Harold Larwood July 18, 2009

Speedy Harry

Was Bodyline's chief protagonist the quickest ever? Duncan Hamilton does a good job of convincing us

To suggest that an athlete from the 1930s might have been faster or stronger than today's trained-to-the-toenails professionals is a tough argument to win. Modern sprinters are quicker, jumpers soar higher and longer, and swimmers (even without their techno trunks) just keep going faster and faster: Johnny "Tarzan" Weissmuller's 100-metre freestyle world record was around six seconds slower than the current women's mark. So was Harold Larwood, the scourge of Australia during the Bodyline series, really the world's fastest bowler, ever? He was shorter than average, especially for a quick bowler, at around 5ft 7in. His training regime apparently involved lots of walking and lots and lots of beer. Nonetheless Duncan Hamilton, whose previous books include an award-winning salute to another Nottingham hero, football manager Brian Clough, makes a convincing case for Larwood.

He possessed a superb action, astonishing stamina, given all that beer, and the priceless asset of dead-eye accuracy, without which the Bodyline tactic would have been stillborn. Starting by beating his hero Jack Hobbs for pace with a nipbacker - not once but twice - Larwood gradually became the most feared bowler in county cricket, and for a while in Tests too. He was fiercely loyal - he remained a steadfast supporter of Douglas Jardine, his captain on that infamous 1932-33 tour, throughout his long life - and straightforward and trusting: too trusting, actually, as he would allow journalists to write columns for him and sign them off without reading them. Even his book Bodyline?, rushed out soon after the tour that defined his whole life, seems to have been completed with a minimum of involvement from the "author".

His criticism of the MCC, and Australia and Australians, eventually put him beyond the pale. The MCC, a more autocratic institution then than now, ordered him to apologise for his part in Bodyline: Larwood predictably refused, considering he had done nothing wrong, as he was a professional carrying out his amateur captain's instructions. He never played for England again: actually, he might never have done so anyway, as his pace was never as searing after he badly injured his foot in the final Bodyline Test.

Ironically, Larwood later moved to Australia, where he lived quietly out of the limelight (apart from a brief renewal of the Bodyline hate campaign after a dramatised TV series was aired in the 1980s).

"Lol" emerges from this well-produced book, which received assistance from his surviving daughters (and so includes many rare family photographs), as a determined, upright character. Others are less lucky. Don Bradman always seemed uncomfortable in Larwood's company; Fred Trueman recalled The Don snubbing his old adversary in the England dressing room in the 1950s. And Plum Warner is unmercifully denounced as a self-serving hypocrite by Hamilton, whose turn of phrase is occasionally delicious (especially when talking of John Arlott's "ravishing voice marinated in vats of fine wine").

But was Harold Larwood really the fastest ever? Hamilton does a good job of convincing us. He was obviously appreciably faster than other pacemen of the time, and yes, he must have been up there with the fastest of all.

Harold Larwood: The Authorised Biography of the World's Fastest Bowler
by Duncan Hamilton

Quercus, hb, 400pp, £20

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Cricinfo Guide to International Cricket (reviewed here)