Wednesday, June 18, 2014

'Bodyline': Once Again

 Cricket is a religion in India and cricket-lovers are not merely fans but rather fanatics. And thus it is but natural that when a serial based on a cricket-series was telecast way back in the late eighties, it should become immensely popular. Bodyline, the serial, was a dramatic (some would say over-dramatic) representation of the Ashes series of 1932-33, at a time when young Don Bradman was breaking all records and England feared that she'd never be able to win the Ashes as long as Bradman was on the crease. One had heard of the legendary Bradman but not of Douglas Jardine, the Captain of the MCC, or of Harold Larwood, the fast (perhaps the fastest ever) bowler. And the series was a revelation.

Soon, the boys at school were all emulating Larwood's action while the girls gushed over Hugo Weaving, Jim Holt, and Gary Sweet who played Jardine, Larwood, and Bradman, respectively. (Poor Ashok Banthia who played the Nawab of Patudi did not enjoy this gushing over). Heated discussions and debates regarding the tactics of the MCC team became common and a division much like the Australia-England divide took place in class-rooms. Then like everything, the season passed, we all grew up and went our different ways. Sometime in 2003, I chanced upon Philip Derriman's book on the 'Bodyline' series and bought it. It stayed on the shelves for more than a decade but then this summer I read it.... and it was like going back to the past...making connections with what was happening in Australia in 1932-33 to the scenario in India at that time (Post the death of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and their fellow-revolutionaries) as also reliving my school days with half-forgotten figures and conversations coming back to life. All in all, a great trip of Nostalgia.

Philip Derriman's Bodyline: The Cricket 'War' Between England and Australia is a lucid account of the series. The writer sees 'Bodyline' (or fast-leg theory as its defenders called it) not as an inevitable development in cricket but rather as a result of a clash of the three formidable personalities of Jardine, Bradman, and Larwood. The account thus focusses more on the personalities of the people playing in these matches. The treatment is even-handed though the writer (like many others whom I have read subsequently) doesn't know what to make of Jardine's deputy Bob Wyatt's recollection that it was he and not Jrdine who marshalled England's bodyline forces for the first time!!! According to Wyatt, he had received no instructions regarding field-placings from his captain who was, in fact, away trout-fishing at the time. The writer can only conclude (rather tamely) that : To reconcile all this with Wyatt's account, we must conclude that the leg-side field was not set solely at Wyatt's instigation, but at the bowler's instigation, too. (61) And the bowlers, of course, were following Mr. Jardine. Proof be damned.

The book - which first appeared as a series of articles in the Sydney Morning Herald - is a good introduction to the series but leaves you craving for more. The thing that I hated most in it was that it did not carry a bibliography. For a book that makes extensive use of earlier material on the series, this is unpardonable.

In 1982-83, as the 50th anniversary of the series dawned, there was a renewed interest in the series and a spate of books and documentaries (as well as the mini-series mentioned above) made their appearance. There was also a talk of movie to be made based on the novel Bodyline by Paul Wheeler.

This idea was trashed by the surviving members of the MCC team who took askance at their portrayal in the book. Bob Wyatt, especially, protested loudly at the way Jardine was presented in the book, stating that he would not allow Jardine's memory to be besmirched in this manner for he was a man of principles and not a cheat.

This loyalty that Jardine inspires in his team-mates, long after his ostracisation and death, is something that every writer writing on/ about that fateful tour has to take into account. They might want to wish it away but the evidence is too strong to be ignored. And there is no denying that the force of Wheeler's novel (insipid in parts) is Jardine.

Here he is talking to the umpires, even as the crowd in Adelaide, seething with anger, seems ready to enter the ground and lynch the English players:

The Umpires met and spoke to each other, calling Jardine over.

"I don't like this, don't like it at all Mr. Jardine," George Hele said, gazing round at the stands. "It's our feeling you should take your men off until things have cooled down."

"I'm sorry about Oldfield," Jardine replied crisply, "but it was nobody's fault but his own. He hooked the ball back on to his head. Neither Woodfull nor he was hurt because of leg-theory."

"I know that," Hele said grimly. "You now it. Even Oldfield knows it. But they're the ones..." pointing to the pandemonium, "who're making me nervous, and they don't know it."

"Unless you order us to," Jardine declared, "I'll not leave the field. We have a crucial advantage, and I do not intend to go and sit in the pavilion and play cards." (173)

[I don't know but that image of English players sitting in the balcony and playing cards had me in splits].

Here he is knocking at the door of the Australian dressing room to demand an immediate apology for Larwood who had been called a bastard on the field by some of the Australian players. When Vic Richardson turns to his team-mates and asks: "Which one of you bastards called Larwood a bastard instead of Jardine?" the Australian dressing room dissolves into laughter but for Jardine this is no laughing matter:

"I want you all to be clear about one thing," he said, speaking with a simple clarity that banished ambiguity. "Whatever happens out on the field, whatever injuries occur as a result of the bowling or the state of the wicket, the responsibility is mine. The bowlers obey my orders. When they bowl leg theory, it is because I wish it. Therefore, if you have anything to say about the matter, say it to me. If you have any name to call, level them at me. Not them." (169)

A Leader of Men, indeed!

Today is Jardine's death anniversary and I thought it'd be appropriate to end this post with a scene from the serial which seems to encapsulate his philosophy of life - and cricket:


First Line: Don Bradman was only twenty-four years old when Douglas Jardine, cricket captain of England, set out to overcome him with the kind of bowling which came to be called bodyline.

Title: Body-Line: The Cricket 'War' Between England and Australia.
Author: Philip Derriman
Publication Details: London: Grafton Books, 1986
First Published: 1984
Pages: 204
Source: Bought from Sunday Second-hand book market at Daryaganj.

Other books read of the same author: None


First Line: Play was suspended briefly at 3:30 on the second day and both teams were presented to King George in front of the pavilion.

Title: Bodyline: The Novel
Author: Paul Wheeler
Publication Details: NY: Atheneum, 1984
First Published: 1983
Pages: 224
Source: Borrowed from Open Library

Other books read of the same author: None


  1. Neeru - What an interesting book and topic! I admit I don't know much about that 'cricket war,' but to me, that's all the more reason to learn a bit about it. But I agree with you - no bibliography? That really is a problem.

    1. Margot, I had no idea about it too before the serial was telecast in India. But the books that I have mentioned can be read even by those who have no idea about cricket because the focus is on the personalities involved.

      Lack of bibliography is just about too much!

  2. Neer, this is a terrific review of a book I didn't know existed and a series I recall seeing on DD in the eighties; all eleven episodes, I think. England's deliberate bowling tactics could be compared with the great West Indies bowling line-up of the seventies and eighties consisting of Roberts, Marshall, Holding, and Garner whose bouncers, unlike Bodyline, were not meant to incapacitate the batsmen though they often knocked out the men with the willow. I stopped watching all forms of cricket since the betting and rigging scandals associated with the game. I find it a complete waste of time that can otherwise be used to read a good book.

    1. I agree, Prashant. There was a time when I was totally involved with cricket but over the years the scandals, the overkill, the mammoth IPL have all killed my interest in cricket so much so that I don't even know who are in the Indian team now.

      The leg-theory tactic used by the English team has been a debatable point since its inception (and the English were not the first to use it). But I think much of the demonisation of Larwood and Jardine was because the English men had been able to contain Bradman and that was unacceptable to the Australians who more or less revered him as a God.

  3. Neere,

    This brought back so many memories - our fascination with Bodyline and all-things-cricket at that time, our tape recorder where we would record the dialogues and the music from the series, etc. etc.

    What wonderful times we had! I remember even using a sentence similar to a sentence from the series in a story that I wrote.

    - Nitu

    1. Yes, Nitu di, we were really into cricket and Bodyline at that time, isn't it? And Nitu di, it's amazing that you remember recording it on that two-in-one of ours. I had completely forgotten about it till recently when we went to Mummy-Papa and while going through the collection of cassettes, chanced upon it. Now if only I could get a tape-recorder...

      "the sound of bat on ball"... you are not the only one, this phrase was used by almost all of us who watched Bodyline!

      Yes, those were the days!

  4. For those of who grew up in Australia, this story is fed to us with a breakfast cereal!
    We all know the Woodfull quote "There are two teams out there; one is trying to play cricket and the other is not."
    It's a story I know & have an interest in, but I'm not sure I would read a whole book on it (although I'm sure my dad has!)
    Thanks for your review.

    1. Welcome to the blog, Brona.

      It's interesting to know that it is still a hot topic in Australia. Guess, it will never die, there is too much of drama in that series.

      Well, I have become pretty interested in it and am really keen to read more books on it. Do tell me the books that your father has read. I'd love to read them too.:)