The series produced a new word - Bodyline. It was a tactic devised primarily to negate the genius of the young Don Bradman, but it also tested and battered most of the Australian batsmen.
The tactics were not complicated. With no restriction on the number of fielders on the leg side, it meant bowlers could bowl down the leg and so, in effect, make run scoring risky and difficult as the ball had to be safely steered though a packed leg-side field. Nor was the idea new - leg theory, as it was widely know, had been around for decades and while not popular, it was effective and not uncommon.
The difference in 1932-33 was that England possessed a battery of good, accurate fast bowlers - and accuracy and speed were the key - spearheaded by Nottinghamshire's Harold Larwood. That enabled Douglas Jardine, the captain, to maintain a sustained conventional or leg-side attack. But the main difference was that England bowled at the body, not to restrict but to intimidate. In an era where protection was limited to a box, that meant the batsman's very safety was at risk.
The plan was hatched, so the story goes, in 1931 after some players noticed that Bradman had winced when struck on the body and had, so they said, looked frightened. Jardine seized on this and set out for Australia with the bowlers he needed to carry out the tactic.
The tour started well, although Jardine, as establishment as you could ask for, made few friends with his haughty attitude.
England won the first Test by ten wickets without resorting to Bodyline, but crucially Bradman was missing after a row with his own board. The game was memorable for Stan McCabe's courageous 187 but Larwood took 10 for 124. Australia, with Bradman back on board, leveled the series in the second Test, and although Bradman was bowled first ball in the first innings he made an unbeaten hundred in the second.
The storm broke at Adelaide where, at one stage, mounted police mustered outside the ground so certain did a riot seem. The fuse was lit when Larwood struck Bill Woodfull over the heart and then Bert Oldfield on the head, fracturing his skull. Neither injury came when Larwood was bowling Bodyline, but Jardine openly employed the tactic. Wisden noted that this was "probably the most unpleasant Test ever played ... altogether the whole atmosphere was a disgrace to cricket".
Off the field, increasingly hostile cables were exchanged between the two boards. The Australians opened fire on January 18, the fourth day of the Adelaide Test:
"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 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."
"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 remainder of programme we would consent, but with great reluctance."
The exchanges continued, but the ACB, realising that cancellation would have massive financial implications, became slightly more conciliatory. However, the matter was raised at cabinet meetings in London and was treated seriously by both governments.
England, who had won at Adelaide by 338 runs, regained the Ashes with a six-wicket win at Brisbane, a match noted for Eddie Paynter rising from his hospital bed to rescued England's first innings. Larwood took seven wickets, Gubby Allen, who refused to bowl Bodyline, five.
The series ended with another England win at Sydney, Larwood scoring 98 as nightwatchman in what was to be his final Test. He ended with 33 wickets at 19.51.
On the team's return MCC summoned Jardine, Pelham Warner and RNC Palairet, the managers, and Larwood and Voce to Lord's. Warner was vociferous in his criticism of the tactics but he was a lone voice among those who had been on the trip.
The full significance of the English tactics took time to sink in with the establishment in London. But the following summer in a Test at Old Trafford, West Indies' Learie Constantine and Manny Martindale gave England a taste of their own medicine, and E. W. Clark replied in kind. The wicket was slow and so the attack less effective, but people were still shocked. Finally, those in authority sat up and took notice.
At the end of the season MCC passed a resolution that "any form of bowling which is obviously a direct attack by the bowler upon the batsman would be an offence against the spirit of the game". This was accepted by the county captains and ratified by the Imperial Cricket Conference.
Bodyline still took some time to die. In 1934 Nottinghamshire, who had Larwood and Bill Voce in their ranks, were censured for bowling it in some matches, and the county's match with the touring Australians witnessed it.
MCC again acted, adding a clause to the Laws relating to unfair play. Subsequently, the number of fielders allowed behind square on the leg was restricted to two, making Bodyline unworkable.
Wisden Almanack reports
1st Test: Australia v England at Sydney, Dec 2-7, 1932
2nd Test: Australia v England at Melbourne, Dec 30, 1932 - Jan 3, 1933
3rd Test: Australia v England at Adelaide, Jan 13-19, 1933
4th Test: Australia v England at Brisbane, Feb 10-16, 1933
5th Test: Australia v England at Sydney, Feb 23-28, 1933
Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo