Greater than Bradman
What was the playing context of Bradman’s era? How fierce was the challenge for batsmen?
Extracts below are from Wisden Book of the Year 2009, 'Harold Larwood' by Duncan Hamilton. For its faithfulness and accuracy to the playing context of the Bradman era, Wisden Cricketer praised the book as “cricket biography of the highest stamp”. The Independent on Sunday called it “a tour de force of research, social history”.
On pitch conditions..........‘In an era when pitches were generally friendly for batsmen....’ – page 12
On the ease of scoring..........‘The pitches were made to suit run-making. The laws were made to preserve the batsman’s wicket. To dismiss a batsman lbw, the bowler had to pitch the ball wicket-to-wicket; batsmen could safely pad up to any delivery that strayed off line. Batsmen were considered to be top-of-the-bill entertainers and feather-bed pitches enabled them to showboat – flowing strokes through extra-cover, elegant late cuts, gentle nudges around the corner. As Larwood said of the game in the 1920s and 30s, it was ‘so biased in favour of the batsman, there was no pressure on them at all. If we got four wickets down in a day, we’d done a day’s work. If we got five we had an extra drink.’” – page 41
On the liberal lbw law that was, to bowlers of that era, cruelly so............‘Sutcliffe.....judged that the ball would have taken out the middle stump. He watched Chester (Frank Chester – the umpire) remove his hand from his pocket to signal Hobbs’ dismissal, and he waited for the raucous appeal.......the appeal never came. Australia retrieved the ball and tossed it back to Mailey as if nothing had happened. The bowler and wicketkeeper....wrongly believed the ball had pitched outside off stump (remember, at that time a bowler had to pitch wicket to wicket to force an lbw). Hobbs.....half smiled at the life he’d been given.’ – page 83
On pitch conditions............‘The....pitch....was like a duvet, and produced a low, docile bounce, which came off the track so gently that the batsmen virtually sighted the ball in super-slow motion. Glamorgan took savage advantage of the feathery conditions. Only a late collapse enabled Larwood to take a decent five for 78. The last six Glamorgan wickets – through sheer boredom and a dash to top up the total beyond 500 – went for just 66.’ – page 98
On pitch conditions........‘The Lord’s Test was never a true contest between batsman and bowler. The tame pitch loaded the dice for batsmen and made another draw inevitable.’ – page75-77 [Larwood’s debut Test in 1926]
On pitch conditions........‘Larwood was dropped – not because the selectors weren’t impressed with him but because, after a summer constantly interrupted by rain, the strips for the third Test at Headingley and the fourth at Old Trafford were benign. Predictably those Tests were drawn too.’ – page 77
On the ease of scoring........‘In Larwood’s era, batsmen scored mountainous heaps of runs. The pitches were the equivalent of an “as-much-as-you-can-eat” buffet for run-makers.......Larwood had to sweat hard to make sure the ball didn’t come off at a friendly height and pace.’ – page 102
On the (in) accuracy of dismissal decisions.............‘Larwood.......thought Bradman had been dishonest. “He was out in Headingley in 1930 even before he’d scored....the first ball I gave him was a bouncer, and he snicked it....you could hear the snick all over the ground. George Duckworth caught it, and you could hear his appeal in Manchester. We all went up. I knew he’d snicked it, and everyone who was close to it will tell you the same. Even Jack Hobbs – who would never appeal unless he thought the man had a good chance of being out – shouted with us. I didn’t complain at the time....the umpire just gave him the benefit of the doubt.’” – page 122 [Note: Bradman went on to score 334 runs in Headlingley, Leeds]
On Bodyline.........‘Larwood struck him frequently on the thigh; McCabe took the bruising and batted on imperviously......Larwood called it the “best I’ve ever seen”. Voce never forgot it either. “I gave him everything I’d got in that Test and he hit me around the ground as if I was bowling a tennis ball at him. Why couldn’t Bradman have batted like that?” he said.’ – page 144
On the limited range of bowling tactics.........‘For him (Larwood), the strategy was no more than leg theory – albeit operated with a speed and consistency never witnessed before. “If the ball had swung,” he’d add, “I might never have used leg theory at all.” Larwood thought the hand-made cricket balls of the period, on which the stitching was smaller, smoother and trimmer, produced far less swing.’ – page 148-149
On Bodyline................“The tipping point of the Bodyline series – the ball that felled Bert Oldfield – wasn’t bowled to a Bodyline field either. But it didn’t matter. The climate was so fevered that (people were).....unable to discriminate between, genuine fast bowling and Bodyline – even when Jardine....didn’t deploy a leg-side field. It became impossible for them to distinguish legitimate aggression from the tactic itself.” – page 161
And yet again on Bodyline..........‘The statistics of the Tests seem inconsequential against the wider issue of whether Bodyline was unscrupulous or a piece of lateral thinking that stretched the rules, and what the Australians might have done more smartly to counter it......Archie Jackson, who had withstood Harold Larwood’s attack.....was sure that quick footwork was the key to countering it. He bemoaned the squealing of the Australian batsmen..........There were several options available for batsmen to quieten Larwood. He could duck and sway.......He could hook or pull – as McCabe did in the first Test at Sydney and, according to Larwood, as Jackson would have done.’ – page 177-178
On aggressive bowling..........‘At the Centenary Test in 1977, he (Larwood) sat alongside Bill Bowes and studied Dennis Lillee. Larwood, who particularly admired Lillee, took a mental note of how often the Australian fast bowler peppered England with short-pitched deliveries. He began to count the bouncers Lillee bowled. One ball from Lillee struck Derek Randall, ironically from Nottinghamshire, on the head, making him stagger a few paces sideways and fall to the floor rather like Bert Oldfield had done in Adelaide 44 years earlier. The Australian Rick McCosker was hit in the face by Bob Willis. A quizzical look crossed Larwood’s face, and he began to shake his head. “You know Bill,” said Larwood, turning towards Bowes, “these fellers have bowled more bouncers in this match than I ever bowled in a season.”’ - page 201
Mike Atherton said that Hamilton’s ‘magnificently written’ book on Larwood was a moving story of ‘that rarest of breeds – a great English fast bowler’. Nearly 80% of the Test deliveries Bradman faced were bowled by English bowlers. The best bowlers at the time were Australian - and on Bradman’s team. To top that, the ‘rarity’ of world-class pace (implied in Atherton’s tribute) allowed Bradman the licence to score as freely as he did. Of course Bradman exploited that licence more consistently than his batting peers but it is a stark admission of the relative meekness of the challenge he faced when compared to the ferocity of the challenge faced by his batting successors.