Quiet man dealt in terror at 100mph

Graeme Wright, former 'Wisden' editor, on the brilliance of Harold Larwood, who died yesterday
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The Independent Online
AND SO, with the passing of time, the players pass from the scene; heroes and villains alike. The images that have flashed across our television screens since the news from Sydney yesterday that Harold Larwood had died at the age of 90, of pneumonia and a stroke, might have left the impression that he was once one of the villains.

Jerky film from the Australian summer of 1932-33 shows Larwood racing to the end of his long run-up, legs pumping like pistons at speed. The left arm is flung up, the torso cocks, and the right arm swings in a great, rapid arc from his calf and wheels over until his knuckles almost graze the ground in the follow-through.

At the other end of the pitch an Australian batsman reels back, struck over the heart by the fiercely rising ball, and throws aside his bat in pain. It is the indelible image of "bodyline" - which was both a method of bowling and a controversy that threatened cricketing and diplomatic relations between England and Australia.

Larwood was not the architect of bodyline. That was his captain, Douglas Jardine. But he was its chief executioner, and it could never have been employed without him. He was the fastest bowler of his time. With his great pace came an unerring accuracy, and in Australia during that Ashes series "Lol" Larwood was, at 29, at the peak of his powers, "investing his work," as Wisden put it, "with plenty of devil."

One of his deliveries in the Fourth Test hit Australian batsman Bert Oldfield on the head, fracturing his skull and causing a huge outcry. Australian supporters threatened to tar and feather Larwood. Some spectators spat on him and he needed police protection when he left his hotel.

"Bowling out here," he once told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in a rare interview, "you drop your left foot. It got me such a grip I could let go the ball yards faster than I could in England. I used to drink a drop of beer," he added, "and I think that helped me tremendous."[sic.]

Larwood must have been one of the few fond of a pint to find so much disfavour Down Under. But then the bodyline tactic succeeded in its primary object of reducing Don Bradman, the Australian run machine, to the ranks of the merely mortal.

Larwood's speed was estimated at between 90 and 100 mph. But as the cricket essayist 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."

Yet unlike the fast bowlers of today, who pepper batsmen inordinately with short balls delivered from a great height, Larwood was not a tall man. He stood between 5ft 7in and 5ft 8in. But, as befits a man who began his working life as a miner at the Langton Colliery in his native Nottinghamshire, he possessed powerful back and shoulder muscles. He also, for a man his size, had big hands and strong fingers. This 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, while that beautifully grooved action enabled him to swing the ball away sharply at the last moment.

Such was the impression Larwood made as a 20-year-old in his first full championship season for Nottinghamshire that the following year, 1926, he was called up by England to play against Australia at Lord's and the Oval. With six wickets at the Oval his was an important contribution to the victory that regained the Ashes. Also in 1926 he claimed more than 100 wickets in a season for the first of eight times. His best return was in 1932, immediately prior to that fateful tour of Australia, when he captured 162 wickets at an average of just 12.68 runs apiece. Five times he headed the national bowling averages. In total, in a career lasting from 1924 to 1938, he took 1,427 wickets at an average of 17.51.

In 21 Tests Harold Larwood took 98 wickets at 19.40, 33 of them in the bodyline series. But after that tour of Australia he never played for England again. When he limped from the Sydney Cricket Ground in the final test with a broken bone in his left foot, he unknowingly limped out of test cricket.

He believed he was made a scapegoat in the furore after the series, even though he was only following orders. Certainly, the MCC's somewhat belated condemnation of Jardine and Larwood's methods caused them both to be ostracised.

Ironically, he emigrated to Australia with his wife and five daughters in 1950. There this gentle, modest man, who was virtually blind in his old age, warmly welcomed visitors from the world of cricket. It was not until 1993, when he was awarded the MBE, that Larwood's place in English cricket was officially recognised.

As he showed with a phone call of encoragement to England's 1990s fast bowling hero, Darren Gough, during the Sydney Test last winter, he always followed the fortunes of his homeland.

Last night Larwood's former adversary Sir Don Bradman, now 86, said from his home in Australia: "Although we were arch-enemies on the field, this was because of Jardine's tactics. There was no personal animosity between Larwood and me and we always remained good friends."