The Long View
An England team is being selected for the final match in a series that has already been won. The selectors have to decide what to do about their premier fast bowler: play him in a dead rubber, and risk injury, or hold him back for a future challenge.
That’s the issue that confronted England’s selectors prior to the third test at Edgbaston against the West Indies, with Jimmy Anderson the subject of their, and most cricket followers’, discussions. Eighty years ago a similar decision was called for. How did that situation compare with the one in 2012 and what were its consequences?
The series that took place three-quarters of a century ago was one of cricket’s most famous, and has become known as the Bodyline tour. But by the time preparations were under way for the fifth test, the intensity of the controversy about England’s leg-theory tactics was waning. However, the figure that hung over the decision to rest, or not, the leader of the attack – Harold Larwood – was the same figure that had motivated the adoption of those tactics: Donald Bradman.
Bradman’s batting dominance was hinted at in 1928/29, and fully realised when the Australians toured England in 1930. He battered England for four centuries and a new Test record innings of 334. Douglas Jardine, appointed captain of the 1932/33 trip, set Bradman in his sights and developed a plan – fast leg-theory – that he believed would counter the master batsman and so cowe the Australian team. Larwood, Bill Voce and Bill Bowes were the quick bowlers to implement it.
A Bradman-less Australia were defeated in the first test. Returning to the side at Melbourne, he made a match winning century, while his chief adversary, Larwood, limped through the match after his boots fell apart and the replacement pair rubbed the skin from his toes. England’s victory at Adelaide was the occasion of the diplomatic furore, after Australia’s captain and wicketkeeper were each felled by Larwood’s short-pitched balls (neither bowled to bodyline fields). The series was won in a Brisbane heatwave. With a dead rubber to go, Larwood had bowled 167 overs, taken 28 wickets, bowling through extreme heat, without regular on-field rehydration, pain from his toes as well as the pounding his legs took while shod in unsympathetic leather, nailed boots. He said of himself that he had been, “bowling my insides out.”
Fast-forward to June 2012. England have taken an unassailable two-nil lead in their early summer series against the West Indies. Jimmy Anderson has been, marginally, the most heavily used England bowler, delivering 111 overs and taking nine wickets in the two victories. He is understood to have one or two minor injuries – tweaks – but not serious enough to prevent him playing. In the main, the weather conditions have assisted his medium-fast swing bowling. Word has got out of the selectors’ intention to rest Anderson, seen as the fulcrum of England’s powerful pace attack. In an interview after the second test, Anderson makes clear that he would be disappointed not to play the final match of the series.
Back in Australia, in February 1933, Harold Larwood is making very different noises. He had already shown his anger at being over- or mis-used when picked to be twelfth man for an ‘up country’ game when recovering from the Melbourne Test, seeking out journalists to make his feelings known. When it came to the final test at Sydney, Larwood put across a strong case to his captain that he was physically and mentally drained and should be rested. Jardine refused the request. The captain, it can be argued, was taking a long-term view. The menace of Bradman had been contained. For that to continue in future Ashes series, every effort should be made now to reduce the great batsman. Larwood, the spearhead of the attack, had taken Bradman’s wicket in both innings at Brisbane, and would be needed until the very end of this often bitter series.
The England squad announced for the third test at Edgbaston excluded Anderson. The explanation given – the heavy programme of cricket (ODI, T20 as well as Tests) – created as much debate as the fact of his omission. Were the selectors’ priorities right? were they devaluing Test cricket? why had the England and Wales Cricket Board allowed such a crowded programme of international cricket to be assembled? On the eve of the Edgbaston Test, Coach Andy Flower made the case in simple, compelling terms:
We came into the series with one goal, to win it, and we have achieved that. So our priorities do shift slightly on a Test match front. I’m not intending to demean the importance of this Test but we have won the series and our priority does shift to the South Africa series. There is also a slight shift towards the West Indies one-day series which stands at 0-0: we haven’t won that series. If the Test series had been 1-1 going into this Test, Jimmy Anderson would play. He is not badly injured and he could play this Test if we had wanted him to.
Flower also martialled the argument of player welfare: “the days of playing our players until they wear down, or snap mentally are over.” (Flower’s nearest equivalent in 1932/33, was Plum Warner. When the England team met during the Adelaide Test to discuss the impact of and reaction to their tactics, Warner was told by a player to sit down and shut up).
Larwood played in the fifth test at Sydney. He scored a furious 98 as night-watchman. Then, in the field, the accumulated stress of his bowling took its toll with a serious foot injury. Still Jardine wouldn’t let him leave the field in the second innings until Bradman was out. Larwood’s injury required surgery. He took a single first-class wicket in the next twelve months. Although he played another five seasons for Nottinghamshire, he never achieved a full recovery, never bowled with sustained pace again and never played Test cricket.
This week, barring domestic incident, Anderson has avoided injury. Where his story is perhaps most closely connected to Larwood’s is that neither bowler got their own way. The selectors, although aware of their principal actors’ preferences, chose the teams they thought right for the occasion and for the future success of the England team. Only in the contemporary case does player welfare seem to have entered the thinking about what was best for the team.
Acknowledgement: I have used Duncan Hamilton’s biography of Harold Larwood as the source for the account of the 1932/33 Ashes tour.