during the England v. Australia Test match. Lindwall was awesome. He almost paralysed Compton's left arm, then, with a "no-ball" so much over the crease that he let the ball go its vicious way far down the pitch, he struck Compton's forehead as in fact Compton actually tried to hook (no running away!) and the missile flew off the edge of his bat.
The cries of outrage that followed the tactics of the 1948 Australians were less strident than those of the Australians in 1932, but their motive was the same. Bodyline (or 'bumpers' or Holding and Roberts' assaulton Brian Close) was 'unfair' because the fan's nation's batsmen were being hit without being able to retaliate. Woodfull didn't match bodyline tactics with Jardine because, disregarding moral reasons, he didn't have the bowlers. England was unhappy about Lillee and Thomson (who admitted bowling to hit the batsman) mainly because we didn't have a match for them.
One gets the impression reading the outraged cries of 'unsportsmanlike' 'contrary to the interests of the game' and so on, that what the Australian public wanted to see was Don Bradman scoring effortless and sublime centuries, while perspiring but gentlemanly England bowlers floated up gentle half volleys outside the off stump. When Bradman scored 309 in a day at Headingley, Percy Chapman the England skipper retained a silly mid off all day. It may have been jolly sporting, but it was poor cricket. Jardine was far too good a captain for that. He had a plan, and he ensured that it worked. Churchill said of Austen Chamberlain that 'he always played the game; and he always lost it.' Jardine played to the limits of the game; and he won.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

A refreshingly thoughtful effort. Well done.

11:29 pm  
Anonymous Brian Shipley said...

I fully agree, well detailed and written without a passionate bias either way.

6:25 pm  

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