After Australia's Bodyline Bowling, the BCCI Should Insist on Chest Guards for Batsmen

The jubilation surrounding India's victory in the test series has drowned out concerns regarding the unlawful – and possibly dangerous – methods employed by the losing side's bowlers.

About 90 years ago, the Aussies were incensed by Douglas Jardine’s infamous “Bodyline” tactics. There was serious consideration about breaking diplomatic relations with England; this may not have happened because Australia then was still a dominion.

Bodyline bowling simply meant hurling the cricket ball not only at the leg stump but aiming it deliberately at the body of the batsman. This would force the batsman to hook or pull, usually getting caught at square leg or on the leg side boundary. In case the batsman defended, the ball could bounce to a close leg fielder. Almost all fielders were positioned on the leg side, with as many as six in close positions. The third possibility was that the batsman could be struck by the ball and get injured. No helmets were worn then, nor protection gear apart from gloves and pads.

The Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) [which used to organise tours for the England cricket team] had become terrified of Donald Bradman, who had scored four centuries in the 1930 test series in England – which included two double centuries and a triple century. Bradman seemed invulnerable and had by then become the most cherished person in Australia.

After considerable scratching of their heads, the MCC chose Douglas Jardine to captain the side for the 1932/33 tour of Australia. Jardine was a product of the English public school system that educated boys to run the Empire. This school system made sure that the necessary steel and ruthlessness was instilled in their wards.

Jardine was born in India, where his father was a judge in Mumbai. He was packed off to Winchester College in Hampshire and would come back to his parents once a year during vacation. Winchester, with its motto of “Manners Makyth Man” is even today considered one of the finest and most expensive schools in England. More than a third of its final year students make it to Oxford and Jardine was one of them.

He was made of stern stuff and after becoming captain, made an important member exclaim, “We may win the Ashes, but lose a dominion.” Jardine began his preparations diligently. He began watching footage of Bradman. Jardine knew that he had to spot some weakness, any chink in Bradman’s repertoire, if he hoped to even think of retaining the Ashes.

One particular innings caught his attention. Bradman had scored a double century, but appeared to flinch when facing a bouncer. “I’ve got it, he’s yellow,” was Jardine’s reaction.

To execute his strategy, Jardine chose two of the best pace bowlers in England: Harold Larwood, a coal miner’s son; and Bill Voce, who was also from a working-class background. The plan was simple: keep hurling the cricket ball at the head and body of the Aussie batsmen, especially Bradman. Jardine and his bowlers thought that Bradman was incapable of handling sustained pace bowling aimed at his head.

Douglas Jarvind and Harold Larwood. Photos: Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Larwood began playing professional cricket at 18 years. “You cannot imagine how fast,” the famous writer and commentator John Arlott once said of Larwood’s speed of delivery. “Sometimes you couldn’t pick up the ball with the naked eye at all.” Larwood was the best fast bowler of his generation and could regularly touch speeds of 95-100 mph.

Larwood went on to take 33 wickets in the Bodyline series (more than anyone else) at an average of 19.51, conceding less than 3 runs per over. He managed to get Bradman in 4 of his 8 innings. Bradman returned with the worst average of his test career at 56.57.

In the third test played in Adelaide, Jardine was merciless. He egged Larwood on to bowl at his ferocious best. The first to be struck was the Aussie captain, Bill Woodfull. A school headmaster and a disciplinarian, Woodfull was decency personified. He did not retaliate in kind through his pace bowlers, despite losing the series.

Importantly, Woodfull was struck on his chest by a Larwood thunderbolt. Woodfull staggered off the pitch clutching his chest. Fortunately, he recovered and continued to play. This had been the last ball of the over. Jardine, however, was contemptuous of the spectators, who were angry. He loudly applauded Larwood, bellowing, “Well bowled, Harold.” The crowd, already furious, became enraged. They became almost uncontrollable when Woodfull resumed batting and Jardine deliberately went on to set a leg side field.

The next man to be injured was Bert Oldfield, the wicketkeeper, who sustained a skull fracture after being hit by a Larwood bouncer.

Bert Oldfield staggers away with his fractured skull. Photo: Unknown author and source/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Woodfull emerged from that series with his reputation enhanced. “One is playing cricket and the other is not,” were the famous words uttered by the school principal. The Aussie cricket board almost removed him as captain because of his refusal to use unfair means during the series.

England won the Bodyline series 4-1. The Australian cricket board wrote a long letter, bitterly complaining of Jardine’s tactics. But the MCC took little notice.

Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi, inspite of scoring a century for England on debut in the Bodyline series, was dropped after only two tests because of his public objection  to Jardine’s tactics. He refused to field on the leg side, whereas other players in the English team more or less went on with it.

Then and now

The Bodyline series assumes significance today because of the justified hue and cry raised by the Australians. Most Aussies bristle at the mention of that series even today. It must be mentioned that the laws of cricket then permitted the tactic. Jardine and his bowlers were attacking their opponents within the laws laid out then. The MCC did modify the law later by cutting down the number of leg side fielders during play.

Law 41 on unfair play now makes it clear that if an umpire witnesses intimidatory bowling, they should warn the player concerned or even suspend him from bowling for the entire innings. The law is applicable even if the batsman is playing with protection.

To quote from the rule book:

41.6 Bowling of dangerous and unfair short pitched deliveries

41.6.1 The bowling of short pitched deliveries is dangerous if the bowler’s end umpire considers that, taking into consideration the skill of the striker, by their speed, length, height and direction they are likely to inflict physical injury on him/her.  The fact that the striker is wearing protective equipment shall be disregarded.

41.6.2 The bowler’s end umpire may consider that the bowling of short pitched deliveries, although not dangerous under 41.6.1, is unfair if they repeatedly pass above head height of the striker standing upright at the crease.  See also Law 21.10 (Ball bouncing over head height of striker).

The rulebook then goes on to prescribe the punitive measures the umpire can take.

Aussie tactics against India

Let us now turn our focus to the Indian team’s superb victory earlier this month in Australia. The courage and grit displayed by the Indian players was phenomenal. Watching Pujara absorbing blows from one of the best fast bowler’s around today was a once in a lifetime event. I cannot overstate Pujara’s skills, determination and bravery. This was gladiatorial stuff for the ages.

Perhaps he was thinking:

“I will get hit on my hip, on my arms, on my head under the helmet but I will bat. I will bat for my team and for my country. I will bat for myself. I know Pat Cummins is bowling a cork ball that can kill a man at more than 95 mph, but I will stand firm. I am acutely aware that Pat Cummins is the best fast bowler going around but I will not flinch.”

“I do not give a damn when Hazlewood’s taunts of ‘did you see it’ after his ball crashes into an unprotected part of my body. I will make sure he does not see that I feel the pain or that I hurt. I will get on with the job.”

Incredible bravery has been shown down the ages in the heat of a battle, but Pujara’s intrepidity is in a class of its own. “You almost break my thumb, but I am the wall, I am the anchor, I am the last man standing.”

Incredible stuff, because you know a bullet will be unleashed the next few minutes, and then again, and then again. The fast bowler is striving not to aim at the stumps but at your body. He has completely forgotten that he can mortally damage you, or maybe he has not. It is all deliberate, part of a plan.

Ravi Ashwin was the victim in the previous test. Ashwin kept getting hit, on all parts of his body, suffering excruciating pain. But a test had to be saved, he had to battle on with Vihari. Call it grit, resolve or plain guts, Ashwin was outstanding. He was not an opening batsman, nor even a middle-order one. He is an off-spinner, who can bat (he does have a couple of centuries behind him). But this time, Ashwin was putting his body on the line.

Mercifully, good sense prevailed and Prithvi Shaw lent him his chest guard. Ashwin till then had taken multiple blows to his chest and other parts of the body. Hats off to him. Courage and skill once again at its best and under fire.

Also Read: India’s Greatest Cricketing Triumph, Bar Absolutely None

The Aussies are supposed to have the “best pace attack” in the world.

I disagree, and vehemently. In the jubilation of winning the series, no cricket commentator has spoken of the stunning meanness of the entire Aussie cricket team. There was not a single occasion when the Aussie mob told their bowler, “Enough is enough. Let’s try to take a wicket instead of howling for an accident.”

The umpires did not caution the bowlers even once. The third umpire was asleep. The Aussie coach, who was hospitalised for a blow to his head some years ago, totally ignored the blatant, unfair bowling by his team.

There was not a whisper on the ridiculously dangerous bowling by Cummins, Hazlewood and Starc, by a single cricket commentator, either an Aussie or Indian. The tactics surely infringed Law 41.6. Even if they did not, the game was surely not being played in the right spirit. Only one team was playing the game, and it was certainly not the Aussies.

The danger of cardiac arrest

Behind the stumps, the Aussie captain kept urging his bowlers to hurl the mean stuff, with Steve Smith providing all the support whilst standing next to him at first slip. Win at any cost was the mantra, even if it entails a casualty. This is not hyperbole.

Most cricketers and cricket administrators would not have heard of “commotio cordis.” Perhaps, even a lot of doctors are not unaware. Commotio occurs when a blow to the chest triggers ventricular fibrillation. The blow must be at a specific time during the cardiac cycle. This is the R-on-T phenomenon well known to cardiologists. Untreated ventricular fibrillation is a killer in a majority of the cases.

The blow needs to be extremely hard, but if timed, can kill. The exact time is between 30 to 15 milliseconds before the T wave. Even a blow with an energy of 50 joules is enough. A professional boxer’s punch packs than 1000 joules. Commotio cordis is uncommon but seen in many sports such as baseball, ice hockey, basketball, cricket, judo and karate. It can even happen in a brawl.

When Woodfull got struck by Larwood on the chest, there was also the possibility of his heart being ruptured. A valve could have been avulsed or displaced. The right ventricle that is in the front could have developed a contusion, which in turn could have sparked a dangerous arrhythmia or heart block. These complications are well described in medical and cardiology test books under “blunt trauma” to the heart. Woodfull was incredibly lucky that he got away in January 1932.

Bill Woodfull evades a Bodyline delivery. Photo: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

It, therefore, becomes mandatory that every Indian cricketer puts on a chest guard when batting. The BCCI and Saurav Ganguly should take note of this. It also becomes imperative that a defibrillator is kept at the ready during cricket matches all over the world. This should not be seen as overkill but as plain common sense. A chest guard is no guarantee in preventing a cardiac arrest, but then neither is a helmet against mortal head injury. It is now recognised that the chance of having an anaphylactic reaction is one in 100,000 mRNA vaccine jabs. You have to be prepared for the eventuality. Defibrillators are affordable and every cricket board should make use of them.

It is time the BCCI writes a letter to the Australian Cricket Board, deploring the antics of their team. And after all that has happened, giving the “player of the series” award to Pat Cummins is beyond me.

Would I name a road in Delhi after Cheteshwar Pujara? Yes, I would.

Did a second-string team beat the Aussies? Certainly not. I am unable to see the dividing line.

Deepak Natarajan is a cardiologist based in New Delhi.