In praise of the great Harold, our Ashes hero who refused to say sorry

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Tomorrow is the centenary of legendary quick bowler Harold Larwood's birth, an occasion the old boy missed celebrating himself by less than 10 years. He died in 1995 in Sydney, having spent the latter half of his life in Australia. It is one of the more curious sporting ironies that the Englishman whose name remains so synonymous with the bitterness of the 1932/33 Bodyline Test series, should have settled Down Under, turning his descendants into Aussies. It is like finding David Campese living contentedly in Saffron Walden. Or Rod Marsh developing the future of English cricket. Unthinkable.

Tomorrow is the centenary of legendary quick bowler Harold Larwood's birth, an occasion the old boy missed celebrating himself by less than 10 years. He died in 1995 in Sydney, having spent the latter half of his life in Australia. It is one of the more curious sporting ironies that the Englishman whose name remains so synonymous with the bitterness of the 1932/33 Bodyline Test series, should have settled Down Under, turning his descendants into Aussies. It is like finding David Campese living contentedly in Saffron Walden. Or Rod Marsh developing the future of English cricket. Unthinkable.

I recently re-read David Rayvern Allen's biography of John Arlott, and came across Arlott's account of the 1950s day on which Larwood emigrated, with his wife and five daughters, from Tilbury, Essex.

"As I stand on the quay," Arlott wrote in The Daily Mail, "the sun has come out to temper the cold wind of late April, and a figure of cricket history is leaving England for Australia aboard the liner Orontes. Bare minutes ago, the ship cast off, and is standing out in the river, the oil smoke running out of her yellow funnels - and the man who has just turned away from the deckrail is ol' Larwood, who, in September 1932, sailed from this same quay, and in this very same Orontes, to Australia and an epic Test series."

According to Allen, Arlott stayed on the quayside long after Larwood had disappeared, convinced the great bowler's "place in history had been usurped by the machinations of lesser men". At any rate, Larwood, who at 14 had become a Nottinghamshire mine "pit-boy", duly found that the egalitarianism of Australia suited him much better than classbound Britain, where the so-called Establishment had treated him disgracefully.

He had taken 1,427 first-class wickets, more than half of them bowled, at an average of 17.15, but never played for England again after the Bodyline controversy. Once the MCC grudgingly accepted that leg-theory bowling was "an offence against the spirit of the game", Larwood was invited to apologise. He declined, patiently explaining that he had done exactly as his skipper, the haughty patrician Douglas Jardine, had demanded. An apology, it was gruffly pointed out, might save his England career. But he stuck to his guns. He might not have been able to spell hypocrisy, but he could smell it.

Posterity, of course, looks much more favourably on Larwood than it does on Jardine, who, with his Harlequins cap and intense snobbery, cuts an unsympathetic figure. Yet in Mike Brearley's seminal book The Art of Captaincy, I found a fascinating reference to Jardine's leadership skills. His attention to detail was such that before the 1932 tourists sailed on the Orontes, he insisted on them all having dental check-ups.

This puts me in mind of a much later sporting tour to Australia. When Clive Woodward assembled his backroom team for the 2003 Rugby World Cup, he even included an eyesight specialist, charged with improving his players' vision.

There was, perhaps, something of the Jardine in Woodward, and something of the Woodward in Jardine. I wouldn't go around calling Sir Clive a toffee-nosed xenophobe, which Jardine undoubtedly was, but they both knew what it took to beat Australia in Australia. As well as an eye for detail, they had, or in Woodward's case has, a quirkily effective set of man-management skills. Brearley's book also refers to how Jardine nursed Larwood through the lunch interval at Adelaide with sips of champagne, while outside the police were trying to stop a riot.

It was at Adelaide, in the third Test, that the Bodyline row erupted. When the Australian captain, Bill Woodfull, was hit over the heart by Larwood, and staggered around as if shot, Jardine called loudly: "Well bowled, Harold." Soon afterwards, the Australian Board of Control sent its famous cable to Lord's. "Unless stopped at once it [Bodyline] is likely to upset the friendly relations existing between Australia and England."

Those who remember all this are, alas, a fast-dwindling band, while those of us born 30-odd years after remember Larwood only as an old man being interviewed by a pipe-smoking Peter West. Tomorrow I will picture West and Larwood on the celestial balcony, discussing this week's proposed changes to the laws of cricket, which will allow bowlers to straighten their bowling arms by up to 15 degrees. Under existing rules, Larwood's action, as my colleague Angus Fraser wrote on Wednesday, "would have been sure to catch the eye of a conscientious match referee". Doubtlessly he would have dealt with the accusation of chucking as manfully as he did the other controversies which dogged a great career.

Cheers, Harold.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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