TONY COADY Bouncer barrages, Bodyline and the Laws of Cricket Revisited

Jan 22, 2020

In Pearls and Irritations ( September 2, 2019) I wrote about the way that the long-standing intimidatory bowling of bouncers in international Test cricket is both clearly in conflict with the Laws of cricket in spite of being widely practiced, relished by most commentators, and ignored by umpires.

Since then there have been several interesting developments that deserve further comment, including a significant recent change in the Laws that my previous discussion failed to register. My earlier comments apply still to bouncer barrages prior to the Law change in 2017, but require adjustment to take account of the post 2017 scene.

But first some update on very recent matters. On the lively Perth wicket in the First Australia v New Zealand Test, in December 2019 both sides bounced batsmen enthusiastically, but the New Zealand paceman Neil Wagner was outstanding in bowling short of a length aimed at the body as his predominant delivery. This was particularly notable in his attack upon Steve Smith who holed out twice for small scores while fending or pulling. Smith , you’ll recall, was felled by a vicious bouncer from Archer in the Ashes earlier in 2019 ,and so concussed that he had to abandon the match and be replaced by substitute Labuschagne. The severity of his concussion also kept him out of the next Test at Headingley .

In the Second 2019 Test in Melbourne on Boxing Day the body-barrage continued with Wagner prominent, especially in the first innings when there was early life in the pitch and he was successful against Smith again, but the Australian fast bowlers were not far behind in the bumper stakes, though the pitch became less responsive and required more variation than in Perth. The third Test in Sydney was slow and favoured spinners, Nathan Lyon reaping 10 wickets, and so the bouncer barrage was rendered irrelevant.

An interesting development between the two Tests was the eventual outbreak of some media discussion from cricket commentators about whether what we were seeing was “Bodyline”. Some commentators seemed to accept that it was, .e.g. Chris Barrett in The Age on January 2 who referred to New Zealand’s “modern-day spin on Bodyline”, though the heading on his article used the term in quotes to show some uncertainty about the parallel. But on the whole, the idea that Bodyline had been revived was dismissed by most commentators for several reasons, most often by a reference to the protective clothing, especially helmets, now commonplace amongst batsmen.

It’s worth recalling that Bodyline was the term coined for the persistent fast bumper attacks upon Australian batsmen by the English team captained by Douglas Jardine in the 1932-3 Ashes series in Australia. Several Australian batsmen were injured, including wicketkeeper Beret Oldfield whose skull was cracked by a blow from super-quick Harold Larwood. An international row quickly developed and eventually led to changes in the Laws of cricket to ban intimidatory bowling. Bodyline had been a deliberate attempt to negate more massive run-scoring by Don Bradman who had stunned the English in the earlier 1930 Ashes series in England. A similar motive was at work in the attack upon Steve Smith.

The relevant laws of cricket that I cited previously(Law 42 against “unfair play”) were, I have subsequently discovered, out of date, but it is worth quoting them again before turning to the current Law.

“the bowling of fast short pitched balls is unfair if, in the opinion of the Umpire at the Bowler’s end, it constitutes an attempt to intimidate the Striker” (law 42.8) The OED definition of “intimidate” reads in part and most importantly: “To render timid, to inspire with fear”.

Persistent short-pitched fast bowling directed at the batsman’s upper body, as has been practiced in first class and Test cricket for decades clearly aims to instil fear of injury even if it thereby also aims at other ends, such as inducing a false stroke.

The updated law passed in 2017, (now Law 41.6) is entitled “Bowling of dangerous and unfair short pitched deliveries” and makes no reference to intimidation or intention but says more starkly:

“41.6 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.”

Moreover, the bowling of short-pitched deliveries that repeatedly pass over the striker’s head height (measured as standing upright at the crease) even when not considered dangerous is to be deemed unfair. When there is one occurrence of dangerous or unfair bowling, the umpire, after declaring a no ball, shall immediately caution the bowler and if the conduct is repeated the bowler will be removed from the attack for that innings.

In addition, as I did not note earlier, the previous Law 42 had gone on to say: “Umpires shall consider intimidation to be the deliberate bowling of fast short pitched balls which by their length, height and direction are intended or likely to inflict physical injury on the Striker. The relative skill of the Striker shall also be taken into consideration.” Note that the “or likely” clause went further than deliberate intimidation and seemed to prohibit negligent, reckless or even accidental use of a bouncer that could probably cause such injury. The new law removes the concepts of deliberation and intimidation and instead elaborates on the likelihood condition alone.

In my earlier post I discussed the bouncer barrages of the 2019 Ashes series, the Australian bowling against Sri Lanka in February both of which involved infliction of serious concussion and for one Sri Lankan batsman hospitalisation. The fear of such injury as one crucial purpose of the frequent deployment of the bouncer is further demonstrated by my then cited comments to that effect from cricketers past and present and other enthusiastic remarks by commentators about “chin music” and so on. So why were the umpires silent on the matter? This was clearly the intent of the Bodyline bowlers and it called forth the law against intimidatory bowling and is partly a motivation for the new law against dangerous bowling.

What then of the relevance of Bodyline to the present practices of both Australian and New Zealand teams, and of course other national fast bowling attacks? The commentators who claim these are not a return to Bodyline are right that there are several differences between the furious 1932 England pace attack upon the bodies of the Australian batsmen and the contemporary bombardments.

The extensive modern protective gear is one such, and, importantly, the restriction in the laws of two fieldsmen in the quadrant behind square leg, as a response to the outcry about bodyline, is another. In the bodyline series, the leg side behind square was packed with fielders so that a batsman using a hook or pull as a defence against injury was highly likely to be caught.

These are interesting differences, but the fact remains that the bouncer barrage is still intimidatory and dangerous. In the first place, the protective armour does not eliminate the risk of serious injury, as the death of Philip Hughes should remind us, not to mention the damage to Smith, and the recent injuries to two Sri Lankan batsmen in the series in Australia earlier this year, and many other serious if sometimes less dramatic injuries. Perhaps batsmen struggling to the wicket in full head -to-toe metal armour might eliminate all risk and remove intimidatory intentions and effects, but would this still be cricket?

Interestingly, however, the story about protective equipment, though it makes a contrast with 1932-3 Bodyline, is no excuse under either the older intimidatory law or the new dangerous bowling law in which umpires are explicitly instructed to disregard the fact of protective equipment. In both the earlier law and the current one umpires are also required to take into account the “skill of the striker” which may allow that batters who are highly skilled at either hooking bouncers or avoiding them are not deemed in danger, but makes it clear that most lower order batters are in such danger. Yet current fast bowlers from every Test country bombard tailenders and champions with the same relish, and with the same immunity from umpires.

Another difference from Bodyline is the rule about two bumpers per over introduced in 1994 by the International Cricket Council (ICC), with later modifications, largely it seems as a response to the ferocious intimidatory pace attacks of the supreme West Indies sides of the 1970s and 80s (though the Lilley/Thomson Australian sides were in a similar league.) If a bowler exceeds the two per over rule the team is punished by having the bowler removed from the attack. This is an ICC playing conditions rule for Test cricket and merely supplements the old and new Laws, though it does so somewhat confusingly since if a bowler infringes the current Law 41.6 the penalty of infringing a second time after one warning makes no reference to occurrence within one over.

The ICC rule allows a bowler to continue (with minor no ball penalties) bowling two bouncers in every over, though a third offence in one over after warnings results in the bowler being banished from the crease thereafter. The earlier Law 42, banished the bowler after a third offence whenever it occurs. In any case, it is apparent that both the ICC rule and the old and new Law are more honoured in the breach than the observance, though puzzles remain about the normative relation between the two.

Why is the bouncer law, in either its earlier or more recent forms, pretty-much totally disregarded by practitioners and umpires, not to mention commentators? I would speculate that, for the men’s game, one cause is the widespread belief that male “aggression” and “hostility” is a mark of manliness, a belief that is echoed in popular rubbish about “alpha males”, a rejection of “weakness” as effeminate, and the sometimes sneaking regard for violence as the way to deal with all sort of problems.

The same “aggro” attitudes probably also lie behind the noxious practice of sledging, i.e., trying to intimidate or unsettle batters with verbal abuse or babble, rather than seeking to remove opponents from the crease by relying entirely upon skilful delivery of the cricket ball and fielding expertise. Steve Waugh’s description of the tactic as aiming at “mental disintegration” absurdly exaggerates its likely effects, but significantly echoes the goal that torturers more blatantly and effectively seek. Now that TV viewers can hear much of the so-called “banter”, it is also revealed as often boringly pedestrian—“Bowled, Garry!”.

Tony Coady is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Melbourne and an Honorary Fellow at the Australian Catholic University.



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