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Our Cricket Heroes - Harold Larwood

Martin Chandler | 11:47pm gmt 12 Sep 2009
Our Cricket Heroes - Harold LarwoodHarold Larwood was Douglas Jardine's "enforcer" on the notorious bodyline tour of 1932/33. Continuing interest in that series throughout the 20th century has made sure that Larwood, more so than any other bowler of the inter-war period, is a name that continues to be recognised by cricket followers who may have little real interest in the era that he represents. Larwood was a small man, no more than 5ft 6 inches in height, and always came across as a modest and self effacing individual. Behind that placid exterior however lay a fierce pride and determination and it is those qualities that made Larwood the bowler that he was.

When, as it often is, the topic of fast bowling is discussed in the context of the word 'greatness' many, particularly those interested only in the modern era, simply turn to their books of statistics and point to Larwood's overall Test record of 78 wickets in 21 matches at more than 28 apiece. Those figures are, for them, sufficient to dismiss Larwood from the discussion. To overlook Larwood in that way is, however, a fundamental mistake. In Larwood's time international cricket was a batsman's game, particularly in Australia, where wickets were prepared for heavy run scoring in timeless matches, which is the main reason for the dearth of genuine fast bowlers in the period.

If statistics have to be used as the measure of Larwood's ability then it is overall First Class statistics that should be looked at and if that is done the true extent of Larwood's class is revealed. On no less than five occasions Larwood topped the national averages in England, a degree of domination over his contempories which has never been equalled. Richard Hadlee, also based at Trent Bridge, achieved the feat four times but Hadlee apart only Brian Statham achieved the feat even twice. Malcolm Marshall for example, who had a long county career with Hampshire, and who was recently put forward in a CW Poll as the greatest fast bowler of all time, achieved the feat only once.

Larwood made his debut for Nottinghamshire in one match in 1924 and he next appeared for them in the middle of June of 1925. Barely 12 months later he was playing for England at Lords in the second Test of the 1926 series. Larwood took three wickets in the match and therefore sufficient to justify his inclusion but he did not retain his place for the third and fourth Tests. In the fifth Test the selectors decided to gamble in what was to be the series decider. A win would give England the Ashes for the first time since the Great War so in a series of changes that some contemporary observers were highly critical of Larwood returned, as did the 48 year old Yorkshireman Wilfred Rhodes and the 25 year old Kent amateur Percy Chapman was also brought back and was appointed captain. In that deciding Test at the Oval Larwood and the veteran Rhodes took 6 wickets apiece and their efforts, together with some magnificent batting from Hobbs and Sutcliffe, meant that England did indeed regain The Ashes and Larwood's status as the country's leading fast bowler was established.

In 1928/29 Larwood went to Australia for the first time and played in all five Tests taking 18 wickets at a cost of 40 apiece the highlight being a match winning 8 for 62 in the first Test. The next Ashes series was in England in 1930 in which, after being hinted at in 1928/29, the genius that was Donald Bradman fully flowered. The series was without doubt the low point of Larwood's career and should certainly not be taken as in any way representative of his career. In the first Test of the series Larwood was taken ill during the course of the game and did not return until the third Test when, not fully fit, he was completely mastered by Bradman and he again missed the fourth Test before returning for the fifth. In that final Test Larwood again failed to exercise any control over the Australian batting. Bradman batted superbly, as did the ill starred Archie Jackson, but despite the mauling he suffered it did not escape Larwood's attention that, for a time after the Oval pitch had been freshened up by a shower, Bradman looked less than comfortable when Larwood dug the ball in at him. In addition to his other fitness worries Larwood was, throughout this summer, also troubled by dental problems but in keeping with the personality of the man he never sought to make any excuses and, of course, the nature of his problems in 1930 are not disclosed by mere statistics.

Larwood was back to his best in 1931 and 1932 those being two of the seasons in which he topped the national averages. There can be no doubt that his professional pride was dented by his experience at the hands of Bradman in 1930 and he was more than happy to embrace Jardine's plan to try to control Bradman with fast leg theory bowling in 1932/33. Larwood arrived in Australia in 1932 as fit as he had ever been and he himself was always happy to accept that his bowling on that tour was faster than anything else he ever produced. In all Larwood took 33 wickets in the Test matches at under 20 runs apiece and had it not been for the foot injury that he suffered after taking the first Australian wicket in their second innings in the final Test it must have been highly likely that he would have passed Maurice Tate's record for the most wickets in a series by an Englishman. There is a considerable amount of footage of relatively good quality of the 1932/33 series that has been preserved and the beauty and menace of Larwood's bowling action is available for all to see. Less well known is footage shot by the Australian leg spinner Clarrie Grimmett on the 1930 tour which, when viewed together with that of 1932/33, amply demonstrates the additional pace that Larwood had managed to find.

Larwood had broken two bones in his foot and although he began the 1933 season he bowled only 10 overs in total in the first two games after which he played purely as a batsman before dropping out of the Nottinghamshire side in July. He underwent surgery the following winter and that surgery enabled him to resume his bowling career in 1934 although he was never again to be anything other than fast medium. The reduction in pace notwithstanding Larwood remained a formidable bowler and he would, in 1936, lead the averages for the fifth and final time but the public clamour for his inclusion in the home series against Australia in 1934, and for the 1936/37 touring party, went unheeded. Larwood could have made his peace with the authorities and had he done so he may well have played Tests again but the price demanded of him was far too high for him to even contemplate - nothing less than an unreserved apology and a promise to never bowl leg theory again was what was demanded of Larwood. He felt betrayed and quite rightly so - it was to be two generations before, when he was one of the first batch of former professional players to be given honorary life membership of the MCC, the scars left by that betrayal started to fade.

The legacy of the 'bodyline injury' remained with Larwood and when in 1938 a subsequent knee problem was decided by his medical advisers to be a chronic one he left the First Class game. At that time Larwood ran a small poultry farm and plant nursery near Nottingham and he concentrated on that business as well as, in 1939, signing professional terms with ambitious Ribblesdale League Club, Blackpool, for whom he enjoyed considerable success. As a result of the outbreak of war 1939 was the only season in which Larwood appeared for Blackpool although his fondness for the town, and their Cricket Club's hope for a commitment from him, combined to ensure that he relocated there when, in a radical change from his previous business, he bought a confectionary shop in the town.

Even at a distance of 60 years the purchase of a sweet shop at a time when all such products were rationed looks like an odd decision. It seems likely that business was not Larwood's forte and when visited by his old friend and one time bodyline adversary, Jack Fingleton, in 1948 Larwood readily accepted Fingleton's advice to emigrate to Australia and in 1950 he and his wife and five daughters left the UK, ironically enough, on the SS Orontes, the same ship that had taken Larwood to Australia in 1932/33.

Unlike his captain on the bodyline tour Larwood liked Australia, and despite for those few months his being public enemy number one, Australians also liked and respected Larwood as had been evidenced at the time by the ovation he received, which was not far short of that normally reserved for Bradman, when he was out for 98 having gone in as nightwatchman in the final Test. It was no surprise therefore that the Larwood family settled happily and easily into the Australian way of life and, over the years, all the old wounds bar one fully healed. The odd one out was, apparently, Larwood's relationship with Bradman, the two men meeting more than once but never, it seems, ever feeling at all comfortable in each other's company.

Larwood lived in a suburb of Sydney and, prior to retirement, worked for Coca Cola eventually being a supervisor but never ceasing to be the working class man he was so proud to be. In time, to his great pleasure, his modest bungalow became a place of pilgrimage for modern players and for ordinary supporters who just wanted to meet the great man. Those who were particularly fortunate would, after having their own signed, be shown Larwood's own most cherished items of memorabilia, those being the simple silver ashtray he was given by Jardine in 1933 inscribed "To Harold - from a grateful Skipper", together with a faded and fragile telegram that read "Congratulations Magnificent Bowling Good Luck All Matches" that was sent to him during the fourth Test of the bodyline series by the tragic Archie Jackson, two days before he died. In later life Larwood's eyesight failed him, which he accepted philosophically, but he remained sharp and alert until his death at the age of 90 in 1992 his death leaving Sir Donald Bradman as the sole survivor of the leading characters of that great sporting drama that ran from December 1932 and which, for some, continues to run to this day.

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