The England tour of Australia for the Ashes in 1932-33 has gone down in history as the most controversial series ever played. The England team, under newly appointed captain Douglas Jardine, travelled to Australia with extensive strategies to counter the aggressive Australian batsmen, and more importantly to stop a marauding Don Bradman.
The tour has gone down in annals of history as one of the most significant events in the game and it was instrumental in changing several dynamics of the game in later years to come.
The 1930 Australia tour of England had been a nightmare for the hosts. Australia had won the 5-match series 2-1, and while the scoreline may suggest that the series was closely contested, there was a huge gulf of class between the two teams.
Don Bradman had scored a mind boggling 974 runs in the series at 139.4 runs per innings, a record that is yet to be broken. Bradman’s average in that period was close to a hundred, and it was becoming almost impossible to stop him in full flow. The seeds of Bodyline were sown in the Oval Test in that series, when after a light rain stoppage Bradman was seen to struggle against short pitched deliveries that were skidding off the track.
When Jardine was appointed captain for the 1932 tour of Australia, he saw footage of the previous series, hoping to find something to aid his bowlers on the tour. After watching Bradman’s struggle, he realised he had found the perfect weapon to stop Bradman and Australia.
Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, England’s premier fast bowlers, had been selected for the tour. Jardine met up with them and discussed in detail about the strategies he planned to employ on the tour and instructed the duo to practice bowling short pitched deliveries on the leg stump.
Although Larwood and Voce accepted the ploy, the third frontline bowler, Gubby Allen was sternly against negative tactics and refused to bowl to a bodyline fielding, opting instead to bowl conventionally.
The strategy of Bodyline, or fast leg theory bowling, is quite simple. The rules at that time were not as strict as they are today; the fielding positions were generously flexible. The main idea was to constrict a batsman for any room to play an attacking shot, with the line of bowling being primarily on the leg stump and pitching it short.
There would be several fielders behind the batsman, something akin to a conventional slip cordon but on the batsman’s on side, and a short pitched delivery on the body would be fended off awkwardly by the batsman on the leg side, which brought the leg side field into play.
Jardine did not employ this tactic in the practice matches leading up to the first Test, wanting to save his trump card for the real thing. The first Test was played at the Sydney Cricket ground. Australia played under the captaincy of Bill Woodfull, and fielded a strong team despite missing Bradman due to injury.
Harold Larwood, described by many commentators as the finest bowler of his generation, was known for his extreme pace and deadly accuracy. Although there were no speed guns during the time, tests carried out in later years from video footages have shown that he could regularly touch speeds in excess of 95 mph.
The number is terrifying even today, and what made it all the more intimidating was the batsmen in those days used to play without a chest guard and a helmet.
Larwood was near unplayable on the first day, with all the batsmen surrendering to the Bodyline tactics. The only one who stood tall among the ruins was Stan McCabe, who despite taking several blows on the body, hooked and pulled bravely and fought his way to 187.
Australia lost the match by 10 wickets, with Larwood getting a 10 wicket haul in the match. Bradman returned for the second Test in Melbourne, and was dismissed for a golden ball duck in the first innings, leaving the whole stadium in shock and the England players in jubilation.
Jardine is famously remembered to have danced wildly following Bradman’s wicket. Bradman however made a strong reply in the second innings, and his match winning century levelled the series 1-1.