Cricket Crisis February 23, 2008

War diary

Fingleton's account of Bodyline may not be definitive, but it is fair, if contrarian, and bears the ineffable scent of leather



What's often forgotten about Jack Fingleton's Cricket Crisis is that it was not so much a book as a counterblast. In 1942, Sir Pelham Warner published his self-serving, self-glorifying Cricket Between the Two Wars, repeating the canard that Fingleton, then a journalist at Sydney's Sun, leaked the story of Warner's famous dressing room contretemps with Bill Woodfull. Fed up with the insinuation, Fingleton decided to write his own account "of the war in cricket between the two other Wars". It is by no means definitive or even sequential, and the second half of the book is composed of more conventional reminiscences. But it is trenchant, disarmingly fair-minded, and informed by bitter experience. As Pliny's account of the eruption of Vesuvius has the whiff of sulphur, so Cricket Crisis has the scent of leather.

The tone is not so much of anger as gravest melancholy. When Fingleton scored a century against the early form of Bodyline, for New South Wales, he experienced no "wild thrill". This, he explained, was not "because of the physical pummelling I had taken", but because of the "consciousness of a crashed ideal". Bodyline hurt his attachment to cricket, and "Test cricket lost something that it never regained". What was worse was that, such was Don Bradman's omnipotence at the time, Fingleton could see the argument for it. Indeed, Fingleton felt "positive that had Bradman been an Englishman and whipped the Australians as did he the English, the Australians would have been tempted to use some such drastic theory against Bradman". All the same, he doubted its efficacy against Douglas Jardine: "Jardine himself could have been battered black and blue and never cried 'enough'. He was chockful of courage."

Fingleton was possessed of an unlikely admiration for England's iron duke: "Never once ... did Jardine deviate from what he considered his path of duty. He was convinced he had been given a certain task to carry out. That task came within the laws of the game and, by the beard of Grace, he would carry out that job and all the barracking in and out of Australia would not deter him." Fingleton was actually more enamoured of Jardine than of his own skipper: "If any dignity was left to Test cricket at the end of that 1932-33 season, it was due entirely to Mr W. M. Woodfull, but Bodyline was a grim and ruthless battle into which a leader of mild gentility came somewhat poorly equipped." Warner, meanwhile, gets a right old kicking: "Cricket to him was life and religion, but when the MCC committee recanted on him and suggested that he should accept or do nothing about the dogma of the Bodyline creed, Warner became an apostate from his convictions and sought solace for his cricket soul in what he was pleased to call loyalty."

The star of Cricket Crisis, of course, is Bradman, who is written of with clarity, insight and acute candour. "His colleagues," Fingleton admits, "frequently felt that they were mere lay figures or items of scenery to be arranged to provide a background for the principal actor." There is also some asperity, for Fingleton breaks the dressing room omerta to reveal that Woodfull and others were annoyed at the "capers" that Bradman cut in trying to combat Larwood. The counterblast provoked its own, Johnnie Moyes setting to work at once on the res gestae that became Bradman (1948). Thus did arguments begin that haven't finished yet.

From the book:
Jack Fingleton on Harold Larwood: I, for one, will never cease to sing Larwood's praises as a bowler...One could tell his art by his run to the wickets. It was a poem of athletic grace, as each muscle gave over to the other with perfect balance and the utmost power. He began his long run slowly, this splendidly proportioned athlete, like a sprinter unleashed for a hundred yards dash. His legs and arms pistoned up his speed, and as he neared the wickets he was in very truth like the Flying Scotsman thundering through an east coast station...

The first time I was in runs with Larwood bowling I was watching, naturally, the batsman at the other end as Larwood ran up. Just as Larwood approached the crease I heard a loud scraping sound and the thought flashed across my mind that Larwood had fallen. He had not. A few yeards from the crease he gathered himself up and hurled all his force down onto a stiff right leg which skidded along the ground for some feet. How his muscles and bones stood this terrific test over the years is a mystery to me....I had this interesting experience from batting against Larwood. The first dorsal interasseous muscle between the thumb and the index finger, ached for a week after batting against Larwood, so severe was the concussion of the ball hitting the bat. I experienced this against no other fast bowler.

Cricket Crisis
by Jack Fingleton

Cassell, 1947

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer