Bodyline: The Novel
I equate “living” with “swimming through goo”; mostly, you’re drowning in it, weighed down by assignments, budgets, deadlines and washing. It’s too thick to break the surface.
We live for the good days, the speckling of occasional good fortune, when the load is lighter and it’s easier to keep afloat.
It’s life as a series of tiny, personal victories. And sometimes, these burden-relieving moments can cost as little as fifty cents.
I have this wonderful parish bookshop named “The House of Books” from which I purchase almost all of my cricket books. I’m slowly building a substantial collection; if cricket books were a turn on, I’d be knee-deep in hoes. The book store is open for a few hours a day in a tiny old house, and it smells of mothballs and prose and dog-eared pages.
In true “another man’s treasure” fashion, I recently stumbled upon a battered, bruised but obviously well-read copy of “Bodyline: The Novel“.
This is the work that was adapted into the television mini-series of the same name. The book tries to keep everything as on-the-level as possible, and there is a genuine attempt to present the story as a documented recollection of the events, despite the author having been born years after the infamous test series. As such, it blurs the fictional with the real, which is effective in this case.
Some of the best dialogue is taken verbatim from real life events, such as when the English skipper and key antagonist, Douglas Jardine, confronts several members of the Australian team about one of them calling Harold Larwood a “bastard”. In reply, Vic Richardson quips to his team, “here, which one of your bastards called Larwood a bastard instead of Jardine?”
Yes, Bodyline is true to the events of the infamous 1932/33 Ashes series between Australia and England, with some creative license occasionally taken by the author, Paul Wheeler. It deals with the English cricket team using ‘underhand tactics’ – i.e. they exploit the rules, but still play within them – to beat the Australian team both on the scoreboard and on the pitch. “Bodyline” itself is the process of bowling around the wicket at a batsman’s body to cause him physical harm and/or to get him out hitting into the air on the leg side.
But I’m sure you already knew that.
There’s also a love story, but if you think I’m going to talk about that on The Sledge, you’ve lost your bloody mind.
Reading the novel, which was first published in 1983, in the present day, it is immediately clear that the engrossing element of the text is Jardine, whom is easily the most captivating character from the moment he appears at the bottom of page 21.
He’s tough. He’s uncompromising. He’s the antagonist of the piece, and is the driving force behind the entire narrative. Without him, there would have been no Bodyline. There would have been cricket, sure, but it wouldn’t have been as captivating to read a fictional account about.
To put this into context, Bodyline: The Novel works on the King of Kong principle: it is the antagonist who drives the plot.
Without Billy Mitchell, the King of Kong is purely about Steve Wiebe gaining the world record high-score in Donkey Kong. Removing Billy Mitchell would have changed the documentary at it’s core; it would have removed “the hook”. Without the villain, the King of Kong would’ve followed the A- and B-story methodology with:
A-Story: Steve Wiebe wins the world record high score in Donkey Kong. We follow his journey.
B-Story: A history of Donkey Kong and the video games medium.
With a direct counterbalance, it adheres more to this format:
A-Story: Steve Wiebe attempts to record the world’s highest-ever score at Donkey Kong, competing with obsessive current record-holder Billy Mitchell.
B-Story: We look into the mentality of each competitor, fleshing out their respective back-stories.
Likewise, without Douglas Jardine, Bodyline: The Novel would be about a series of cricket. Match results, individual performances, crowds and history – the usual! Which is all fine and good when they’re being written by Gideon Haigh. But for the there to be a compelling reason to turn the pages there has to be something at stake, or an engrossing character to root for or against, which Bodyline has.
The novel kicks off at the end of the previous Australian tour of England, in which the British had been flogged. Don Bradman, in particular, had been particularly brutal towards the Mother Country.
To the British ruling class there were signs that this cricketing superiority was making the Australians rather over-confident. The British, frustrated of the antics of their convict colony –
“They blame hus for their hunemployment, hus for the Depression, hus for not buying their bloody sheep… we should never have taken off their leg irons.”
– form an iron-clad plan to win back the obedience of Australia, thanks to a later from the British Governor of South Australia.
“They really are quite single-minded when it comes to competitive games, sir. As this report explains, the Australian cobbler-in-the-street, as it were, doesn’t read a newspaper for its editorials or the business or the arts news. He reads it for one thing only – sport. If he wants to hear about wars he turns to the sports columns – chaps are much the same as they are here, but less so, if you see what I mean. If England loses at cricket or rugged, or ping-pong, nobody really minds, not for long anyway. In Australia or America losing is a reason to hang the flags at half-mast and for the entire nation to go into a prolonged state of mourning.”
That is a direct-freaking-quote.
Therein lies the motivating factors for the text. The British want to beat Australia and erect an air of supremacy. Jardine hates Australians with a passion, having been heckled during his last tour down under, regarding the Australians as brainless barbarians, and has become aware of a game plan that could bring the God-like Bradman back down to mortal levels, and a bowler who could exploit such a plan.
And so good-natured but easily-manipulated fast-bowler Harold Larwood came to bowl leg-theory at the Australians.
The novel is endearingly seeped in melodrama, like a daytime soap. In the very first chapter, a man watches Bill Woodfull and the Australian players talk jovially in front of the English press about how happy they are to have retained the Ashes in England, and something changes deep within him. He’s unhappy with the English virtues of honor being “more important than victory; where to be gracious in defeat was a sign of good character; where to covet winning was the mark of a boor.” All this leads to the unnamed man being brought to tears, and swearing revenge on the Australians.
“He caught an ol fellow, an acquaintance, eyeing him curiously as he stood biting back the tears, so he walked briskly up the steps to an exit. There he turned once more, glancing at the members’ enclosure.
“This must change,” he thought. “This will change. Your days are numbered, old men of goodwill. The sun is setting on your world. And I will dance on your grave.”
The staging is so camp it is practically “comic book”, culminating with a meeting in the pitch-black Prime Minister of England’s office where he decides to sever all ties with Jardine and Larwood, and let them take the blame for the Bodyline mess.
Despite the required ensemble cast – “There are two teams out there. One is trying to play cricket. The other is not.” – it is unashamedly the tale of Larwood and Jardine, although Don Bradman, Jack Fingleton, Bill Voce, the “Gentleman of Cricket” Pelham Warner, and even Bert Oldfield gets a few good lines in. Being set in Australia, there’s even a showdown in a pub between Tommy Mitchell, Bill Voce, Harold Larwood, Les Ames, Jack Fingleton and a gun-toting blind-drunk Bushman.
This cultural stereotyping exists back-and-forth for the entire book. The best anti-Aussie sentiment is saved for the adviser of a member of British parliament:
“The Australian newspapers are notoriously sensational. They are, after all, principally designed for people who can’t read.”
Harold Larwood himself is portrayed as nothing short of a club-wielding caveman. The novel asserts that Larwood was utilised as – and had the IQ of – a battering ram. It’d be tempting to think of him as being computer-animated, a la the troll from Harry Potter.
Most of the dialogue is written phonetically, which is wonderful to read. Larwood comes in for the worst treatment, because he is most prominently-featured, but Bill Voce also cops the author’s phonetic.
“Old Sardine can hardly stand up,” Voce muttered, grinning.
“Why?” Jim asked. “What you mean?”
“Loll gorrim smack in t’ribs,” Voce said. “Daft bugger carried on like nowt were wrong. Couldn’t hardly hode his bloody bat.”
Jardine’s dialogue is an absolute delight. I only wish Wheeler had seen it fit to give him a moustache to twirl as he spoke. Occasionally the action returns to Jardine’s shadowy hotel room, where he plots the downfall of the Australians. Unfortunately, these pages aren’t prefaced with, “meanwhile, in Jardine’s lair…”
He’s a conniving bastard, Jardine. The restaurant scene in which he wines and dines Larwood, Bill Voce and Arthur Carr at his own expense for the exact purpose of talking Larwood into bowling leg-theory is pure, unapologetic manipulation.
And that is what the novel is built upon: manipulation, in a vicious circle. Jardine hates Australians, so he abuses the rules of cricket to destroy them. The Australian crowds and ruling body are up in arms as the team is flogged, but unable to push the British to back down because of their own need to make money through cricket rather than “regretfully canceling the tour” as the British suggest. And all of this happens because the higher-ups in England recognise cricket as a way to gain dominion over the unruly Australians, and they identify Jardine as being “their man”.
Oh, yes. That’s right. Jardine is not exempt from being used, too.
To Jardine, cricket is war. And it is played as war. But it becomes increasingly apparent during the book’s crescendo that he is an expendable force; despite thrashing the Aussies, his team have ravaged cricket’s reputation as the sport of gentlemen, and his days are numbered.
In the television miniseries, Hugo Weaving was cast as Douglas Jardine, which is one of the canniest choices of casting I’ve stumbled across. Hugo is one of those actors whose delivery and screen presence befit playing an antagonist – he’s ice-cool and knife-sharp.
Since Bodyline, he has become known for playing the Red Skull and Agent Smith, whom are decidedly a few steps down the badass ladder from the all-encompassing evil of Jardine.
I think it’s the quintessential cricketing story. It’s sport at war, Australia’s cricketing Gallipoli. I’d love to see a modern remake —