Although several batsmen were hit during the series, as would be expected, no one was hit while a leg-theory field was set, but still it led to ill feeling between the two national teams, with the controversy eventually spilling into the diplomatic arena. Over the next two decades, several of the Laws of Cricket were changed to prevent this tactic being repeated. It should be noted, however, that short pitched balls aimed at the batsmen are not and have never been illegal and are in widespread use today as a tactic.
The Australian cricket team toured England in 1930. Australia won the five-Test series 2-1, with Don Bradman scoring an astounding 974 runs at a batting average of 139.14, an aggregate record that stands to this day.
After the series, Douglas Jardine—who was later appointed England’s captain for the 1932–33 English tour of Australia—devised a plan with Nottinghamshire captain Arthur Carr and his two fast bowlers Harold Larwood and Bill Voce to combat Bradman’s extraordinary skills. At a meeting in London’s Piccadilly Hotel, the Oxford-educated Jardine asked Larwood and Voce if they could bowl on leg stump and make the ball come up into the body of the batsman. The bowlers agreed they could, and that it might prove effective.
Accompanying this bowling line would be a cordon of close fielders set on the leg side. The result was that the batsman had to choose to either take evasive action from balls aimed at his body and head, or attempt to fend the ball away with the bat, possibly giving catching chances to the close-set leg side field. A similar tactic, known as leg theory, has been employed previously, by slow bowlers such as Fred Root and Armstrong, but with more conventionally pitched and much slower deliveries. It was occasionally an effective tactic, but sometimes made for boring watching, like the modern tactic of leg-spin or left-arm bowlers bowling into the rough area of the pitch outside leg stump to restrict a batsman’s scoring opportunities.
Larwood and Voce practised the plan over the next two seasons of English county cricket, terrorising their opponents as Nottinghamshire finished near the top of the competition each year. By the time the English team left for Australia in October 1932, Larwood and Voce, along with Bill Bowes from Yorkshire, had perfected their attack.
English tour 1932–33
The English players first tried their tactic in a first-class tour match against an Australian XI in Melbourne on 18-22 November, a game in which Jardine rested and gave the captaincy duties to his deputy Bob Wyatt. Seeing the bruising balls hit the Australian batsmen on several occasions in this game and the next angered the spectators.
The English players and management were consistent in referring to their tactic as fast leg theory because most of them considered it to be a variant of the established — and relatively harmless — leg theory tactic. The Australian press came up with the far more evocative and inflammatory term, Bodyline (see below). The reporting of the series in England described the tactic as fast leg theory, which caused serious misunderstandings, as neither the English public nor the Board of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) — the governing body of English cricket — could understand why the Australians were complaining about a commonly used tactic and came to the conclusion that the Australian cricket authorities and public were sore losers and "squealers". Of the four fast bowlers in the tour party, Gubby Allen was a voice of dissent in the English camp, refusing to bowl short on the leg side and writing several letters home to England critical of Jardine, although he did not express this in public in Australia. A number of other players, while maintaining a united front in public, also deplored Bodyline in private. The amateurs Bob Wyatt (the vice-captain), Freddie Brown and the Nawab of Pataudi opposed it, as did Walter Hammond and Les Ames among the professionals.
In the Test matches, Bradman countered Bodyline by moving toward the leg side, away from the line of the ball, and cutting it into the vacant off side field. Whilst this was dubious in terms of batting technique, it seemed the best way to cope with the barrage, and Bradman averaged 56.57 in the series (an excellent average for most, but well short of his career average of 99.94), while being struck above the waist by the ball only once. His team-mates fared worse, being unable to compile large scores.
The 1932-33 Ashes series
Whilst successful as a tactic (England regained the Ashes with a 4-1 margin), the Australian crowds abhorred Bodyline as vicious and unsporting. Matters came to a head in the third Test at Adelaide, when Larwood struck Australian captain Bill Woodfull above the heart and fractured wicket-keeper Bert Oldfield’s skull (although this was from a top edge off a traditional non-Bodyline ball and Oldfield admitted it was his fault). Tension and feelings ran so high that a riot was narrowly averted as police stationed themselves between the players and enraged spectators. However, at the time England were not using the Bodyline tactics. Woodfull was struck when he was bent over his bat and wicket – and not when upright as often imagined. The crowd was incensed, and popular imagination blurred, when Jardine ordered his team to move to Bodyline positions immediately after Woodfull’s injury.
In a famous quotation, Bill Woodfull said to the England tour manager Pelham Warner, when the latter came to express his sympathy for Woodfull’s injury:
“I don’t want to see you, Mr Warner. There are two teams out there, one is playing cricket. The other is making no attempt to do so.”
At the end of the fourth day’s play the Australian Board of Control for Cricket sent the following cable to the MCC in London:
“Bodyline bowling has assumed such proportions as to menace the best interests of the game, making protection of the body by the batsman the main consideration. This is causing intensely bitter feeling 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.”
Jardine however insisted his tactic was not designed to cause injury and that he was leading his team in a sportsmanlike and gentlemanly manner, arguing that it was up to the Australian batsmen to play their way out of trouble. He also secretly sent a telegram of sympathy to Bert Oldfield’s wife and arranged for presents to be given to his young daughters, a gesture open to a variety of interpretations.
The situation escalated into a diplomatic incident between the countries as the MCC — supported by the British public and still of the opinion that their fast leg theory tactic was harmless — took serious offence at being branded "unsportsmanlike" and demanded a retraction. With World War I still fresh in people’s memories and the first rumblings of World War II beginning, many people saw Bodyline as fracturing an international relationship that needed to remain strong.
Jardine, and by extension the entire English team, threatened to withdraw from the fourth and fifth Tests unless the Australian Board withdrew the accusation of unsporting behaviour. Public reaction in both England and Australia was outrage directed at the other nation. The Governor of South Australia, Alexander Hore-Ruthven, who was in England at the time, expressed his concern to British Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs James Henry Thomas that this would cause a significant impact on trade between the nations.
The standoff was settled only when Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons met with members of the Australian Board and outlined to them the severe economic hardships that could be caused in Australia if the British public boycotted Australian trade. Given this understanding, the Board withdrew the allegation of unsportsmanlike behaviour two days before the fourth Test, thus saving the tour.
The English team continued to bowl Bodyline in the remaining two Tests, but slower pitches meant the Australians, although frequently bruised, sustained no further serious injuries.
Bodyline continued to be bowled occasionally in the 1933 English season — most notably by Nottinghamshire, who had Carr, Voce and Larwood in their team. This gave the English crowds their first chance to see what all the fuss was about. Ken Farnes, the Cambridge University fast bowler also bowled it in the University Match, hitting a few Oxford batsmen.
Jardine himself had to face Bodyline bowling in a Test match. The West Indian cricket team toured England in 1933, and, in the second Test at Old Trafford, Jackie Grant, their captain, decided to try Bodyline. He had a couple of fast bowlers, Manny Martindale and Learie Constantine. Facing Bodyline tactics for the first time, England first suffered, falling to 134 for 4, with Wally Hammond being hit on the chin, though he recovered to continue his innings. Then Jardine himself faced Martindale and Constantine. Jardine never flinched. He played right back to the bouncers, standing on tiptoe, and, no doubt partly because he didn’t care for the hook shot, played them with a dead bat. Whilst the Old Trafford pitch was not as suited to Bodyline as the hard Australian wickets, Martindale did take 5 for 73, but Constantine only took 1 for 55. Jardine himself made 127, his only Test century.
In the second West Indian innings, Clark bowled Bodyline back to the West Indians, taking 2 for 64. The match in the end was drawn; it was also the highest-profile game in which Bodyline was bowled in England.
Origin of the term
Although Jack Worrall claimed that he had invented the term "Bodyline", it is more likely that it was coined by Sydney journalist Hugh Buggy who worked for The Sun in 1932, and who happened to be a colleague of Jack Fingleton. Buggy sent a telegram to his newspaper from the Test after a day’s play. As a substitute for "in the line of the body" he used the term "bodyline", to keep the cost down, and the new term quickly became established.
Changes to the Laws of Cricket
As a direct consequence of the 1932–33 tour, the MCC introduced a new rule to the Laws of Cricket in 1935. Specifically, umpires were now given the power — and the responsibility — to intervene if they considered a bowler was deliberately aiming at a batsman with intent to injure.
Some 25 years later, another rule was introduced banning the placement of more than two fielders in the quadrant of the field behind square leg. Although this rule was not principally intended to prevent leg theory, it diluted the potency of short-pitched leg theory, as it allowed for fewer catching positions on the leg side.
Later law changes, under the heading of "Intimidatory Short Pitched Bowling", also restricted the number of "bouncers" which may be bowled in an over. Nevertheless, the tactic of intimidating the batsman is still used to an extent that would have been shocking in 1933, although it is less dangerous now because today’s players wear helmets and generally far more protective gear. The West Indies teams of the 1980s, which regularly fielded a bowling attack comprising some of the best fast bowlers in cricket history, were perhaps the most feared exponents.
Following the 1932–33 series, several authors — including many of the players involved — released books expressing various points of view about Bodyline. Many argued that it was a scourge on cricket and must be stamped out, while some did not see what all the fuss was about.
The MCC asked Harold Larwood to sign an apology to them for his bowling in Australia, making his selection for England again conditional upon it. Larwood was furious at the notion, pointing out that he had been following orders from his upper-class captain, and that was where any blame should lie. Larwood never played for England again, and became vilified in his own country. In retrospect, this event is seen by many as the first step in breaking down the class distinction in English cricket. Douglas Jardine always defended his tactics and in the book he wrote about the tour, In Quest of the Ashes, described allegations that the England bowlers directed their attack with the intention of causing physical harm as stupid and patently untruthful.
Outside the sport, there were significant consequences for Anglo-Australian relations, which remained strained, until the outbreak of World War II made cooperation paramount. Business between the two countries was adversely affected as citizens of each country displayed a preference for not buying goods manufactured in the other. Australian commerce also suffered in British colonies in Asia: the North China Daily News published a pro-Bodyline editorial, denouncing Australians as sore losers. An Australian journalist reported that several business deals in Hong Kong and Shanghai were lost by Australians because of local reactions.
English immigrants in Australia found themselves shunned and persecuted by locals, and Australian visitors to England were treated similarly. Some years later a statue of Prince Albert in Sydney was vandalised, with an ear being knocked off and the word "BODYLINE" painted on it.
Both before and after World War II, numerous satirical cartoons and comedy skits were written, mostly in Australia, based on events of the Bodyline tour. Generally, they poked fun at the English.
In 1984, Australia’s Network Ten produced a television miniseries titled Bodyline, dramatising the events of the 1932–33 English tour of Australia. It starred Gary Sweet as Don Bradman, Hugo Weaving as Douglas Jardine, Jim Holt as Harold Larwood, Rhys McConnochie as Pelham Warner and Frank Thring as Jardine’s mentor Lord Harris. The series took some liberties with historical accuracy for the sake of drama, including a depiction of angry Australian fans burning an English flag at the Adelaide Test, an event which was never documented. Larwood, having emigrated to Australia in 1950 to escape ongoing vilification in England, received several threatening and obscene phone calls after the series aired.
Currently, Australian film director and producer Peter Clifton is co-producing The Bloody Ashes, a film which will focus on the Bodyline series. The person chosen to play Bradman will receive six months’ intensive acting lessons. An Australian casting agency has been commissioned for the search, while UK casting scouts are hunting for cricketing actors to play English captain Douglas Jardine and his star fast bowler Harold Larwood. Clifton, who wrote the film with his long-time writing partner Michael Thomas, said the decision to search cricket clubs for the young Bradman role came after lengthy discussions with former Australian cricket captain Ian Chappell. Shooting of The Bloody Ashes is expected to commence this year.
To this day, the Bodyline tour remains one of the most significant events in the history of cricket, and strong in the consciousness of many cricket followers. In a poll of cricket journalists, commentators, and players in 2004, the Bodyline tour was ranked the most important event in cricket history.