Steven Smith sits next to a statue of Don Bradman

Don Bradman had to deal with the scars Bodyline bowling left on his batting; Steven Smith has to deal with disgrace and look to repair his image as a player and public figure

© Getty Images

Essay

What do Bodyline and Sandpapergate have in common?

Both crises involve Australia, but here are five other things connecting them

Vaibhav Sharma |

As Australia's Test battle in South Africa earlier this year rumbled on, I opened a small cardboard box of cricket books that had made a tortuous, transcontinental journey from the suburbs of Melbourne to Coonoor, the small hill town in southern India where I live. The box had moved as I had. I bought these books several years ago from the legendary bookseller Roger Page's house-cum-cricket bookshop in Yallambie, possessed of the radiant sunshine and wide vistas of Australian suburbs, which make it entirely possible to forget its antecedents as a military camp during the Second World War.

I was immersed in two sublime books published in the 1940s - Jack Fingleton's Cricket Crisis and Ray Robinson's Between Wickets - when the ball-tampering scandal broke. Until then, I had enjoyed several blissful days watching intense, high-quality Test cricket and furiously plunging into Fingleton's and Robinson's superb prose and singular insights before, after and during the play.

With the crisis, my idyll came to an abrupt halt. It was impossible to read the books in the same way as before; one could not help but see parallels between past and present. Fingleton and Robinson wrote a great deal about Bodyline - Cricket Crisis is devoted entirely to the subject - and it seemed pertinent to ask: what could one of cricket's greatest crises tell us about this one? Here's what we can say with certainty: the game has changed much less than we think.

1. The Bradman-Smith parallel
In Cricket Crisis Fingleton wrote, "Bodyline was nothing more or less than a revolution against Bradman… The greatness of Bradman was shown by the fact that a theory such as Bodyline had to be invented to beat him."

For Bradman, the challenge was technical and cricketing; Smith faces the greater task of resurrecting himself as a public figure

Fingleton concluded that the Don was psychologically scarred by Bodyline for the rest of his career. Robinson had a similar assessment. "That stormy season," he wrote in Between Wickets, "left on Bradman's batsmanship a scar which had not completely faded half a dozen years later."

Though Bradman averaged above 100 in the 29 Tests after that series, Robinson thought the shadow of Bodyline followed him through the rest of his career. "Not in every innings or every match," he wrote, "but now and again a fast ball rearing at him has apparently caused in Bradman's mind an unnerving flashback to the days when he was cricket's hunted stag."

Robinson's analysis of the change in Bradman's batting is entitled "The Scar", a description that would fit Steven Smith's predicament too. In the aftermath of the ball-tampering scandal, Ian Chappell told ESPNcricinfo that he didn't see Smith reaching the same heights again because confidence was so key to his success. Taking Chappell's point further, it seems significant that Smith's game ascended to another level after he was made captain. His newfound stature in Australian cricket elevated his confidence even further. It was a sort of mutually reinforcing relationship; the more runs he scored, the more his he rose in Australian cricket. And the higher he rose, the more confident he seemed to grow about his batting. It's a cycle that's probably unrepeatable, at least to the same degree.

If anything, the scars for Smith are likely to be mentally and psychologically deeper, because, unlike Bradman, he suffered a personal disgrace. For Bradman, the challenge was technical and cricketing; Smith, on the other hand, faces the greater task of resurrecting himself not just as a cricketer but as a public figure. Like Bradman, he will score runs again, and perhaps monumental ones at that, but the ghosts will linger.

2. Premeditated acts of malice
The history of sporting controversy is defined by the lucidity of hindsight. Fingleton began his book on cricket's greatest flashpoint with this famous passage: "The Bodyline crisis was slow in breaking. It hovered ominously in the English and Australian dressing rooms before the dark and angry clouds became visible to outsiders, but once it broke, there was no mistaking its fury. It thundered and flashed lightning, engendered a spiteful nastiness before a startled sporting world."

Pelham Warner and Douglas Jardine arrive in Australia for the 1932-33 Ashes with little knowledge of how the consequences of their actions would reverberate through cricket for years to come

Pelham Warner and Douglas Jardine arrive in Australia for the 1932-33 Ashes with little knowledge of how the consequences of their actions would reverberate through cricket for years to come © Getty Images

In the aftermath of Sandpapergate, the deterioration in the culture of the Australian team appeared so calamitous, the ball-tampering saga seemed inevitable. There was a sense of things going out of control: the scrap between Quinton de Kock and David Warner was only the most prominent episode in a cauldron of verbal jousting, dismissive send-offs and hostile home crowds.

In 1932, when they arrived on Australian soil, Pelham Warner, the manager of the MCC team, held forth thus: "The very word 'cricket' has become a synonym for all that is true and honest. To say 'that is not cricket' implies something underhand, something not in keeping with the best ideals. There is no game which calls forth so many fine attributes, which makes so many demands on its votaries, and, that being so, all who love it as players, as officials or spectators must be careful lest anything they do should do it harm."

These lofty words, in Fingleton's analysis, suggested that Warner had apprehensions about the impending tour, and some inkling of the terrible turn of events.

As in the ball-tampering saga, what sent the opposition and the public over the edge was that they were premeditated acts of malice against the spirit of the game. "The English adopted Bodyline in all its nakedness and without shame," Fingleton wrote. Cameron Bancroft's decision to use sandpaper, although attempted on the sly, nevertheless played out under the gaze of dozens of television cameras. What united the actions of Smith, Warner and Bancroft and their English counterparts from eight decades before was their sheer brazenness.

3. The wilful hypocrisy of administrators
Despite the fact that Warner might have had apprehensions about the tour, Fingleton points out that he never resigned as manager, even as the poison of Bodyline spread and boiled over into a diplomatic standoff. Warner's ethics came to the surface only in retrospect, when he used his memoir partly as a revisionist document to wipe his hands clean.

"Over the years batsmen have been the petted and spoiled darlings of legislators and groundsmen... they have been rocked to sleep in the cradle of perfectly doped wickets" Jack Fingleton, writing in the 1940s

Pretty much the same could be said of Cricket Australia, in ignoring decades of poor behaviour only to take the moral high ground when tough decisions could no longer be avoided. In the background was the fate of a billion-dollar television deal: it's tempting to ask if Smith and Warner would have met such a harsh fate if the ball-tampering scandal did not threaten to deprive the board of the contract.

The bottom line, above all, has always determined the hand cricket administrators play. In January of 1933, as Bodyline enraged Australian crowds and obliterated cordial relations between the teams, the Australian board sent the MCC a stern cable that was to become famous.

"Bodyline bowling has assumed such proportions as to menace the best interests of the game," it noted. It went on to observe that this had caused "intensely bitter feeling between players", before delivering the body blow to English esteem by terming it "unsportsmanlike". Stung by the accusation, the MCC went for their rival board's Achilles heel. If, it wrote back, "you consider it desirable to cancel [the] remainder of [the] programme we would consent, but with great reluctance."

"That sent the Australian board scurrying to its foxholes," observed Fingleton. "If it was doing nothing else, this particular series of Tests was making huge profits. Sportsmanship or no sportsmanship, the Tests must go on."

In the aftermath of Sandpapergate, voices from the Australian cricket establishment spoke endlessly of needing to uphold the spirit of the game, and deceptively little about the billion-dollar deal that could yet be imperilled. Upholding sportsmanship has been a fitful, expedient enterprise for those who run the game. Cricket administration has become unimaginably more modern and wealthy since the time of Bodyline, yet the reflexive responses of cricket administrators have remained largely unchanged through time.

4. The sorry fate of bowlers
In the T20 era, cricket purists and romantics look back wistfully to an age where bowlers weren't simply fodder for big-hitting batsmen. Critics sympathetic to the denouement of the banned Australians could argue - even if the claim doesn't survive scrutiny in the case of the Sandpapergate Test - that the ball-tampering scandal was the result of the permanently subaltern status of bowlers in the modern era. This wisdom feels so uniquely modern that it is amusing to note that in the 1940s - more than seven decades before our time - Fingleton and Robinson had pretty much the same complaints.

A major reason why Smith and David Warner were punished so harshly is because their actions threatened Cricket Australia's bottom line

A major reason why Smith and David Warner were punished so harshly is because their actions threatened Cricket Australia's bottom line © AFP/Getty Images

"The way pitches have been prepared, steadily growing easier for batsmen, has denied fast bowlers some of the response they used to get from the earth," Robinson lamented. Of the time before Bodyline, Robinson wrote, "dull-paced wickets and modern, long-term batting skill had reduced even Larwood to panting futility in Tests against the Australians".

Fingleton mirrored these views. "Over the years batsmen have been the petted and spoiled darlings of legislators and groundsmen. They have been nursed solicitously… they have been rocked to sleep in the cradle of perfectly doped wickets." Bodyline, in this context, could be seen as "an uprising of bowlers against their lot, a lot over the years which had yoked their honest shoulders to doped wickets and limitless Tests".

The project of undermining bowlers has accelerated over the past two decades or so. Ball-tampering incidents in cricket were a response to flat, dry wickets and rose out of the search for novel ways to gain an advantage. The playing surface in Cape Town did not fit this pattern, but that the Australians went ahead anyway was evidence of a wider climate where the idea of ball-tampering as a response to unhelpful bowling conditions or adverse match situations had assumed the nature of orthodoxy. The alarming regularity of ball-tampering attests to a reality where bowlers have been reduced to second-class citizens in the game, and consequently much more inclined to bypass the rulebook.

5. The fallout
Perhaps as significant as a sporting crisis itself is its aftermath. Fingleton noted how the tremors of Bodyline could be felt for years afterward. "The unctuous anxiety of the two international committees to be good friends and self-effacing, to forget the bad old days, led to a passive period in which every fast bowler was forced to put on his party suit and display his nicest manners," he wrote. "The ambitious fast bowler who dropped a ball short at the halfway mark on the pitch, irrespective of whether the leg-side was packed with fieldsmen, was simply not invited…That was the other extreme from Bodyline, and a bad one too - a swing from wild bowling derring-do to correctness, almost to delicacy." A fast bowler "was forced to do penance for Larwood's sins of offence by pitching the ball only on that spot marked X and blessed by officialdom."

As in the ball-tampering saga, what sent the opposition and the public over the edge with Bodyline was that it was a premeditated act of malice against the spirit of the game

In the immediate days after Sandpapergate, it seemed that the Australian team, for decades defined by a ruthless, even needless, aggression, would respond in similar fashion. Tim Paine's gesture to seek out the South Africans for a pre-match handshake following the acrimonious Cape Town Test appeared a decisive break from the past. To some it suggested that the institutionalised culture of boorish behaviour was at an end. Like the fast bowlers after Harold Larwood, the Australians seemed full of resolve to atone for the sins of the past.

That outlook, and whether Sandpapergate will have a defining, long-term impact, is less clear. Australia received a body blow of similar magnitude with the death of Phillip Hughes. The mood then in the cricketing world was to move towards a kinder game, but the team quickly reverted to type. Just over three months after Hughes' death, Brad Haddin was slating the New Zealand players during the World Cup final for their apparently overbearing niceness. There are already signs that a similar, although slower, process may be underway again.

Paine recently rejected his previous coach Darren Lehmann's public resolve after the ball-tampering saga to emulate the New Zealand way of playing. And Justin Langer, barely a week after seeming to draw a clear line under professionalism, honesty and humility, speaking on his arrival in England ahead of his first assignment as coach, was unambiguous in stating that sledging was a fun part of the game and something intrinsically Australian.

Fast bowling did eventually find its hostility and edge after Bodyline. The early comments of the Langer-Paine era suggest that the route back to Australian aggression might be quicker than it was for fast bowlers after Larwood.

Vaibhav Sharma is a writer dividing time between Bangalore and Coonoor. His work has appeared in the New York Times and Al Jazeera among other publications

 

RELATED ARTICLES

Comments