To get myself into the mood for the Ashes, not that a series such as this needs much to stir the pot of emotions for a man living on both sides of the fence, I have been brushing up on a few classic books on the Ashes. The first that comes to mind is The Bodyline Autopsy and most recently Duncan Hamilton's biography of Harold Larwood. It's a top-class piece of sportswriting, one in which I wish I wrote myself.
How good was Larwood? Get on YouTube and have a look. It's old, old footage. Larwood is a grey ghost streaking in to bowl. He was only 170 centimetres in height and it is said he ran so lightly he made no sound as he came in to bowl. His action is still wonderful to behold - he has both acceleration and exquisite balance. His various rhythms come together in one fluid moment at the point of delivery much as those of another great fast bowler, New Zealander Richard Hadlee, did.
The YouTube footage shows him hitting Australian Bert Oldfield in the head, Oldfield reeling away like a man who'd had acid flung in his face. This was after earlier hitting the Australian captain Bill Woodfull with a delivery to the heart. Woodfull batted on. Larwood struck him several more times. There was a real risk of a riot. Larwood and another English player agreed which stump they would grab to brandish in their defence. In the aftermath, the governments of both countries got involved. Larwood's story reads like a novel. He was down the coal pits at the age of 14. His family was Methodist, teetotal and cricket-loving. Playing for Nottinghamshire, he impressed Jack Hobbs when he blasted the master batsman's off stump out of the ground in successive innings. Hobbs got him into the English team in 1926.
For the 1932-33 tour of Australia, England was captained by Douglas Jardine. Upper class and severe in manner, Jardine re-awoke old convict memories and personified what Australians silently despised about the English. He and Larwood had a bond which Larwood carried with pride all his life. Jardine was of the officer class; Larwood was proud to have carried out his orders. Jardine had personally investigated every innings Bradman played in England in 1930 to find a chink in his armour. Finally, in a piece of footage, he saw an incident in which, on a rain-affected pitch, Bradman appeared to flinch before a short ball from Larwood. ''Got it!'' he is said to have cried. ''He's yellow.''
Duncan Hamilton is a fine sportswriter and the best of his imagery is startlingly good. The book really comes alive to me when he likens Jardine's plan for Larwood to the invention of the tank in World War I. Before the tank, the infantry on both sides basically ran at one another's machine guns. With tanks, they had cover. Before Larwood, cricket was a different game, one biased - Larwood believed - in favour of batsmen. At the end of what is remembered as the Bodyline Tour, having taken 33 wickets at 19, Jardine insisted on Larwood bowling with an injury. He never bowled as fast again and nor did he ever again play for England.
A teammate said Larwood, a shy, sensitive man, bowled with ''demonic aggression''. He didn't like Bradman - although it seems his appreciation of Bradman as a batsman grew over the years - and Bradman didn't like him. Larwood questioned Bradman's courage, Bradman questioned his action when he bowled his bouncer.
Bradman had reason to be aggrieved. They came to hurt him, not in an accidental way, but thoroughly, until his nerve broke and he threw his great talent away. The tactic created havoc when taken back to English county cricket. In 1935, with the Australians threatening not to tour England, the MCC told Larwood to apologise to the Australians. No such request was made of Jardine and Larwood refused to do so.
Keith Miller loved him, Denis Lillee was in awe of him. The first few English teams that came to Australia after he defected shunned him, but then a new generation, players like Colin Cowdrey, sought him out because he had been among their boyhood heroes.
Peter FitzSimons hit the nail on the head some years ago when he wrote that Larwood is an Australian sporting legend. He's an English sporting legend but we claim him, too. He created indelible memories here, he made his home here and, by the time he died in 1995 at the age of 90, he was honored in this country as well as England
A fantastic book if you haven't read it and well worth getting your hands on, for the stroy of a man that was a hero to some and a villan to others.