The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Wayne Swan

Wayne Swan

Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer

3 December 2007 - 27 June 2013

25 January 2013

Forged in Fair Play - 80 Years on From Bodyline

It has been another eventful Australian summer, marked by bushfires that have once again tested some of our nation's most important values: our capacity to stick together in a crisis, help out those who need help, display coolness, competence and courage under pressure.

In a time of transition, with our nation on the cusp of the Asian Century, our values are the most treasured commodities we possess, ones which will always endure. So as we celebrate this Australia Day, it is worth reflecting on the origins and nature of Australia's national values.

There's no one source of our national character. It comes from our indigenous heritage, from the struggles of the convicts and early settlers, the Federation period with its conflicts and mateship, and of course our nation's experiences on the battlefields of war.

And perhaps for Australians as much as any other nation, so much of it comes from sport.

This summer marks the eightieth anniversary of arguably the most significant and nation-defining event in Australia's sporting history: the Bodyline cricket series.

Countless books have been devoted to re-telling the torrid saga, but it is worth recounting because of the role it played in our national psyche and Australia's story.

At its core, Bodyline amounted to a calculated attempt from the English cricketing establishment to attack the Australian cricket team – specifically the wunderkind Don Bradman – with brutal, intimidatory, even life-threatening tactics.

Hostilities reached their zenith during the Adelaide Oval Test match, 80 years ago this month, when Australian Captain Bill Woodfull was struck with a barrage of balls to the torso, including one particularly vicious blow just below his heart.

Such was the level of animosity towards the English tourists that a pitch-invasion from the crowd was genuinely feared, with police standing guard along the boundary ready to repel the furious onlookers.

The English battering-ram's principal weapon, the world's fastest bowler Harold Larwood, commented to a team-mate that if the crowd did indeed riot that he would be forced to defend himself with a stump.

Of course, Larwood himself had little to fear from ordinary Australians, respecting his ability and recognising a kindred spirit in this working class Nottingham coalminer - who indeed eventually spent 50 years of his long innings living in Australia.

At the end of this distasteful day on the field, Woodfull uttered to English team management words that are quoted and mythologised to this very day: that while there were two teams on the field, only one was playing cricket.

This accusation of English unsportsmanlike conduct propelled a bitter stoush between our nations, elevated to forceful diplomatic cables from the respective Cabinet rooms. The Australian Board of Control for Cricket's cable went as far to say that: "Unless stopped at once it [Bodyline] is likely to upset the friendly relations existing between Australia and England."

Out of context that may not sound as fearsome as what was happening on the park, but in the world of diplomacy, words rarely come stronger.

The enduring impact of the Bodyline series is deeply rooted in Australian sporting folklore, but it was about an awful lot more than just cricket or sport. As esteemed cricket historians Ric Sissons and Brian Stoddart concluded in their chronicle 'Cricket and Empire', from a British perspective Bodyline was principally about teaching Australia 'a lesson in imperial superiority'.

As I reflect on this anniversary, an obvious question is how the Bodyline series defined the way Australians of the time viewed our place in the world, and our relationship with Great Britain, as a result. And, perhaps even more importantly, what mark it may have left on us as a people in the years and decades that followed.

I think the answer to that throws up some surprising insights into the Australian national character – surprising because it contradicts some of the clichéd myths that surround Australian sporting behaviour, and by extension, Australian national behaviour more generally.

The most interesting fact about this episode is that it was we Australians who found ourselves the defenders of the supposedly English and gentlemanly ideal of 'fair play' upon which the spirit of the game of cricket is based.

Interesting because the accepted wisdom is that when it comes to cricket especially, we are the ruthless ones and the English the polite.

Yes, we unleashed Lillee and Thomson. And yes, Mitch Johnson is still breaking hands and bruising rib cages today. We play hard. But at our best, we play within both the letter and the spirit of the rules.

What the Bodyline series showed was that while we refuse to put on airs and graces, Aussies are not a ruthless, 'whatever it takes' people. Rather, we are a plain-speaking lot, who indulge in hard but fair play and expect no less from others.

Ours is not a gentleman's code; it is a democratic code.

By any measure, Douglas Jardine had no interest in honouring any such code in Australia that summer. By directing his bowlers consistently to target at the chest and head, and placing his fieldsmen to prevent even strokes to defend the body, life and limb was not only threatened, the spirit of the game was deeply contravened.

The fact that the rules were changed shortly after so that this couldn't ever happen again is the unarguable proof of that.

Now, obviously, all that was at stake was a sporting trophy, even if it was that famous urn. This wasn't war. It wasn't a matter of national sovereignty, or life and death – except perhaps for those who had to face Larwood and co without anything resembling today's body armour.

But Bodyline left a mark on our national consciousness nonetheless. This is because it symbolised wider and important social and political issues of the period that actually did in the long run involve national sovereignty and our survival as a nation.

To understand that we have to put ourselves back in that summer of 1932-33. Australians were in the middle of the Great Depression, with the mass unemployment, homelessness, deprivation and betrayal of hope that it brought. Australians didn't cause that Depression and to a very great extent we were powerless to tackle it: because we lacked full economic sovereignty. At home, our adherence to the gold standard and low foreign exchange reserves made it impossible to increase public spending to raise demand. Even worse, austerity was strongly recommended to us from on-high and from overseas – largely by English gentlemen, whose gentlemanly rules had little interest in the welfare of ordinary Australians. Honouring deals between bankers was more important to them than equal sacrifice from all and fair play for working people.

The result? Catastrophic unemployment, hardship and loss. Australians were mad as hell about it.

So when Jardine's Englishmen bent the moral code of cricket to win at all costs, people joined the dots. It was only cricket, but it was typical. And it symbolised the need for a new assertion of national sovereignty – one underpinned by the democratic rather than the gentlemanly values – to play hard, within the rules, to look after each other.

Put simply, I believe that Bodyline caused many Australians to wake up to the urgent need to make Australia's national interests our number one priority and to do so in a typically Australian egalitarian manner.

The events of the Bodyline series played a big role in embedding a sense of independence and a desire for true national sovereignty in Australia's international outlook. It didn't invent these ideas that had surfaced at various points in Australia's past, like Eureka, Federation and Gallipoli – but it amplified them and took in new and unexpected directions. The wartime Labor prime ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley were heavily influenced by the awakening of egalitarian national sentiment that followed the Great Depression, and it informed their determination to stand up for the country's defence interests in 1942.

Today Australia stands almost alone among the developed nations in having stayed out of recession during the most significant global economic downturn since that same Great Depression. This in no small part speaks to an enduring determination for our country never again to be at the whim of anyone who claims an inherent right to make the rules and break them at our expense.

The events on the cricket field during the summer of 1932-33, coinciding as they did with the events of the Great Depression, helped awaken a democratic and egalitarian assertion of Australian national sovereignty that still serves us well on Australia Day 2013.

I believe that reflecting on those events will eventually have another legacy too in hastening the approach of an Australian republic, even if it has fallen from the national agenda over the past decade.

While England will always be our most respected cricketing foe, and among our very closest allies and dearest friends, I think our national conversation is sold short when it doesn't include a debate about our relationship with the Crown.

So let's use today to reflect on, and re-commit to, the great things Australia stands for: playing hard, playing by the rules, looking after every citizen, and always defending our national interest with courage and with conviction.