Bill Woodfull (inset) ducks under to avoid a rising ball from Harold Larwood in the Ashes Test at Brisbane in the infamous Bodyline series in 1933 © Getty Images
On January 14, 1933, Australian captain Bill Woodfull staggered after being hit over the heart by a ball from Harold Larwood. Two days later, wicketkeeper Bert Oldfield edged a pull off the same bowler to his temple. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the day Bodyline bowling brought the situation on the brink of a riot.
The match began ominously on Friday the 13th.
By mid-afternoon on January 14, the omens that had been evil all through the acrimonious series, crystallised into events of horror, quakes of rising deliveries and ruthless tactics that still register as tremors of aftershock every time cricketing history is revisited.
Attack on the heart
Harold Larwood steamed in from the Torrens end, with a crowd of 50,792 watching from the stands – the largest audience that had ever assembled at the Adelaide Oval. The fifth ball rose viciously, whooshing over the head of captain Bill Woodfull. There was an audible gasp that rippled around the ground. Bodyline had raised several questions, most of them uncomfortable. And now it seemed more likely than ever that someone would pay for this zeal to win a sporting contest with his life.
It had been suggested that a ball from Larwood had greater force than a shrapnel bullet. It was surely an exaggeration, but not by very much. David Frith in Bodyline Autopsy likens it to a pebble on the lake that skids with a pace that seems to increase with each passing moment. And if that was not all, his bounce varied, and along with it did the risk of decapitation.
The Nottinghamshire miner walked back to his bowling mark, turned around and rushed in. It streaked through, a flaming red cannonball, bounced awkwardly and struck Woodfull above the heart. According to Roman Catholic Bishop of Toowoomba, Dr. James Byrne, who was watching from the stands on his way back from Rome, “It was enough to kill an average man.”
Woodfull staggered and dropped his bat, doubling up with shock and pain, clutching his chest, face screwed up in agony. The English players rushed up and gathered around him. A concerned Gubby Allen, the only fast man not to resort to Bodyline tactics, ran to get a glass of water.
And ostensibly for the benefit of the non-striker, Don Bradman, captain Douglas Jardine cried out to the bowler – “Well bowled, Harold.”
The crowd hissed and swore. Not only were hoots coming through loud and clear from the grassy mounds, but there was simmering disquiet in the members’ enclosure. Wally Hammond was concerned enough to call out to Larwood, “Don’t take any notice of them.”
In his inadvisable account of the tour, Bodyline?, ghost written and published immediately on his return to England, Larwood is quoted as saying that Woodfull and Bradman put on shows whenever the balls were short, to give the impression to the crowds that the bowler was out to kill them.
However, this was no play-acting by any stretch of imagination. Woodfull was in pain. If the pericardium had been full of blood at the peak of a heartbeat, he might have been killed – much like Abdul Aziz and Martin Bedkober died due to cricketing injuries many years later.
Gwen Woodfull, the wife of the Australian captain, claimed that the death of her husband, in 1965 at the age of 67, had been hastened by the chest blows that he absorbed in 1932-33.
In the stands was the cricket-loving Robert Menzies, later Prime Minister of Australia, and then the Deputy Premier of Victoria. He was in the midst of an excellent discussion with a soft-spoken, cultured, quiet man seated next to him. When Woodfull was hit, this respectable gentleman jumped to his feet, according to Menzies: “His face was choleric, he shouted, he raved, and he flung implications on Larwood and Jardine because of what his eyes had seen.”
Dick Whitington, who later became the biographer of Bill O’Reilly, wrote of his experiences as a 20-year old: “I saw some Adelaide’s octogenarians in the members’ enclosure rise to their feet, flush scarlet of face, and with their Adam’s apples throbbing, count Jardine and his team out. Respectable Adelaide men they were, professionals and businessmen, scions of Adelaide’s establishment … They did not want to sit without protesting while it (Bodyline bowling) was being aimed at the heart and head of a badly stricken man, a man who in their opinion stood for all the finest qualities they associated with cricket.”
Only one team is playing cricket
The events that followed did not help curb the public outrage. Bradman took some runs off Allen, and the ball was back with Larwood for the next over. And Jardine motioned his men to move to the leg-trap. One by one they went across the field to join Allen at short-leg. Jardine, Hedley Verity, Herbert Sutcliffe – while Hammond took up his position at long leg. Only Bill Voce stood alone at deep point. It looked like the conspiracy to kill set in motion.
The match continued amidst abuses hurled at the English players. Canon Hughes, the Victoria Cricket Association President, was moved enough to suggest, “Cancel the remaining Tests. Let England take the Ashes for what they are worth.”
Larwood’s next thunderbolt knocked the bat out of Woodfull’s hand. Bradman hit the following ball straight to short square leg. And after a while, with a few more marks on the body to show for his efforts, Woodfull was bowled by Allen off a ball that kept low.
Australia ended that blackest of cricketing days at 109 for four, 232 behind, Bill Ponsford and Vic Richardson battling bravely.
The late afternoon, while Ponsford was hit over and over again on his rubber padded body, and local hero Richardson stuck to the task with a show of incredible pluck, there was some famous action taking place in the Australian dressing room. English managers, Plum Warner and Dick Palairet, called upon the injured Australian captain to ask after his injury and wish him well. By Jack Fingleton’s account, Woodfull was on the massage table. According to Leo O’Brien, he was standing with a towel around his waist. The words that were exchanged have been retold in multiple versions depending on the raconteur of choice. However, in gist, Woodfull told Warner that there were two teams out there, one trying to play cricket and the other not.
This message was leaked to the press, and to this day it remains unclear how. Warner thought it was Fingleton’s doing, Fingleton pointed his finger at Bradman – a fact the great man denied till his dying day, O’Brien claimed it could have been anybody. However, the message had been shared. The Australian public had got to know that their captain did not approve of the English tactics and had made his voice heard clearly.
Warner communicated Woodfull’s reaction to Jardine, but the captain could not care less. Allen recalled that Jardine locked the door and relayed the information to his team, and warned them not to speak to anyone about it – especially the press. Having done his job at the end of a successful day, he accompanied Allen to spend the rest day with friends in Victor Harbour.
In the Australian dressing room the mood was different, united by a nasty attack on their cumulative body and mind. Ponsford and Richardson returned to a sympathetic applause. Stan McCabe went up to Woodfull to inform him that they were out of beer, and the ACB secretary Bill Jeanes had asked the steward not to send in anymore because they had had their quota.
Woodfull, a schoolmaster and a tee-totaller, now squared up to Jeanes with the words, “No beer, no play on Monday. I mean that.” The amber liquid soon flowed in the dressing room.
Bill Woodfull (left) and Don Bradman going out to bat in 1934 Bodyline series © Getty Images
The blow to the temple
When play started again on Monday, the attendance was over 32,000. Sitting amidst the spectators were Ike Fisher, the umpire in Adelaide’s first Test match in 1884.
Richardson and Ponsford carried on their partnership to 80 before Allen bowled the former. In walked Bert Oldfield, the Australian wicket-keeper, and proceeded to bat splendidly. There were rising hopes of a real revival.
After lunch, with the new ball soon due, Jardine opened with Hammond and Voce. Woodfull and Bradman, in the meantime, had gone over to the Governor’s box, to pay a visit to Sir George Murray, the Acting Governor of South Australia.
Now Ponsford was bowled by Voce, a result of exposing his leg-stump once too often. It had been a valiant innings of 85. Grimmett followed soon, and Oldfield was joined by Tim Wall.
The wicketkeeper had evaded the short stuff till then and creamed a few boundaries off the fast men. Larwood, with the second new ball now charged in and Oldfield hit him for a boundary through the covers, bringing a response of “Good short, Bert” from Larwood. Oldfield was now looking good on 41.
The next ball was short and slightly slower. Oldfield lost it against the low sightscreen, changed his shot from a cut to a pull, and swiped at it. The ball was deflected directly onto his temple. The impact of ball hitting flesh and bone was loud enough to be heard with distinct clarity on the radio.
Had the impact been an inch either way, it would have been death for the plucky wicketkeeper. Oldfield reeled, clutching his head, staggering towards point, and tumbled to his knees. Umpire George Hele rushed to him, as did the English fielders. Allen again ran to get a jug of water. The bowler apologised and was relieved to hear Oldfield murmur, “It wasn’t your fault, Harold.”
In walked Woodfull, clad in the suit he had put on to visit the Governor’s box. His steps were purposeful and angry. He went up to the wicket-keeper and softly said, “Come along Bertie.” Clutching the bat handed over by the umpire, the captain helped the dazed batsman back to the pavilion.
The crowd hooted, jeered. “Go home, you Pommy bastards!” rang out from various sections. The policemen around the ground were tense. There was every indication that some of the crowd would jump the pickets and attack the English players. And if it happened and the mob followed, there was hardly anything the few members of the force could do to stop them. The South Australian Cricket Association office called the Angas Street police headquarters for reinforcement. A horde of cops arrived on motor-cycles.
However, not all the policemen were eager to help out the Englishmen. An Adelaide barrister, standing by the pickets at the front of the Giffen Stand, was invited by a mature police inspector to jump the fence if he wished. “I won’t stop you,” he was told by the agent of law.
Maurice Tate sat with the English cricketers in the pavilion. He wanted to get out of there before someone got hurt. He wrote later that it was war. “I call it a ‘war’ advisedly after having gone all through France with the Royal Artillery. Why it did not end in heavy casualties I don’t know.”
The English players eyed the stumps as possible weapons of self-defence. Oldfield, who had been critically wounded by a German shell during the fierce fighting at Polygon Wood in 1917, now had blood trickling from a linear fracture of the right frontal bone.
However, years later, Larwood and Oldfield became the best of friends. When the wicketkeeper passed away in 1976, Larwood was one of the pall bearers at the funeral. In October 2000, Oldfield’s cap, which many think saved his life that day, was sold at the Christie’s saleroom in Melbourne for $28,000.
The bitter end
It was perhaps the comical batting by O’Reilly that followed which went a long way in soothing the angry crowd. And in a display of courage nearing insanity, Jardine walked to the leg boundary and positioned himself close to the hostile crowd.
The captain of England was a complex man. As Hammond bowled Wall to end the Australian innings at 222, resulting in a lead of 119 for England, he returned to the pavilion and immediately sent a telegram to Mrs. Ruth Oldfield, expressing hope that her husband would recover soon. Next, he arranged for a friend in Sydney to deliver a pair of Shirley Temple dolls for Oldfield’s two little daughters.
Having done this, he went in to open the innings with Sutcliffe. The air was vicious. As Wall started his run up, the crowd chanted, “Hit him on the bloody head, Tim.” Richardson put on the pads to keep wickets in the absence of Oldfield. Bradman stared down at Jardine long and hard from silly point. However, the captain survived the second successive dismal day – scoring 24 not out.
England piled up 412 in their second innings and the victory came easily, by 338 runs. The second innings saw some more bowling to the body, with the leg trap set up to nab anything that came its way. Bradman responded by adopting macabre tactics of whacking everything in sight. His 66 came off 71 balls, and the ball before he was dismissed off Verity had been dispatched into the members’ reserve, damaging a woman’s arm and bringing the Don his first six in a First-class match. He frankly stated, “I wanted to hit one bowler (Verity) before Larwood hit me.”
As the last man, Bert Ironmonger, was dismissed, he grabbed the stumps as souvenirs. Maurice Leyland came across and pretended to rugby-tackle him, asking for a stump. A female spectator in a de rigueur cloche hat shouted, “Don’t give it to him, Bert. Hit him over the bloody head with it.”
This final incident summed up the feelings. It had been the most unpleasant match ever played, and Wisden noted that the atmosphere was “a disgrace to cricket.”
(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)