Jean Paul Sartre and Douglas Jardine: hatching radical ideas in eateries in the same season    Getty Images
Jean Paul Sartre and Douglas Jardine: hatching radical ideas in eateries in the same season Getty Images

The 1932-33 season changed it all. The abstract nonsense about spirit of cricket was overthrown in favour of the win-at-all-costs method. It was a diabolical plan hatched in a London grillroom. Across the channel, in a Parisian caf , another discussion was being held which would revolutionise the philosophical and literary world forever and changed the landscape of post-War European history. Arunabha Sengupta writes about the curious parallels between Bodyline and Existentialism.

The miners and the gentleman

They met in the grillroom of the Piccadilly Hotel.

One of them was a perfect specimen of the gentleman class. Winchester, Oxford, exquisitely dressed, a qualified solicitor who preferred to make his living as a banker. He did most of the talking, as could be expected. The other two main characters were miners from Nottinghamshire. Rustic, unsophisticated, but one could see that they were virile young men at the very prime of their being.

They listened to what the gentleman explained with extraordinary attention to detail. They were taken aback, surprise registered on their faces. But the misgivings did not make their way through to their lips. In the end, they nodded. They were up to it. They could do what the gentleman had asked them to.

Thus was the plan hatched, the tactics to rein in the phenomenon called Don Bradman. Douglas Jardine, the captain of England, put down his knife and fork and dabbed his lips with the napkin. Duncan Hamilton claims that they had steak and potatoes that day, but we cannot be sure. However, that does not really matter. Jardine s job for the day was done.

The battle was yet to be fought, but the war plan had been agreed upon. The two principal weapons in his artillery had sworn allegiance. There was no bowler in the world who bowled as fast and with as much menace as the diminutive Harold Larwood. And the bearlike Bill Voce was just a shade slower, his left arm deliveries always created an awkward angle.

In the background sat that macabre character of English cricket. Former captain of the country, skipper of the Nottinghamshire side, compulsively anti-establishment, controversial and a perennial champion of his team members, Arthur Carr had backed Larwood and Voce to the hilt. He had ensured that they kept running in, lubricating the fast-bowling machinery with flowing glasses of beer during every break. It was he who had brought them along to London to dine with Jardine. And now, as his wards nodded respectfully at the words of Mr Jardine, Carr allowed himself a smile.

Carr knew, as did Jardine, that cricket would never be the same again. Something was about to be aimed at the very core of its being, which would make a mockery of all the superficial talk about the spirit of the game and all that nonsense that abounded in the 1920s. All that Warner-speak about the essence of Englishness and the soul of tradition and what not. For Jardine there was only one goal. That was to win. And it implied that he had to stop Bradman. Stop the man who had piled 974 runs in the series when Australia had visited in 1930. Stop that man and the Ashes would be won. In their very backyard where uncultured barrackers heckled you as soon as you got on the field.

All that spirit of cricket was hogwash. It was funny in a way because Plum Warner, the forerunner of this spirit brigade, was going to be the manager on the tour and had been instrumental in getting Jardine the job of the captain.

Jardine knew that existence preceded essence. He planned to unleash terror that would bring the existence of the Australian batsmen into peril. The rest, as they say, is history. Bodyline had been kick-started.

Meanwhile in Paris

Across the channel, something as remarkably radical was being born. It was the winter of 1932, and the world was in the process of recovering from one Great War, stumbling on global depression and lurching towards World War 2.

In these best of times and worst of times, there was something afoot in the other great city. It took place in the Bec-de-Gaz bar on the Rue de Montparnasse in Paris.

As opposed to steak and potatoes of the London hustle, on the table in the Parisian caf stood the house speciality apricot cocktails.

There were three main characters here as well, but they did not discuss cricket. They discussed life, and they discussed philosophy, and they found the two to be one and the same.

There was a twenty-five-year-old young lady, a head-turban covering her hair, looking elegant with her high cheekbones and attractive, attentive eyes.

Seated next to her was a man two years older, with severe exotropia of the eyes giving the impression of looking in two directions. He hardly reached five feet, his shoulders were round, and the lips with which he puffed his pipe were already down turned like a grouper.

They were a couple. And if someone found it odd for the presentable Simon de Beauvoir to have such a curious looking boyfriend, the moment Jean-Paul Sartre started speaking, the ugliness dissolved into an aura of incisive intelligence, zest and charm. Sartre was teaching in Le Havre and Beauvoir in Rouen. And they were bored by the abstract axioms of the old philosophers that formed the standard fare of academic courses.

And on this evening, they were joined by Raymond Aron. He had been at Ecole Normale Superieure with Sartre. In fact, Beauvoir had also sat in classes there, although not officially enrolled in the institute.While Sartre and Beauvoir had stayed back to teach in provincial French towns, Aron had travelled to Berlin for further studies.

Now Aron was agog with the new discoveries he had made in Germany. He was filling his friends in about phenomenology. He was talking about how the German phenomenologists seldom grappled with the abstract theories of philosophy and zeroed in directly on their living experiences.

They no longer dwelled in the ethereal world of essences, and met practical life head on. Aron related how Edmund Husserl had declared, To the things themselves. How philosophy could be eked out from material things. Even from, for instance, the apricot cocktail they had been drinking.

According to Beauvoir, Sartre turned pale on hearing this. He rushed to the nearest bookshop, screaming, Give me all you have got on phenomenology. He tore the books open and started to read even as he walked down the street.

That was the start. Sartre would soon convert phenomenology to a philosophy for the real being, to real things.

And remarkably, he summarised his principle in three words. Existence precedes essence. Remarkably similar to what Jardine could have said to discard Warner-ian platitudes.

Sartre, and Beauvoir, would soon give the world what is now known as Existentialism. Literature, philosophy and twentieth century Europe would never be the same again.

Radical parallels

Curious indeed, that two revolutionary methods were hatched in the same time, almost in similar setting. And while they dealt with different worlds, they talked in curiously similar terms.

The following abstract from Sartre s speech could be the very foundation on which Jardine s thought process was built: There is no traced-out path to lead man to his salvation. He must constantly invent his own path. But to invent it, he is free, responsible, without excuse, and every hope lies within him.

Jardine chose his way, and Sartre would have appreciated his ability to choose for himself.

There was no conforming to abstract standards. There was no fooling himself that he was the victim of circumstances or of someone else s perhaps Warner s bad advice. Other England captains might have baulked, and come back beaten black and blue by Bradman s terrifying run-making feats. Jardine chose his way on the edge of the dizzying precipice of crossroads, and finished successful by sticking to the course.

The reactions to these ideas were also similar.

After Jardine was given a hero s welcome when he returned from Australia, the powers that be quickly did a turncoat. Larwood did not bowl for England again. Jardine himself voluntarily stepped down after leading a home series against West Indies and a tour to India. But, it was no secret that it would have been very difficult to retain him when the Australians came over in 1934. Rules were changed and Bodyline bowling was outlawed.

As for Existentialism, the Catholic Church put Sartre s entire collection of works in the Index of Prohibited Books. They did the same to Beauvoir s The Second Sex.

The world has judged Jardine as a villain and Larwood as his henchman. However, Sartre would have probably appreciated the choice, if the French cared about cricket. The world judged him as a patron saint of revolutionaries.

After all, Sartre did propose that all situations be judged according to how they appeared in the eyes of the most oppressed, or those whose suffering was the greatest. He meant it for the oppressed on the grounds of race or class, or fighting against colonialism or dictators.

However, shift the action to the cricket ground of the early 1930s and who would come across as the most oppressed? The bowling sides being put to sword by Bradman s willow. There was no soul more miserable in cricket than those unfortunates.

Indeed, if one was to judge from the point of view of these shell-shocked bowlers, the methods were indeed justified. Bodyline bowling was unleashed, England won the series 4-1. And Bradman was restricted to an average of 56. Fabulous numbers but human.

Existence over essence.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history of cricket, with occasional statistical pieces and reflections on the modern game. He is also the author of four novels, the most recent being Sherlock Holmes and the Birth of The Ashes. He tweets here.)