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November 2, 2002
It was 70 years ago this year that the traditional cricketing rivalry between England and Australia took on a more sinister dimension. A rift was opened between the two countries, and the Empire itself, by the addition of a new word in the vocabulary of cricket. Bodyline.
For anyone who is not aware of a row that had reverberations at governmental level, it all centred on the England side's single-minded objective of shackling Don Bradman's powers. They knew that if they could stop Bradman gorging himself at the expense of the England attack, there was a chance of a close series. Let Bradman get away, and they had little hope of success.
The plan to stop him, and the other great Australian batsmen, involved bowling fast and short at the body with close fielders ranged around the leg side to snap up the catches that were bound to come as batsmen fended off these lifting balls as a means of self preservation. But how did this plan evolve?
There have been many theories and much speculation. Some stubborn Englishmen claimed the whole episode to be a figment of a fevered Australian imagination. There were others who suspected a machiavellian plot carefully crafted by English captain Douglas Jardine and his cronies before the team even left the mother country or, at the very latest, on the ship to Perth.
All this happened years before I was born but I was aware of the significance of the 1932/33 Bodyline tour as I grew up in cricket. Anyone with a sense of history is fascinated by the players, characters and events of the past and on one summer Sunday morning in 1990, all these figures and events of the past came alive before my eyes - or at least before my ears.
I was recording a series of interviews with some of the great and the good (and a few who were neither!) in the game on behalf of their counties as a sort of living history. Warwickshire asked me to include a certain RES Wyatt. Bob Wyatt had been Jardine's vice-captain on the 1932/33 tour to Australia and, apart from talking about the rest of a long and successful career in the game, I wanted to know what really happened all those years ago. He was 89 years of age at the time, but his recall was unimpaired as we sat in a room in London and he told his tale. I was spellbound.
So was it at a meeting with the Nottinghamshire captain, Arthur Carr, in London about his two fast bowlers, Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, that the plan was hatched? Was it aboard the Orient Line's "Orontes" on the long passage out that Jardine hit upon the idea? The answer was neither.
Wyatt claimed responsibility, albeit inadvertently. "We were playing against an Australian XI in Melbourne and Douglas (Jardine) had gone away fishing and left me in charge. It was a very, very fast wicket and the ball got old pretty quickly and ceased to swing away when Harold Larwood was bowling.
"The Australians being mainly back-footed players, were playing the ball on the on side. So I moved one slip, then another, then another onto the leg side with the idea of stopping runs. It was not with a view to intimidation or anything of that sort. Harold was bowling very fast and it wasn't very pleasant, I admit, but it was only occasionally that he dropped one short.
"Don Bradman was obviously very worried about it and, in fact, complained to the board of control about our method of attack. That was a very foolish thing to do. When Jardine came back, I told him what had happened."
According to Wyatt, Jardine had taken in what he was told and said "That's very interesting; we'll pursue the matter." He was delighted that, in Wyatt's words, "We frightened Don out of his life and then bowled him out. That's where the idea of bodyline started."
Pursue the matter they did. Not in the first Test at Sydney, Wyatt said, when England won by ten wickets, scoring the one run needed in the second innings off the first ball. Bradman was not playing in that match as he was not fully fit, but he was back for the Melbourne Test and was bowled first ball by Bill Bowes when he played on. He got 103 in the second innings and Australia levelled the series with a 111-run win.
Bodyline was employed in Melbourne because Wyatt remembered all the pace had been taken out of the wicket. England had left out Hedley Verity and played a fourth fast bowler and so on a slow pitch in the second innings Jardine used the field set by Wyatt in the previous match.
So to Adelaide. "It was a fairly fast wicket, we lost four wickets for 30 runs so the crowd were buoyed up and thought it was wonderful." That was when Wyatt joined Maurice Leyland and England went from 30 for four to 341 all out (Wyatt 78). Australia were bowled out for 221, Bill Woodfull was hit in the chest and, in Wyatt's words, "That's when the balloon went up.
"Then Douglas, very foolishly, moved all the fielders over to the leg side. Then (Bert) Oldfield was hit on the head - entirely his own fault, he was outside off stump - but the crowd took exception to it. They didn't like to see their wickets go down."
England won that match by 338 runs, went three-one up in Brisbane's first Test and sealed a four-one series win back in Sydney where Larwood rubbed salt into the many wounds by scoring 98 as nightwatchman. He took 33 wickets at under 20 a piece, while Bradman's average, 99.94 in all Tests, fell to a mere (!) 56.57 in this series. Job done, but at what cost?
Wyatt exploded a few more theories as he reminisced. Gubby Allen apparently did not refuse to bowl bodyline; "He wasn't asked to - he wasn't accurate enough and he'd never have been capable." Jardine was not loathed as much by his own side as by the Australians. "He was very much maligned and all the side were devoted to him. He did some strange things but he was a thorough gent in every way."
Having said that, Wyatt himself did not approve of this method of attack. "I could see the reasons for it, but I decided it wasn't a good thing because anything that bred ill feeling must be bad for the game."
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