Bodyline and 'kidnapping': it’s just not cricket!

Cricket contests between England and Australia have resulted in a number of controversies, most notoriously when, during their 1932–33 tour to Australia, England deployed the infamous ‘bodyline’ technique to counter the batting of Donald Bradman. The tactic saw bowlers bowling the ball directly at the batsman's body. “When Douglas Jardine unleashed his hostile fast attack of Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, who bowled short on and outside the line of the leg stump, there was outrage… The cost to England's image was catastrophic,” says ESPN.

One of the great controversies of the Victorian age was the ‘kidnapping’ of the Australian player Billy Midwinter by WG Grace. About to open the batting for Australia at Lords, Midwinter was bundled into a cab by Grace and taken to play for Gloucestershire at the Oval. When his Australian teammates hopped into their own cab and set off in pursuit, an unseemly argument took place outside the ground, with Grace branding the Australians “a nasty lot of sneaks”. After several heated letters had bounced back and forth, Grace eventually issued a written plea to “let bygones be bygones” and apologised for his “unparliamentarily language”.

The gentleman’s game?

In Australia, as in England, cricket was often depicted as an exclusively male preserve during the 19th century. Yet by 1874, women in Australia had begun to play. The first match between Victoria and New South Wales took place in Sydney in 1890, and in 1891 Rosalie Dean made an impressive 195 and 104 in a match at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

Early female players were advised to secure their hats tightly so that both hands would be free to take catches, while stopping the ball with one’s petticoats was considered unsporting.

National competition developed in the 1930s, and the first test matches between Australia and England were held in the southern summer of 1934–5. All of the 16-strong English team, captained by Betty Archdale, paid for their own equipment and passage to Australia for the six-month tour. From the late 1990s, following the ceremonial burning of a bat at Lord’s, the contest between England and Australia became officially known as the ‘Woman’s Ashes’.

The state of the wicket

There was much talk during the 2015 Ashes series about the state of the English wickets. Likewise, in the 1870s, at hot and dusty Stawell in country Victoria, WG Grace produced one of his less glamorous performances on a field that had apparently only been plowed some three months before.

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“The ground was in a deplorable condition”, Grace later wrote. “Here and there were small patches of grass, but the greater part was utterly devoid of herbage”. One ball simply stuck in the dust before it reached the batsman.

Having travelled over great distances, however, there was little choice but to play on the “execrable wicket”, amid a “plague of flies”. The cricket, Grace confessed, was “shockingly poor”, and the match a “ludicrous farce”.

The politics of the cricket pitch

Like their British counterparts, many Australian prime ministers have professed a love of cricket and stressed the game’s importance to the evolution of the relationship between Australia and Britain. For the Anglophile Robert Menzies, writing in 1963, cricket was a valuable part of Australia’s British inheritance; a reminder that “Great Britain and Australia are of the same blood and allegiance and history and instinctive mental processes”.

During the 19th century, the gifted sportsman and statesman Alfred Lyttelton played four test matches for England against Australia. When he entered the British cabinet as colonial secretary in 1903, however, the Australians accused him of being little more than a disinterested nightwatchman. “Lyttelton has been a pronounced failure,” the Australian prime minister Alfred Deakin wrote in a typical evaluation, “doing less and apparently caring less than any Colonial Secretary I can remember”.

Dr Benjamin Mountford is the Michael Brock fellow in modern British history at Corpus Christi College Oxford, and an honorary senior research fellow at Federation University Australia. His first book, on the coming together of the British and Chinese Empires in colonial Australia, will be published through Oxford University Press in 2016.


This article was first published in August 2015