Bodyline Autopsy May 24, 2008

Look back in equanimity

Rob Steen
David Frith's history of cricket's most fractious series is exhaustive in its attention to detail



The recent reprint of Douglas Jardine's account of the 1932-33 Bodyline series, which includes neither a thimbleful of remorse nor even a mention of the B-word, supplied proof that cricket's most controversial and divisive chapter still retains a pull on publishers' heartstrings and purse-strings. Fortunately, the antidote was already freely available. Better yet, whether you agree with him or not, David Frith subverts convention, coming to terms with Jardine and spotlighting Don Bradman's warts.

"Historians, who have access to all the records, know much more about a battle than the participants." Thus does the game's pre-eminent historian quote Nigel Nicholson in his preface to the umpteenth attempt to unravel and recreate the events of that most revisited of Ashes ventures. Having spoken at length to eight MCC tourists, five of the Australian players and two travelling journalists, and met eight more of the participants, including both umpires, nobody since Jack Fingleton 35 years ago has been better placed to tell the tale and deliver the verdict.

No detail is left unturned. Even the state matches are brought to life. The source of the dressing-room leak at Adelaide - where the injured Bill Woodfull reportedly told Pelham Warner that whatever Harold Larwood and Co were bowling, it had nothing to do with cricket - is examined in especially revealing fashion. Bradman, despite decades of denial, emerges as Prince Machiavelli.

Crucially, tellingly, we get the back story: Sir Otto Niemayer, advisor to the Bank of England, telling Australia's state premiers how to run their country; disquiet from Buckingham Palace about the appointment of the first Australian Governor-General, the wonderfully-named Sir Isaac Isaacs; the bold refusal by New South Wales' "thundering, square-jawed Premier" Jack Lang to meet interest payments due to London owners of government bonds. Those crowd riots had strong foundations.

"My personal stance," Frith states from the outset, "is as an Anglo-Australian who cares deeply about these two nations and the bonds between them, and about the cricket relationship in particular. One of the benefits this hybrid condition affords is that one can stand back and consider the foibles of both countries with even-handed amusement." This equanimity even persuades him to ditch an intense dislike for Jardine in favour of respect.

Indeed, if Bill O'Reilly can sheath his long-standing objections, who are we bystanders to bear a grudge? The Fingleton quote in the final paragraph - "I think, looking back, the Australians perhaps made too much fuss about it" - precedes Frith's parting plea: Jardine deserves forgiveness. "So long as there is no recurrence."

From the book
The newspaper stories about dissension in the camp had been started, Larwood thought, by the Nawab of Pataudi, who seethed for some time at having been dropped so soon after making his first Test century. "Before I left England several people told me that there were many qualities I'd like in Douglas. Well, I've been with him now for nearly three months and I haven't found one yet that I care for."

Further complicating Jardine's feelings in victory and in the vote of support from his men was the recall of his visit to the Australian dressing-room in quest of an apology for an alleged reference to Larwood as a "bastard". Vic Richardson answered the door. Upon being told of the nature of Jardine's call he turned to the players inside and said, "Hey, which of you bastards called Larwood a bastard instead of Jardine?" A variant came in a cartoon drawn years later in which Richardson is asking, "Which one of you bastards called this bastard a bastard?"

What a generous-spirited cricket series it was.

Bodyline Autopsy by David Frith (Aurum Press, 2002)