OBITUARY : Harold Larwood

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Harold Larwood will always be associated with the "bodyline" controversy which, during and following the 1932-33 MCC tour of Australia, threatened relations between England and Australia, not just on the cricket field but also at a diplomatic level.

The fast, short-pitched bowling of Larwood and his Nottinghamshire team-mate Bill Voce, implementing the strategy of the captain, Douglas Jardine, aroused such fury that the Australian Board of Control, in a telegram to MCC at Lord's, called the English bowling "unsportsmanlike". That charge was subsequently withdrawn, but the ramifications of bodyline, or fast leg-theory, bowling were such that it was eventually outlawed by MCC.

Larwood was not responsible for bodyline, but it could not have come to such poisonous fruition without him. He was the fastest bowler of his time; and he brought with his pace a relentless accuracy. Both factors were the key to the tactic used by Jardine to overcome the two barriers standing between England and their regaining the Ashes. One was the way in which Australian pitches heavily favoured batsmen; the other was Donald Bradman. On the featherbed pitches of the 1930 series in England, Bradman had scored a record 974 runs in seven innings, while Larwood in his three Tests had managed just four wickets at an average cost of 73 runs each.

Bodyline was more than short-pitched bowling directed with accuracy at the batsman. Essential for its effectiveness was the double ring of fieldsmen positioned on the leg side: an inner cluster of three or four to catch rebounds as the batsman defended his body; others set deeper for the hook - a dangerous stroke anyway against such a bowler as Larwood. His pace was estimated in excess of 90mph, but, as Raymond Robertson-Glasgow wrote, "You didn't think of mathematics when you saw Larwood open the bowling; spectators thought of the poetry of rhythm and the panache of assault; batsmen thought of survival and, sometimes, of their wives and testamentary dispositions."

"Lol" was not a tall man, Wisden giving his height as 5ft 71/2in. But he had powerful back and shoulder muscles, a legacy of his days as a coal- miner, a controlled run-up of about 18 yards, and a fine action which helped him swing the ball sharply away at the last moment. Ian Peebles described how his right arm followed "a great arc starting from near the calf of his leg and, at full pressure, his knuckles would touch the pitch on his follow-through". For a man his size, he had big hands and strong fingers which helped him cut the ball off the pitch into the batsman. In English conditions he could make the ball come back so much that he was often unplayable.

So great was the impression the 20-year-old Larwood made in his first Championship season for Notts, 1925, that the following year he was playing for England against Australia at Lord's. He was not in the final eleven for the next two Tests, owing to the softness of the ground, but with six wickets at The Oval, where England recalled the 48-year-old Wilfred Rhodes, he played an important part in the victory which regained the Ashes.

That season, brought on sympathetically by his county captain, the irascible Arthur Carr, Larwood finished with 137 wickets in all first-class matches at an average of 18.31. In 1927 he again took 100 wickets, despite playing only one game after straining a ligament in his left knee in July. Altogether he took 100 or more wickets in a season eight times, with his best return coming in 1932 when his 162 wickets cost just 12.86 runs apiece. By then he was bowling at great pace and, as Wisden had noticed the previous season, "investing his work with plenty of devil". He was, at 28, at the peak of his powers.

The 1932-33 tour under Jardine was Larwood's second to Australia. He had first gone there in 1928-29, but after a good start, in which he laid the foundations for England's win at Brisbane, he did not maintain his form. Conversely Bradman, after a poor start, had gone from strength to strength. Towards the end of the tour, Larwood was the object of aggressive barracking by the Melbourne crowd, who began booing as he ran up to bowl to the Victorian tailender, Ironmonger, a bowler of whom it was said that, as a batsman, "he went to the wickets mostly as a gesture to convention". The Englishmen, including Larwood, had responded by sitting down on the field, and only Victoria's declaration restored order.

This barracking was nothing compared to that which Larwood provoked at Adelaide in January 1933, when the two countries met with the Test series square at one win each. On the second day Larwood, although not bowling bodyline so early in the innings, struck the Australian captain, Woodfull, over the heart in his second over. Immediately Woodfull had recovered, Jardine disposed the conventional off-side field and set one for Larwood's leg- theory attack. Their mood nakedly hostile, the crowd booed Larwood's every step as he ran in to bowl, and that evening, when the MCC managers, Warner and Palairet, visited the Australian dressing-room to offer the sorely bruised Woodfull their sympathy, he dismissed them peremptorily.

"There are two teams out there on the oval," he said. "One is playing cricket, the other is not. This game is too good to be spoilt. It is time some people got out of it."

Worse followed on the third day. Oldfield, Australia's wicket-keeper, sustained a fractured skull after edging the ball on to his temple attempting to hook Larwood, and the mood of the crowd was such that a reserve of police was drawn up in case there was a riot. It was now that the Australian Board sent its telegram deploring the English tactics.

England won that match and the next two to regain the Ashes, lost in 1930. Larwood finished the series with 33 wickets and Bradman scored just 396 runs in eight innings. But the triumph was not without its cost. In the last Test, where the Sydney crowd sportingly applauded his 98, made as night-watchman, Larwood broke down with a splintered bone in the ball of his left foot, the hard Australian pitches having taken their toll.

Jardine kept him on the field until Bradman was out, whereupon he limped off, not just out of the match but also out of Test cricket.

In England, from his return until his retirement from cricket in 1938, at the age of 33, he was never the bowler he had been in Australia. In 1936, when he headed the English bowling averages for the fifth and last time, taking 119 wickets at 12.97, he looked almost as fast as ever at times. But on hard grounds the pain in his foot recurred. His benefit match that season realised more than pounds 2,000, the best at that time by a Notts player and recognition of both his services to the county and the way he had been treated by his country.

When the Australians toured England in 1934, MCC had come out against "any form of bowling which is obviously a direct attack by the bowler upon the batsman". In effect this condemned the method used by Larwood in Australia, even though at the time MCC had reacted strongly against the Australian Board's criticism. Larwood, feeling that his sting had been drawn for the Australians' convenience, stated in a newspaper article that he would not play against them even if asked to. Jardine, too, did not play against the Australians in 1934, and neither the architect of bodyline nor its chief executioner was selected for England again.

After selling his confectionery shop in Blackpool, Larwood emigrated to Australia in 1950 with his wife and five daughters, being warmly accepted in the country where once he had been spat on by sections of the crowd and had needed police protection when he left his hotel. Touring England cricketers would visit his Sydney home, and in later years, though virtually blind, he could still call to mind a cricketing life tinged with occasional bitterness, but never with regret.

Graeme Wright

Harold Larwood, cricketer: born Nuncargate, Nottinghamshire 14 November 1904; MBE 1993; married (five daughters); died Sydney, Australia 22 July 1995.