Crisis evokes bodyline series

2001-11-24 17:19

London - Ever since the corruption scandal tarnished the image of world cricket, the game's pretensions to any moral authority have vanished.

Still the concern expressed throughout the British Commonwealth at the latest crisis threatening to split the game shows the sport's enduring appeal.

It also revives unwelcome memories of the bodyline crisis which briefly endangered diplomatic relations between Australia and England.

As in 1932-33, world cricket is heading towards a civil war after India and South Africa defied the International Cricket Council (ICC) and went ahead with an unofficial Test on Friday. The ICC refused to sanction the match after India declined to play under ICC-appointed match referee Mike Denness.

Nearly 70 years ago, bodyline, the term invented to describe England's tactics of bowling short and fast at the Australian batsmen's bodies, also threatened to splinter the world game

The background was complex.

After the Wall Street crash of 1929, relations between Australia and their imperial masters were strained.

London bankers became increasingly reluctant to extend credit to the dominion as the terms of trade worsened, unemployment soared and there was civil unrest in the larger Australian cities, particularly among the Irish immigrants who had no great natural affection for Britain.

Into this volatile atmosphere, an England cricket team arrived in 1932, captained by the uncompromising Douglas Jardine, a patrician figure who despised Australians and was heartily loathed by them in turn.

Jardine instructed his bowlers, including the frighteningly swift Harold Larwood, to bowl at the batsmen's bodies, primarily to thwart the prodigious scoring feats of Don Bradman. Bradman was temporarily tamed and England went on to win the five-match series 4-1.

Australians, already angered by Britain's seeming indifference to their economic plights, were outraged.

Historic telegram

On January 18, 1933, the Australian Board of Control sent a historic telegram to the Marylebone Cricket Club, then the custodians of the international game

"Bodyline bowling has assumed such proportions as to menace the best interests of the game, making protection of the body by the batsman the main consideration. This is causing intensely bitter feeling between the players, was well as injury," it read.

"In our opinion it is unsportsmanlike. Unless stopped at once, it is likely to upset the friendly relations existing between Australia and England."

"Unsportsmanlike" was the key word, outraging the MCC and British public opinion. Hasty negotiations were necessary between Whitehall and Canberra to avert a diplomatic crisis. When tempers eventually cooled, reason prevailed and bodyline was outlawed.

News leaked

Cricket's second great crisis came in the English summer of 1977 when news leaked that Kerry Packer, a brash Australian media entrepreneur, was preparing to launch his own cricket circuit.

Packer, outraged at losing a battle to win television rights for official Test cricket, took full advantage of the discontent among leading Australian players at their low pay.

The Australians were easily the best side in the world, filled grounds throughout the country with consequent benefits for their cricket board, but were still woefully underpaid in comparison with their contemporaries in other sports.

Packer signed 13 of their 17 players then on tour in England, several leading England players including their South African-born captain Tony Greig and virtually the entire West Indies side.

The ICC retaliated by banning all Packer players from future Test matches. Packer promptly took the world governing body to the High Court in London and won a landmark decision when Mr Justice Slade ruled the ICC action constituted restraint of trade.

World Series cricket, staged in Australia, lasted two seasons in opposition to established Test cricket before Packer struck a deal with the Australian authorities and was granted his coveted television rights.

Similar accommodations will need to be made now if the game is to remain united.