A few years ago, I fell into conversation with Pat “Percy” Pocock ex-Surrey and England spinner. He jabbed a finger at my son who was sitting behind the laptop, “Just look up George Lohmann and tell me and your dad his figures”. “18 matches, 112 wickets, average 10.75” Jesper replied, wondering if he’d read it right. “What about that?” said Percy to me, my face betraying a slight scepticism. “Sure it was a long time ago – but why wasn’t everybody else doing it?” said Percy. I could only nod in agreement.
Percy’s point holds for Harold Larwood’s performances too – nobody else did it then and few have done it since. And, as Duncan Hamilton’s idolising biography shows, that applies every bit as much to the man as to the bowler.
Larwood the bowler frightened men, hard men who had been through war and the scarcely less terrifying mines in the North of England. They didn’t fancy getting into line, so they were bowled, some turning on their heel as the ball was released, knowing the ball’s destination and, comfortingly, their own. Though neither tall nor heavily built, Larwood allied natural balance to an understanding of the need to present his action at the crease perfectly, the better not just to propel the ball at speeds never seen before and seldom since, but also exactly where he intended. He became the template for Ray Lindwall amongst others, but, like many of the genuine quicks, the strain of bowling at extreme sustained pace proved more than his body take and he was never the same bowler after he had done more than anyone to secure The Ashes in 1932-33. (Though, like Dennis Lillee a couple of generations later, he was such a craftsman that he took plenty of wickets at his reduced pace, topping the Championship averages in 1936 with 116 wickets at 12.92! Larwood was only finished when he said so.)
If Larwood the bowler found taking wickets the inevitable result of his talents and hard work, Larwood the man had a much tougher time understanding how his decency and dedication resulted in so much hostility. And that hostility came from one source and one source only – his role in “Bodyline”.
Douglas Jardine was charged with bringing back The Ashes and to do that he had to blunt Australia’s run-machine, Don Bradman. His method was not original, it was not against the rules and it most definitely was “playing cricket”. However, by requiring the fastest bowler the world had ever seen to bowl at the leg stump to an umbrella leg-side field (a mirror of the field the West Indian quicks would use when bowling an off stump line fifty years later), the risk of injury to batsmen was much increased. On the up and down hard Australian pitches, 90mph plus deliveries aimed at a leg stump that was obscured by an almost entirely unprotected batsman in a normal stance, looked like assault. And, when Australian batsmen started to get hit – ironically usually by balls on neither a leg stump line nor to the umbrella field – the Australian crowd reacted as if one of their own was under attack by a mob of playground bullies. Jardine and Larwood bore the brunt of a nation’s wrath. And not just a nation – there was plenty more of the same, though not so vocal, in their own camp.
Jardine and Larwood (aided by their team-mates in one of the strongest squads England can ever have sent to Australia) won The Ashes, but lost their places as Test cricketers, ostracised by a craven MCC happy to sacrifice a mere professional (Larwood) and a gentleman who didn’t play much like a gentleman should (Jardine). Both men felt the undeserved snub keenly and both men bore it with a fortitude that cost them enormously. But they stand in the highest rank of English cricketers, men whose deeds will revered long after the blazered pygmies, who demanded an apology from Larwood as the price for his consideration for a return to Test cricket, are forgotten. An apology from the man whose 33 wickets at 19.51 stands as the greatest achievement ever by an English bowler overseas, a man who bowled himself into such a state that he could barely walk, so smashed up were his feet, a man who did his captain’s bidding without question. Even as this distance, it fair makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
Larwood, a man whose roots in Nottinghamshire’s mining communities framed every aspect of his life, was asked about Jardine – “I loved him” was his blunt, and frankly remarkable, reply. Jardine was dead at 57, too young to become what these days would be termed a national treasure – but he was happy with the opinions of the men he led and with a life that, in actions, ran diametrically opposite to his image of aloof snobbishness. Larwood would be more fortunate and live long enough to feel the appreciation of friends, foes and fans.
After a period of what might charitably be called introspection, an old enemy, Australian opener turned journalist Jack Fingleton, rescued Larwood from his failing Blackpool sweet shop and persuaded him to join the £10 Poms in the new post-war Australia. This was a act of supreme generosity, but one that did not come out of the blue. When Larwood was lame on the field in the Fifth Test, Jardine insisted that he finish his over. Five deliveries were lobbed up to Australian captain, Bill Woodfull, who had been dealt a hideous blow by Larwood earlier in the series. All five were tapped back to the bowler, as a decent man honoured a now stumbling adversary. Larwood packed the same suitcase and travelled on the same ship as he had done 18 years earlier and arrived Down Under in 1950, never to look back.
In Australia, Larwood was not snubbed, not patronised, not required to apologise – he was accepted as a warrior, a great player and a worthy opponent. By almost everyone. Though his little bungalow, not far from the SCG, became a place of pilgrimage for generations of fast men, English and Australian, Larwood’s deeply ingrained desire never to make a fuss (or be made a fuss of) and his lingering doubt that some still blamed him for the whole “Bodyline” imbroglio, meant that he always had to be persuaded to meet the men who revered him. When he did, he was always surprised, as if his greatness was somehow the result of another’s deeds. But he found peace in his mind and in his heart in Australia, and that reflects wonderfully well on its people.
Duncan Hamilton tells this extraordinary tale with tremendous passion, tiptoeing along the line of over-sentimentalising his subject, occasionally empurpling the prose just a little too much and never hesitating to take sides. But such faults and near faults pale in comparison to the book’s strengths – the author’s empathy with the subject, his research, his unequivocal fingering of the imposters in suits, betraying the heroes in whites. Hamilton is a journalist, but marries an easygoing writing style with an academic’s hunger for research – i read the 380 pages in fewer than 48 hours and felt nothing was neglected. Authorised biographies can be saccharine, but Hamilton does not hold back on Larwood’s misjudgements in the instant books and newspaper articles in the immediate aftermath of his return to England in 1933 and shows, though there is significant mitigation, that the man could be his own worst enemy.
Since the biography was written with the support of Larwood’s family, the text is peppered with beautiful, grainy, black and white photographs of the shy young bowler with the film star looks, the bon viveur Nottinghamshire captain, Arthur Carr (a brilliant cameo sketch), fellow players like Bill Voce and the tragic “Dodge” Whysall and family scenes that say as much as Hamilton’s words about Larwood’s devotion to his wife and daughters. I confess that this is the best example of the use of photographs in any biography I can recall.
Harold Larwood – The Authorised Biography of the World’s Fastest Bowler won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2009. Read it and find out why.
You can tweet me at @garynaylor999.