Harold Larwood in his post-cricket days, in Australia © Getty Images
Harold Larwood in his post-cricket days, in Australia © Getty Images

July 22, 1995. Harold Larwood, the man branded villain of the most acrimonious series in cricket history, passed away at the age of 90. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the final days of the life of this great fast bowler who surprisingly found peace in the very country where he had performed his demolition jobs.

From hero to scapegoat

He had been used as the lethal weapon that had scorched the Australian batting line up and brought home the Ashes. He had been hailed as a hero when he returned victorious from the singularly successful campaign. He was cheered for having defeated the arch-rivals in their homeland, for having restricted the murderous run making of Don Bradman.

However, by the time the Australians were preparing to visit in 1934, Harold Larwood had donned the mantle of the scapegoat. An elaborate diplomatic sham was underway. MCC, alarmed that the Ashes series could be cancelled, promised that no Bodyline would be bowled. Plum Warner, manager of the 1932-33 tour, double-faced and perennially conscious of his image, distanced himself from the incidents of the series. He thoroughly condemned Douglas Jardine and Larwood, the very two he had applauded when victory had been achieved.

Jardine, still captaining the England team in India, understood the dilemma. He was aware of the Australian reservations to play against him. He offered the easy way out for the authorities, declaring that he would not have time for cricket anymore. Larwood, who had recovered from the enormous physical strain of the tour and was back to his best in 1934, was informed that he would have to apologise in order to be selected in the Test team.

The shocked fast bowler refused and never played for England again. The triumphant Bodyline series turned out to be his last. The very country for which he had shed his sweat and blood had turned her back on him.

Left on his own by the selectors, and constantly hounded by the press wanting to talk about Bodyline and Bradman, Larwood was left to battle his demons. And there were plenty of them. With time he recovered and was bowling as well as ever in 1936 when the team to tour Australia was about to be selected. However, none of the selectors wanted to discuss him. He was left in wilderness.

The greatest pace bowler of the generation withered away, playing First-Class cricket for only two more seasons. No one in England seemed to care what happened to him.

Solace under the Australian sun

Ironically he found solace and sustenance in Australia, the very country which he had demolished with his thunderbolts. It was the former Australian opening batsman turned journalist Jack Fingleton who helped him emigrate. Larwood found employment with Pepsi-Cola, working on the production line. He moved on to another firm, Cottee’s, where he was employed as the stock controller, working long hours with the same diligence with which he had run up to bowl.

His own countrymen seldom asked about him, apparently thinking of him as damaged goods. Freddie Brown treated him with frosty chilliness when England visited in 1950-51. The Ashes hero met the captain, a former teammate, and was not even invited to the dressing room. There was no warmth from the 1954-55 visitors either.

In contrast, Larwood found the Australian cricketers welcoming and warm. Richie Benaud treated him like an honoured guest during the historic 1960-61 series against West Indies. The visitors from the Caribbean were even more delighted to make his acquaintance. Frank Worrell took him into the dressing room and introduced him to each and every player of the team. Larwood found it strange that all the other countries treated him better than the one he had played for.

There were occasional visits from solitary Englishmen as well. Fred Trueman and Frank Tyson looked him up individually, as the man each had idolised as a legend, expecting to find the hulking giant form of a great fast bowler. Instead, they were surprised to see a frail, small man opening the door with a smile, offering a bottle of chilled beer.

There was the occasional interview as well, each and every time about Bodyline and Bradman. Larwood steadfastly refused to delve into the past.

There were plenty of immigrants and mostly from mainland Europe. Larwood did not expect them to have heard of him or his cricketing deeds. He hoped to fade into obscurity with time, merge into the large migrant population. However, it proved difficult. In 1964, a letter was delivered to him, addressed to “Harold Larwood, Notts and England Cricketer, Somewhere near Sydney, Australia.” The Australian postal service was proof enough that Larwood would never remain unrecognised.

Things changed for the better in the mid-sixties. Colin Cowdrey, Ken Barrington and Jeff Jones visited Larwood in his Sydney home during the 1965-66 tour. In 1971, Bob Willis and Chris Old called on the spiritual ancestor of the modern English fast bowlers. Cowdrey this time coaxed Larwood to accompany him to the match at the Sydney Cricket Ground. With Ray Illingworth’s side winning the Ashes, Larwood was invited into the England dressing room again. Smiles were wide and overflowed, he was treated with cordiality and cheerful acceptance. Only the appearance of Bradman in the dressing room sparked a current of unspoken tension in the air. The great man was still not comfortable with Larwood. It was mutual.

In 1977 arrived the invitation. “The President, Members and Committee of the Melbourne Cricket Club request the pleasure of the company of Mr. H. Larwood.” The summons was for the Centenary Test at Melbourne. Ex-cricketers from across time and distance were flocking to attend, starting with the oldest of them — Jack Ryder and Percy Fender.

Larwood hesitated. During his playing days he had been branded a public villain and the stigma was difficult to forget. He waited, undecided, very, very nervous. It took the diligent persuasive sessions with Fingleton to tilt the scale. And finally, Fingleton approached Larwood’s wife Lois. This admirable lady told her husband crisply that he had to go. It would look peculiar if he did not. And so Larwood went, and it was the happiest moment of his post-cricketing days.

He sat beside — no prizes for guessing — Bill Voce. The children and adults all wanted his autograph. On one morning of the Test match, the officials had to get this swarm of people in line for Larwood to sign all the offered books, caps and miniature bats. Even Bradman spoke to him cordially enough. “To think I nearly stayed at home,” he said when he got back.

In 1980, he was in England, for a visit, as guests of Kirkby Portland Cricket Club, where he had begun his cricket career half a century ago. Larwood and Voce strolled around the ground, the two bowlers who had planted fear in the hearts of the batsmen. They walked across to The Cricketers’ Arms, for the same pint that had fuelled them through long fast spells. As they sat in the pub, a gust of wind came through the open window behind Larwood. Voce remarked, “Harold, even after all these years you’ve still got the wind behind you.”

Last days

There was some unpleasantness when the Bodyline mini-series was launched in 1984. It was laced heavily with pro-Australian bias and, by chance or intention, Larwood was not really projected in the best light. The many abusive letters he had received half a century earlier suddenly resurfaced, written in younger hands, with the addition of the modern day menace of telephone calls. Some callers, curiously ignorant of history, surprisingly believed that Larwood was as young as shown in the film.

It was also around this time Larwood drastically started losing his eyesight. By 1984, he had become almost blind. Cricketers and journalists continued to visit him, and he could speak from his memory. He remembered everything. “The only thing I have lost is my eyesight.” When he heard Frank Keating stubbing out his cigar, he remarked, “I think you have just put that in my favourite ashtray.” Indeed, it was the ashtray Jardine had gifted him in 1933, and on it was etched, “To Harold for the Ashes 1932-33. From a grateful ‘Skipper’”.

He even signed autographs, although sometimes forgetting to click the pen before putting down his name. When Graham Gooch and Darren Gough visited in 1994-95, Larwood took them through the 98 he had scored in the final Test of 1932-33 at Sydney. All the while he remained standing in front of his fireplace as if demonstrating how he defended his stumps. Gooch asked whether he had ever pitched the ball up during the Bodyline series. Larwood answered, “No, never.”

However, a much delayed delight awaited him in June 1993. Jack Fingleton had lobbied twice for him to be honoured by the British government. His endeavours had been answered politely but never acted upon. Now, John Major was the Prime Minister of England and according to Duncan Hamilton, “[He] carried his passion for cricket into 10 Downing Street.”

Larwood took Major’s phone-call sitting on his bed. The Prime Minister informed him that he had been given an MBE for his services to the game. At 88, Larwood had long resigned himself to the fact that his time would never come. And now, suddenly he found himself feted by the country which had forgotten him for so long. Major went on talking, “Yourself and Jack Hobbs are my heroes.” Larwood began reminiscing about cricket, not his own exploits, but the feats of Hobbs. As Major wrote later, “This was no vainglory, just admiration for another man’s skills.”

Harold Larwood obituaryLarwood presented Major with a rare picture of Hobbs and he walking out to bat. When he later heard that the Major government had been responsible for closing 31 pits, costing 30,000 jobs for the same mining community from where Larwood himself had sprung, he remarked, “I wish I knew he was planning to throw 30,000 blokes out of the pits. I’d have given him a right ear-bashing.”

In September 1994, he was presented with the medal at the Government House in Sydney. The Governor of New South Wales, Rear-Admiral Peter Sinclair, made the presentation and informed him that a few hours earlier Don Bradman had called to offer his congratulations. Larwood made sure he had heard the name right. Then he quietly said, “Well I should think that was very nice of him. Very nice indeed.”

Coming out of the Government House, his legs gave away and he fell. Later, he apologised profusely to the Governor for his infirmity. Never again did he appear in public.

His partner Voce had passed away in 1984. Shortly afterwards, a pigeon was blown into his garden by the wind. For days the bird kept returning. And every day Larwood stayed waiting for it. “It’s Bill, he’s come back to see me,” he said.

Almost all the major characters of Bodyline had passed away. All except Bradman — batting on as usual, nearing his hundred once again.And now it was Larwood’s turn.

As early as 1969 he had predicted that he would die in Australia. “Funny, isn’t it? That’s what the Australians wanted me to do in 1932, and now I’m going to do it of my own accord and in my good time.”

As Duncan Hamilton put it in his wonderful biography: “Like every promise he ever made, Harold Larwood kept his word.”

Even on his 90th birthday, he had been well enough to play a bit of garden cricket with his great-grandchildren. But, seven months down the line, on July 22, 1995, he passed away after a brief illness. Bradman himself reacted saying, “His name will live in history as one of the greatest bowlers of all time.”

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)