Book review: Harold Larwood

It is Ashes time and I don’t think there could be a better book than this biography of Harold Larwood by Duncan Hamilton. It was a great read over the weekend just ahead of the third test.

This is perhaps one of the best biographies of an unsung cricketer whose impact on the game is felt even today. It is also a great book on the sheer tragedy a person goes through for little fault of his. He is just made a victim of the cricket politics between England and Australia and does not get his due. Ironically, recognition for his efforts come much later in his life when he had actually abandoned the game. The author is partial to Larwood at times and wants to actually resurrect the bower’s image.

Harold Larwood was one of the most talented, accurate and intimidating fast bowlers of all time. But he is mainly remembered for his role in the 1932-33 Ashes series, in which the England captain Douglas Jardine ordered him to bowl according to ‘fast leg theory’ to suppress the batting of Don Bradman. The resulting ‘Bodyline’ furore brought Anglo-Australian diplomatic relations to the brink of collapse. Larwood was made the scapegoat – and he never played cricket for England again. Devastated by this betrayal, he eventually emigrated to Australia, where he was accepted by the country that had once despised him. In this, the first ever biography of Harold Larwood, award-winning author Duncan Hamilton has gained unprecedented access to the late sportsman’s family and archives to tell the story of a true working-class hero and cricketing legend.

Larwood was a central figure in the infamous Ashes series of 1932-33 which was dubbed as bodyline by the Aussie media. The word Bodyline and the battle between Larwood and Bradman is an evergreen story. The book takes you through that background when Jardine along with Larwood plotted the leg side theory to fell Bradman. The idea was to keep pitching the ball really fast towards Bradman’s body and surround him with 5-6 leg side fielders. With Larwood’s pace the Aussie batters had little choice but to try fend and then get out. The way Hamilton writes makes the series come alive in front of your eyes. You can feel the terror of Eng pace battery and the overall tension on the grounds.

The strategy was mainly aimed at Bradman but he did not fare as badly as thought. Bradman did not play in the first Sydney test but averaged nearly 57 in the four tests. Larwood got him 4 times out of the seven times the Don got out in the series. However, it still slowed Bradman run machine significantly and was a dent in his career average of 99.94. The contest was as follows:

Bradman Batting
Out by Winner Larwood wickets
Sydney Did not play Eng 5
Melbourne 0 Bowes Aus 2
103 Not out 2
Adelaide 8 Larwood Eng 3
66 Verity 4
Brisbane 76 Larwood Eng 4
24 Larwood 3
Sydney 48 Larwood Eng 4
71 Verity 1
396 23

Since it is a bio, it obviously has some really interesting anecdotes and what made Larwood the cricketer. His really simple and humble upbringing of which he was really proud is great to read. It is these human traits which eventually led to his downfall as he became an easy scapegoat in the entire bodyline episode. Other people involved either talked out of it or had resources to walk out of it. Larwood had neither of the two and eventually had to pay the price. He was hailed as the hero post the win and very quickly made the villain and snubbed out as well.

Deeply disappointed and bitter, Larwood never really expressed himself and let things go by. He chose to live a life away from cricket and stay away from limelight as much as possible. He would not even use his surname while ordering things on the phone. He just did not want any publicity and read his name anywhere in the media.

In an amazing twist of ironies, he was asked to relocate to Australia, a country where all this started and which bayed for his blood at one time. Surprisingly. Aussie land really welcomed him and made him comfortable. he spent his life’s nearly 50 years as his own country nearly abandoned him. But then eventually time healed the wounds and Larwood’s effort was recognised. He was given MBE title in 1993 and he died in 1995. If not his life, perhaps he was more satisfied while dying.

Cricket is central to the entire book but this book has a really raw emotional appeal to it. One really feels for Larwood and wonders why he had to go through all this hell.  It also shows how people react to such tragedies of steep rise and steeper fall. How one can keep calm and live a dignified life is quite touching.  He was no naive at times that whatever he spoke defending his role in the series, only backfired. There were no personal advisers, coaches etc who could guide him. The end result was the more he tried to get out of the mess, the more he got in. The end result was his attempt at complete disconnect from cricket. He was not into money making at all and could not cash in to post the famous win. This led to financial troubles as well. What contrast to today’c cricketers who become celebrities just out of thin air and cash on the image big time.

The book also has this continuous battle between Bradman and Larwood. Unlike Larwood, Don scripted a really successful career post cricket as well. Unlike Larwood, Don always brought up Bodyline whatever the occassion making Larwood even more bitter. Larwood alwatys maintained Don as the best batsman but not really a good person.

Bodyline is easily the most historic of all cricket moments. It continues to shape our discussions even today. Any bowler which bowls really fast zippy bouncers which batsmen can’t play, the commentators utter the infamous word. As Larwood himself says that the bowlers like Lillee, Thompson etc bowled far more towards the batsmen’s bodies than he ever did. But they were praised for the terror whereas Larwood continues to be seen as a villain.

I can go on and on. Such is the book.

Terrific read and highly recommended.

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