1933 December 7, 2013

A near riot at Adelaide Oval

The lowest point of one of cricket's most bitter series came in Adelaide in 1933, when mounted police were needed to prevent a riot in an Ashes Test

The infamous Bodyline series has had more written about it than any other series in cricket history, and as time goes on, interest in it shows no sign of waning. It even spawned a lamentable television mini-series.

A few minutes of grainy black-and-white film is all most of us have seen of the series, which, with a few dozen photographs, still stir emotions on either side of the world.

The Adelaide Test in January 1933 represents Bodyline's nadir both on and off the field and triggered a series of consequences that for a time threatened not only the tour but also diplomatic relations between old world and new.

The build-up to the match did not bode well. Douglas Jardine's haughty approach - he made little attempt to hide his disdain for Australians - ensured a frosty welcome in many towns, but it was the tourists' adoption of leg theory that really caused the pressure to rise.

The series headed to Adelaide for the third Test of the summer and one that started with the teams all square after Australia's win at Melbourne. Interest was high and three times as many passengers as normal crammed trains from Melbourne to Adelaide. It was widely believed that the second Test had shown leg theory as being conquerable. Former Australian captain Monty Noble summed that feeling up in his syndicated newspaper column headlined: "Shock attack will be ineffective."

Jardine, irritated by the behaviour of some youthful spectators at the first practice session at the Oval, banned the public from watching England in the nets on the day before the match. The authorities briefly threatened to ban journalists as well, as a protest, but relented.

The first day was Australia's as they reduced England to 30 for 4 after Jardine won the toss, the tourists eventually recovering to an improved but below-par 236 for 7. But signs of strain were already showing. Maurice Leyland accused Australian spinner Bert Ironmonger of smearing resin on the ball. Ironmonger promptly showed his empty pocket and Leyland apologised. Later in the day Jardine complained that Vic Richardson at square leg was moving his position behind his back. "Such incidents do not make for good feeling among opponents," reported the Western Australian.

On the second day a record 50,962 crammed into the Oval, attracted by England struggling and the prospect of seeing Don Bradman bat. England extended their score to 341 at a pedestrian pace and no sooner had Australia's reply started that the outrage began.

Larwood and Gubby Allen opened the attack with conventional fields and Allen removed Jack Fingleton with the third ball. In his first over Larwood struck Bill Woodfull, Australia's captain, over the heart; he dropped his bat and staggered away from the stumps, clutching his chest as the crowd booed loudly. Jardine called out to Larwood, "Well bowled, Harold", a move aimed more at unsettling Bradman at the non-striker's end than anything else.

That remark was not heard by the crowd but what happened next only served to infuriate them again. As Larwood prepared to bowl the first ball of his next over, Jardine stopped him at the top of his run and very deliberately and slowly switched the field to one for Bodyline. The aggressive intent was clear and reaction from the crowd was close to fury. Jardine's behaviour was later described by an Australian selector as "the most unsportsmanlike act ever witnessed on an Australian cricket field".

Probably the classic Bodyline photo: Bill Woodfull ducks a ball from Harold Larwood in Adelaide. The ring of close fielders are there to catch the ball as the batsman fends it away from his body, with more in the deep. At times there were only two on the off side © Getty Images

Woodfull, a courageous man, was said to have been white as a sheet as he prepared to face Larwood bowling leg theory. Larwood was barracked and booed throughout his overs, and the noise grew even louder when he knocked Woodfull's bat out of his hands. As police scurried round the boundary edge, fearing an invasion, an English fielder was said to have turned to George Hele, one of the umpires, and said: "George, if they come over the fence, leave me a stump." Hele smiled. "Not on your life, I'll need all three myself."

Bradman and Stan McCabe soon departed - both caught in the leg cordon, fending off short deliveries - but Bill Ponsford, protected by extra padding, took blow after blow on the body, some on the back as he turned away, in a three-and-a-half hour stay. He deliberately and painfully let the ball hit him, figuring if he did not play it with the bat he could not get out.

Woodfull was fourth man out for 22. Back in the Australian dressing room he took a shower and was said to have told Leo O'Brien, Australia's 12th man: "Leo, there's some awful things going on out there."

Just then Plum Warner, the MCC manager, walked in to check if Woodfull was all right. In one of the game's most notorious exchanges, Woodfull reportedly replied: "I don't want to see you, Mr Warner. There are two sides out there. One is trying to play cricket, the other is not." It was later reported he added: "The game is too good to be spoilt. It's time some people got out of it."

"Don't give him a drink. Let the bastard die of thirst"
Barrack aimed at Jardine during a drinks interval

Australia closed on 109 for 4 but all the talk was of Bodyline. Given the anger among the crowd at the close of play it was fortunate the next day was a rest day. But as the players relaxed the Australian board met to decide whether it should lodge a formal complaint against Bodyline with the MCC. The South Australian board took threats of trouble seriously enough to have an armed guard placed out in the middle of the Oval overnight.

The front pages of the Monday newspapers had lurid accounts of the Woodfull-Warner exchange dominating. Who leaked the story was a debate that raged for years, but a livid Woodfull blamed Jack Fingleton, a team-mate but also a journalist. Fingleton in turn accused Bradman. Respected author David Frith, who wrote Bodyline Autopsy, the definitive book about the series, said that the leak was a good thing. "It showed Australians everywhere, especially those who were restraining themselves, that even the greatly respected Woodfull was deeply upset by England's bowling tactics. He had kept quiet, but now word was out, and it gave impetus to the mass protest in Australia."

The mood when play resumed was ugly. The future Australian prime minister Robert Menzies recalled the calm man he sat next to for the second day was "a changed person… he was on his feet and his face was choleric. He shouted, he raved, he flung imprecations at Larwood and Jardine."

An ill-advised press statement was issued by Warner, saying Woodfull "expressed regret" for the incident and that "we are the best of friends". A furious Woodfull immediately told reporters: "I did not apologise to Mr Warner for any statement, I merely told him there was not anything personal between us. I strongly repudiate any suggestion I tendered an apology to Mr Warner for any statement I made."

Things got worse in the middle as well. In the afternoon Larwood, again bowling to a conventional field, struck Australia's wicketkeeper Oldfield a sickening blow. Caught in two minds how to deal with a shortish ball, Oldfield top-edged it into his head, reeling away before collapsing to the ground.

Larwood immediately apologised, Oldfield telling him it was not his fault. But the crowd could not hear that and again made clear its anger, and the sight of a suited Woodfull marching out from the pavilion to help the stricken Oldfield off just fuelled the flames. It was later revealed Oldfield's skull had been fractured.

Unbeknown to the players, the Adelaide authorities were prepared for all eventualities, and as the booing and yelling continued police took up positions inside the boundary. Some local newspapers claimed they were armed.

Bill O'Reilly was the next man in. "There were mounted police everywhere, trying to keep the crowd back," he said. "Had one jumped, the whole lot would have come over. It was lucky for Jardine we were in Adelaide. If Bertie had been struck in Melbourne or Sydney, the mob wouldn't have been waiting around. They would have tried to lynch him."

Calm was slowly restored, only for Jardine to put himself out in the deep. Depending on your view it was either an act of antagonism or bravery. Either way, it was brief. Pelted with orange peel, he returned aristocratically to the middle.

Australia lost their last three wickets almost straight away, surrendering a first-innings lead of 119 runs, and England batted out the rest of the day in an ugly atmosphere. As England's players left the ground at the end of the day a number of spectators waited behind to give them a hostile send-off.

England dominated the remainder of the match, setting Australia 531 to win. Even in an era where newspapers concentrated on the game and not the politics surrounding it, coverage was as much about the deteriorating situation off the pitch, filled with news of terse cables being exchanged between the Australian Cricket Board and the MCC.

Only 7000 turned up for the sixth - and final - day with Australia certain to lose, which they duly did by 338 runs. Perhaps that was fortunate, given Jardine's brief post-match address to the crowd. "What I have to say is not worth listening to," he told them. "Those of you who had seats got your money's worth, and then some. Thank you."

What happened next?

  • England won the two remaining Tests to take the series 4-1. But the shock waves Bodyline caused rumbled on for years to come
  • Larwood, who took 33 wickets in the series, broke down in the final Test and never played for England again. Many felt the establishment had made him the scapegoat for Bodyline when he was simply the tool. He emigrated to Australia in 1950, where he was warmly welcomed. A crowd turned out to greet him when he arrived in Melbourne. "History embalmed Larwood in the Bodyline series, as though he died bowling it," wrote Duncan Hamilton. "As a cricketer, he is preserved only in its controversy"
  • In Bodyline Autopsy Frith revealed that, according to the reliable Gilbert Mant (the last of the reporters from that series to die, and a personal friend), it was Bradman who told a reporter, Claude Corbett, about Woodfull's outburst. Mant and Corbett were respected and trustworthy individuals, and Frith said he had no doubt they were speaking the truth.

Bodyline Autopsy by David Frith (Aurum, 2002)
Harold Larwood by Duncan Hamilton (Quercus, 2010 )
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • S on December 10, 2013, 11:22 GMT

    "setting ... 531 to win", amazing how history can repeat in the details. The same target set in two test matches at the same ground 80 years apart. The boot may seem to be on the other foot, but the threat to life and limb is not comparable.

  • Android on December 9, 2013, 16:58 GMT

    Thanks David, I retract my words that included the great Don. Yet, it is a familiar story of every batsman being uncomfortable with that length when bowled at good pace. Mitchell Johnson proved it in the last 2 ashes tests.

  • John on December 9, 2013, 3:35 GMT

    Most players are susceptible against a good short ball at pace. Only guys I can think of who attacked a short ball most of the time is Ponting, Viv, Greenidge etc (ADD MORE). Other great players played the short ball well by judging the length early and deciding most of the times to let it go which is a great skill that most of the modern batsmen lack.

  • Varnendra on December 8, 2013, 6:25 GMT

    @John Sunder, Are you an Indian? You try to find a flaw in Bradman so that you hope to equate Tendulkar with Bradman! No chance. Bradman is the greatest sportsman ever. Even as batsmen before Tendulkar you have got Viv Richards, Gary Sobers and may be a few more.

  • Richard on December 8, 2013, 4:35 GMT

    @boomslanger:- If you think the Windies only started sending down short stuff to we Australians in retaliation for Lillee and Thomson might I suggest you look up the names Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith. There was another fellow who's name escapes me atm who played twenty or thirty years before even that who used to deliberately throw bean balls at batsmen when he used to get annoyed. Not even the Windies themselves could prevail upon him to cease and desist in what was clearly unsportsmanlike conduct of the highest order and their only solution was to never select him again, so you see as with England and Australia the Windies have always understood the deal, when you have them you use them 'cause when the boot is on the other foot the oppostion certainly will.

  • Richard on December 8, 2013, 3:33 GMT

    @boomslanger:-Not such a surprise really, if you have them, use them. England and Australia have been doing that since the dawn of test matches. At various times one or the other had the firepower and has not hesitated to use it. Frank Tyson didn't bowl spin, you know, and he wasn't shy about pitching short, and Rick McCosker's jaw wasn't broken by a yorker in the Centenary Test in 1977. We may not like it when the other side has the big guns but that's life, short pitched balls are a valid weapon in the fast bowler's armoury, as are the Googly and the Doosra to spinners. It's no crime, but part of the game, and modern protective equipment makes serious injury unlikely.

  • Bingo on December 7, 2013, 23:26 GMT

    It is unfortunate that the bodyline spirit is still alive and well, that too in Australia of all places. Things get just about as nasty as they can with only the "rules" making it difficult to set and bowl to the Bodyline paradigm in all its hideous implications. If I cant get his wicket I shall break his head. Bodyline did not hit Australia once. It did so once again when the Windies bowled brutally in response to Lillie and Thompson flagrant disregard of causing injury to the opposing batsmen which, later, led Wet Indies to retaliate with a chain of fast bowlers, the like of which the world has never seen again. Soon after (the consequent English tour by West Indies, I am not sure) the bouncer laws came into being (one thought to rein in the West Indian fast bowlers more than anyone else) and Aussies and the world sighed with relief. But now, with no such attack to fear, the Australians are again talking about breaking bones and such... "Those who don't learn from history ..."

  • ian on December 7, 2013, 22:53 GMT

    A brief digest of the '33 Adelaide Test (or indeed of the Body-line series itself) cannot do justice to the complexities (social, political as well as cricketing) that were involved. Gubby Allen, an amateur (or 'gentleman') cricketer, for instance, refused to bowl bodyline, but he could afford not to, as he was not dependent on cricket for his livelihood, unlike Larwood & his Nottinghamshire friend & partner in quick bowling, Bill Voce. After this series, Larwood never played for England again, although Voce continued to do so & returned to Australia after the War, in 1946. Politics, again! One of the most heartwarming stories in the whole of cricket (alongside the far better-known story of Basil D'Oliveira) is the manner in which that great human being, Jack Fingleton, 'rescued' Harold & his family from post-war obscurity in Blackpool & encouraged & then smoothed the path for the Larwoods to emigrate to Sydney in 1950. I do recommend Duncan Hamlilton's book for the full story.

  • Gopalakrishna on December 7, 2013, 16:31 GMT

    Don is all time cricket great and remains the same, irrespective of what and how people talk after generations of he gracing the cricket field. If some plans like body line had have to be devised to tackle him, then all have to think of how much an awe he generated in opposition with his skill. He is by far the most popular sportsman ever graced this planet, popular in both ways like how much he is loved other than Brits and how much he is loathed by Brits. My most favorite TV show is body line and not only me I heard this from many and from some Brit friends of mine.