Larwood

 

Cancel culture isn’t new.

It was thriving in 1934 when Harold Larwood received a letter from the MCC requiring him to formally
apologise to Australia for his bowling.

Larwood hadn’t exactly won the Ashes single-handedly the previous year, in Australia, against both the
odds and Bradman in his prime, only almost.

When Larwood was 13 he began working 1400 feet underground at the Annesley Colliery, situated at
the edge of Sherwood Forest. Along with the rest of the working men in his village the shifts meant he
only saw daylight on Sundays, at any rate for nine months of the year. When he did he played cricket.
In 1922 Nottinghamshire offered him a playing contract. Larwood’s methodist father was angry that his
son had accepted a wage of 32 shillings, the same as he was getting down the mine. Four years later
he was picked for England.

Australia were the visitors and England retained the Ashes 1-0. The solitary win was in the final Test at
the Oval, when Australia were bowled out in their second innings for 125, Larwood taking 3 for 34. He
had played two of the five matches. Two years later, aged 24, he was part of the team that won the
first four tests in Australia. In the Brisbane Test Larwood took 6 for 32. The match was notable for the
international debut of the 20 year-old Bradman. He made 18 and 1.

In 1930 the Australians were back. Bradman had matured. It was felt that he wouldn’t succeed on the
slower English pitches. The home team were hot favourites.

In five Tests Bradman scored 334, 254, 232 and 131, averaging 139.14. Larwood, by then recognised
as the fastest bowler in the world, took just four wickets in the series.

The MCC’s feathers had been seriously ruffled by the defeat. Percy Fender, ex-England batsman and
then sports journalist, wrote that ‘something will have to be introduced to curb Bradman’. A new
England captain, Douglas Jardine, was appointed for the 1932 tour.

Jardine was, in background and temperament, conventionally suited to the role. Born in Bombay he
had attended Winchester and New College, Oxford. He was a decent batsman who averaged 48 in
Tests.

Since the early 19th century English cricket had been divided into ‘Players’, men of working class origin
who were paid a salary by their counties and appearance fees for other matches, and ‘Gentlemen’. The
latter were from the middle and upper classes. They remained amateurs, receiving expenses only.
Positions of influence, including the England captain, were exclusively occupied by Gentlemen.

Larwood liked his captain, and addressed him on and off the field as ‘Mr Jardine’.

The feeling was that if Bradman could dominate England in England he would be lethal in Australia.
Jardine was tasked with solving this problem. He visited Larwood in Nottinghamshire. In 1930
Bradman, in the process of scoring a double hundred at the Oval, had experienced an hour of
discomfort when Larwood had bowled short to him on a rain-freshened pitch. Jardine asked Larwood
if he was capable of bowling long, fast, accurate spells, pitching short and aiming down the leg side.
Larwood said he was.

Jardine now conceived leg theory.

Batsmen would face an unrelenting series of 95 mph deliveries arriving at or around shoulder height.
If the striker was right-handed the ball would pass adjacent to his left ear. There were limited ways of
playing these balls. One could hook, duck, fend away or be hit. There were eleven members of the
fielding side. Two would be placed on the boundary at long-leg and fine-leg, poised to catch any
mishit hook, and a further four close to but behind the bat on the leg-side, ready to snaffle the ball
should it pop up. Two more were just as close but slightly in front of the wicket. The remaining fielder
was usually cover point or silly mid-off.

This is Australian captain Bill Woodfull ducking a delivery from Larwood…

The laws of cricket were changed as a result of the series about to be played. The number of leg side
fielders behind the bat was limited to two. While the kind of bowling envisioned by Jardine remained
just as physically dangerous for a batsmen the balance of power was  shifted in his favour – there was
far less chance of being out caught and more opportunities to score.

Hugh Buggy was a well known journalist, based in Melbourne. His specialities were crime and sport.
After the first day’s play of the first Test he sat staring unhappily at his copy. He was trying to explain
to his readers the English strategy, describing it, in his draft, as ‘bowling on the line of the body’. Those
seven words seemed clumsy.

Buggy ripped up what he had written and paused. When he filed the story it contained the phrase
‘body-line bowling’. His editor, impressed, capitalised the first letter, lost the hyphen and printed it big.
Bodyline entered the lexicon.

Jardine’s tactics worked. Bradman’s average for the series was restricted to 56, still very good by anyone
else’s standards, and England won 4-1. Larwood took 33 wickets.

The Australian authorities made their position very clear. They considered the methods
unsportsmanlike and ‘against the spirit of the game’. This was explicitly articulated in a long telegram
to London. Woodfull, lying naked in the dressing room having his bruises attended to, was paid a
courtesy call by England manager Sir Pelham Warner. Woodfull had a reputation as a decent man, not
outspoken or impulsive. He told Warner he didn’t want to see him, adding ‘There are two sides out
there. One of them is playing cricket’. Warner left without responding.

Captain Woodfull rejected the idea of bowling Bodyline in response, despite considerable pressure to
fight fire with fire. He found a better means of revenge, captaining the next Australian side to visit
England, in 1934, and regaining the Ashes. Once the job was done he retired from cricket. Australia
held the urn for the next 19 years.

In the aftermath of England’s victory the diplomatic repercussions continued. The Australians sought
assurances from the MCC that Bodyline would never again be employed. It was under these
circumstances that Larwood was approached to apologise. No request was made to Jardine.

Larwood might have written a clever letter explaining that while he could never apologise for taking
wickets or for winning matches (pointing out that he was throughout obeying the instructions of his
captain) and that in the heat of battle it was difficult to see things in perspective, but, if the Australians
felt that his bowling had been unsportsmanlike he was sorry and he hoped they could understand and
forgive, and that he looked forward to bowling them out again in a more conventional manner.

The Australians would have understood this and accepted it, and it would have got the MCC out of a
hole, but Larwood was a dour, working class man and not especially bright. He point-blank refused,
encouraged by his parents. As a result, and at the peak of his powers, the MCC responded with spite,
never selecting him for the national side again, depriving him of income at the height of the depression.

Larwood had an ashtray, inscribed by Jardine, thanking him for ‘winning the Ashes’. Although he
spoke warmly of his captain for the rest of his life the establishment of which Jardine was a
representative then proceeded to cancel Harold Larwood.

He continued playing for Notts for another four years. In all cricket he took 1427 wickets at an average
of 17.51. He was also a useful lower order batsman, scoring 3 centuries and averaging 19.91.

Encouraged by old adversary Jack Fingleton, Larwood, his wife and five daughters, emigrated to
Australia in 1950. He was astonished to find that ordinary Australians needed no apology from him
and actually identified with a sportsman who wanted to win. Those that had stood on the Sydney Hill
17 years before and repeatedly called him, according to Larwood, ‘the worst of all the four letter
words’,wanted no more than a laugh and a beer. He hadn’t come home, he had arrived there.

Larwood lived in happy obscurity, working for Coca-Cola, watching his family grow. In 1977 it was the
Australian Cricket Board who invited him to the Centenary Test. 35,000 locals applauded for five
minutes as the old man walked to the wicket. Fred Truman, another great fast bowler unloved by the
MCC, interviewed him. Larwood asked Fred if he would have apologised. The tough Yorkshireman, not
usually short of an opinion, was for a moment too overcome to answer.

In 1949 Larwood had been made an honorary member of the MCC, something he felt went some way
to redressing the wrong done to him 15 years before. Trent Bridge re-named a section of the ground
the ‘Larwood and Voce Stand’ and there is a pub of the same name nearby. In 1992, fifty-nine years
after he last represented England and two years before he died, Larwood, then almost blind, was
given an OBE.