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The Bodyline cables – Australian Board sends the infamous protest message to MCC

Australian captain, Bill Woodfull ducks to a rising delivery from England pacer, Harold Larwood as six catchers crowed the leg side © Getty Images
Australian captain, Bill Woodfull ducks to a rising delivery from England pacer, Harold Larwood as six catchers crowed the leg side © Getty Images

January 18, 1933. After captain Bill Woodfull had been struck on the heart, wicketkeeper Bert Oldfield hit on the temple in a near fatal blow, and several other batsmen battered and bruised, the Australian Board of Control finally sent a cable to lodge its protest to the Marylebone Cricket Club. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the incidents that led to the missive, followed by the diplomatic blunders that resulted in continued bad blood.

 

Attacking the heart and the head

The match began ominously on Friday the 13th.

During the mid-afternoon of January 14, Australian captain Bill Woodfull was struck over his heart by a flaming red cannonball from Harold Larwood. He dropped his bat, clutched his chest and staggered. If the pericardium had been full of blood at the peak of a heartbeat, he might have been killed.

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.

And as the crowd gasped, hissed, swore and hooted, England skipper Douglas Jardine turned to his lethal bowler and remarked, “Well bowled Harold.” Whether it was just for the benefit of Don Bradman at the non-striker’s end or not, it did not go down well.

The events that followed did not help curb the public outrage. Bradman took some runs off Gubby 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 had been set in motion.

The match continued amidst abuses hurled at the English players. Canon Hughes, the Victoria Cricket Association President, was incensed enough to suggest, “Cancel the remaining Tests. Let England take the Ashes for what they are worth.”

Late afternoon on that same day, while Ponsford was hit over and over again on his rubber padded body, there took place that incident in the Australian dressing room that has gone down as infamous folklore. The managers of the England team, 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.

The Englishmen were stung to the core. And the message was leaked to the press.

And after an ironically restless Sunday, the omens that had been evil all through the acrimonious series crystallised into its final shape of horror.

Bert Oldfield, the Australian wicketkeeper, had evaded the short stuff till then and had 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. He was 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 killed the plucky wicketkeeper. Oldfield reeled, clutching his head, staggering towards point, and tumbled to his knees. Umpire George Hele rushed towards him, as did the English fielders. Allen 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 a 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 stood 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 second innings of Australia started on Wednesday after England had set a target of 532. It 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.”

The first cable

 

By the afternoon, as Australia hurtled towards defeat, it was decided – rather uncertainly and not quite unanimously – that an official protest had to be lodged. The Board had been debating for a while now, and by that epochal January 18, the decision had been taken.

Only four of the 13 delegates were present at Adelaide to witness the shelling indulged in by the English bowlers. BV Scrymgour, HW Hodgetts and RF Middleton were all from South Australia. WL Kelly had come in from Victoria. The protest cable was drafted by the four of them and a copy was telegraphed to the chairman of the board Dr AWD Robertson in Melbourne.

There followed a fusillade of telegrams, sent to the remaining eight Board members. The three New South Welshmen , RA Oxdale, WC Bull and FM Cush voted against the sending of the cable to MCC, as did Roger Hartigan and JS Hutcheon of Queensland.  The upcoming Test matches in Brisbane and Sydney were at stake and these splendid gentlemen were worried about the gates.

Harold Rowe of Western Australia, who in 1907-08 had become the first batsman to score a century for the state against an English side, supported the protest. So did Dr Ramsay Mailer of Victoria and Harold Bushby of Tasmania. Hence the votes tallied to 8-5 in favour of sending the cable.

The wording of the cable was clumsy, inelegant, ill-formed. Some thought it was too late to send such a missive, others said it was too early. In any case, the Board’s attempt to persuade Woodfull and Bradman to add their names to the cable was shot down. Both the players refused and insisted that it had to go out from the Board and not the cricketers.

Robert Menzies, then the deputy premier of Victoria, saw the cable, but his personal advise was to get Woodfull and Jardine together for a private discussion. In his memoirs, Afternoon Light, Menzies described Jardine as a cricketing Coriolanus. It was the Adelaide incident which changed his opinion about leg-theory. Till the Test match, he had not realised how dangerous such tactics could be.

The hastily drafted cable was shot off to Lord’s. And it was only afterwards that Bill Jeanes, the secretary of the South Australia Cricket Association, copied it in a corner of the Australian dressing room. With the message in his hand, he summoned the Pressmen to the SACA office at the Adelaide Oval and read out the lines:

“Australian Board of Control to MCC January 18, 1933

 

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 existing between Australia and England.”

A bemused Bill O’Reilly said that he just agreed to be ‘unsportsmanlike’.

The Board had not only stopped short of giving much thought about the correct wording and diplomacy, they had blundered in other ways as well. The cable had been dispatched at the normal rate. On the other hand, Gilbert Mant, the Reuter correspondent, acted fast and cabled a summary of the situation to London at the urgent rate. Hence, the agency story was already in the city by the early hours, and newspapermen were working feverishly on it. The MCC president, Viscount Lewisham, was woken up at half-past two in the morning, being asked for his reactions. According to Mant, it was Reuters’ first major scoop since the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

In contrast, the Board’s cable landed only around lunchtime. The tardiness had adverse effect. By then, Lord’s was fuming. Whatever effect the slowly filtering news of the tactics of Jardine might have had on them previously were nullified. The reaction was uniformly unsympathetic.

According to David Frith, “Lord’s hardly expected that its lofty figurehead would be shaken from his slumbers in this way in the middle of a winter night. And to level any accusation of unsporting behaviour at a nation which prided itself on sportsmanship above any other quality was to slap the Imperial face with a very heavy glove.”

Not only did the authorities in the stuffy Longroom of Lord’s react strongly, the press of both the countries criticised the cable. The Herald of Melbourne compared it to Australian cricket holding a pistol to the heads of the English cricket authorities. The Age said that the cable could not be justified.

In England, Daily Herald called it ‘undignified snivelling’. Will Dyson, the Australian cartoonist of the paper, drew a bruised and bandaged Australian batsman pleading to the League of Nations, “Tell ’em I’m here, cobber. It’s urgent.”

The Australian players were generally in support of the communication, all except Vic Richardson. The reasons of the veteran all-round sportsman were sound: “Englishmen could have no idea of what was going on. MCC would be inclined to support its team. The word ‘unsporting’ would be a red rag to a bull. Sending it when Australia had just gone 1-2 down in the series made it seem like squealing.” He favoured a secret report to Lord’s at the end of the series, something that was kept from the Press.

In the England camp, Wally Hammond felt the protest was justified but thought it would have been better to hold it back to the end of the series. But, whatever misgivings Jardine himself might have felt was quelled by the only fast bowler of England who refused to bowl Bodyline – Gubby Allen.

“Have you seen the cable?” asked the visibly worried captain to his fellow amateur.

Allen replied, “Yes, I have, and I think it’s dreadful.”

To this, Jardine sighed, “I know they’ll let me down at Lord’s.”

And Allen responded, “No, Douglas, you’re wrong. No one can call an Englishman unsporting and get away with it. They’ve lost the battle with the first shot they’ve fired.”

Allen recalled later that at that moment, Jardine’s face broke into a smile.

The response

Australia waited for an answer.

In the meantime, Woodfull drafted a letter to the chairman of the board, Allen Robertson, which expressed his concern for his players and also his worry about the international relations. “Since entering Test cricket in 1926, I have not been sure that it is for the good of the Empire that in times when England and Australia need to be pulling together large sections of both countries are embittered.”

Robertson, in a rather severe reaction, wrote to the Board secretary, “I would go so far as to cancel the next Test games and all the Test games for the next 10 or 12 years, but of course I am only one of the number.”

Meanwhile, MCC took their time. The first draft was prepared by William Findlay, the MCC secretary, and a former Lancashire batsman, with the sterling background of Eton and Oxford. His short message had also taken into consideration the cables he had received from Jardine and Warner. It ran:

“Much regret contents of your cable. Marylebone assured that no English bowler bowls at the man but at leg stump which is said to be the weakness of certain batsmen. Cricketers of today have not had great experience of fast bowling and the open stance of batsmen necessarily increases risk. Of all considerations friendly relations and the game itself paramount. If remaining Tests cannot be played in this spirit and appreciated by players and spectators alike would it not be well to consider substitution of state games?”

However, this draft was scrapped. Viscount Lewisham met Baronet Sir Kynaston Studd, Lord Mayor of London and MCC committee member, former Etonian and member of the Cambridge cricket team that had defeated the Australians in 1882. The two spent two hours at Lord’s, rewording the cable.

The committee that gathered at Lord’s to approve this response comprised of aristocracy, men in high positions in government and public service, men of excellent credentials in the world of scholarship and sports, and even some members close to the Royalty. It was almost a House of Lord’s in miniature. Lewisham and Studd were joined by the Yorkshire Cricket supremo and former MCC president Lord Hawke, former Home Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty Viscount Bridgeman, the former England captain and Conservative Party chairman Sir Francis Stanley Jackson, and barrister and former MCC secretary Sir Francis Lacey.

Ultimately the cable that reached Australia was far more articulate, and full of diplomatic artillery:

“MCC to Australian Board of Control, January 23, 1933.

We, Marylebone Cricket Club, deplore your cable. We deprecate your opinion that there has been unsportsmanlike play. We have fullest confidence in captain, team and managers, and are convinced that they would do nothing to infringe either the Laws of Cricket or the spirit of the game. We have no evidence that our confidence has been misplaced. Much as we regret accidents to Woodfull and Oldfield, we understand that in neither case was the bowler to blame. If the Australian Board of Control wish to propose a new law or rule it shall receive our careful consideration in due course. We hope the situation is not now as serious as your cable would seem to indicate, but if it is such as to jeopardise the good relations between English and Australian cricketers, and you consider it desirable to cancel remainder of programme, we would consent with great reluctance.”

According to Daily Herald, Australia’s protest had been “a little rude”, while “our reply was unnecessarily stiff.”

It was a stalemate with no easy solution.

Brief scores:

England 341 (Maurice Leyland 83, Bob Wyatt 78, Eddie Paynter 77; Tim Wall 5 for 72) and 412 (Douglas Jardine 56, Wally Hammond 85, Les Ames 69, Maurice Leyland 42, Bob Wyatt 49, Hedley Verity 40; Bill O’Reilly 4 for 79) beat Australia 222 (Bill Ponsford 85, Bert Oldfield 41; Gubby Allen 4 for 71) and 193 (Bill Woodfull 73, Don Bradman 66; Harold Larwood 4 for 71, Gubby Allen 4 for 50) by 338 runs.

 

(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)

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