Did Brendon McCullum bring back Bodyline in the Australia v New Zealand Test series?

The American political strategist Karl Rove, aka George W. Bush's Brain, said electioneering was easy: you just have to reaffirm what people think they already know. If people believed Republicans were responsible economic managers and strong on defence, a re-election campaign should mirror that back to them. A Republican president who actually blew the budget and made the country less safe? Facts are mere dust in the wind of preconceived ideas.

On the cricket field, we also prefer to believe than to see. Character is revealed when a team is losing, and so we believe Pakistani cricketers squabble among themselves (even when they're not), West Indians stop trying and dream of being somewhere else (even when they fight back), and those gritty South Africans struggle to the last ball (even when, as in their recent series against England, they threw themselves more energetically into the struggle to blame internal politics).

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Steve Smith's Australians, meanwhile, conformed to preconceptions in Christchurch. Smith's and Josh Hazlewood's dissent against the umpiring did not occur in a vacuum. It was only when the New Zealanders began to build an unlikely fourth-day lead and Australia's control was slipping that Hazlewood began to wonder who the f--- the third umpire was. Whether conscious (a tactic when all else has failed) or unconscious (an explosion of frustration), this is what we are accustomed to Australian cricket teams doing. When they are losing the initiative, they seek to change the temper of the game. The Disney-like fantasy that had been spun around Smith's captaincy all summer was well and good when his team was ploughing its opponents into the turf. When, in Christchurch, Australia grew fearful, they showed their true colours, which are not going to change for as long as they and their supporters prefer ugly winners over sportsmanlike losers.

Speaking of sportsmanlike losers, how did New Zealand respond when faced with the prospect of a rare home series loss? Under Saint Brendon, they would slide to defeat with a smile on their faces, give a good-natured shrug at the end of the day, and treat the match as combatively as a game of Kanga Cricket. Right?

Is everything actually as it seems? Captains Steve Smith and Brendon McCullum.
Is everything actually as it seems? Captains Steve Smith and Brendon McCullum.  Photo: Getty Images

We believe what we want, and so what really happened slid almost beneath the radar. Here was Saint Brendon setting fields of seven men on the leg-side, with left-armer Neil Wagner bowling a steady stream of bouncers around the wicket into the right-handers' bodies. Six Australians, forced to either defend or play shots into the packed field, lost their wickets and Wagner, bowling a brisk 140kmh, had a day out. But….wasn't that…Bodyline?

It wasn't invisible; it was just irreconcilable with the Ascension of Saint Brendon.


Whether or not the New Zealand tactics are called Bodyline is a cul-de-sac. In 1932-33, Douglas Jardine was able to station as many men as he liked behind the square-leg umpire. There was the small difference, also, of 1930s Australians having no helmets and primitive body-padding against Harold Larwood. And, to paraphrase another American politician Lloyd Bentsen's put-down of Dan Quayle, You, Mr Wagner, sir, are no Harold Larwood.

But what seems to have been forgotten, through the years, is that Jardine's Bodyline was not aiming to hurt the batsmen, but rather to stop them scoring. Leg theory – bowling at the body with a stacked on-side field – had been used before Bodyline, with slow bowlers. Leg theory was used after Bodyline too. Don Bradman employed it throughout the 1948 'Invincibles' series, as did his opposing captain Norman Yardley. Stacked leg-side fields were common in cricket's nadir of negativity in the 1950s. Intimidation has always been a by-product of leg theory. Its main purpose is to stop the batsmen scoring.

Ouch: Steve Smith holds his head after being hit on the helmet by a ball from New Zealand's Neil Wagner on the second ...
Ouch: Steve Smith holds his head after being hit on the helmet by a ball from New Zealand's Neil Wagner on the second day of the Test at Hagley Park Oval, in Christchurch. Photo: AP

Intimidation and negativity in cricket are often confused. The West Indian fast-bowling attacks of the 1980s were criticised as being against the spirit of the game. It wasn't the speed or the bouncers that were negative, however, but the deliberate slowing of over rates and the bowling of unhittable bouncers when wickets died and batsmen got on top. Intimidation always raises the hackles, but it is negativity that deadens cricket.

So whatever the label placed on New Zealand's tactics, the intent was thoroughly negative. Like Bodyline, it was within the rules. Was it within the spirit of the game? In McCullum's last Test match, the commentary was silent on this point. So were the umpires.

Fired up: New Zealand paceman Neil Wagner.
Fired up: New Zealand paceman Neil Wagner. Photo: AP

McCullum's tactics will resonate in Test cricket, because they worked. Australia's run-scoring ground to a halt as desperate pull shots gave Wagner wicket after wicket. There is an argument, supported de facto by the umpires' quiescence, that this kind of thing should be allowed. Perhaps it should. Perhaps the post-Bodyline restriction of two men behind square leg is obsolete. Perhaps bowlers should be permitted to bowl unlimited bouncers. The game's balance has tilted so heavily in the batsmen's favour, you could argue that they should be challenged to find a way out of the trap that Wagner's bowling and McCullum's fields set. Perhaps Bodyline doesn't need to be a dirty word anymore, and should be available to bowlers as a legitimate tactic. They do need help. And it will happen. McCullum showed one way to stop a rampant batting line-up on a placid wicket, and bowlers will copy it. It might even be McCullum's legacy.

Those are points for cricket to address in McCullum's retirement. It is easier for us to think that Saint Brendon was sparking a fruitful debate in his farewell Test match, rather than ending his career as a Jardine in a black cap. Just as it is easier to think of Smith's dissent as more of the old Ugly Australia. They both reaffirm what we think we already know.

Illustration: Michael Mucci
Illustration: Michael Mucci Photo: Michael Mucci