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Our correspondent makes his way from Trent Bridge to Nuncargate to find out more about one of England's most fearsome fast bowlers
July 10, 2014
I like going to Test venues early. Not training-day early, but early enough that only groundsmen and the permanent staff are there. There is something about the empty stands four days before a Test; you can visualise the future, you can summon up ghosts.
Trent Bridge is a beautiful venue. Intimate. Pleasant. Traditional, with its old-worldly dressing rooms; modern, with a new stand that looks like an aircraft wing and gives you an unobstructed 360-degree view; and those compact light towers that look like one end of a retro telephone receiver. Majestic yet not exclusive: gates are thrown open to visitors from 9.30am to 4.30pm.
Sit in one of the stands and try to imagine the cheers for the greatest allrounder ever, Garry Sobers, whose home ground this used to be. Or what Richard Hadlee's swing and seam would have looked like.
One ghost who might be reluctant to answer your call is Harold Larwood's. After Bodyline, he was so disillusioned with the cricket establishment he hardly ever came to the ground that had, at one time, been his escape from working underground in the suffocating, lifespan-reducing coal mines of Nottinghamshire.
When he should have been the biggest fast-bowling star in cricket after the 1932-33 Ashes series, Larwood instead played small-time cricket and sold sweets and cigarettes in the seaside tourist town of Blackpool before Jack Fingleton found him and took him to Australia, a country that loved him despite the fact that he had ravaged its team. Larwood, who wouldn't apologise for Bodyline, had been cut away from official cricket. So he cut himself off from everything that would remind him of it, even selling his house in Nottingham.
This great ground on the banks of the Trent river rarely saw him after his retirement, although it honours him with a pub called Larwood & Voce and a gym called Bodyline. Imagine, though, how great it would have been if he had come to watch Test matches, signing autographs for kids who must have heard stories about Larwood while sitting in their mothers' laps.
I make my way to the Trent Bridge library. Peter Wynne-Thomas, archivist, historian, author, and the man in charge of the library, was once coached by Larwood's mate and new-ball partner for England during Bodyline and at Nottinghamshire, Bill Voce. We start talking about the two bowlers. Wynne-Thomas insists Larwood needed protection from the press and that the then county captain Arthur Carr failed him. Larwood's name sold newspapers, while Voce stayed inconspicuous.
Wynne-Thomas shows me a file he has painstakingly maintained. It has newspaper clippings, scorebooks, photographs, letters, and a copy of Larwood's first contract, which offered him £2 a week, with no wages to be paid in case of illness. I find my way to the excellent Larwood book written by Duncan Hamilton. It describes the day Larwood came for county trials with his father from his mining village of Nuncargate. Larwood senior was a miner too. He had scraped together £9, six weeks of wages, for a new kit, and a shilling each for the train. They walked five miles to the nearest train station and two more after reaching Nottingham.
Larwood wasn't tall. He didn't look like a fast bowler at less than 5'4" (though he went on to add four inches to his height). He began nervously. The selectors, who hadn't given him a chance, were forced to change their minds once the netting began to "stretch and bulge" as Larwood beat the bat continuously and hit the back net hard. Nottinghamshire only offered him as much as he used to earn working with coal, but he signed the contract without arguing because he wanted to escape the dark mines.
Just as I am getting into the book, Wynne-Thomas has a visitor who wants to see the boots. The librarian has received a package from Larwood's grandson in Australia. It is the talk of Trent Bridge. It contained Larwood's bowling boots. Hamilton's book informs me that Larwood was a fastidious collector of his own memorabilia. "It's for when me memory goes," he used to say.
To look at his boots is to imagine what excruciating hard work it must have been for Larwood to bowl in them. Hard, unforgiving, they don't look bigger than size 9, and have what look like carpenters' nails dug in as spikes. You can't imagine any modern fast bowler bowling in those. Were these the boots, I wonder, that he was wearing when Douglas Jardine forced him to stay on the field - despite a broken bone in his left foot - until that "bastard" Bradman was dismissed for the last time in the series? These were the boots whose spikes batsmen could see as the left foot was raised high in his delivery stride - as Hamilton describes. Were these the boots in which he bowled 1687 Bodyline-series deliveries?
Now that I have acquainted myself with the shoes of the fastest bowler of his time - and probably one of the fastest of all time - I decide to walk a mile as he might have done. Except it is more than one mile to Nuncargate, and I am wearing much more comfortable Asics running shoes.
Nearly every man in Nuncargate used to work in the coal mines. You can sense soot and grime everywhere. The place still doesn't have a train station. Back then even the roads were bad. The nearest station now, Kirkby-in-Ashfield, is somewhere between five and six miles away. In between is not much but wilderness.
Opened in the 1990s, the train line that takes you from Nottingham to Kirkby-in-Ashfield is named after possibly the only bigger hero than Larwood that Nottinghamshire has had: Robin Hood. Service on Sunday in infrequent. You can't book a ticket for the route online.
It takes me 15 minutes to walk from Trent Bridge to Nottingham station. The real walk begins only when I reach Kirkby-in-Ashfield. For the first mile I pass a convenience store, an old run-down boxing club, semi-old snooker parlours. The remaining four miles are desolate. Larwood used to make his way down these roads twice a day, and bowl 15 to 20 overs in between, or help roll pitches on the days he was not playing. I am carrying a small backpack with a laptop in it; he used to carry a full kit bag on his shoulders.
It gets incredibly lonely after the first mile. The road is narrow; you have to get off it as the odd car passes. Other than that you can't see a soul for miles on end. This is the stretch where you doubt if what you are doing is wise. At least I have green pastures to look at; Larwood would have walked past the debris and dug-out clay left by the mines, still breathing in soot but not as much as he would have done inside the mines.
I finally make it to Nuncargate, and then to Chapel Street, where Larwood grew up, without losing my way. Nuncargate is now much more affluent than you would imagine a miners' village to be. That's because the mines are all gone. It's all green, almost idyllic English countryside, with neat row houses. No. 17 Chapel Street looks no different from the others, except that this was once Larwood's house. There is a plaque that says as much. A hand holding a ball along the seam, with an inscription that says, "Harold Larwood, Nottingham and England cricketer, lived here from 1904 to 1927."
I stand outside it for five minutes debating whether I should ring the bell. I want to know what it is like to live in this house, how long the new owners have been here, if they had or have any contact with the Larwoods, if they ever knew them, how many times this house has been resold. Should I just ring the bell? Eventually I decide against it. Larwood wouldn't have approved. It was similar intrusiveness that drove him to faraway Blackpool. Even there he didn't like sitting at the counter of his shop because people would recognise him.
I walk away and find the Cricketers Arms, a pub just up the road. Behind which is the ground where Larwood first played cricket. It is home to the Kirkby Portland Cricket Club. Its pavilion is named after Larwood and was inaugurated by his daughter in 2002, when she flew down from Australia. Inside the pub a plaque similar to the one outside Larwood's house says, "In memory of Harold Larwood, Nottinghamshire and England cricketer, who spent his early life and cricketing career in this locality." They also proudly display his birth and marriage certificates. This might be the ideal place to honour Larwood because it has the two things he probably loved the most: cricket and ale. I walk back to the station in a hurry because I don't want to go through the lonely stretch in the dark.
The world is more informed now. People appreciate the skill, endurance, courage and determination behind Larwood's actions in the Bodyline series. They understand that Larwood was unfairly vilified and shabbily treated by the MCC. A YouTube slow-motion clip of his majestic bowling action lays to rest all implied accusations that he chucked, which you can imagine must have caused him a lot of trauma. You wish you could summon up his ghost to an empty Trent Bridge, watch him beat the bat and thud into the nets, show him the awe with which people come to look at his boots, and tell him that people are willing to walk a mile in them.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Sidharth Monga
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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