Jacquelyn Baker interviews Marion Stell about her recent book, The Bodyline Fix: How Women Saved Cricket (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2022). The book details the first international women’s Test cricket series between Australia and England in 1934-35, which followed the controversial Bodyline men’s series in 1932-33.
Congratulations on the publication of this fascinating book, Marion! One of the major sources that you utilise is the oral history interviews that you and Mary-Lou Johnson conducted in 1990 with women who played cricket in the 1930s. How did you rediscover these interviews and what motivated you to write The Bodyline Fix?
Historians keep everything – boxes of files and folders, assorted clippings, old notes and multiple drafts, even dusty cassette tapes. Together with a library of books these accumulations are the bane of removalist firms everywhere. Surely, we all think, these files will come in handy one day!
Sitting at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on International Women’s Day in 2020, I was among a jubilant and record crowd of 86,174 who watched the Australian women win the T20 Cricket World Cup Final. It was a night that did much to restore the good name and reputation of cricket – a reputation that had recently been tested and tarnished by the Australian men’s cricket team during their tour of South Africa, caught with sandpaper in their pockets and fair play absent from their hearts. For me that night was a bridge to the past. My thoughts returned to the women who had played at that very ground against England in the first Test match series between the two countries in 1934. In 1990 Mary-Lou and I had located and interviewed nine women associated with that series as part of a project that also collected and documented their cricket memorabilia from the 1930s for the National Museum. Now some striking similarities occurred to me. The first women’s series, coming so soon after the controversial men’s Bodyline series, had also done much to restore the game in the eyes of the cricket-loving public. I unearthed the old cassette tapes I had kept (together with copies of all the catalogue notes from the collections) and with the help of a techie at the university converted the tapes to digital format. Listening to the women’s voices again, I realised their story was wider, more relevant and significant than just a handful of cricket games. So, thirty years after conducting the original interviews, I wrote their stories inspired by the historical context of the 1930s and their surprising role in helping to fix the Bodyline controversy.
You write that, at the time, you were frustrated that many women could recall non-cricket events while on tour but had hazy recollections of the actual cricket games. However, returning to these recordings thirty years later, you had found that your view had softened. Why do you think events, such as the Coronation of King George VI, were remembered and cricket games almost forgotten?
Many of the women who played in the original 1934-35 series held in Australia also played in the return series in England in 1937. While travel to the first Tests played in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney was still a novel adventure for the Australian women, their six week boat trip to England in 1937, with stopovers in ‘exotic’ ports, tickets to the Coronation, a side-trip to play cricket in Holland, hosted dinners at exclusive clubs, meetings with the British prime minister, and the experience of being billeted in the homes and estates of the English upper classes, naturally left an indelible impression on the young women, just as it did on male cricketers who toured England.
Rather than focussing on the cricket games themselves, I think this group of women were often shy, humble and reluctant to brag about their cricketing achievements fifty year later, but nevertheless were proud of their successes and high level of skills. They clearly recalled their individual records, spectacular catches taken, five-wicket hauls, double centuries, Tests and tour games won, the large crowds and so on. Aged in their late seventies and eighties, many women commented that their cricketing years were the most important in their whole lives.
Were there any other unexpected discoveries or insights that you uncovered when relistening to the interviews?
Relistening to the voices on the tapes I heard the class differences present in their voices and language. Clearly, these differences had caused some divisions in the team. Just as important as class differences, however, were the state-based loyalties and friendships of players. Two of the Victorian-based women that we interviewed together – the great leg spinner Peggy Antonio and renowned fast bowler Nell McLarty – who had successfully bowled in tandem in Test matches, were still supporting each other in person. By interviewing them together they revealed more in their discussions with each other than if we had spoken to them solo.
Listening carefully and transcribing the interviews I also picked up on the silences, what was left unsaid. I had a deep admiration for the way the women told their stories without bragging, and without the hubris of many former male cricketers. The stories were fresh and genuine, not rehearsed and not embellished. There was a reluctance, however, to delve more deeply into any controversies of the time with many women unwilling to criticise the Australian captain Margaret Peden who had passed away, or to resurrect any selection or state-based controversies.
One new theme that shone through all the interviews was the closeness of these women throughout their cricketing careers with their male counterparts. They played alongside boys in street games, they trained with men at indoor nets, they were coached by willing male volunteers and they played in many mixed and charity matches. Their stories were intertwined and they enjoyed a genuine level of support and respect from elite male cricketers in the 1930s, which was not necessarily present in later generations.
I enjoyed the photographs that were peppered throughout the book—particularly the candid image at the beginning of Chapter 6 that shows the many layers of the Australian women’s uniform! Can you talk us through the additional sources that you drew upon to write your book?
That candid photograph was indeed revealing! The book is based on a reading of a variety of innovative sources. I know from the experience of researching Half the Race: A History of Australian Women in Sport (1991) that it is necessary to look beyond the back pages of newspapers where men’s sport resides. The sources I drew on for this new book included the oral history interviews I had conducted, photographic collections, and of course the material culture collection acquired for the museum over 30 years ago that included clothing and equipment, scrap albums, photograph albums, diaries, memorabilia, souvenirs, and a remarkable banner. A large collection of captioned photographs held in the National Library of Australia taken by Betty Green, the English touring team manager in 1934-35, allowed me to exactly trace the English team’s progress across Australia and establish connections and events not covered in newspaper articles or mentioned in oral histories. For instance, these photographs revealed that the English team mixed socially with Australian feminists including Linda Littlejohn. In addition, one surprising source was the existence of the detailed handwritten scorebooks from each tour – records of every ball bowled, run scored and catch made, of individual partnerships, umpire and scorer’s names and crowd attendance – that provided a reliable and authentic backdrop to the reminiscences of past players.
Because the Bodyline story has always been framed and told as a men-only story, I deliberately eschewed existing popular accounts, and instead re-examined the contemporary press with fresh eyes. I discovered that women had indeed played an integral part in the controversy – not only by playing cricket, but also as spectators and ready participants in the national conversation.
The women’s material culture collections were essential to the research – what we choose to keep speaks directly to the importance of the associated event in our lives. For instance, the English captain Betty Archdale had later emigrated to Australia bringing with her, across the world, her cricket blazers, cricket photograph albums, and even a poster advertising a match she played in at The Oval in 1937. This reinforced her statement that her cricketing years were the most important in her life.
I was interested to read that the Australian women cricketers that we follow in your book came from a mix of upper, middle and working class backgrounds, which is in stark contrast to their English counterparts. Why do you think cricket bridged class barriers for these young women in Australia?
Interestingly, the pathways to cricket by women in Australia and England were widely divergent. English women chose to take what could now be called a more separatist pathway – establishing cricket independent of male involvement or interference. After all, they had the English cricket ‘establishment’ and a hostile and mocking press to contend with. As a result, they discouraged mixed matches, never sought male umpires, coached themselves, promoted their game through their own magazine and most importantly relied on the estates of wealthy women to provide cricket grounds. These grounds were centred in the south and their games attracted upper and upper-middle class women many of whom were games mistresses at ‘private’ schools and their pupils.
Cricket in Australia was a more democratic mix of young women and girls, few of whom had the opportunity to learn the sport at school, but rather ventured to the streets and alleyways, and later coaching schools where they honed their skills alongside boys and men. Teams of women were in some instances forced to find and establish their own grounds, but generally they were welcome to play on the same suburban grounds as males, albeit usually on a Sunday.
The Australian team was made up of well-connected women such as the Peden sisters Margaret and Barbara, daughters of Sir John Peden, President of the NSW Legislative Council, but also professional women who worked in offices and shops, and women who worked in various clothing and food factories, and other manufacturing establishments. Recruitment to teams was often through the workplace – in Melbourne, the Raymonds box factory and Pelaco shirt factory had their own teams and the Semco Art Needlework factory sponsored a team that played on its grounds.
The rise of women sports journalists in the 1930s – especially Pat Jarrett in the Melbourne Herald, Ruth Preddey in the Australian Women’s Weekly, Kathleen Commins in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Hansen sisters in the Brisbane Courier Mail – all regularly wrote positive stories about women and cricket, attracting women from different backgrounds and classes to the game.
You wrote that at the end of the 1933 season, it was reported that hundreds of women were playing cricket. Do you think the Bodyline controversy led to this spike in women playing the game?
The 1930s was a period of consolidation in many women’s sports in Australia and was a time when state and national sports associations were established. Women were experiencing sport not only as players, but as administrators, journalists and spectators. International women players in sports such as golf and tennis, as well as team sports like hockey, were touring Australia bringing fresh perspectives and radical changes in sport uniforms and clothing. Women athletes and swimmers were participating in the Olympic Games. Opportunities for women were opening up and women were keen consumers of a wide range of sports. The year 1931 had witnessed women form their own national cricket association, pre-dating the Bodyline era. However, there is little doubt that the Bodyline series and the publicity it generated provided a fillip for women’s interest in cricket.
Can you explain to our readers the difference between leg-theory and Bodyline bowling and how the practice of Bodyline bowling was received in the women’s game?
The Bodyline tactic of bowling short pitched deliveries at the batter rather than at the wicket had its antecedents in, but differed significantly from, leg-theory, where the bowler aimed predominantly at the leg stump with a packed leg-side field in order to restrict the batter’s scoring opportunities. The latter was a legitimate tactic that was widely used on cricketing fields. Bodyline was leg-theory with menace and was devised to threaten the batter. It was criticised in Australia by players, managers, spectators, and the press. Condemnation of the tactic reached parliament and the pulpit. Alongside men, women spectators at games, sportswomen, and women in public aired their opinions about the game of cricket being brought into disrepute. There was, however, a small group of former male players who were reluctant to ban a tactic that they thought the Australian men’s team might employ in the future.
There is no doubt that both the Australian and English women’s team had fast bowlers in 1934 capable of bowling Bodyline, and rumours of Bodyline bowling capability by several Australian women were rife at their 1933 national championships. Although condemned, following the 1932 Bodyline series, fast bowlers across the country were tempted to try out the new tactic. A women’s club team in Adelaide even declared they would use Bodyline, at which point the tactic was promptly banned by their association.
When the English team, captained by lawyer Betty Archdale, arrived on Australian shores in 1934, the press was keen to know if they would employ Bodyline tactics, and Archdale was even keener to dispel that notion and suggest that cricket between the two countries would be played in the traditions of the game with, she kept repeating, no recourse to Bodyline. This constant reassurance was the price women were prepared to pay.
The Bodyline controversy of 1932-33 not only shook relations between the nations but also strained ties of Empire (despite the federation of Australia thirty years prior). Can you explain to our readers what the significance of this sustained attachment to Empire was during this period and do you think that cricket today continues to reinforce this attachment?
In the 1930s Australian people viewed themselves as, and in many instances were, strongly enmeshed with and attached to the Empire. The game of cricket had played an integral part in cementing the ties and building and sustaining the Empire in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and India, all cricket playing nations. Australian institutions including financial, judicial, legal, military, political, governance and administrative bodies, were closely allied and based on British systems. Many individual Australians in the 1930s had strong family links to Britain. Governors-general and state governors and many other officials were drawn mostly from the Empire. Because the Bodyline series occurred during the height of the economic depression with high unemployment and financial hardship, it had significant impact on financial, trade and diplomatic relations within the British Empire. These relations had already been strained following the British Empire Economic Conference in 1932, which established a three-tiered scale of tariffs, which gave preference to British goods above Empire producers (the Ottawa Agreement). Australia was highly reliant on British lenders and calls were made immediately following the Bodyline controversy to, among other measures, cease payments on the interest on those loans.
Today the game has expanded to include other nations outside the British Empire, but the long traditions of cricket developed during the height of the Empire continue to influence the game and its followers. While the game remains intrinsically important, more recently the relationship has shifted with an emphasis on cricket as an expression of Australia’s nationalism and independence.
What are your hopes for the future of women’s cricket and the field of women’s sport history?
The last ten years has witnessed astonishing progress in cricket played by women. Significant financial incentives are now available for elite players to make their careers with the popularity of the T20 form of the game and the establishment of major T20 leagues in Australia (WBBL), England (The Hundred) South Africa and India (WPL). Women have moved into major roles in coaching, umpiring, administration and governance. A fleet of women commentators now provide expert commentary on the game. Nationally, major advances have been made in player payment, maternity leave, and mental health support. With the popularity of the shortened version of the game, emphasis has moved away from Tests which many still view as the purest form of cricket.
History shows us, however, that the gains of one generation are not necessarily passed onto the next. Knowledge of the long and rich history of the game can strengthen and empower today’s cricketers. The challenge will be to sustain and build on these advances. In the full calendar of elite cricket games there is room for both women’s and men’s cricket events and these will hopefully play an equal part in the future of cricket. Nationally, club and community cricket remain the bedrock on which elite cricket can be built.
The Bodyline series, one of the most important and controversial episodes in cricketing history, was previously told merely from a male-only perspective. But to write about Bodyline and not tell the story of women playing the same game in the same era misses half the story. The richness of the two interwoven stories reveals greater complexity and understanding of the reactions to the series. It makes me question – what other fundamental histories should we be investigating and telling from the perspective of women?
 Australian captain Margaret Peden was involved in a minor controversy related to a new cricket uniform. Her submission to the national association included white stockings. Peden’s submission was accepted—much to the players’ ire. Peden passed away in 1981.
 Betty Green’s photograph of the English fast bowler Mary Taylor is featured on the book’s cover.