Cricket, Bodyline, and the Romans
Written by: Ayelet Haimson Lushkov
Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, the author of Magistracy and the Historiography of the Roman Republic, situates the 1932 Bodyline cricket movement in the context of the Roman exemplum. And if you're not watching the Cricket World Cup, you should be. Tune in tonight to see England take on New Zealand.
I have recently spent two glorious winter days in the bowels of the MCC library at Lord’s, leafing through, among other delights, English bowler and later England Captain Gubby Allen’s own scrapbook from the tumultuous Ashes tour of 1932-33. That tour was, of course, the notorious Bodyline series, and like all good melodramas it had its own pantomime villain – England captain Douglas R. Jardine – along with the more celebrated, though often no less flatly characterized, hero, one Don Bradman. Jardine was an unusual England captain. Forever identified with his controversial tactics, he remains known – to the extent that people recall him at all – for his ruthless efficiency, switching his field to what he called ‘leg-theory’ (fast-bowling predominantly directed at the line of leg-stump and designed to get the batsman caught either glancing or hooking) and everybody else called ‘bodyline’ (fast-bowling pitched short and directed at the batsmen’s body). That the very nature of the tactics could be described so differently reflects the skewing of national and individual perceptions: motives can be as difficult to read as a ball travelling a short distance at high velocity. Bodyline was and remains a contested topic, an example of what is ‘not cricket’ and what is, and its longevity is all the more remarkable in light of modern developments in the game. Indeed, today, after the tragic death of Philip Hughes, Bodyline is perhaps more poignant than ever.
Bodyline is very much what the Romans would have recognized as an exemplum, an action providing lessons for posterity, with a peculiar mixture of the moralizing and the spectacular
Bodyline is also very much what the Romans would have recognized as an exemplum, an action providing lessons for posterity, with a peculiar mixture of the moralizing and the spectacular. As such, Jardine, and his partners in crime Harold Larwood and Bill Voce, are as complex in memory as they must have been in the flesh. Jardine was thought to be stuck-up and haughty, except when he was the warmest of chaps; ruthless, but gentlemanly. The internal dynamics of the team have likewise been open to interpretation – conscientious objection from the aristocratic Nawab of Pataudi, obedience, or perhaps willful enthusiasm, from Larwood and Voce. The writer J. L. Carr, in A Season in Sinji, has his hero, a West Riding farm boy, reminisce longingly of the great Larwood, and of how he and Jardine together exemplified the communion of high and low against the foe abroad and a weakling establishment at home. From the minute Bodyline was coined, it has been reinterpreted again and again, showcased and framed to make a range of claims about right and wrong, master and subject, tradition and change.
So Bodyline is a modern-day exemplum, but it is an odd one at that, since one of the main purposes of exemplarity is to teach the young. Now I have not scoured every England’s captain every utterance, but I hope I am not too off the mark when I say that Jardine is not usually trotted out as a model for imitation. But exempla needn’t be positive. They can also teach us what to avoid, what is thoroughly rotten from conception to execution. History has proven that Bodyline has been shunned, though not before it was enthusiastically imitated by the West Indies, and not before the cult of virility had died down enough to make helmets sensibly de rigeur. And this too is typical of exempla – they necessarily reduce people and actions into one definitive mold: Brutus the executioner of his sons, Fabius Maximus the model of caution, Hannibal of strategy or boldness (or, as the Romans had it, of inhuman cruelty), Churchill of resilience and Elizabeth I of shrewdness. But read any account of these individuals and you can spot the competing narratives and evaluations that the exemplary caricature so often obscures.
So what else might we learn from, or through, Jardine? One could turn to the faultlines of class and empire that animated Bodyline and still run through our modern sporting culture. But a simpler instance is at hand: Jardine was famous in the annals of the England captaincy for his willingness to change his batting order frequently. It makes for a revealing contrast with the modern English set-up, so often accused of formulaic or uncreative thinking. As someone who has often thought England should make more inventive use of its tailenders, far be it from me to advise the great and good – but with the World Cup upon us, and a new captain at the helm, perhaps it is time to dig back into the dusty annals of England’s few successes Down Under, rather than their recurring failure to get over the mark – only perhaps without the leg-theory. Exempla invariably have more to them than the exemplary moment we think we know so well.