2015 witnessed a prolonged, divisive and, at times, vitriolic and disabling public debate on issues surrounding spectator behaviour at Australian sporting events. The media firestorm was at its fiercest when commentating on exchanges between AFL supporters and Sydney Swans player Adam Goodes.
Such a conflagration is not a new phenomenon in Australian sport. The 1932‒33 Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) tour of Australia, during which England re-gained the Ashes, lit a blaze that scorched even the diplomatic language of international relations. The bowling tactics that sparked the friction were devised by MCC captain Douglas Jardine and executed tellingly by fast bowler Harold Larwood. The strategy, involving heavily packed leg side fields and express deliveries aimed straight at the batsman, became known as ‘bodyline’— a shorthand term that was quickly adopted to describe the whole tour. The crowds who witnessed these matches reacted with raucous and aggressive barracking.
Responses to barracking
English players and journalists were appalled at the spectators’ behaviour. Jardine considered Australian barracking ‘offensive’ and ‘thoughtless’, and appealed to cricket’s Australian Board of Control and to the media to take action. His proffered solution was that ‘in the event of any barracking or noisy demonstrations play will automatically cease for the space of half an hour’ (In Quest of the Ashes (1933): 210‒211).
Jardine’s complaint elicited a wry suggestion from Australian cartoonist R. W. Blundell who came up with the idea of erecting special barrackers’ towers from which crowd members could shout without disturbing players on the field.
Larwood backed his captain. The speed bowler devoted a whole chapter of his book Bodyline? (1933) to barracking and expressed the view that ‘the Australian Barracker … has secured for Australia a most evil reputation as the home of bad sports’ (68‒69). Larwood declared that, if the ‘outrageously unsporting taunts’ did not cease, ‘there will be, sooner or later, so far as England is concerned, an end of Test Cricket in Australia’ (68).
As might be expected, the Australian response to barracking generally erred on the side of sympathy or, at least, moderation. Wicketkeeper Bill Oldfield reflected that while barracking during the 1932‒33 tour was ‘quite abnormal’, so too were the circumstances governing the tour (Behind the Wicket (1938): 207). In Oldfield’s mind: ‘Barracking has always been part of cricket in Australia. Clean outbursts from spectators add interest to the game, in fact at times I have found it to be inspiring. It would, I should imagine, be a very dull affair having to play before a silent and seemingly disinterested crowd’ (205).
The Australian captain Bill Woodfull was more measured (as was his custom) in his consideration of barracking. In his only published book, Cricket (1936), he noted that during the Bodyline tour ‘a certain amount of partisanship’ was ‘voiced by a small percentage of the crowd’ when the MCC team took the field. He was concerned that if the ‘unfriendly attitude is permitted to thrive, the amity between two countries must certainly be impaired’ (6). Even so, Woodfull’s counsel to any player who may be placed ‘in the unenviable position of outspoken ridicule from a section of the crowd’ was: ‘ignore, in its entirety, the outburst of such misplaced zeal’ (6).
‘Leave our flies alone’
What form did this ridicule take? Probably the best known, and most notorious, barrackers were those who occupied ‘the Hill’ at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Chief among them was a man named Sydney Harold Gascoigne, better known as ‘Yabba’.
Yabba’s barracking philosophy, expressed just as the MCC tour was getting underway, was this: ‘I’ve been barracking for 45 years, and there’s no harm in it. The men who can’t stand up to it oughtn’t be in the game. It’s a free country, free comment. If we do chiak them a bit, we are always ready to applaud them, and as for the man who is going to show he doesn’t like it—well, it is going to be just too bad for him.’ (The Advertiser, 25 November 1932: 27).
Examples of Yabba’s chiacking include the barbs ‘I wish you were a statue and I were a pigeon’ and ‘Send ‘im down a piano, see if ‘e can play that!’, and his taunt to Jardine, who had been vigorously swatting flies: ‘leave our flies alone, they’re the only friends you’ve got!’
There was humour in Yabba’s jibes, but this was not the case with all barrackers. Sometimes the crowds turned mean. They ‘counted out’ players who had in some way earned their scorn or derision. And during the Sydney Test, following several complaints by Jardine about bowlers’ footmarks on the wicket, the crowd joined in ‘sustained applause’ when the England captain was struck by a sharply rising ball. ‘Such conduct’, said The Sydney Morning Herald’s writer, ‘was unpardonable’ (‘Hostile Crowd.’ The Sydney Morning Herald. 28 February 1933: 9).
Jeering or cheering?
Where does barracking end and verbal abuse begin? The Australian National Dictionary Centre defines barracking as giving ‘support or encouragement … usually by shouting names, slogans or exhortations’. It notes that in British English ‘to barrack’ means ‘to jeer’, but in Australian English the meaning turns from ‘jeering into cheering’ (‘Meanings and Origins of Australian Words and Idioms’). The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary has ‘two bob each way’. It says that in Australia and New Zealand barracking can mean to ‘shout vociferously (for)’ or to ‘jeer (at)’. In the online Australian Macquarie Dictionary, a thesaurus search for ‘barrack’ yields four synonym options (apart from the army-type ‘barrack’): approval and encouragement, and low regard and mockery. It seems we can’t pin barracking down—either as to meaning or legitimacy.
Perhaps an injection of humour steers barracking clear of dangerous shoals. The Australian journalist Reginald Wilmot recounts an incident from the opening match of the 1932‒33 tour in which a provocative jibe was quickly defused with wit. A member of the South Australian crowd directed a question to the Indian MCC player Iftikar Ali Khan, 8th Nawab of Pataudi: ‘Hey Gandhi, where’s your goat?’ Pataudi’s reply, ‘I have lost the string with which I led him; can you lend me a piece?’, was well received and he immediately became a crowd favourite (Defending the Ashes (1933): 88).
The strategy of giving the barracker ‘a dose of his own medicine’ was captured in Tom Glover’s cartoon ‘Counter Measures’ (at left), first published in the Sydney Sun and reproduced in Glover’s souvenir collection Oz Zat! (1932).
Bodyline is remembered for its uncompromising spirit and angry confrontations—on both sides of the white picket fence. It is encapsulated in the quote attributed to Woodfull during the Adelaide Test: ‘There are two sides out there. One is playing cricket; the other is not’. Did Jardine’s tactics and the crowd’s barracking constitute ‘cricket’? It’s a vexed question.
Links and Sources
- Blundell, R. W. Bodywhine: A Treatise on the Jardinian Theory. Adelaide, Rigby, 1933.
- Corrie, R. T. The Barracker at Bay: An Outspoken Reply to Bodyliners. Melbourne: Keating Wood, 1933.
- Glover, Tom. Oz Zat!: Souvenir of the 1932‒33 Tests. Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1932.
- Jardine, Douglas. In Quest of the Ashes. London: Hutchinson, 1933.
- Larwood, Harold. Bodyline? London: Elkin Matthew and Marrot, 1933.
- Oldfield, William A. S. Behind the Wicket: My Cricketing Reminiscences. London, Hutchinson, 1938.
- Wilmot, Reginald W. E. Defending the Ashes: 1932‒1933. Melbourne: Robertson and Mullens, 1933.
- Woodfull, William M. Cricket. London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons, 1936.
- ‘The Original “Yabba”.’ The Advertiser, 27 November 1932: 27.
- ‘Hostile Crowd.’ The Sydney Morning Herald. 28 February 1933: 9.
- ‘Meanings and Origins of Australian Words and Idioms.’ Australian National Dictionary Centre.
- A Tribute by the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust to Every Spectator Who Has Ever Come to These Grounds—follow the link at: ‘Yabba’ (Stephen Gascoigne) Sculpture.
Numerous books about the Bodyline series have been published. The most comprehensive is David Frith’s Bodyline Autopsy: The Full Story of the Most Sensational Test Cricket Series: Australia v England 1932‒33. Sydney: ABC Books, 2002. To discover other titles, enter the search terms ‘bodyline’ and ‘cricket’ into a library catalogue (e.g. Trove Australia); you will be rewarded with a list of nearly 100 titles.
Trove is also a rich source of early newspaper articles about barracking. Start at Trove’s ‘Digitised newspapers and more’ page and enter your search term.