A fitting tribute


THE good Nottinghamshire people of Kirkby-in-Ashfield have erected a statue to Harold Larwood who was born in their town almost 100 years ago.

It is a fitting tribute to a man you have to admire. He was one of the fastest bowlers who ever ran 25 yards and then, whatever the heat, or the position of the match, or the state of the pitch, delivered balls that varied between the unplayable and the bat-breaking.

Larwood was a coalminer before he was recruited by Nottinghamshire; one therefore of a tough bunch. They are used to crouching in a mine shaft that may be as little as 4ft high, perhaps a mile below the surface, knowing that a moment's carelessness, or bad luck, can bring tons of earth and coal round your ears.

If that happens - and when Larwood was down the pit accidents were frequent - you are lucky to escape with your life. Breathing in coal dust did not help your health either, sanitary conditions were primitive and alternate day and night shifts left the men so weary they had no energy for leisure pursuits.

Some flew pigeons, some raced their lean whippet dogs and they all loved their cricket. But anyone who has tried bowling fast after a shift down the pit will understand what Larwood achieved.

Miners have their own superstitions, a special comradeship and I can tell you from personal experience that if you have one of them on your side either in the Army or on the Rugby field you need fear nothing.

Larwood's mother told him he must always be true to himself. So when his biggest test came he did not cave in to the pressure of those authoritarian figures who wanted him to apologise for the way he had bowled in Australia in 1932-33.

Believe me, the people of Kirkby-in-Ashfield would not have put together &pound20,000 if they had felt Larwood had betrayed himself or their community.

He knew he had nothing to apologise for and he said so. He was sure he was being made a scapegoat and he felt he would rather retain his pride.

As a result he was never selected for a Test again and after the 1939-45 War he was so aggrieved that he took his family to live in Australia where he was treated as a hero for all he had knocked about one or two of their batsmen and effectively won the notorious Bodyline series.

Most Aussies in the 1950s when Larwood joined their nation were descended from convicts - often men sentenced for political offences rather than crimes - or the soldiers and warders sent out to run the prison system and they respected any man who stood up to the master class.

Larwood lived in Australia until his death, still proclaimed himself an Englishman in a strong Nottinghamshire accent; true to his roots, certain of his own stature which was considerable. He had been born, so to speak, with a miner's lamp in his hand and any improvement in his life came from his own honest toil.

Hansie Cronje was honoured, too, shortly after his recent death in a plane crash near his home in the Western Cape of South Africa. Many leaders of that society went to his funeral and emphasised his good points and ignored - out of a respect for his departure at an early age - his bad points.

I have had my say many times about the disgrace Cronje brought to an honourable game, about the way he killed the dreams of those of who love cricket for its purity and the way he led younger, impressionable players into the trap fed by bookmakers and their money- grabbing pals.

There is no point repeating it all now. Cronje's death will, I hope, bring an end to this appalling episode, which, thanks to robust action by the ICC and swift investigation by Lord Condon's unit, was already in its death throes.

But it is the right time to make one last point.

I might have joined the weeping if I had thought he had been driven by any motive save greed, but, look at his circumstances any way you will, and it is difficult to find an excuse for his dishonesty.

Cronje did not have to work in a gold or a coal mine. That work is still done by South Africa's underclass, usually coloured black.

He was born into a comfortable middle class home, went to a school with an impressive record of turning young men into educated adults and, because of his sporting prowess, was able to add to his family's wealth. Cronje won the respect of everyone who knew him. I found him good company, an excellent captain in his dealings with the Press, an honourable man on the field. I was not the only man who was deceived.

Here is just one instance of the way in which he - like Larwood - defied authority and took the punishment he must have known was coming his way. England's Graham Thorpe was run out in the middle of a typical England collapse at Cape Town in 1995. The umpire ruled that he had made his ground without consulting the television replay system, then in its infancy. The crowd saw on their monitors that Thorpe was out and immediately protested, very loudly, very clearly.

Cronje had no choice. He asked the umpire to go for a TV replay - even though that request is expressly forbidden - and Thorpe was, properly, given out. Cronje was also fined and censured for making his demand but, I insist even so long after the event, this was the only course available to him.

How could any captain not ask for a replay in those circumstances? I believe that the captain of any side ought to be given the right to ask for a TV replay.

(When I wrote this sentence in a book some time later it was cut out by the editor, a man of high standing in cricket because, he told me, "these captains have too much power as it is." There are, you see, still authoritarian figures determined to have their own way.)

This action, his deportment on the field, his diplomacy off it and his general air of a man in command of himself and his side, gave Cronje a reputation that meant, as he reached his thirties and so began to plan life after cricket, he could have had any future he desired.

Not for him the prospect of a return to the mines, a miserable job in a factory in the English Midlands or an assisted passage to Australia to restart life. Cronje could have been coach to the South African team, an administrator in the United Cricket Board or, like Dave Richardson, his team mate, an official at the head of world events with ICC.

Such was his reputation that if he had gone to Nelson Mandela and asked for a way into politics he would have been given a helping hand or even the chance to be an ambassador for his country.

He threw away all these openings, as well as the captaincy of his country and his place in society for the sake of such paltry inducements as a leather jacket. (There were a few rand on offer, too, as a glance at his bank accounts proved.) He turned a nation of admirers into a nation so bewildered they are still wondering if they have experienced a bad dream.

His only reason could have been plain greed, as he suggested from the witness box during the tribunal presided over by Judge Edwin King.

The old saying tells us that "The love of money is the root of all evil," but there are men like Larwood who put honour first. I hope his statue proves to be a longer lasting memorial than any monument to Hansie Cronje.

There has been another spin-off from the Cronje debacle.

As I watched the football World Cup I became increasingly impressed with the standard of sportsmanship. If a player was injured, the ball was kicked out of play immediately and opposition players showed genuine concern for the man who had been hurt even if it held up their own attempts on goal.

No one mobbed the referee, there has been - to the moment of writing at any rate - no hooliganism and the tournament has been played in an atmosphere of as much friendship as you can expect from a highly competitive game.

In other words cricket has some catching up to do if it is to prevent football claiming the moral high ground. That may be Cronje's shameful monument.