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A Man Undefeated

5 December 2007.

A working man without ego or vanity, Harold Larwood, having beaten the Australians, went and joined them.

Harold Larwood is my favourite cricketer because he was honest, modest, and the epitome of the properly raised working man. Nothing of the celebrity could be found in him, no hint of glamour or touch of tinsel. Harold was a man without pretension or ego, a man sustained by pride in his performance, loyalty to the deserving, and the satisfaction to be taken from the contemplation of a job well done.

Harold Larwood

He came into the England side as a fast bowler from the mines and left in blood-soaked boots with the Ashes reclaimed. He did the donkey work and the dirty work, and sat back dismissively as his country, or rather its patrician rulers, disowned him. Afterwards, after a long war, he went to Australia, where he was supposed to be hated but was actually understood and admired, and spent the rest of his life there, earning a living in a factory, avoiding the traps and the dazzle and the backslappers, and instead enjoying the simple things: home, family and happy memories.

Larwood was born and raised in a mining community near Nottingham, a city of free thinkers from which, in the middle of the previous century, travelling teams of paid cricketers had emerged, professionals who earned their living by playing local teams wherever they went. Nottingham was also a city with a tradition of political radicalism and championing of the working man. Larwood had been born in the right place. He remained independent, believed skill and effort should be rewarded, and retained his beliefs till the last breath left his body.

In some respects Larwood was also born at the right time. Don Bradman was running amok and England was crying out for bowlers. Nothing was worse than losing to those brazen chaps from down under. A cry went out across the land for men with heart and pace, and Larwood and Bill Voce, his mate and fellow miner, were listening.

Unfortunately the pitches between the wars were dopier than a Woodstock hippy. For years Larwood and chums put their backs into their work and watched as modest batsmen met their most ferocious salvos with graceful strokes played on the front foot. It was an affront. Larwood’s teeth had been pulled before he had even stepped onto the field. Fast bowlers were turners of sods and hewers of wood, not takers of wickets.

Larwood’s spirit rebelled. Between them, Bradman and docile pitches had made him feel tame, unable to do his job. He knew he had greatness in him, and the sort of pace that burns grass, but it remained within, an unexpressed desire. He yearned for a captain with the guts to play a hard game, a physical game, a leader willing to let him mount the sort of bombardment that alone could disturb his opponents. Arthur Carr served the purpose at Nottingham, and few visiting batsmen relished the prospect of playing at Trent Bridge when Harold and Bill were taking the new ball.

For England, though, Larwood was forced to pitch the ball up, aiming at the stumps and never the body. He took numerous floggings but the proud man refused to wilt and kept his thoughts to himself. At last England decided they could take no more and asked Douglas Jardine to take the team to Australia. Although he did not know it, Larwood had found the captain he wanted, a man of unyielding determination, ruthless and committed to victory.

Harold Larwood bowling

Jardine’s strategy, an unrelenting assault directed at the body of the genius, Bradman, allowed no room for error. Extreme pace, stamina and supreme control were required or the plan could not work. Everything depended on Larwood, and it was his finest hour, as he pounded the ball down over after eight-ball over. Defying heat and hard pitches, and driven by the desire to prove his worth and win the Ashes, he terrorised and eventually beat the ageing champions of the antipodes. Spectators howled and batsmen squealed but Jardine and Larwood held firm and, against formidable odds, the Ashes were regained. Not until Bradman was dismissed for the last time in the series did Jardine allow his injured bowler to leave the field. It must have been a poignant sight, the defeated batsman and the hobbling paceman walking towards the pavilion at the SCG, neither man saying a word.

Attempts were made to tarnish Larwood’s reputation with film taken of his action during that epic summer. But only a few deliveries looked ragged, possibly the result of weariness towards the end of a gruelling day. Nevertheless, he did not play for England again. Jardine did not last much longer either. Although they had scrupulously obeyed the rules of the game, they had ignored those existing mainly in the minds of the romantics. Neither man ever apologised.

Larwood stayed in England, running a sweet shop in Blackpool till Jack Fingleton, an adversary in 1932-33, said he must come back to Australia where a warm welcome awaited. He worked alongside other ‘New Australians’ and retired in a suburb of Sydney, surrounded by his memories and proudly showing guests an ashtray given by Jardine after the Ashes had been recovered and bearing the inscription ‘From a grateful captain’. He died in his 90s, a man undefeated.

This article was written for ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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