Harold Larwood, born November 14, 1904, was perhaps the fastest and most dreaded bowler of all time. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the life and career of the man synonymous with Bodyline.
In the summer of 1933, during a friendly match played on a village green in Leicester, a ball struck an unfortunate batsman on the stomach – and the injury proved fatal. The coroner carrying out the inquest asked, “Was there any Bodyline bowling?” Only after the witnesses said no did he record the verdict as ‘accidental death’.
Such was the impact of Larwood’s deeds.
And the man himself?
In an Australian theatre during the 1932-33 tour, he experienced the shock of a little girl looking at him and asking her mother in a disbelieving voice, “Why mummy, he doesn’t look like a murderer!”
In letters and newsprint, he was variously called “Dirty”, “Liar”, “Craven Pommie bastard”, “Village bonehead”...
During the same tour, the hotel staff automatically delivered a letter to his room. On the envelope was a crudely drawn image of the Devil, with horns, tail and trident, running up to a set of stumps with the ball in his right hand.
His infamy was absolute. After his return to England, hate mail kept piling up, sent from the land Down Under. Even Englishmen did not spare him, disowning him and questioning his motives, tactics and spirit in steadily flowing letters. And Harold Larwood slit open each one of the envelopes and read every word.
He was disillusioned and confused. Exhausted after the tour, nursing serious injuries and haggling with the tight fisted MCC to cough up the money for treatment, slowly faith in fairness was wrenched from his heart. Only bitterness remained in the gaping wound.
Larwood believed he had done nothing wrong. He had followed the captain’s orders as was expected of a professional cricketer. And he had trusted his manager and the officials of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC).
This trust, along with a couple of misguided decisions, ended his great career even as it soared at the height of its powers.
But, then, he only knew how to bowl fast. Other than that, he was polite, quiet and self effacing. Complicated diplomatic politics had never been his forte.
The Nottinghamshire miner
Larwood was born exactly 108 years ago, in Nuncargate, a Midlands village that served a colliery at Annesley in the nearby Leen Valley. He came from a family who had been miners for generations. He himself worked in the pit, and walked miles to play cricket – a way to get away from the darkness and drudgery. “Cricket was my early reason for living. All I wanted to do was to finish my work in time to get above the ground and get a game.”
From the same pits emerged his partner-in-crime, the big left-arm fast bowler Bill Voce. Dodge Whysall, Sam Staples and Joe Hardstaff Jr also came from the same origins.
In 1922, Larwood walked 12 miles to watch his hero Jack Hobbs bat at Trent Bridge. The first ball he witnessed on reaching the ground had the master dismissed by Fred Barratt – a pace bowler who had sprung up from the same coal pit. The 17-year-old clutched on to that image as the possibility of a better life. He was five-feet-seven, small and thin, but generated eye-popping pace with his colliery-chiselled back and long gangly arms. At a subsequent trial, the Nottinghamshire selectors were impressed. And soon, captain Arthur Carr and coach Jimmy Iremonger took him under their vastly varied wings.
The Carr ‘Vitamin’
While Iremonger, perhaps the first thinking sports scientist, carefully perfected his action, run- up, regimen and routine, Carr showered him with confidence. Larwood returned the favour by knocking over batsman after batsman.
From the skipper, Larwood, and later Voce, picked up the practice of having ‘energy drinks’ of the era. Carr, who also captained England in Larwood’s debut Test, loved life and had a passionate theory about the way to replenish fast bowlers. These players, according to him, burnt up enormous amounts of energy, and had to be supplied with something that gave them a kick. And for Carr, that something was beer.
The amber liquid flowed in rivers in the Notts dressing rooms, and Larwood had gallons poured down his throat. Carr himself joined in enthusiastically. Larwood drank like a fish, and needed the beer to bowl batsmen out. In fact, even a strict disciplinarian like Douglas Jardine was forced to have glasses of beer delivered, cleverly camouflaged beside orange juice, for Larwood and Voce during the drinks intervals of the Bodyline series.
Voce, just a wee bit moderate in comparison, often took care of his senior partner. Once he was driving his pickled friend home in a wheelbarrow late at night when a policeman stopped him. Voce, banking on their fame as bowlers, said, “Don’t worry, I’m Voce.” The policeman looked cynically at him and then at his drunk friend and said, “And I suppose that’s your friend Larwood.” When the cop was finally convinced that England’s opening bowlers were wheeling across a deserted pavement in the dark, he went back with them for a nightcap.
In fact, it is quite a miracle that Larwood could bowl that fast maintaining that quality all day. Most often his lunch breaks consisted of beer, along with a fair number of cigarettes.
Larwood’s inclusion into the Test team owed a lot to his first idol, Jack Hobbs. In the trial that had preceded the 1926 Lord’s Test match, Larwood had bowled the master in both the innings with balls faster than bolts of lightning. It was mainly due to the persuasion of Hobbs that the 21-year old was included in the eleven against Australia.
His debut was not successful as Warren Bardsley got stuck into him. Larwood lost his place in the side.
But when the series was tied 0-0 with the fifth Test to be played, Hobbs spoke for Larwood yet again. He was brought back along with Wilfred Rhodes, 26 years his senior. And the two of them, resembling father and son, bowled England to a memorable Ashes win. England sat up to witness a pace bowler of rare class.
Yes, Larwood was fast. There was an Englishman who measured his speed with a stopwatch and jotted his results with pencil. His calculations showed 96 mph. In Australia, equally crude methods had measured the pace as 99 mph. We cannot be certain about the exact figure, but it is generally accepted to have been well over 100 mph.
In 1928-29, George Duckworth used strips of raw beef inside his gloves to protect his hands when keeping to Larwood. The English fielders could hardly withstand the stench resulting under the hot Australian sun.
Neville Cardus wrote that “He ran in to bowl with a splendid stride, a gallop, and at the moment of delivery, his action was absolutely classical, left side showing down the wicket before the arm swung over with a thrilling vehement rhythm.”
Watching him from behind picket fences in 1932-33, a young Ray Lindwall modelled his action on his hero.
George Hele, who officiated in every Test of the infamous series, wrote in Bodyline Umpire, “Larwood was not only the fastest bowler I have watched, he had the most beautiful action. While he was running in behind me, I never heard him. He glided towards the wickets until the last three yards. It was copybook, classic and utterly direct.”
Haydon Smith was a Leicestershire fast bowler afflicted with stammering. Once he felt buoyant on seeing a fast Grace Road wicket where they were to take on Nottinghamshire. He approached his skipper, “S-s-skip, I think I’ll b-b-bounce one or two.” The worried captain said, “Wait a minute, they’ve got Larwood and Voce.” The enthusiastic Smith bounced them. And Larwood and Voce took offence, tore through Leicestershire, and soon found Smith walking to the wicket. Larwood’s first ball reared past Smith’s face, and he did not see it – a gush of wind caressed his face as it flew past. The second took the edge as he backed towards square leg. The ball shot towards gully where Sam Staples took it on the bounce. Smith pulled off his gloves and walked. Staples shouted, “I didn’t catch it.” Smith did not look back, uttering, “You f-f-fu***ng well did.”
Despite his speed, Larwood did not consider himself an automatic choice for the 1932-33 tour. There were reasons. On the bowler killing pitches made for batsmen, he had not been too successful in international cricket. Sixteen Tests had seen him take 45 wickets at 35.06. Besides, in Australia, the hand-made ball did not swing. He had struggled on the previous tour. After that, during the 1930 Ashes series in England, Bradman had scored 974 runs, 137 of them off Larwood’s bowling from 147 balls.
So, in August, when Jardine met him along with Voce and Carr at the Picadilly Grill Rooms, he was more than a bit apprehensive. The conversation revolved around Bradman, and Jardine asked the two fast bowlers whether they could consistently pitch on the leg stump, largely in their half of the wicket. The two miners looked with admiration at the amateur captain whose steely eyes did not disguise the desire for victory. Both replied in the affirmative.
The tour has gone down as the most acrimonious in history. England went in with four pace bowlers – Larwood, Voce, Gubby Allen and Bill Bowes. Except for the amateur Allen who refused, the others, mainly Larwood and Voce, bowled quick, at the leg stump, into the body of the batsman, with a posse of short-legs close enough to pick the batsman’s pocket, with two men in the outfield for hooks and pulls.
Larwood later claimed that he did not aim at the batsman. But, the Australian cricketers, crowd and press thought otherwise. Such bowling making for the batsman’s body was deemed dangerous, especially at Larwood’s pace. Captain Bill Woodfull was struck over the heart, and Jardine chose that moment to move his fielders to the leg side positions, with a crisply mouthed, “Well bowled, Harold.” And when Bert Oldfield was struck on the head with near fatal consequence, the crowd all but jumped the fence to attack the Englishmen. The seething anger could almost be felt in the amphitheatre. Larwood thought of arming himself with a stump.
The series progressed. The English tactics did not change. Woodfull remarked to the sheepish English manager Plum Warner that only one side was out there playing cricket. Angry and hastily framed cables flew between the Australian Cricket Board and MCC. The crowd barracked boisterously, the press was scathing, hate mail flowed. Don Bradman’s average was halved in the series, from a stratospheric 112.9, it reached a mortal 56 during the four Tests that he played. He also hit his first six in First-Class cricket off Hedley Verity, explaining, “I wanted to hit one bowler before the other hit me.”
When England won the Ashes, Warner was the first to celebrate. He hailed Jardine as one of the best captains ever, and observed that Larwood could be compared with any great fast bowler of the past.
MCC sent congratulatory cables to the bowler who had claimed 33 wickets in the series and the captain who had gone about his job with steadfast determination.
When Larwood returned to England, he received a welcome reserved for the greatest of heroes, which made his shy, retiring soul uncomfortable. Journalists clamoured around him for his version of the Bodyline story.
And hence, he was confused – when he found out in quick time that his Test career had ended.
Betrayal and aftermath
Larwood was not absolutely free from blame in the events that followed. When the gag order against press was lifted, he wrote several columns and a hastily published book titled “Bodyline?” The articles and the book were obviously ghosted, and Larwood was paid for his comments. But, in all probability, he did not bother to proof read the final versions. Neither did he use any semblance of tact in his assessment.
He branded Woodfull ‘slow’, Bradman ‘scared’, the Australian press ‘without pluck’ and the average Australian a ‘thin skinned bad loser’.
His foot had given up on him during the last Test. Jardine had still insisted that he remain in the ground till Bradman was dismissed. Now he needed urgent medical attention. MCC was reluctant to pay his bills, although they finally relented.
Such was Larwood’s ability to work wonders for the gates that Nottinghamshire asked him to play as a batsman when injury ensured that he could no longer bowl in the 1933 season. Larwood had scored 98 as a night-watchman in the final Bodyline Test, but managed just two fifties in 11 innings in the games that followed.
By the time the Australia were preparing to visit in 1934, Larwood could sense the diplomatic sham that was being carried out. MCC, alarmed that the Ashes series could be cancelled, acquiesced that no Bodyline would be bowled. Warner, double-faced and conscious of his image, distanced himself from what had happened on the 1932-33 tour, thoroughly condemning Jardine and Larwood, the very two he had applauded on the win.
Jardine, still captaining the England team, understood the dilemma of the MCC. He understood the Australian reservations to play against him again. He offered the easy way out for the authorities, declaring that he would not play. Larwood, who had recovered 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.
Left on his own by the selectors, and constantly hounded by the press who wanted 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. Voce, a more practical and younger man, made it to the tour through a tactful compromise. Larwood was left in wilderness.
The greatest pace bowler of the generation withered away, playing First-Class cricket for only two more seasons. He ended with 78 wickets in 21 Tests at 28.33. In First-Class cricket, his tally is 1427 wickets at 17.51.
After trying his hand in numerous businesses, Larwood ironically found peace in the sunburnt country of Australia, where he emigrated with the help of his Bodyline foe Jack Fingleton. He found steady employment with Pepsi.
Shunned by the highbrow governing body in his playing days, he was compensated to an extent when offered full membership to the MCC in 1949.
Larwood continued to follow cricket and voice strong opinions. He deplored modern batsmen ‘being trussed up like turkeys’ with their excessive protective equipment. He also observed that Dennis Lillee bowled more bouncers in the centenary Test at Melbourne than he and Voce had done during the entire Bodyline series.
It was in 1993, at the age of 88, that he finally got his just reward. At his beloved Trent Bridge, he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in a delayed recognition of his services to his country.
Larwood died two years later.
(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)