Cricket’s Dark Side, Then and Now

larwoodI always enjoy a good coincidence. This is especially the case when I am unexpectedly confronted by a linkage between some long-distant historical event and an incident in my current life.

I experienced a good example of this recently. I had been reading a book about the champion England fast bowler Harold Larwood and his involvement in the 1932-33 Ashes Test matches between Australia and England (the infamous “Bodyline” series). At about the same time, my friend Jim Williamson and I were chatting and exchanging reminiscences of our school days in the 1950s.

“When I was at Melbourne High School in 1952,” remarked Jim, “our Deputy Headmaster was Bill Woodfull.” There was no need to elaborate: I knew the name instantly, and effortlessly recalled that Woodfull had been the Australian cricket captain in the Bodyline series. He and Bill Ponsford made up one of Australia’s finest opening duos in the years between the wars, famed for their courage and prolific scoring. Along with Frank Sedgman and Keith Miller, Woodfull had been among my father’s most revered sporting heroes, and was consequently a childhood hero of mine as well.

This essay first appeared in Quadrant‘s March 2011 edition.
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Woodfull, according to Jim, had not been an especially admired schoolteacher. He was dour and humourless and a stern disciplinarian, the school enforcer. Although the boys at Melbourne High regarded him with respect (school motto: “Don’t try to put one over Bill Woodfull”), their real hero at the time was Brigadier George Langley, the school’s Headmaster. Langley had been Commander of the 1st (ANZAC) Battalion of the Imperial Camel Corps in the First World War, fought in the desert campaigns in 1917 and 1918, and been awarded the DSO and the Serbian Order of the White Eagle. In 1952 he was still an imposing figure. Poignantly, Jim remembers, the Brigadier always became tearful at the school’s Anzac Day ceremonies, an emotion for which his schoolboy audience wholeheartedly forgave him.

Brigadier Langley is a fascinating figure, deserving a memoir of his own. Nor is this story to be about Bill Woodfull. Rather it is about his nemesis, the enigmatic and ultimately tragic figure of Harold Larwood.

Larwood was a man about whom I was for many years ambivalent. On the one hand he was undoubtedly one of the world’s finest cricketers, and possibly the fastest bowler of them all. On the other, he had pummelled the Australian batsmen mercilessly during the Bodyline series, bringing a new culture to the game, one that for a while threatened the future of international cricket. In bodyline bowling, the bowler’s objective was not so much to dismiss the batsman as to hurt him, or at least to frighten him so much that his dismissal became a formality. When I was a boy, it was accepted among Australian cricket fans that Larwood was a villain. We knew nothing about him, other than the fact that he had endangered the lives of our finest cricketers. But that was enough. Then in 1977 I saw television footage of Larwood, an old man by then, at the time of the Centenary Tests in Melbourne and at Trent Bridge. He was a tiny figure, thin and stooped, but with a mischievous smile, and dry North Country humour. I liked him immediately.

The recently published biography by Duncan Hamilton has cemented my affection for Larwood and, in addition, provided me for the first time with an insight into the three defining aspects of his life and sporting career. First there was his undoubted sporting prowess. Through a combination of hard work, excellent coaching and natural ability, he became a champion. The second was his status as a professional at a time when class distinction between professionals and amateurs was rigidly defined in English cricket. These two factors both drove him and rendered him vulnerable. Finally there was the Bodyline series and its aftermath. All three are linked, like the acts in a Shakespearean tragedy.

The bald outline of Larwood’s early life has a familiar ring. He was a poor boy from nowhere who became famous. Larwood grew up in a small mining town in Nottinghamshire, the son of a coal miner, and he left school at twelve to work down the pit. His father was passionate about cricket and Harold not only shared the passion but was consumed by it. Although small and weedy-looking, he was immensely strong and fit, and before long he discovered that he could bowl very fast. At sixteen he was playing in the local league and at nineteen, in 1923, he was invited to try out for his county. The story is told by Duncan Hamilton:

Larwood had gone to Trent Bridge with his father, Robert, who had scraped together 9 pounds—six weeks wages for a senior pitman—for new kit and one shilling each for return train fares. Father and son walked five miles from home to the nearest railway station, and then almost two miles from Nottingham station to the ground. Walking for hours never bothered Larwood. He walked six miles every day to work in the colliery.

Later Larwood recalled:

when I first started out, I’d walk for nearly half an hour to catch the train to Nottingham. I’d walk another twenty minutes to Trent Bridge and then I’d bowl me guts out all day … and finally I’d walk back to the station and home again.

The young lad impressed county officials and he was offered a contract as a professional, at thirty-two shillings a week, exactly the same sum he had earned as a coal miner. His job was to work as a labourer at the ground, learn his trade as a fast bowler, and then if good enough, play for the county. There was little doubt that he would sign the contract. From the age of sixteen, he wrote later, he had “lived for cricket”.

Like so many sporting champions, Larwood was lucky in having influential mentors during his formative years. The first was Nottinghamshire coach Jimmy Iremonger, a cricket professional to his bootstraps. He instantly recognised Larwood’s potential, and devoted himself to converting the raw tearaway into a fearsome and ruthless fast bowler. Iremonger tirelessly drilled Larwood in his technique, perfecting every aspect from the run-up to the delivery and the follow-through. Above all he instilled in him the discipline of the professional sportsman, and the necessity for him to work at becoming a master of his craft.

The second was the Nottinghamshire captain Arthur Carr, a flamboyant public-school-educated amateur who “spoke posh”, but who had a great cricketing brain and was an implacable competitor.1 He taught Larwood how to dismiss batsmen and to win cricket matches. Within two years Larwood was the best fast bowler in the land and was terrorising county batsmen all around England.

The third mentor was Douglas Jardine, who became England’s captain in the lead-up to the 1932-33 Ashes series. Jardine used Larwood as a swordsman uses a sword, but he also nurtured him, and during the heat of battle (if not afterwards) always supported him.

I have watched newsreel footage of Larwood bowling at his peak in that 1932-33 series (available on YouTube). He was a truly lovely bowler, perhaps the best I have ever watched, along with Ray Lindwall, Dennis Lillee and Richard Hadlee. But he was also magnificently menacing. His approach to the wicket was at a full sprint: he charged in, reminding me of a powerful locomotive emerging from a tunnel at full steam. Then came the great gathering of energy, the high left arm, the full sweep of the bowling arm, and the explosive release. It was said he would scrape the knuckles of his right hand against the pitch in his follow-though! Eerily, and despite the massive energy in his approach, he was described by his contemporaries as being “carpet-footed”, the magnificent sprint to the wicket being almost soundless.

The great cricket writer Neville Cardus once wrote about Larwood:

He ran in to bowl with a splendid stride, a gallop, and at the moment of delivery his action was absolutely classical, left side showing down the wicket, before the arm swung over with a thrilling vehement movement.

The crude methodology of the day indicated that he regularly bowled at about 100 miles per hour, making him consistently faster than any other bowler since. He could hit the off, middle or leg stump at will, and his variation was so good that he could produce a searing bouncer, an inswinging yorker or an outswinger veering off to the slips, all at the top of his pace.

I particularly liked the Australian Test player Bill O’Reilly’s description of batting against Larwood:

He came steaming in, and I moved right across behind my bat, held perfectly straight in defence of my middle stump. Just before he delivered the ball, something hit the middle of my bat with such force as to almost dash it from my hands. It was the ball.

The great commentator John Arlott observed: “Sometimes, depending on where you were standing, you couldn’t pick up the ball with the naked eye at all.”

Douglas Jardine himself had an opportunity to assess the young Larwood when they first played against each other in a county match. Jardine had been sceptical of reports about the young speedster, but changed his mind after the first three balls he faced. Jardine’s teammate Percy Fender recalled:

Larwood’s first ball was being returned by the wicketkeeper Lilley as Jardine completed his stroke. The second ball was on its way through to Lilley when the stroke was completed. On the third ball, Douglas finally made contact. Later Larwood clean bowled him, Jardine again beaten for pace.

An intriguing aspect of his pace was that Larwood stood only five feet seven and a half inches tall—the same height as the great Australian tennis player Ken Rosewall, who was usually described by commentators as “diminutive”. The ability to make a ball rise sharply off a good length, which was Larwood’s trademark, is all the more remarkable when you consider it was delivered from such a low height. The two secrets were his strength (he was deep-chested and had powerful shoulders) and his technique, honed by countless hours of practice under the eye of Iremonger.

Larwood was England’s best bowler, topping the first-class averages during the middle years of the 1920s. He was playing Test cricket by the late 1920s, and toured Australia in 1928-29 when England won the series 4–1. He was again England’s opening and main strike bowler for the Ashes series in England in 1930. This series, however, was unexpectedly won by Australia, thanks to wonderful cricket from the Australian openers Woodfull and Ponsford and the wily spin bowling of Clarrie Grimmett—but most of all to the utter domination of the England bowlers by the twenty-one-year-old Don Bradman. In seven innings in the five tests, Bradman scored 974 runs at an average of 139, including scores of 131, 254, 334, and 232.2

The 1930 Tests had two significant effects on English cricket and on Larwood. First, beating Bradman was now seen as the secret to beating Australia. Second, Larwood had demonstrated in the Fifth Test how this might be done. On a difficult wicket, affected by rain, Larwood had found that by bowling short and aiming at the body, he could unsettle Bradman. At the time, Bradman was batting with the young Archie Jackson in a partnership that would win the match for Australia, but the game was tense and evenly balanced. Larwood gave both of them a torrid time, especially Jackson, who was hit on the jaw, shoulder, elbow, wrist, ribs and hip, but still managed to make 73.3 Bradman was quick enough on his feet to avoid injury, and went on to score a double century, but the fact that he looked uncomfortable, for only this one time in the whole series, was well and truly noted.

The next phase of the story needs no detailed retelling. Jardine hatched the plot; Larwood, and to a lesser extent his fast bowling partner Bill Voce, were the executors. The bodyline tactic was quite simple: the fieldsmen stood grouped around the batsman on his leg side and the bowler aimed for the batsman’s head. The batsman was either out caught at short leg by one of the close-in fieldsmen, or was bowled by a superfast yorker when expecting a bouncer. In the Sydney and Adelaide Tests, with hard pitches and Larwood at his most dangerous, bodyline worked to perfection. England won easily, and eventually took the series and regained the Ashes.

Many of the Australian batsmen were badly hurt, including Woodfull and the wicketkeeper, Bert Oldfield. There was a lot of ill-feeling between the teams, among cricket followers and in the media. But Jardine was a cold fish, and was utterly unruffled by criticism or the jeers of the Australian crowds; indeed he enjoyed riling them. A classic scene occurred at Adelaide when Larwood, bowling to a conventional field, felled Woodfull with a blow to the heart. Woodfull took some time to recover, but refused to leave the field, and eventually took strike again. Just as Larwood was about to deliver the next ball, Jardine held him up and then ostentatiously set a bodyline field. There was almost a riot.

Larwood had his own views on the controversy. In the first place he hated batsmen, and didn’t mind hitting or hurting them, short of actually killing them. This was a philosophy with which he had been imbued since first becoming a professional fast bowler—and is no different from that of more recent fast bowlers like Dennis Lillee and Andy Roberts. Without the slightest qualms, Larwood also bowled a variant of bodyline (which he called “leg theory”) in county cricket in England against his own countrymen, and caused serious havoc. In the second place, he expected a counter-attack. If the batsmen were to consistently pull or hook the short ball instead of ducking, deliberately taking the ball on the body, fending off with the bat or backing away (this last option was the Bradman approach), he believed the tactic would not have been successful. However, attack was not as easy as it sounded against someone of Larwood’s pace, and only Stan McCabe of the Australian batsmen, in one memorable innings, got away with it. Oldfield, attempting to hook a Larwood short ball, had been almost decapitated.

Furthermore, both Larwood and Jardine expected the Australians to return fire with fire, to dish up some bodyline of their own. But Woodfull refused to retaliate. He deplored bodyline and regarded it as unsportsmanlike. In his view, which was made very public, it was simply “not cricket”. It was this phrase that brought on the international furore over bodyline, because of its ethical connotations.

Looking back, Woodfull’s view can be seen as old-fashioned, Jardine and Larwood’s as contemporary. No modern Australian captain would hesitate to unleash a fast bowler at opposition batsmen, including their captain, especially one as detested as Jardine. Nevertheless, in 1933 Australia was still a loyal member of the British Empire, part of the family, and Edwardian notions of civility, and the “for King and country” attitude of the First World War still prevailed. On his return to Australia after the successful 1930 tour, Woodfull gave a speech in which he said that the highlight of the tour was not winning the Ashes, but meeting the King and Queen at Sandringham. This, it seems to me, sums up the difference between then and now.

The aftermath of the 1932-33 series is revealing, especially of the instincts for survival of the British upper class who ran cricket at that time. After first denying that there had been any problem with bodyline, the MCC (the Marylebone Cricket Club, representing the English cricket establishment) then suddenly realised that the future of international cricket was at stake, and their prestige with it. The moment the Australian Cricket Board of Control threatened to boycott future Test series, the MCC backed down. They decided an apology must be made. Fair enough. Then they demanded that Larwood make it. He was the chosen scapegoat.

Poor Larwood was at first flabbergasted and then deeply dismayed, and he utterly refused to apologise. He had, he said, simply been obeying his captain’s instructions. As a professional cricketer, as well as a loyal member of the England cricket team, he had been honour-bound to do so. In taking this line, Larwood unintentionally revealed the weakness of his position. It was the amateurs, represented by the old stuffed shirts at the MCC, that ruled cricket; the professionals were second-class citizens, and were dispensable. A revealing fact came to light only years later. One of the other English fast bowlers on the 1932-33 tour, Gubby Allen, had refused Jardine’s instruction to bowl bodyline, but because he was an amateur (like Jardine) and not a professional, he had been allowed to get away with it. Unlike Larwood, Allen was unsackable.

Every effort was made by the establishment to make Larwood apologise to the Australians, but he would not. It cost him his place in the England team and friendships in the English cricketing fraternity. Although he was clearly the best bowler in England in the years up to the Second World War, he was never again selected to play a Test match. In the end, devastated, he resigned from his professional position with Nottinghamshire and bought a little sweet shop in the coastal holiday town of Blackpool, where he lived in penurious anonymity all through the following decade. On rare occasions he went to cricket matches, but was never welcome in the England dressing rooms, as are most honoured former players. In fact he was treated as disgracefully by English cricketers as he was by the English cricket establishment. Jardine in particular comes out of this whole affair very badly. He had used Larwood, and then discarded him with the same cold ruthlessness with which he had ordered the execution of the Australian batsmen.

The final irony in the story was Larwood’s decision (prompted by one of his old bodyline adversaries, now friend, the Australian batsman and journalist Jack Fingleton), to emigrate to Australia in 1950. He secured a job on the production line at the Pepsi Cola bottling plant, and lived modestly and happily with his family in a suburb of Sydney.

It was a good move. Larwood loved Australia, and the way Australians treated him—with respect and friendship. Indeed he was a revered figure among Australian cricketers of the 1950s, who acknowledged him as a master bowler, a fearless sportsman and a brave adversary. Only Donald Bradman held out: he neither forgave nor forgot the events of the Bodyline series, and he and Larwood maintained an animosity to the end (most of it coming from Bradman). In his memoirs, Bradman even went so far as to accuse Larwood of being a chucker, something no one else had ever mentioned in either England or Australia over the years, and an idea today regarded as preposterous.

In a highlight of his later years Larwood was eventually reunited with English cricket. After the mid-1950s he was invariably invited to, and made welcome in the dressing rooms of visiting England teams. A new generation of England fast bowlers, including Frank Tyson and Freddie Trueman, sought him out, asked for his advice and were proud to be photographed with him. He was given celebrity status at the Centenary Tests in 1977, but especially at the match at his old home ground at Trent Bridge in Nottingham.

Harold Larwood died in Sydney in 1995, aged ninety-one. He had come to terms with his life and times, and had enjoyed his final years, secure in the knowledge that his place in cricket history was an honourable one.

I never saw Larwood bowl, but I did see the next best thing. When I was about fourteen, I once spent a thrilling afternoon at the WACA cricket ground, watching Ray Lindwall destroying the local team. Lindwall, having retired from Test cricket and playing in the Sheffield Shield competition for Queensland, was past his prime, but still a lovely sight with his long flowing run to the wicket, beautiful delivery and wicked late swing. He had been to the Australian teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s what Larwood had been to English teams twenty years earlier: devastatingly fast, and very deadly.

In his charming little autobiography, Flying Stumps, Lindwall recalled that in 1933, then a schoolboy, he had sat on the Hill at the Sydney Cricket Ground and watched Larwood bowl in the bodyline Test (in which Larwood took 5 for 27 in the second innings, to win the match for England) and had been enthralled by him.

When later he burst onto the international cricket scene, Lindwall’s run-up and bowling action were uncannily similar to Larwood’s. Bowling at Nottingham in the 1948 Ashes tour, Lindwall was mocked by the crowd, who accused him of copying Larwood. But Lindwall disarmed them: “Why wouldn’t I copy him? He was the best.” It is a line that makes a fitting epitaph.


1. Larwood’s story provides an insight into the class distinctions applying in English cricket at the time. As an amateur, Arthur Carr had a dressing room to himself, equal in size to that shared by the ten professionals in the Notts team, and he entered and left the field by his own gate, which the professional cricketers were not allowed to use.

2. My father was a graduate student at Cambridge in 1930, and with a group of his Australian friends he travelled by train down to London for the First Test. Years later he told me how he “would never forget” how Bradman pranced down the wicket to the first ball he received in a Test match in England, and smote it to the boundary. I am loath to spoil one of my father’s good stories, but in fact Bradman scored only a single from his first ball in a test match in England, a neat leg-glance off Tate. Shortly after, however, he did launch an audacious attack on the spinner Tyldesley, including a dance down the pitch and a straight drive to the fence, which is perhaps the shot that stuck in my father’s memory.

3. Although Larwood did not know this at the time, Jackson was a sick man, and died not long afterwards from tuberculosis without ever playing another cricket match. He was a beautiful stylist, as well as a brave man. It is worth remembering that batsmen in those days wore little in the way of protective clothing, and no helmets. Jackson was one of those who opted to take the short ball on his body, rather than duck and weave or pop up a catch to short leg.

7 thoughts on “Cricket’s Dark Side, Then and Now

  • lloveday says:

    Odd pay rates back then.
    9 pounds—six weeks wages for a senior pitman
    Which is 30 shillings per week.
    But the young Larwood, at 19, was offered “thirty-two shillings a week, exactly the same sum he had earned as a coal miner“, 2 shillings a week more than his father.

  • Ian Matthews says:

    Smith and his his team will walk away unscathed from this. If the Oz Cricket Board had any spine, it would sack the bloody lot of them, fly them home in cattle class tomorrow and leave em at Sydney international to fend for themselves. The board doesn’t have a spine so the board and the team will bunker down like a bunch of cowards and wait for it to blow over. Smith’s only concern is that he and his cheating bloody mates got caught.

    • lloveday says:

      Those who conspired to, and, or, did, attempt to influence the result of a game on which much money was legally bet should be criminally charged, or at the least banned for life as were those involved in, even tenuously, the Fine Cotton case.
      Apples and Oranges? Not in my opinion – both involved attempting to illegally affect the result of an event involving substantial money changing hands contingent on the result.

      • says:

        I agree. The coach, captain, vice-captain and the “leadership group” whoever they were, should be banned for life. The only one who should be allowed to play again should be the one who actually did it, and then only after a hefty fine.

        It’s a disgraceful thing to have done, even spontaneously in the heat of the moment, but to have cold-bloodedly planned to do it, and then to delegate the least experienced junior player to actually do it, is simply unforgivable.

  • PT says:

    I get annoyed by the continual quoting of Bodyline today: usually in terms of Anglophobia and republicanism. I mean, republicanism is essential due to a sports tour in the early 1930’s? How petty!

    The truth is that Jardine, a hard man, played cricket like an Australian! That is dedicated to winning! In fact Jardine was more like a great Australian captain that gentleman Bill Woodful. I think that was part of the animosity: we expected better of England.

    But the Lillee/Thompson demon attacks of the ’70’s , when batsmen were no better protected than 1933? Then the West Indies fast bowlers of the ’70’s and 80’s. The issue with Bodyline was the field, with only the great Stan McCabe mastering it! But the field placing was legal for decades afterwards.

    We should get over Bodyline. Certainly get over that ridiculous mini-series with Gary Sweet.

  • mags of Queensland says:

    I don’t agree that the Australian team should be penalized to death. They did no worse than all the holier than thou players who have jumped on the band wagon to thump them. The South African team is hardly squeaky clean, particularly their captain who committed similar offenses and got away lightly.

    I do not condone what was done, it was a stupid thing to do. Unfortunately it has been part of the game for decades. I think the punishment for Smith and Warner is excessive and reflects badly on Cricket Australia.

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