Sticky Wicket: From Bodyline to Bairstow

Oliver Webb-Carter

Our editor was in the Long Room on Day 5 of the Lord's Test Match.
Bodyline in action.
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With the third Ashes Test nearing completion at the time of writing, it’s extraordinary to see the recent back and forth between British and Australian Prime Ministers due to a controversial incident that called into question sporting behaviour. The last time we saw the Ashes intervening on the geopolitical sphere was during the Bodyline series of 1932/3.

Douglas Jardine had taken the England side to Australian and employed Harold Larwood and Bill Voce to deliver ‘leg theory’, packing the leg side with close fielders and then peppering the batsman with short balls aimed at middle and leg, the objective being to neutralise Don Bradman. The tactic was a success and England won the series 4-1, however Bradman still scored 396 runs at 56.57.

During the 19th and early 20th century it was considered unsportsmanlike to bowl at the leg stump and in the 1920s a number of teams had tested the theory, including Australian state sides, England and the West Indies, but it was controversial and considered ‘not cricket.’ After nearly three Tests of brutal fast bowling, the Australian Cricket Board sent a cable to MCC at Lord’s on the 18th January 1933 (Day 5 at Adelaide):

Bodyline bowling assumed such proportions as to menace best interests of game, making protection of body by batsmen the main consideration. Causing intensely bitter feeling between players, as well as injury. In our opinion is unsportsmanlike. Unless stopped at once likely to upset friendly relations between Australia and England.

Jardine was unmoved. Short pitched bowling of the sort seen at Lord’s on days one and three would no doubt have caused muttering in the pavilion had we gone back in time, and of course the great West Indies side of the 1980s suffered criticism despite simply making use of their vast armoury of world class fast bowlers.

And so on to the incident and its aftermath. I was in the Long Room on Sunday as the Australian team left the field at lunch and witnessed the disgraceful scenes. There is no doubt that those in the LR, many of whom were Associate Members, were influenced by the crowd which, whilst creating a fantastic atmosphere, delivered chants such as, ‘Same old Aussies, always cheating’.

I had implored fellow members before Cummins and his teammates entered the Pavilion that silence was the best possible response. Sadly my call went unheeded and members booed and a number shouted out ‘cheats’. Three members have been suspended, and I’d happily support their expulsion from MCC.

The controversy we’ve seen is because cricket is supposedly different to other sports, not least for its duration, but also the ‘Spirit of Cricket’. Many may snort at this ‘English invention’ but at its heart there is the pursuit of an ideal that goes beyond professionalism. There is a reason Alex Carey’s stumping attracted so much comment. Many may sneer, but had Cummins withdrawn his appeal, cricket as a whole would have won, not just Australia.

Despite this, had the Bairstow incident not occurred the series would probably have limped to a depressing defeat for England, but instead we saw a quite incredible century from Ben Stokes – the best I’ve ever witnessed. It’s also injected real spice into the series, and so I for one am delighted with Carey’s opportunism, even if I did give his team the silent treatment when they walked past me at lunch.


Oliver Webb-Carter is the Editor of Aspects of History. You can listen to Ollie chat history with guests on the Aspects of History Podcast.