Bodyline: How the most infamous word in cricket was coined
W M Woodfull ducks under a rising ball from Harold Larwood in the 4th Test match at Brisbane in the infamous Bodyline series © Getty Images
After hostile fast bowling on the first day of the 1932-33 Ashes series, a Melbourne newspaper used a term for the first time that hurtled into infamy. Arunabha Sengupta recounts how ‘Bodyline’ was coined by the Australian journalist Hugh Buggy.
The first day was not that controversial, but the dreaded word was coined on that very evening.
The sixth ball by Harold Larwood almost decapitated the Australian captain Bill Woodfull, but it was regulation short pitched bowling to a conventional field.
As the day progressed, and Australia struggled against sustained pace in spite of the slow wicket, Douglas Jardine slowly added more and more fielders to the leg trap. It was not really a surprise. A fortnight earlier at Melbourne, under RES Wyatt’s captaincy, England had already provided a taste of leg-theory bowling to an almost full strength Australian XI.
After 38 minutes of ducking and weaving, Woodfull finally decided to hook a short ball directed to his body, and got a nick to Les Ames off Bill Voce.
Don Bradman was not playing in the Test. There had been conflicts with the Australian Cricket Board (ACB as Cricket Australia was known then) regarding his contract and conflicting interests as a journalist. However, Jardine maintained that it was a case of nervous breakdown suffered after coming up against the English tactics at Melbourne, where Don Bradman’s hopping technique and tennis-like shots had not been successful. The great man would later return for the second Test to score a first ball duck and a crucial century.
In Bradman’s absence, Jack Fingleton walked out at No 3 and along with Bill Ponsford went through a painstaking partnership. After an hour punctuated by painful blows to the body, both fell to the relentlessly fast Larwood.
Stan McCabe’s brilliance
Stan McCabe punctured Larwood’s leg-theory like no other Australian batsmen © Getty Images
With the leg trap set and balls whistling near the left ear, Stan McCabe decided to retaliate. He unleashed a barrage of fearless hooks and pulls. Apart from the posse of close in men, there were always two out in the country on the leg side, but McCabe did not pull his punches. As Vic Richardson stood firm at the other end in a gutsy display, McCabe lit up the Sydney Cricket Ground with an exhilarating exhibition of counter attack. Again and again Larwood and Voce ran in to pitch short with men cluttering the leg side, Gubby Allen bowled almost as fast, albeit with an orthodox field, and McCabe rocked back and essayed horizontal batted strokes, sending the ball through the barricading army into the outfield.
It was scintillating stuff. Larwood later confessed that if the rest of the Australian batsmen had gone after the short balls as McCabe did on that day, leg-theory would have been dispensed with quite early in the series.
Australia ended the first day at 290 for six, with McCabe unbeaten on 127.
The birth of the dreaded word
Hugh Buggy was one of the most energetic and colourful journalists of his time. He was a pure reporter; with a passion for being near the action. He covered the Melbourne police strike in 1923, the fatal shoot-out between ‘Squizzy’ Taylor and ‘Snowy’ Cutmore in 1927, the arrival in Brisbane of Kingsford-Smith and the Southern Cross in 1928 and the last election campaign of S. M. (Viscount) Bruce in 1929. Following the Greycliffe ferry disaster of 1927, he arranged a secret night rendezvous with the diver whose job was to recover bodies from the Sydney Harbour bed.
Earlier that year in1932, following the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, he had been the only pressman to secure an interview with Captain Francis de Groot.
Buggy reported more than 200 murder investigations and 83 murder trials, and attended nine hangings in his career. At the same time he managed to be a highly respected writer on sport, particularly football. During the Australian summer of 1932, he was covering the Ashes series.
Former Australian Rules Football star, Jack Worrall, was another senior journalist covering the tour. He had already mentioned that the English bowling in Australia was on the line of the body.
It was a common enough opinion, voicing the concerns of many. Even the distinguished critic of the Sunday Referee, JC Davis, expressed misgivings about the four fast bowlers selected by England, writing: “If the battery achieves success it may be done by contravening the spirit of cricket.”
However, after the first day’s play at Sydney, Hugh Buggy, in a ‘telegraphese’ version of Worrall’s words, sent his copy to the Melbourne Age using the phrase “body-line bowling”. His sub-editor, Ray Robinson, removed the hyphen and shortened it to one composite word.
While Worrall claimed that he had invented the word, it was only after it had been blazoned in the headlines of Age based on Buggy’s report that the term Bodyline achieved wide publicity.
Neither Buggy nor Worrall could have foreseen the notoriety the term would soon be associated with. Nor could they have predicted that in a few days it would not only cover cricket but all forms of conduct that could be interpreted as hitting below the belt.
Later, when cables flew between the two boards, the word gained official status. On January 18, 1933, after the fourth day of the Adelaide Test, the ABC sent off a stinging cable to Lord’s that ran: “Bodyline bowling has assumed such proportions as to menace the best interests of the game, making protection of the body by the batsmen the main consideration. This is causing intensely bitter feeling between the players as well as injury. In our opinion it is unsportsmanlike. Unless stopped at once it is likely to upset the friendly relations existing between Australia and England.”
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)