The necessary monster
One of cricket's most demonised figures, Harold Larwood was a force born out of the game's desire for equilibrium. We look back at the anti-Bradman on the occasion of his birth centenary
In the years after he settled in Sydney, the humble Kingsford home of Harold Larwood became a place of pilgrimage for English cricketers, especially those mandated by nature to bowl fast. They usually came away twice marvelling - at the pocket of English patriotism to be found just five kilometres from the Sydney Cricket Ground, and at the seemingly frail figure who maintained it. Had this diminutive, bespectacled pensioner really been the terror of all Australia?
Nor was this merely a matter of age. When picked for England, Larwood stood just five feet seven inches tall, weighed less than 11 stone, and seemed as likely to be a source of controversy as did Michael Ramsey, born the same day and destined to become Archbishop of Canterbury. One of Larwood's most vivid anecdotes from the Bodyline tour of 1932-33 was overhearing a little girl quizzing her mother: "Why mummy, he doesn't look like a murderer ... " Yet, as few in cricket cannot know, Larwood achieved a notoriety as Australia's Least Wanted, of the sort usually confined to criminals; he competed for headlines with the likes of the Lindbergh kidnapper, Bruno Hauptmann, and the mobster Al Capone.
Reviewing his legend a century after his birth, one obtains a slightly different feeling, of a sense of cricket's abiding search for a statistical and aesthetic equilibrium between bat and ball. In his autobiography The Larwood Story (1965), ghosted by Kevin Perkins, the Englishman pleads guilty to a degree of batsmanslaughter, but presents himself as acting in legitimate self-defence: "They said I was a killer with the ball without taking into account that Bradman with the bat was the greatest killer of all." Indeed, had Larwood not existed, it might have been necessary to invent him.
Larwood was born on 14 November 1904 in Nuncargate, a midlands village that served a colliery at Annesley in the Leen Valley five kilometres away. Although his origins have commonly been depicted as underprivileged, the mine was actually an enduring and not ungenerous employer, lasting until January 2000; Larwood's parents owned their own home. His father Robert, a teetotal Methodist, captained the colliery's cricket team, which at various stages contained Test cricketers-to-be Bill Voce, Dodge Whysall, Joe Hardstaff and Sam Staples; at 14, Harold went down the mine as a pit-pony boy, and took to cricket with a will. The game, he would explain, soon became his "reason for living".
In June 1922, Larwood saw his first game of county cricket. He headed to Trent Bridge for the day so that he might bask in his idol Jack Hobbs's glory. Instead, Hobbs was dismissed first ball by local boy Fred Barratt, who not only also hailed from Nuncargate but had worked the same coal seams; at once, the 17-year-old Larwood saw a future teeming with possibilities. A year later he left the pit behind when he trialled successfully for Nottinghamshire.
Tiny, earnest, polite, etiolated from his years underground, running in improbably far, he was nonetheless recognised at once as a pace-bowling prospect, at a time when they did not abound. On one occasion Larwood greeted the Leicestershire tailender Haydon Smith with a searing lifter, followed by a short one that looped from the edge and was taken on the bounce in the gully. Seeing Smith retreat, fielders assured him that the ball had not carried. "Oh yes, it bloody well did," replied Smith, continuing on his way.
The first time they met, his future captain Douglas Jardine was well positioned to take Larwood's measure. It was at Folkestone in August 1926 where they were representing an England XI against the Australians; Jardine, standing in for Tiger Smith, was keeping. Larwood took 7 for 95, including the wicket of Warren Bardsley with a delivery that knocked the bat from his hands and onto the stumps. The ball lodged in Jardine's gloves. Though the umpire denied Jardine a catch by ruling the dismissal hit-wicket, the encounter impressed the Surrey amateur forcibly.
For a time, this was as close as the pair became. Larwood would tour Australia with Jardine a little over two years later, but both were men who observed the proprieties where players and gentlemen were concerned. On the evening in August 1932 of their famous dinner in the Piccadilly Grill Rooms with Larwood's fast bowling pit-mate Bill Voce and their Nottinghamshire skipper Arthur Carr, the conversation was at first stilted and strained, before finding the common obsession of Bradman. Larwood and Voce "didn't contribute much" as Jardine revealed his theory that Australians in general, and Bradman in particular, were vulnerable to pace bowling concentrated at leg stump, but were immediately impressed with the thinking. Under Carr's captaincy they had been experimenting with such methods all season, claiming almost 250 cheap wickets between them.
Bradman's telephone number scores were the talk of cricket, and Larwood was one of many bowlers who'd found his line permanently crossed. Bradman's Wisden-busting 974 runs in the 1930 Ashes series had included 137 runs from 147 Larwood deliveries. Larwood and Voce are sometimes depicted as Jardine's deferential dupes, bowling the leg-stump line he demanded of them like automata. This probably derives from Larwood's first published remarks on Bodyline in the Express in July 1933, to the effect that "in bowling as I did, I was merely carrying out the prearranged plan". This impression of Larwood and Voce as merely the clockwork toys wound by the English establishment, however, is erroneous. Larwood better explained the dynamic of the relationship, and his loyalty to Jardine, to Perkins: "I wouldn't say I was told to bowl leg-theory. I was asked to do it and I complied. In any case, I was convinced that I wouldn't get many wickets any other way." The motive was, in large part, redress: "I had a score to settle with him [Bradman]. He had got on top of me. As a professional, any scheme that would keep him in check appealed to me a great deal." David Frith reports in Bodyline Autopsy (2002) that Larwood's favourite tune was Frank Sinatra's "My Way": whenever he heard it, he would "always smile and nod knowingly".
The other reason why it is wrong to underestimate Larwood's agency is that leg-theory was an attack designed with his gifts in mind as much as Bradman's. Larwood seldom obtained swing: the handmade balls of the period had a small seam, and in Australia their poor-quality lacquer wore away within overs. His most dangerous delivery was a backbreak, and he seldom had batsmen caught in the slip cordon even when he bowled an orthodox line. George Hele's appreciation in Bodyline Umpire (1974) is worth citing: "Harold Larwood was not only the fastest bowler I have watched. He also 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. Australian fast bowlers dragged their right or left toes as they gathered themselves into the delivery stride; Larwood dragged his entire right foot and at right angles to his course. He placed a tremendous strain upon that foot and his ankle. I have not seen a bowler gain greater impetus from his left and guiding arm. From here came his exceptional speed and exceptional accuracy. There was nothing loose, untidy or wasted about Larwood's action. It was a copybook, classic and utterly direct."
Too direct for Australians prone to walking in front of their stumps but leery of the hook - and too hot to hold. "He's too fast for me," confessed Alan Kippax after his first brush with Larwood - sentiments that would be echoed by many others before tour's end. And Bradman's scheme of withdrawing to leg and flailing toward the depopulated bespoke desperation rather than daring. When he hit his first first-class six, at Adelaide, Bradman explained it succinctly: "Oh I wanted to hit one bowler [Verity] before the other [Larwood] hit me."
It was Bradman who continued his career, of course, rather than Larwood, whose retirement was rudely hastened in order to soften Bodyline's bruises to Anglo-Australian relations, and whose future so unexpectedly lay Down Under, whence he emigrated almost 20 years later. But Larwood had helped reduce Bradman's Test average from its high-water mark of 112.29 to 99.70, which is where it pretty much stayed, apart from a brief post-war reflation. And in revealing Bradman's mortality and fallibility, Larwood not only gave heart to other bowlers, he provided the nemesis necessary to the hubris of Bradman's story. The narrative of Bradman's career is still one of cricket's most compelling. Yet it would not be the same without featuring, at some stage, a kind of anti-Bradman - the role Larwood fulfilled.
Had there been no Larwood to cut his output down to size, to choose but one example, Bradman would never have needed four runs to secure his hundred average at The Oval in August 1948, and would never have failed to achieve it in such astonishing circumstances. Larwood, then, by introducing to the Bradman legend a hint of the evitable, might be considered the personification of cricketing uncertainty.
This article was first published in the November issue of Wisden Asia Cricket
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer