Douglas Jardine May 12, 2011

An irresistible force

Christopher Douglas
Douglas Jardine's desire to win back the Ashes at all costs brought him the urn, and vilification in England and Australia

It's a perverse choice, I know, because DRJ wasn't exactly a crowd pleaser - dour, defensive batting style, awkward, stiff-legged way of moving around the field, and a firm belief that any noise coming from the stands should be punished by an immediate 30-minute suspension of play. He captained England only 15 times (won nine, lost one, drew five) but as time goes by his stature seems to grow. And that's because in 1932-33 he took a side to Australia and regained the Ashes. Ray Illingworth and Pelham Warner are the only other England captains to have achieved this.

Douglas Jardine is the name more than any other that stands for the legendary British qualities of cool-headed determination, implacable resolve, patrician disdain for crowds and critics alike - if you're English that is. To Australians the name is synonymous with the legendary British qualities of snobbishness, cynicism and downright Pommie arrogance.

I certainly don't spend time rereading accounts of matches that Douglas Jardine played or watching old film of him, nor do I have his photo on my bedroom wall. But since writing a biography of him over 20 years ago, I have always had an affection for him, not just as a fearless, single-minded, scary, hook-nosed sort of toff, which I suppose part of me would quite like to be, but because he was partly responsible for my education.

I left school at 15 and the two years I spent in my early twenties researching DRJ's life and trying to express it in coherent form was the nearest I got to going to college. There wasn't much money in it, so I had to subsidise the writing with scraps of TV acting work and doing the horses (I dedicated the book to my five biggest winners). It's safe to say I would have been the very last person DRJ would have chosen for the job.

I was deeply conscious of my unsuitability as I interviewed those who knew him: Percy Fender, Gubby Allen, Jack Fingleton, Bob Wyatt and so on. But having to get to grips with the single most important episode in DRJ's life - Bodyline - with very little prior knowledge still less opinion was probably an advantage.

There was nothing illegal about Bodyline. DRJ had such a profound respect for the laws that he would never have countenanced it otherwise. It wasn't by any means guaranteed to work but he was prepared to risk everything on its success - death or glory

The defenders of Bodyline bowling have all died off and we are all now agreed that it had to end, but the more interesting thing about it to me is that it had to start. It's true that Jardine was the first to implement the strategy of fast short-pitched bowling with a packed leg-side field, but it was a stage in the game's evolution rather than a dastardly one-off plan and it was always going to happen sooner or later. The lbw law, the pitches, the height of the stumps, even the size of the ball, were all in the batsman's favour at the time and something had to give. Even Don Bradman, Bodyline's chief target, admitted as much in a letter to MCC shortly before the tour.

There was nothing illegal about Bodyline. DRJ had such a profound respect for the laws that he would never have countenanced it otherwise. It wasn't by any means guaranteed to work but he was prepared to risk everything on its success - death or glory. He called his account of the tour In Quest of the Ashes (it's just been splendidly reissued by Methuen with a brilliant foreword on Bodyline by Mike Brearley) and he saw the campaign as something noble and knightly. "Fear and be slain" he would quote to his children in later life, and on the Bodyline tour his bowlers would be reminded as they enjoyed a final fag before taking the field that "an hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name".

He wasn't a villain but decades of Australian resentment have lent him a kind of villainous glamour that I find irresistible. Likewise his sense of humour: when Herbert Sutcliffe had a benefit match coming up, DRJ sent him an umbrella for luck.

Until recently his portrait hung in the Long Room at Lord's, appropriately enough underneath Bradman's, DRJ's cool gaze staring directly into the faces of visiting teams as they clattered through the hushed interior on their way out on to the field. He has been moved to the bar now, as has Bradman, which I think is a pity because it always seemed gloriously ironic that the two great adversaries - the master strategist and the game's pre-eminent genius - should occupy the same patch of wall space. But Douglas Jardine has survived many attempts to airbrush him out of history and now his status as a sporting icon seems more secure than ever.

Christopher Douglas is an actor and writer best known in cricket circles as the co-creator of Dave Podmore, the fictional journeyman cricketer who inhabits the Guardian and BBC Radio 4. This article was first published in the Wisden Cricketer in 2005