A tactic of its time

Why Jardine's leg theory was almost uniquely a product of its age

Gideon Haigh
Gideon Haigh

The Iron Duke: "Just an old so-and-so who got away with it" © Getty Images
Times change, and so do attitudes. Thirty years ago Kerry Packer was the unacceptable face of sporting capitalism. These days administrators laud him to the skies while entrepreneurs queue to emulate him.
Three-quarters of a century ago Douglas Jardine was about to become the most reviled man in sport, detested by every right-thinking Australian and disliked by not a few Englishmen. The accepted philosophy had been that shared sport could only build warmth of international relations; the Bodyline series showed that different approaches to shared sport could have an equal and opposite effect.
By the mid-1950s some of the breaks had healed and some of the bruises faded: Jardine's chief instrument in his campaign, Harold Larwood, had even settled in Sydney. When the man himself visited Australia he appeared on a radio programme called Guest of Honour, and found the natives disarmingly hospitable. "Though they may not hail me as Uncle Doug, I am no longer the bogeyman," he commented. "Just an old so-and-so who got away with it."
Confirmation of his complete rehabilitation, at least in English eyes, was then perhaps provided by the cover of Wisden Cricket Monthly in February 2002, which acclaimed Nasser Hussain as showing "Shades of Jardine" in his deployment of a leg-side attack to restrain India at Bangalore. The background to Hussain's image was indeed a shade of Jardine, loitering palely, like an apparition in one of those trick photographs favoured by Victorian spiritualists.
Within, Mike Brearley opined that Hussain had reinvented Bodyline, albeit on a less intensive and more limited basis: "Jardine won the Ashes but nearly lost an Empire. Hussain saved a reputation and might have won a series." Editor Stephen Fay wondered aloud if Hussain would prove "as ruthless as Jardine or better than Brearley". Six months later David Frith's magisterial revisitation of the 1932-33 Ashes series, Bodyline Autopsy, concluded with an approving nod to a late-life reflection of Jack Fingleton: "I think, looking back, the Australians perhaps made too much fuss about it." At this rate Michael Vaughan's reintroduction of the harlequin cap cannot be far away.
This mellowing reflects not merely the passage of time but the changing of fashion. Batsmen skewered by pace from four prongs in the 1970s and 1980s found it hard to imagine bowling any more hostile; and if they could take it, then could Bodyline really have been so bad? After all, only Larwood, abetted by Bill Voce, had kept the leg cordons busy; only once in that series had England taken the field without a slow bowler, and Voce gave way to a second spinner in Brisbane.
International cricketers teethed in the 1990s and 2000s exhibit an aggression more calculated and cruel than anything dreamed of around the time of the Great Depression. The only on-field remark that Jardine is recorded to have made with the hint of a sledge was after rival Bill Woodfull absorbed his famous body blow at Adelaide in January 1933. "Well bowled, Harold," the legend goes, was uttered for non-striker Don Bradman's edification. It's hardly "How's your wife and my kids?"
Today it is hard to imagine a captain, least of all in Ashes cricket, responding with such imperturbable passivity to the unfolding plans of his opponent. If anything, the modern custom is to get one's retaliation in first
Jardine having been brought within the realm of the acceptable, it was then but a small step to turn him into an exemplar. Beating Australia with Bradman was obviously no trifling achievement. And from a modern standpoint, beating Australia at all seems the stuff of which dreams are made. Undefeated in a home series for 15 years, still never having dipped their green and gold colours to India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka in front of Australian audiences, they are cricket's benchmark. Jardine's deeds, then, improve a little as each year of Australian hegemony passes.
There is, however, a missing dimension to these calculations: the enigma of Woodfull. The captain who had regained the Ashes in 1930 gave them up 1-4 without ever attempting to parallel England's strategy: as unreactive as Jardine was active. In his classic text Cricket Crisis (1946), Jack Fingleton reflected: "Australia certainly could have retaliated. It is a moot point whether retaliation would not have been the best and quickest way out of the mess, and whether it would not have quelled the jibes of squealing which assailed the Australians from many points at that time and in later years." But where some on his own side, such as his vice-captain Victor Richardson, favoured an eye-for-an-eye response, the Methodist minister's son turned the other cheek.
We now have a rather better understanding of Woodfull's thinking. In the course of the research for a new history of Cricket Australia, Inside Story, a letter from Woodfull came to light which was apparently read aloud at the Australian Board of Control's meeting of 30 January 1933. Woodfull thought that while "not infringing the laws of cricket", Jardine's team were "lowering the prestige of the game".
There is evidence and like to the effect that two prominent English bowlers constantly attack the batsmen without paying the slightest attention to the stumps ... Bowling of this type had unsettled the Australian batsmen during this season and all batsmen have been compelled for the first time to wear not only hip pads but also a pad covering the heart. A more serious injury than has occurred to date is only a matter of time.
Woodfull's suggestion - never entertained - was a meeting between the board, Jardine, and the aqueous English manager Pelham Warner. His general attitude, however, was that he was powerless to do anything - interestingly not so much because of Jardine as because of the Englishman's senior professionals.
To my mind we can hardly legislate on such a question but I would suggest a meeting of the Board with Messrs Jardine and Warner to see whether amicable relations could not be restored to some extent for the present. I am of the opinion that Mr Warner is against the theory ... but that the professional players are too strong in their influence and opinions.
The cricket bodies of both countries could bring pressure to bear, if necessary, on the cricket captains of first-class teams. England, I am certain, will fall into line, especially if they have a real taste of this theory next season in County Cricket. However, it is really on the field that the remedy rests, and while a cricket captain who still has the backing of MCC persists in the practice, little can be done by way of improvement.
Since entering Test cricket I have not been sure that it is for the good of the Empire and in times when England and Australia need to be pulling together, large sections of both countries are embittered. Consequently I think that utmost must be done to find a way out. It appears unlikely that this would be discovered before the end of the present series yet I think it imperative that the matches be continued for more harm than good would be done by cancellation than by carrying out of the programme.

Bill Woodfull's stoical acceptance of leg-theory for the sake of imperial harmony had its part to play © The Cricketer International
This stoical acceptance of England's strategy for the sake of imperial harmony has a certain nobility, but it is also strangely lacking in imagination. It left Woodfull's comrades to solve by their own lights the perplexities Bodyline posed, although he also disapproved of anything that smacked of innovation: thus the captain looked severely on Bradman's response of retreating to leg to exploit the depopulated off. Woodfull was a strong enough man and a respected enough leader to enforce his will on the team, but in doing so, and actually limiting Australian response, he made Bodyline an even more effective approach than it might have been.
It may seem fanciful to suggest that Jardine would have been deflected from his course: he was no more for turning than Margaret Thatcher. But we do know he was surprised that Larwood and Voce proved so penetrative, observing during In Quest of the Ashes (1933) that he was not in advance "inclined to rate the possibilities of leg-theory very highly", because he harboured "a very healthy respect for their [Australians'] play off the leg stump". Never imagining that leg-theory "would stand such a test as would prove its effectiveness throughout the whole tour", he thought merely that it "might occasionally prove a profitable variation when two batsmen were well set". He could persist in part because there was never any threat of reciprocity, or even counter-measure.
Would Jardine make a great captain today? He certainly had the pertinacity and inflexibility of purpose to which a leader facing Ricky Ponting's Australians must aspire, although the cool insouciance in the face of the media might today be harder to achieve. "I'm here to win the Ashes, not provide scoops for your ruddy newspapers," he is alleged to have said; not even Hussain at his rudest ever tried that.
All the same, for Jardine to triumph, he needed a rival like Woodfull, prepared to be run roughshod over for the sake of imperial relations. Today it is hard to imagine a captain, least of all in Ashes cricket, responding with such imperturbable passivity to the unfolding plans of his opponent. If anything, the modern custom is to get one's retaliation in first. So while Jardine's captaincy might appear to have a modern edge, its effectiveness was very much of its time.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer, and the author most recently of Inside Story, a history of the Australian cricket board