ICC World Cup 2019: The town where ‘Bodyline’ bowler Harold Larwood learnt to bowl
What remained of Harold Larwood’s legacy at the place where he first picked up a cricket ball? Where he was once a hero? I was in Nuncargate, where Larwood grew up.Updated: Jun 11, 2019 17:14 IST
Harold Larwood was my teenage hero. Back in school, when I first saw ‘Bodyline’, the Australian TV series on England’s infamous Ashes tour of 1932-33, I was blown away. Hugo Weaving went on to do many more memorable roles, but to me he will always be the crafty, icy Douglas Jardine who unleashed a merciless weapon called Larwood, who sent the Australian batsmen back to the dressing room on stretchers with his 100mph deliveries. Here was a man who came from nothing, from a mining town where he entered the coal pits, following his father, at 14, went on to become the protagonist of the most controversial Test series ever played in cricket, hacked Don Bradman’s average down to less than 57 (the worst of a career that finished with an average of 99.9), was then made the scapegoat in the moral fallout from that series, and made to retreat into obscurity at the age of 28.
What remained of Larwood’s legacy at the place where he first picked up a cricket ball? Where he was once a hero? I was in Nuncargate, where Larwood grew up.
Nottingham is blessed with an extensive bus network, so it doesn’t take much time to figure out the route to Nuncargate, less than an hour’s ride from the city. A ‘Threes’ bus takes me through Hucknall, past picturesque farms, villages and cemeteries, and finally drops me at James Street, about a hundred yards away from a signboard that says ‘Welcome to Nuncargate’. Gusts of wind swept through green pastures lined by wooden fences. A small church and a scattering of old English houses with lush backyard gardens lined a winding road. The town where Larwood was born is straight out of a postcard.
When Larwood was a boy though, this was a hardscrabble pit town, its houses and streets defined by the soot that covered everything.
The barber shop is closed. A small grocery store and a restaurant, with a chicken rotisserie on display, are the only things open. It’s well past noon, and there is not a soul around. I know the address, so I walk up to the house. A dog barks from behind a window.
The house has a red door, and beside it is a small brass plaque of a hand holding a ball seam-up that says ‘Larwood stayed at this home from 1904 to 1927’. I knock, and a woman answers. I introduce myself, apologise for barging in at lunch time and enquire if there is anything inside the house that could serve as Larwood memorabilia. “I’m sorry. I rent this flat so I have no idea about its past owners,” she says.
I walk on, and soon spot a narrow gravel road that leads to a small ground. The gate’s shut firm but on it hangs a banner that reads ‘Kirkby Portland Cricket Club’, established 1878. Beyond it is a small a pavilion named after Larwood—inaugurated by his daughter in 2002—and a cricket ground with two pristine white sight screens.
The uphill slope towards one end of the pitch made me wonder how much Larwood had to toil each time he had to breeze in and bang in his bouncers.
At 18, Larwood got an offer of playing for Nottinghamshire for just two pounds per week. It was better than being in the mines, so he took it. Robert, his father, backed him, scraping together savings for a new kit. Larwood neither had the height nor the physique of a fast bowler. But working long shifts in the colliery and trudging back home every day had prepared Larwood for the long haul as fast bowler. As a Notts cricketer, Larwood had to walk almost four miles to the Kirkby-in-Ashfield station, take the train to Nottingham and walk another two miles. Forget proper pay, Larwood’s contract left him with no breathing space. If there were no games, Larwood had to still assist in training, put up practice nets and roll the practice wickets.
Whether he really bowled at 100mph is a question that cannot be answered, but the results of Larwood’s raw pace has left us with one of the game’s most compelling stories. Larwood first bowled to Australia—and Bradman—in the Ashes series of 1928-29, when Bradman scored two centuries. In 1930-31, Bradman single-handedly destroyed England at home—131 at Trent Bridge, 254 at Lord’s, 334 at Headingley, and 232 at the Oval.
“He was cruel in the way he flogged you,” said Larwood. “He made me very, very tired.”
Jardine too had witnessed the massacre from the sidelines, and when he was appointed captain for the 1932-33 tour to Australia, he knew he had to find an answer to the Bradman problem.
According to the some accounts, the solution came when Jardine watched a short clip of Larwood bowling to Bradman at the Oval in 1930, where a few short deliveries to the leg side had Bradman struggling; one ball struck him on the chest and felled him. And so was born the bodyline strategy. It was not a new idea—with no field restrictions during that time, captains could pack the leg-side field and ask their bowlers to maintain a strict leg stump line. It made scoring difficult, and was largely seen as a ‘negative’ tactic, akin to a football side that parks its players in front of the goal. What made Jardine and Larwood’s execution different was the sheer pace.
It worked. Bradman, and the whole of the Australian team crashed and burnt against the vicious bowling, England won the series 4-1, and Larwood picked up 33 wickets at 19.52.
But it also led to a controversy that effectively ended Larwood’s career. As accusations of intentions of hurting batsmen and ‘unsportsmanlike conduct’ was thrown against the England side, the row escalated beyond cricket and into the realms of politics and diplomacy. Larwood was asked to apologize for his bowling by the MCC. He refused.By 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, Larwood had moved away from the public eye, becoming a market gardener, and then the owner of a small sweet shop in Blackpool. In 1950, he left England for good, settling down in a Sydney suburb, where he passed away in 1995, at the age of 90.
Of beer and bowling
Walking back from the cricket ground where Larwood learnt to bowl, I find a small pub called Cricketers Arms, and go in, only to find that Larwood used to be a regular here.
More than 200 years old, this pub has changed hands several times. Current owners Joanne and Philip tell me they took over the pub only last November. With every change, Larwood’s favourite pub has lost a bit of history, just like his home. “Do you know this pub was earlier named after Harold Larwood?,” asks Philip, while showing me around.
I am reminded of Trent Bridge, where a stand is named after Larwood and Bill Voce—Larwood, Voce, Bill Bowes and Gubby Allen formed the England pace attack under Jardine. In fact, Larwood and Voce studied at the same school—Kirkby Woodhouse—a quarter of a mile down the main road. Larwood’s authorised biography, by Duncan Hamilton, perfectly sums up the relationship. “Voce was Larwood’s blood brother. On the field, Larwood and Voce worked in perfect synchrony, like the blades of a pair of scissors. If Larwood didn’t take a batsman’s wicket, Voce usually did. One would soften up victims for the other, and vice versa. Beer held them together through thick and thin. Notts captain Arthur Carr insisted on it. “On his instructions, a river of it (beer), as wide and brown as the Trent, flowed through the Nottinghamshire dressing room every day. The place reeked of alcohol, cigarette smoke, linseed oil and liniment. The beer, he explained, was only for medicinal purposes. He thought it was ‘essential fuel’ for fast bowlers, who were no different in his eyes from manual labourers.”
Jardine would tease Larwood about his love for beer.
“You can’t drink beer on a cricket field. What would Lord’s say to that?” Jardine once told him. “Anyway, all I can tell you is that the next drinks break there is a glass of beer hidden amongst the orange juice. And Lord’s never got to hear about it.”
Before moving out of Nuncargate, this pub featured heavily in Larwood’s life. Stand at the entrance and you can catch Chapel Street, where Larwood’s home is, and Kirkby Portland Cricket Club together. Larwood used to walk down this road on his way back home after cricket, and he rarely missed making a stop at the pub.
The newer portion of Cricketers Arms came up only in the last few years, but the older half retains its charm with football, cricket and Larwood featuring on every wall. Larwood had donated some of his memorabilia—his birth and marriage certificates. He was married to Lois Bird—a coal miner’s daughter who lived in Mansfield, a 20-minute drive from here—on September 17, 1927. Larwood was 22, Bird was 20. The pub also has a plaque similar to the one outside his house. No one’s sure when Larwood had last visited Nuncargate. There is a laminated photo of Larwood and Voce in front of the pub, on August 5, 1977.
It has started raining. The big screen inside the pub is showing highlights of the Australia-Afghanistan game. Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc are making life difficult for the batsmen, bowling fast and full. Buses to Nottingham come every 30 minutes. I have plenty of time. I find a table in front of the TV, start leafing through his biography and ask Joanne to fix me a beer. This is Harold Larwood’s pub. He would have appreciated it.