Bodyline and the ‘Silent Killer’
It’s seventy-five years since the Australia-England Ashes series of 1932/3 which became known as the ‘Bodyline’ series. Some of the main players in the drama were England captain, Douglas Jardine, the great Australian run-getter, Don Bradman and two great Nottinghamshire fast-bowling heroes Harold Larwood and Bill Voce doing much of the damage (and causing a diplomatic crisis simultaneously!)
I worked at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground as a lad leaving school in the mid-seventies and the tales they used to tell me about Harold Larwood were unreal. Ground staff who’d been there many years told me they had to keep THREE complete sets of replacement stumps handy as Harold smashed so many when clean bowling people. They also reckoned that in the nets, Harold could hit a small pocket-handkerchief on a length five times out of six – at full speed. When Harold was bowling, the Notts wicket keeper was stationed nearer the boundary than the stumps. Not a big man at 5ft 8ins but an immensely powerful one with the broad shoulders, chest and biceps of an ex-miner.
I actually met his bowling partner, Bill Voce one time. An absolute gentleman and a very tall and imposing man. His wicked left-handed deliveries whipping into the batsman’s body were lethal and the ideal foil for ‘Loll’ Larwood.
They called the style of bowling formulated to curb Bradman ‘leg-theory’ but it became known as ‘bodyline’ in a derogative way. This entailed shorter-pitched fast bowling aimed on the leg-stump and into the batsman’s body with a field setting heavily weighted towards the leg side. The English bowlers attracted tremendous criticism for their bowling but earlier incidences of similar bowling have been reported. It should also be remembered that McDonald and Gregory, the two feared Aussie fast bowlers had given the England team a pretty torrid time back in 1921 too. This was conveniently forgotten.
I believe the Nottinghamshire captain at the time, Arthur Carr, was heavily implicated in the leg-theory plan though it was not used for Nottinghamshire. It was specifically to stop the free-scoring Bradman, (which in the main it did by his hugely high standards). Special needs – (Bradman the run-scoring machine) needed special measures – (leg theory). Bradman still ended with a decent batting average in that series by the standards of other mere mortals. By his standards his scoring was mediocre.
In my view the only reason that this style of bowling became the issue it did was because Larwood was just so damned quick. The batsmen just couldn’t play him. Voce was pretty dangerous too because his height and left-handed trajectory was bringing the ball into the batsman’s ribs from just short of a length. Like all fast bowlers at their most effective, bowling in pairs and keeping up the pressure at both ends both physically and psychologically. There was no escape at either end. Additionally, Yorkshire’s Bill Bowes was a decent bowler but nowhere near the pace of Larwood whilst the fourth fast bowler in the party, Gubby Allen, flatly refused to have anything to do with the plan.
Larwood fells Australian wicket keeper Bill Oldfield in Adelaide
I think Harold was very badly done by concerning the England selectors afterwards. Sir Julian Cahn, an influential figure in Notts. cricket and friend to the MCC insisted he apologised for his actions but Larwood refused and maintained he only carried out captain Jardine’s orders. Harold’s much remembered words to Cahn were ‘I’m an Englishman, I never apologise’. The establishment didn’t stand by him at all. Conversely the Australian public never seemed to react badly to him. I think they saw him in a curious way as ‘one of them’ – a man who had a thirst to win and also a supreme talent to go with it. He retired to keep a little shop in Sydney ironically and has lived happily there ever since
Harold’s statue sits (rather incongruously) in Kirkby-in-Ashfield in North Notts. It’s the nearest town to his Nuncargate home. I took a look at it close up a couple of times and it really captures him in full flight just about to pull the trigger. Excellent.
I often think that when most fast bowlers bowl the short stuff they feel like knocking a batsman’s head off his shoulders. I don’t think it’s applicable with Loll Larwood and ‘bodyline’ though – his deliveries from that beautiful classic style were scudding and rearing up off a length not far from full. He was just that immensely quick that the stuff he was bowling, just fractionally short of a length, was murderous to most batsmen.
The staff I used to talk to at Trent Bridge would often compare him to modern-day fast bowlers for pace. They saw the great West Indian four-pronged attacks, Lindwall and Miller, Wes Hall, Lillee and Thomson et al but claimed that NONE of them were remotely close to Harold’s pace. I believe them too.
Douglas Jardine was an interesting character. Very much an amateur in the days of ‘gentlemen and players’ I always thought he had the heart and soul of a professional, and played the game like one. (Incidentally I recall when I was at Trent Bridge in the seventies there was still a vestige of the separate gates that amateurs and professionals used to enter the field from).
Jardine was a tough cookie and a strongly principled man with courage to spare. The Australians
gave him hell on and off the field in 1932/3 but he stood up to all of it. Larwood had the utmost respect for his ‘skipper’. Jardine’s batting style was apparently stiff and lacked fluency, but his gritty defence and guts made up for those failings. At the crease he would eak out the runs in the manner of a pro looking for his contract next season rather than swing the bat in a cavalier, amateur style.
There used to be a saying in Nottinghamshire that the club would whistle down a mineshaft and another fast bowler would turn up. It’s remarkable really because Trent Bridge wickets were always ‘featherbeds’ in those days – slow-playing batsman’s paradises that would tax the very best fast bowlers. It was always easier to slow the pace down and swing the ball early in the morning at Trent Bridge and use the dew from the River Trent in the morning to grab a wicket or two. There was never a great incentive to bowl very fast at Trent Bridge for those reasons. I guess that can be corroborated in the fact that Loll Larwood had quite a short career. What a career it was though.
Nottinghamshire and England batsman, Joe Hardstaff Jnr. labelled Harold Larwood ‘The Silent Killer’ due to the silence of his footsteps during his smooth run-up to bowl. He claimed he knew the batsman was in real trouble when he couldn’t hear Harold’s footsteps as the fast man would be up on his toes ready to let one fly. One might muse that the legendary Notts. hero Harold Larwood left a far heavier footprint on the history of the great summer game though.