Friday, October 26, 2012

B is for… (Part 2)

Part 2: Bodyline to bunnies, with a victorious stop in Brisbane

(Courtesy of Getty Images)
In part one I took a short journey through a small part of New Zealand’s cricketing history and a period of unrivalled West Indian dominance over a struggling England. If you missed it, read Bartlett to Blunt via the Basin.

Part two is largely based in the West Island (Australia, for the uninitiated) – the world’s foremost cricketing icon, the series that set to nullify his dominance, a Brisbane victory that will go down in the annals of history (but not for out trans-Tasman friends), plus reading and rabbits…

What does a side do when they see no chance of victory on the horizon? Forget the spirit of cricket and embrace the fast leg theory – Bodyline. But when it’s within the laws of the game, does the onus sit with the captain or those who make, and enforce, cricket’s laws?

Douglas Jardine and Harold Larwood led England’s charge in an attempt to neutralise Bradman in the 1932/33 Ashes series Downunder – a 4-1 series victory shows it as a success. The English failed to win another Ashes series until 1953 – 20 years and seven series later.

The leg side theory was nothing new, it had been utilised on a number of occasions previously, especially in England, but quick wickets early in the Ashes series and a bowler of the accuracy and pace of Larwood took it to a new level. A barrage of short pitched bowling directed at the batsmen with catchers positioned short on the leg side drew healthy dividends throughout the series – no rules yet existed about the number of players behind square on the leg side. Was it really that different to much of the Windies bowling through the late 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s? It cramped batsmen, restricted their scoring areas and provided little opportunity to score without risk.

As they often do, the term Bodyline was coined by journalists in Australia to create an emotive response in a public that detested losing and viewed the tactics as deplorable.  Without the protective equipment afforded the modern player, the Australians faced a real physical danger – it was rare for bowlers to attack a batsman’s body and head so regularly. A number of batsmen were struck and at times players feared that crowds would riot and invade the pitch – I can’t imagine such a volatile atmosphere in our gentile game. The tactics threatened relationships between the respective boards, and even politicians got involved in the furore.

However, in times before televised coverage, fans relied on news bulletins and touring English journalists weren’t in any hurry to chastise their side in the press, so many at home didn’t realise the severity of the attack. In a test against the Windies the following season, both sides employed the tactics and many in England understand the outrage their Australian cobbers must have felt. Others thought little of it – victory was all that mattered.

One England quick, Gubby Allen, refused to join his fast bowling colleagues in defaulting to short and leg side and yet he finished as England’s second highest wicket taker. Allen was still 12 short of Larwood whose 33 wickets cost less than 20 - he delivered Jardine’s plans to a tee, and the Australian batsmen had few answers.

Reading between the lines, a number of the touring party saw Bodyline as an affront on the great game, though their views weren’t expressed until after the tour had concluded. That Australia never retaliated is remarkable and says much of the captain, Bill Woodfull - would a team put a moral stance above a relentless push for victory, at any cost, in the modern era? The series directly led to the MCC changing cricket’s laws, providing umpires with the power to step in where they viewed a bowler was intentionally bowling with the intent to injure the batsman.

Of the seven batsmen who averaged over 40 in the series, only two were Australian – had the wickets for the final two tests been quicker surfaces, the carnage could have been worse. Bradman averaged (just) 56.57 – a success for anyone else, but the lowest of his test career. It was a full 10 runs lower than his debut series in the 1928/9 Ashes at home; his next lowest series average.

The two main Bodyline protagonists, though great cricketers, had their reputations tarnished, in the short-term, at least. Larwood never played against Australia again and refused to sign an apology at the bequest of the MCC - he felt he had simply followed orders and helped his nation to Ashes glory – for many, it would be hard to disagree. Jardine refused to play in the return 1934 series at home and only played another six tests for his beloved country.

"There are two teams out there, one is playing cricket. The other is making no attempt to do so” – Bill Woodfull, Australian captain.

I don’t consider myself a book worm, a statistics guru or a wordsmith, but I love to be surrounded by my many cricketing volumes – scanning through pages of cricketing history, reliving battles of yesteryear in the style and manner of the day.

Growing up, I was given sporting books as gifts for any celebration, and what pocket money I could accrue inevitably went towards further reading – cricket books opened my mind to a world I didn’t really know existed. There was no pay television, no internet and even radio coverage was scarce outside of when New Zealand played or the domestic season was in full swing. The snippets in the local paper simply teased the cricketing mind – a couple of paragraphs and a scorecard lack the eloquence of a cover drive or the ferocity of repeated body blows. That the Wanganui Chronicle serviced a city of 40,000 meant cricket outside of our island paradise was buried in the darkest recesses of the copy and was often just a score summary.

Books filled that void – they sated a hunger for cricket in far flung lands (as a child anywhere outside of New Zealand seemed otherworldly). Biographies, autobiographies and tomes recounting tours in the days before television helped a young man develop a wider sense of the enormity and breadth of our great game - they elevated a pastime to a lifelong passion. The one disappointment is of players now penning their story before they leave the game. Contrived controversy may sell more books to passing admirers but I have no wish to read the life story of someone not yet thirty and whose success can be measured in years not decades – E W Swanton or Neville Cardus offer far more pleasure. 

The more than 1500 books that now fill my catalogue are sadly in storage while young children treat my family home as their personal playground – the sports room/library transformed into a nursery. But, I am told that children eventually close the door behind them and embark on a life of their own - one day my legion of hard covered memories will return to their rightful place - doesn’t every cricket lover want a wall of tomes covering every manner of matches and players in our great game, with a corner bookcase reserved for 149 (and growing annually) precious copies of cricket’s bible?

Among the boxes are annuals from around the cricketing globe – New Zealand, Australia, India, South Africa, the West Indies and England – in the form of my most prized possessions, Wisden. There are few better feelings than the wait for my annual yellow book to arrive in the mail, or the lengthy search to fill a gap and complete another decade, so often ending up in the same place – Unfortunately, as I acquire progressively older books the regularity of packages from the UK is far more sporadic than it once was – Wisdens are not a cheap hobby, but an unshakeable addiction that swallows money like a bride with a penchant for shoes.

The availability and sheer number of websites, stats engines and any manner of electronic analysis will never tell the back story books do – books tell of the battles, the idiosyncrasies, the byplay between the combatants and the highs and lows of a day’s play in the language of the time – there is no other media format that quite encapsulates the feel of our great game.

Love Wisden? Have a read of my other Wisden blogs.

Bradman, Sir Donald George
6996. 99.94. Numbers that to many mean nothing – to fans of our great game they sum up all that is good in the world, a record that will likely never be equalled.

No cricketing list would be complete without The Don, though there is very little left to write that hasn’t been penned before by any number of scribes far more qualified than a Kiwi blogger. There had never been, and will likely never again, be a force as dominant as Sir Donald Bradman. Some may disagree and quote W.G. Grace, that’s their prerogative. In 52 tests, Australia won on 30 occasions, with only 12 losses.


Imagine a cricketing crowd leaving a ground happy when a cricketing hero had been dismissed for just four runs – unfortunately, The Oval crowd didn’t even get that. But, they rose as one to applaud the Don as he left an international ground as a batsman for the final time. England’s capitulation meant he never got a chance to right the “wrong” and retire with the magical three figures alongside his career.

Like many of the game’s greats, Bradman’s introduction to international cricket didn’t deliver what many hoped. His first innings was at number seven in a 675 run loss to England (in a timeless test) and after just 19 runs in his two knocks, he was relegated to twelfth man for the second test. That fateful duck against the same opponent 20 years later capped the end of the most remarkable run in cricket history. But for the Second World War robbing him of some of his most productive years, Bradman’s record could have been otherworldly.

Bradman played in eight Ashes series, for five victories, one draw and two losses – the first in his debut series on home soil. After that initial Ashes foray, such was Bradman’s dominance that England figured they’d never defeat the Aussies until he retired - Bodyline provided a short reprieve.

The now infamous 1932/3 series was the stage of Jardine and Larwood. They mastered the fast leg theory and Australia capitulated, though Bradman still realised a series average of 56.57 – his career low but still comfortably above any of his peers. Masterminded to combat the game’s premier batsman, the Bodyline series was a dark period in the gentleman’s game – that the gatekeepers of our great game were so willing to destroy the spirit of cricket for victory shows the power and presence of The Don.

That generations to follow will refer to the great man by his first name illustrates the impact he has had across the cricketing globe.  It will be a sad day when there is no one left to reminisce of memories of days spent with swelling crowds watching the diminutive genius from Bowral.

Brisbane, 1985
12 November, 1985 - New Zealand walk off the ‘Gabba having humbled Australia to take victory by an innings and 41 runs over their most formidable foe. It was New Zealand’s fourth biggest winning margin – the other three had all been in the previous two years and each involved Richard Hadlee – there was little that he wasn’t at the centre of.

Hadlee mesmerised the Australians in Brisbane. In 24 overs of peerless fast bowling he systematically dismantled Australia’s first innings with 9-52. His return was the third best of all time (17 years later he still sits in fifth), and the best by a seamer since England’s George Lohmann took 9-23 against South Africa in Johannesburg in 1896.

New Zealand’s other wicket taker was Vaughan Brown, a gentle offspinner who’d have scared few test batsmen. Hadlee took a well-judged catch in the deep to dismiss Geoff Lawson. It is seared in the memory of many New Zealand fans – a paceman has never taken 10 wickets in an innings. Brown played in just two tests and Lawson was his sole test victim, but he is now mentioned in more pub quizzes in New Zealand than any other cricketer.

Australia was dismissed early on the second day for 179. But for a four and a half hour vigil from Kepler Wessels, with 70, it could have been far more dire. In reply, New Zealand killed off any chance of an Australian comeback, amassing 553 for 7 declared. John Reid struck a gutsy 108, but a young Martin Crowe provided the touch of genius New Zealand needed, breaking down the Australian attack with shots to every corner of the ‘Gabba. His 188 was his second century of the year following an identical total against the West Indies seven months earlier in Georgetown. Hadlee was the last man out, wreaking havoc on a downhearted Australian attack – his 54 off 45 deliveries was Hadlee at his belligerent best.

Second innings’ hundreds by Allan Border and Greg Matthews delayed the inevitable, but Hadlee didn’t want his first innings heroics lost in a draw – his 6-71 realised match figures of 15-123 (the eighth best haul of all time and third by a seamer) and tore the heart out of a demoralised Australian outfit. Fittingly, Hadlee took the final wicket before lunch on the fifth day to claim one of New Zealand’s largest victories against a side they enjoy beating more than any other in the world game.

For any New Zealand cricket fan the match is engrained in our psyche – whether seen live or read about in any number of cricketing tomes, it is a part of New Zealand cricketing folklore. New Zealand’s victory in the first test was a stepping stone to a 2-1 series victory, their first against Australia. They then repeated the dose in the return series in New Zealand in the New Year. Victory meant they had beaten all of the test countries at home in the past seven years – Hadlee was the constant in all of them.

Sir Richard Hadlee’s success and his influence on the New Zealand side is one of the reasons many fans have such high expectations of the current side – they’re fuelled by an era where New Zealand punched above their weight on the back of one of the world’s finest proponents of our great game.

Chris Martin, Danny Morrison, Phil Tufnell and Ewen Chatfield – genuine tailenders all, and obvious choices, but for me bunnies are those who bat for a living yet cradle in the foetal position in a dark corner at the merest mention of their bowling nemesis. Batsmen of the highest quality who at times look like they’d struggle at club level – their footwork dries up, the bat gets into positions that don’t seem possible and their cricketing brain goes into neutral. 

One many recall is Warne and South African Daryll Cullinan. Cullinan struggled but it wasn’t as lopsided as our recollections would have us believe, notwithstanding that Warne never hesitated in talking of his dominance over the South African. In seven tests Warne snared Cullinan’s wicket four times; in 22 ODIs on eight occasions. Cullinan was a quality batsman who averaged over 44 at test level but against the might of Australia and Warne he struggled to reach 13 - at the slightest mention of Warne’s flipper, Cullinan was reduced to little more than a club hacker. 

For that, the most memorable battle went Cullinan’s way. As he set to face up, Warne started the mental disintegration: “I’ve been waiting two years for another chance to humiliate you”. Cullinan’s reply created stifled laughter that echoed through the stump mike: “Looks like you spent it eating”…

Michael Atherton, a fine opening batsman, sits high on the list of bunnies – an anomaly for a man who scored nearly 8000 test runs, at a touch below 38, in his 115 tests. He was a bowler’s favourite for many quicks – McGrath, Ambrose and Walsh could go into most matches against Athers knowing they’d get at least one wicket, though the two Caribbean pace men were often in a race for his scalp.

Of the three, McGrath was the most successful, dismissing Atherton 19 times in 17 tests – it’s hard to win an Ashes series when your top order is so often watching from the pavilion. Both Ambrose and Walsh dismissed him on 17 occasions, in 26 and 27 tests respectively. It will always be the memories of Ambrose to Atherton that hold a prominent spot in my cricketing mind – it wasn’t just the number of dismissals but the manner of them – stumps demolished, plumb in front, caught in a large slip cordon or fending to short leg. Atherton suffered them all and none showed any manner of control.

Others worthy of a mention – Marshall to Gooch, McGrath to Lara, Ambrose to Mark Waugh, Sydney Barnes to Victor Trumper, and Harbhajan Singh to Ponting.

Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. I’ve only managed to get through two letters, but you can have a look at the plan for the other 24 – A-Z of cricket. If there are subjects you’d like to see covered, let me know. Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi.
Previous blogs in the A-Z of cricket:

1 comment:

  1. thanks so much for this part two, I read the part number one and I was looking for this second part, and it did not disappoint me ;)


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