Cricket comment: It is claimed that the English ruling class introduced cricket to its colonies in order to uphold the standards of the “gentleman.” For this was a lesson in how a superior class treated governing as its calling.
This interpretation ignores the fact that the partaking of sport was largely an “old-boys” activity restricted to caste and club and that standards of behaviour were imposed on the indigenes. They weren’t necessary for the gentleman because he knew how to behave.
The arrogance of imperial ideology and hypocrisy of the “gentleman’s” ethos is best illuminated by a tour to Australia 80 years ago that became better known as the Bodyline Series.
The MCC, as English touring sides were called, sought revenge for a home defeat in 1930. Depression-stricken Australia, on the other hand, sought Davids to stand up to the imperial Goliath.
They found such a character in the immovable Donald Bradman, compiler of 974 runs in 1930 at an average of nearly 140.
The MCC decided to counter Bradman with a deliberate strategy of short-pitched bowling aimed at the body on the line of leg-stump.
They say that cricket is a batters’ game and it is down to the wily bowler to develop the means to propel his craft. It was less than wily though to adopt tactics such as bowling at the body with a preponderance of fielders on the leg side.
Bowling which intimidates the batter because of speed is a legitimate approach, but bowling deliberately at the body rather than the stumps is illegal. England were faced with a choice — to risk being beaten or to cheat. They chose the latter.
The tactic known as “leg-theory” was not new. Somerset’s Len Braund bowled his leg breaks outside leg stump to a packed off-side field and became one of the first to be associated with it, while the Australian Warwick Armstrong deployed similar methods in internationals.
These early exponents utilised leg-theory in a negative and cynical way. As spinners though they were not dangerous, let alone a threat to life.
A more lethal form had been tried in the 1932 season when Surrey’s Jack Hobbs found himself under fire from Yorkshire quick Bill Bowes. The Cricketer warned that: “This is not bowling. Indeed it is not cricket and if all fast bowlers were to adopt such methods there would be trouble and plenty of it.”
The author of this article Pelham Warner was appointed manager of the 1932-33 tour and Bowes was among his party.
The man chosen to captain the England team was Douglas Jardine. Hearing of his appointment, a former master of his at Winchester remarked: “Well, we shall win the Ashes, but we may lose a dominion.”
England did win the Ashes and reduced Bradman’s average to 56, about half his norm, but they achieved this in the face of intense controversy.
A number of batters were struck and additional padding had to be fashioned to prevent further injury. In the Third Test, after two Australians had been hit, mounted police were called in to prevent a riot.
Australian captain Bill Woodfull complained: “There are two teams out there … One is playing cricket, the other is not.” He was supported by the Australian Board who wrote to the MCC that “(bodyline) is unsportsmanlike and unless stopped at once it is likely to upset the friendly relations existing between Australia and England.”
To the cricketing establishment, stocked with the beneficiaries of a private school education, it was difficult to envisage stronger words.
To them, life’s first lesson was that to practice deception, meanness and irregularity was not “playing the game.” In 1931 Lord Harris had described cricket as “more free from anything sordid, anything dishonourable, than any game in the world.”
The MCC could not accept the demeaning accusation that their side was not “playing the game” and threatened to cancel the tour.
The Times wrote a leader arguing that there was “nothing dishonourable or unsportsmanlike or foreign to the spirit of the game” about England’s bowling. Some papers even equated complaints about leg-theory to a lack of manliness.
Enflaming Australian nationalism, though, was the last thing the British government wanted. It had recently passed the Statute of Westminster which recognised the autonomy of dominion governments and introduced a system of Imperial Preference, from which it hoped to benefit economically.
Links between the Conservative Party and the MCC committee ensured that wider imperial concerns were understood. Warner approached the government’s Australian representative, who in turn spoke to the Australian Prime Minister about using his influence on the board to remove the term “unsportsmanlike.”
Under pressure from their government, who were also worried about potential effects on British conversion loans, the Australian Board withdrew their allegation.
A lesson had been learned: the empire was more important than the Ashes. Tours were meant to celebrate commonly held values and promote imperial unity, not to further the cause of nationalism.
Still, the cricketing establishment now sought a scapegoat to admonish themselves of foul practice.
The fast-bowling ex-miner Harold Larwood was asked to apologise for the leg-theory tactics deployed at the command his Winchester-educated captain.
The proud professional refused to say sorry and the leading wicket-taker from the series never represented his country again.
Larwood would settle happily in Australia, while tourist Gubby Allen wrote to his parents of how “Jardine is loathed and, between you and me, rightly, more than any German who fought in any war.”
What constitutes sportsmanship fluctuates across time. Bodyline went against the spirit of cricket and challenged its laws. Neville Cardus observed that Jardine wasn’t interested in whether the “best team won” but merely in becoming the best team. The Australian Worker noted the English tactics introduced “a new code of ethics in regard to cricket” in which “the ends justified the means.”
Bodyline helped bolster an Australian national consciousness and fuelled further antipathy towards England. Business between the two countries was adversely affected as citizens displayed a preference for not buying goods manufactured in the other.
Relations would improve when both found a common enemy in nazi Germany.
The English reputation for “fair play” though, suffered at the hands’ of its rulers and was exposed for the myth that it had always been.
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