‘Well bowled, Harold!’ Ninety years on, England’s Bodyline tactics retain heat

<span>Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

In this era of cricketing glut, some matches pound through the sausage machine so effectively, they might never have happened at all. But one series continues to hold fast in the imagination: England’s Bodyline tour to Australia of 1932-33.

It was 90 years ago on Wednesday that the Australian Cricket Board swallowed their pride and sent a cable to the MCC, taking back their earlier complaints of “unsportsmanlike” behaviour by the English cricket team, who had been pounding down brutal leg theory bowling in the name of victory. It was done through gritted teeth, under pressure from the then Australian prime minister Joseph Lyon, who had warned the grandees that a British boycott of Australian goods would be devastating.

The original cable had been fired off during the fury of the third Test at Adelaide, the most infamous game of an infamous series. Australia had started their innings in the afternoon of the second day, with more than 50,000 spectators squeezed elbow to elbow into the ground. The Australian captain, Bill Woodfull, was struck over the heart by Harold Larwood, then bowling with a conventional field, and staggered away from the crease, clutching his chest. The booing from the crowd lasted for three long minutes. Douglas Jardine, with the immaculate timing of the best pantomime villains, then called out loudly: “Well bowled, Harold.” And he had more up his sleeve. Just before Larwood was about to begin his next over, with Woodfull at the striker’s end, Jardine halted play and moved his fielders into bodyline positions on the leg side. The already explosive crowd were incandescent, and they weren’t alone.

Later that day, the English manager, Sir Pelham Warner, entered the Australian dressing room to check on Woodfull’s health. “I don’t want to see you Mr Warner,” Woodfull told him. “There are two sides out there. One is trying to play cricket, the other is not.” Lost for words, and personally insulted, Warner turned on his heels and left.

The confrontation was duly leaked to the press the next day – with Jack Fingleton the usual suspect, though he pointed the finger at Don Bradman – inflaming already high tensions, while on the field Australian wicketkeeper Bert Oldfield was clattered on the head trying to hook Larwood, collapsing like a stamped-upon tissue box.

Claude Corbett described the scene in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph: “The hostility when Oldfield was hit on the head by a ball from Larwood and dropped as if he had been shot after staggering a few yards, was the most intense I have ever heard at a cricket match. Hoots and yells from one section, counting out from another, and cries of dismay from the women’s stand made a bedlam of noise. So hostile was the crowd at one stage that more police were rushed to the ground, and others were mustered to stand by. Australian crowds are being worked to such high tension by the leg theory attack that the day may not be too far distant when something more serious than vocal demonstrations will be the culminating scene.”

Two days later, in an atmosphere verging on hysterical, the ACB sent their accusatory cable through to Lord’s. However, they chose to send their message at the standard rate, which meant that the news hit the London newspapers (whose cables from Australia were marked urgent) before it arrived in MCC hands.

Like the best sporting scandals, the story had now spread from the back pages to the front, engaging letter writers, columnists, editorials and the general public. The Australians had their pantomime villain. “If there was a most popular man competition promoted in Australia at the moment and Douglas Jardine constituted all three starters in it, it would be safe to wager he wouldn’t fill a place,” fired the leader writer in Melbourne’s Truth newspaper.

Meanwhile in London, without television coverage, the hullabaloo was considered to be inexcusable whingeing from a team cut down to size.

“We deplore your cable,” the MCC fired back. “We deprecate your opinion that there has been unsportsmanlike play. We have the fullest confidence in our captain, team and managers and are sure that they would do nothing to infringe either the laws of cricket or the spirit of the game.” It concluded that “if you consider it desirable to cancel the remainder of the programme, we would consent, but with great reluctance”.

Jardine also cabled London, refusing to captain the side again unless the ACB withdrew their “unsporting” accusation.

The Australians found themselves stuck. No one wanted the series to be cancelled, and they couldn’t afford to upset relations with the UK any further. They were forced into a humiliating climbdown – and the fourth Test duly started on 10 February at the Gabba, where England won and regained the Ashes.

The fallout from the tour was significant, not only for individuals but for the game and geopolitically. The historian and journalist Gideon Haigh spoke to the National Museum of Australia: “The significance is that probably for the first time the relationship between the two countries comes under serious strain … they were introduced to a species of cricket that for its time was revolutionary, the idea of fast bowlers bowling at very high speed at the line of the batsman’s body, starving and bombarding the batsmen. And it has gone on echoing down history ever since.”