THE majority of cricket writers whose opinions are worth reading are agreed that a first-class bowler is born, not made, and my experience of cricket has confirmed the truth of it. I have met but few bowlers in the first flight who did not possess the natural gift of making the ball come more quickly off the pitch than one would expect; but not one can tell how he does this. Mr. M. Kempson, whose bowling helped the Gentlemen to beat the Players in 1853, is of opinion that the secret of bowling is incommunicable, but a gift improvable by practice to any degree of perfection. I am not going to cry down perseverance and energy, for I owe too much to them; but I repeat, a first-class bowler must have the inestimable something which enables him to begin bowling as naturally as a duck takes to water. Afterwards it depends entirely on himself whether he is to make a great name or not. There is only one way of doing that, and it is by sheer hard work with muscle and brain.
Physical strength alone will not do on the perfect wickets we have nowadays: it must be accompanied with a good head. How often have we heard it said of this and the other bowler that he has not come up to the promise of his youth, although he has been a most diligent and exemplary worker! We have no need to go far for an explanation: it all lies in the not uncommon experience that he has the misfortune to be lacking in brain power, and will never be other than a member of the ding-dong "stuff-em-in" type if he were to practise for a hundred years. He can do what he is told, bowl straight and keep a good length; but he has not the power to read the batsman's thoughts, or the ingenuity to find out his weakness. He will always be a good change bowler, but will never reach the first class.
Several things should be impressed on the young bowler when he begins, but the following in particular: Bowl straight.
Bowl a good length.
Vary your pace and pitch.
Try to get some break on the ball.
Learn something about the nature and condition of the wicket on which you are bowling.
Seek for the weak spots in the batsman's defence.
Anybody can bowl fairly straight is a truism; but how many can do it without tiring quickly? The young bowler should be taught to begin at eighteen or twenty yards, a distance at which he can bowl without overextending himself, and not be satisfied unless he can hit the stumps pretty often. The length of run he must find out for himself; but one great point he must observe not to stop for a second when he reaches the crease before he delivers the ball. I have seen a good many bowlers do that, who could only account for it by the fact that they had been taught badly and could not help doing it. Well, it is a very bad habit, for half the benefit of the run is lost. The young bowler should be corrected every time he does it. Years ago I rather fancied a short run, believing it tired the bowler less; but I have changed my opinion, and would advise something between six and ten yards or more. Nearly all the good bowlers we have to-day, no matter their pace, take a longish run, and the giants of the past did the same thing. Mr. S. M. J. Woods, Lohmann, Briggs, Peel and Attewell are the most prominent of our English bowlers at present, and all take a good run; and the Australians, Messrs. SpofForth, Boyle, Turner and Ferris, do the same.
The young player cannot do better than watch firstclass bowlers carefully, make a note of their styles, and mark their points of difference.
Another point that used to be urged strongly was to present a full front to the batsman at the moment the ball left the hand. That has been considerably modified of late years, and there are now more advocates for a side position. Presenting a full front means that the bowler's arm can be seen plainly before the ball leaves the hand a point in favour of the batsman; a side position means that arm and hand are hidden until the last moment a point in favour of the bowler. I could mention the names of half-a-dozen bowlers, of whom it has been said that their delivery was a most puzzling one, and that it was pretty much owing to their being able to keep their arm out of sight. Of others, again, it has been said: "We have no difficulty with them we can see them all the way."I am not advocating the cultivation of a style merely for the purpose of distracting the attention of the batsman; but I would point out the great success that has attended such bowlers as Messrs. C. A. Smith, Spofforth, GifFen and Ferris, who have peculiar deliveries. When Smith begins his run he is behind the umpire and out of sight of the batsman; and I can assure you it is rather startling when he suddenly appears at the bowling crease. Spofforth goes to the other extreme, starting some yards on the off-side of the batsman, and giving the impression that he is aiming at a point nearer
MR. S. M. J. WOODS
The next point to be considered is the height of the arm in delivering the ball. It may now be safely accepted that above the shoulder is more effective than under it; in fact, the higher the better. If the wicket be at all fast, the ball invariably comes quicker off the pitch, rises higher, and is more likely to lead to a catch. However, care must be taken to bowl with a free arm, or there will be very little sting or "devil" as it is called in the ball. Most of the great fast bowlers of the past had a beautiful arm action, and have not been surpassed in that respect by Lohmann, Turner, or Sharpe three of the most prominent bowlers we have at the present time.
George Freeman, the best fast bowler I ever played against, had a lovely free action, though he did not raise his arm much above the shoulder. He did not appear so fast as he really was; but he made the ball come quickly off the pitch, and he took many wickets with balls that kept low. John Jackson was slightly before my time, but his arm action delighted me the little I saw of it. Tarrant, with his long run all over the place, was another: then there was Allen Hill, whose beautiful delivery was a model for all time. Martin Mclntyre, with his head-over-heels action, though not in the same bowling class as Freeman and Jackson, got up his pace entirely owing to his freedom of arm; and Mold and Sharpe, of the present time, are worthy of being watched. And amongst the amateurs may be mentioned, Messrs. C. D. Marsham, Foord-Kelcey, Christopherson, A. H. Evans, R. Lipscomb, and S. M. J. Woods.
The young bowler must not think because he can bowl straight that he is worthy of taking his place amongst good bowlers. He is still in the very elementary stage and not out of the alphabet of the game. A good length is the next thing to be studied, and though I have put it second on the list, it is really the key-note to all good bowling. Delivery, break, and pace are much to be desired, but without length they are utterly useless. There are some bowlers who, by their wonderful accuracy of length, stick up the batsmen and get wickets on the most perfect grounds, and I need only mention Attewell, who is without a superior to-day, as a fine example of what I refer to. Good wickets reduce most bowlers to a level, and it is only the goodlength and head bowlers who can do anything on them. Willsher was past his best when I met him; but though he had lost much of his break and pace, he still kept a grand length, and was successful up to the last day he played. Break and pace may go, and very often do go earlier than one could wish, but as long as a bowler preserves his length he can do good work in most elevens.
A good-length ball may be described as one which very often finds the batsmen in two minds. He is in doubt whether to play forward or back to it, and while he is deciding, either the ball beats him altogether, or he spoons it to a fieldsman close in. It is difficult to say exactly the distance it should pitch from the batsman's wicket, but the opinion of very good and experienced players is, that for slow bowling it should pitch about four yards from the wicket; for medium pace, four and a-half yards to five; for fast, from five to seven. Of course the quality of the batsman will always have to be considered; for what may be a good-length ball to a batsman with a short reach, will be almost a half-volley to a tall player possessing an exceptionally long reach. The beginner cannot do better, however, than to put a mark, say a feather or a piece of paper, at either of the distances I have mentioned, according to his pace, and practise diligently. Anything pitched within a foot of it will be a good-length ball, and will test the defence of any batsman.
I said that the young bowler should begin at a distance suited to his strength. Let me now press upon him the greater need not to exceed his strength when he is able to bowl the full length. Promising bowlers have been ruined for want of that caution, especially amongst the amateurs. The temptation to bowl just a little faster ought to be repressed rather than encouraged, for it is fatal to success and not unlikely to lead to a breakdown. Find out exactly what you can do in practice without tiring, and stick to it. It is a rule that cannot be too strongly taken to heart in learning; for on our vastly improved wickets to-day the innings are of longer duration, and the physical strain demanded of a first-class bowler is greater than at any time since the game began. I need only allude to the exceptionally hard work which Turner and Ferris went through for the Australian Elevens which came to us in 1888 and 1890. It would not have surprised anyone if either had broken down. Every player aiming at becoming a really good bowler for his county must face the fact that he may have to bowl for hours and days at a time, and that bowling above his strength will wear him out and lead to short-length balls which the most indifferent batsman can play with ease.
Vary your pace is my next bit of advice. That does not mean you are to bowl a lot of balls faster than you are in the habit of doing, but rather that you are to resort to slower ones. Of course you will indulge in a fast one occasionally; but remember that you will find it easier to keep your good length in attempting a slower one. You must try to hide a change of action in your delivery, or an acute batsman will at once perceive it, and be on his guard. The great Australian bowlers are very good at bowling a slower or faster ball without a perceptible change of action.
Spofforth, in particular, was a master of the art, and I question if anyone has surpassed him since. He was most successful with his medium-pace balls, which were rather slower than his usual deliveries. There was the same run, the same action, the same elevation; and so completely was the batsman deceived that he played seconds too soon and was completely beaten. Palmer was another who was very successful in the same way; and Alfred Shaw was for years the chief amongst English bowlers in that respect. Shaw was a model of beautiful style and accurate length, and, at his best, could stick up the best batsmen in England. His change of pace was generally to a slower ball; and now and then he changed his elevation, a device which put the batsman in two minds.
Lohmann to-day is equally effective; and it is simply ludicrous to watch batsman after batsman walk into the trap. After the trick was done one could not help saying, "What an absurdly simple ball to have been bowled by!" but, all the same, it was a triumph of the bowler's art.
Try to get some break on the ball. That is the next stage for the young bowler, and must be acquired if he desires to reach the first class. There are times when the wicket is perfection, and straight good-length balls have little effect against a first-rate batsman. He keeps playing them with a straight bat, hoping to tire the bowler out, when loose ones will come and the runs with them. Professional batting is improved all round; but its strongest point is the unwearied patience and strong defence of its finest representatives. If the young bowler thinks he will tire out a Shrewsbury, a Gunn—I shall not say a Scotton—he is hugely mistaken; and if he has nothing but straight good-length balls in his attack, he may make up his mind for a long day's work.
As soon as he has mastered length, he must try to add to his skill the power of breaking the ball, and then he may safely believe that he is within measurable distance of becoming first class. The amount of break he can get on the ball will depend very much on his pace. Should he be fast he must not hope for too much, for the two rarely go together. Slow and medium-pace bowlers do most at that, and get from one inch to two feet on a favourable wicket. A very important point is, whatever amount one does put on, to try to have sufficient command of the ball so that if it beat the batsman it will hit the wicket. It is a confession of weakness trying to put on six inches and find it breaking twelve, beating the batsman and yet missing the wicket.
I have seen Spofforth, time after time, vary his break from three to twelve inches the same over, and every time the ball got past the batsman it hit the wicket. No greater compliment can be paid to any bowler, for his ability to do it shows that he has perfect command of the ball. If the bowler be right-handed, he breaks, as a rule, from the off; if left-handed, generally from leg. Here and there you may find a phenomenon who can do it both ways; but then he is a phenomenon, and one does not write for that class of bowler.
The state of the wicket has much to do with the amount of break to be obtained. When it is dry and hard you must be content with very little indeed; but after heavy rains, with a strong sun drying it, you may be able to perform wonders. A. G. Steel and Spofforth amongst the amateurs, Peate, Alfred Shaw and J. C. Shaw amongst the professionals, used to perform great things then, the amount of curl they got on being simply astonishing. Mr. D. Buchanan, Jimmy Southerton and Barratt belonged to that school; and Messrs. Turner and Ferris, and Peel and Briggs, of our own time, are very effective also.
The next point to be considered is: learn something about the nature and condition of the wicket on which you are bowling. Nothing shows the experienced captain so much as the thought he exercises before a match. Before he has tossed for choice of innings, he has examined the wicket carefully, taken into consideration the changes which are likely to occur during the next hour or two, and deliberated whether they will be in favour of the batsman or the bowler. Surely it is not too much to expect the bowler, upon whom so much depends, to give the same thought.
Remember it is a very old saying that "a match well made is half won." There are very few grounds on which a bowler may not find one end more helpful than the other. Perhaps there is a slight slope which will enable him to get a great deal of twist on the ball, or a spot that will cause it to kick and rise quickly off the pitch. Not to find that out before the match begins means that the bowler has failed to do his duty to his side, and lacks one of the characteristics of a first-class player.
Old Nyren says in his treatise of the game: "Contrive, if fortune so favour you, that your bowler shall bowl his first ball when a cloud is passing over." I have never been able to have the cloud passing when I bowled my first ball—indeed, I have rarely noticed the cloud passing at all—but on more than one occasion I have observed a distracting glare or leafy tree behind one of the wickets, and I always took particular care to put my most deadly bowler on at that end. Now, if a captain can notice these amongst the multitude of things he has to consider, surely a bowler ought to. Then there are some grounds on which the ball bounds higher than others, and a short-pitched one cannot be pulled very easily. That is something to know when you put in a faster one occasionally and cannot be so sure of your length. Lord's ground was of that nature not so many years ago, and Wootton and Grundy, who knew every foot of it, never hesitated to bowl a little bit short. There are many other points of detail which a bowler ought to know, but I need not enumerate them. I have said sufficient to make the bowler think for himself, if he possess the thinking faculties; if he does not, he may as well give up the hope of ever becoming first-class.
And that brings me to my last point—seek for the weak spot in the batsman's defence. There are very few batsmen without one, and the sooner you find it out the better for your side and yourself. No one plays the first over or two with the same confidence he shows after he has been batting for a quarter of an hour, and if you can only spot his weakness and lay siege to it, then you have an excellent chance of getting him out. It used to be considered a very good plan to bowl a yorker to a batsman immediately he came in, on the assumption, I believe, that he would not be ready for it. A straight half-volley was also thought likely to find him half-hearted in hitting, and a catch sure to follow. Now most batsmen have made up their minds to get either of those balls early in their innings, and you must not be disappointed if you fail to succeed with it. One thing I can tell you: it is a huge mistake to give him a short one. It is the one ball which he can see best of all, and he rarely fails to play it. Repeat it, and you have given him a favourable start, and will have some difficulty in finding his weak spot and getting him out.
It is better a thousand times to bowl an over-pitched ball than a short one at any time of his innings. You cannot do better than begin in your usual way, aiming at a good-length straight ball, and not attempting too much. If you find that he is playing confidently, then you may change your tactics and tempt him to hit. You need not be disheartened because your good balls have been played so easily, for there are more ways of getting a batsman out than bowling him. The mistake is too often made of pegging straight at the wicket to keep down the runs, trusting that the batsman will sooner or later allow one to pass him. Maiden overs are useful in their way, and serve a good purpose when they are bowled by a change bowler to give the principal bowler of his side a rest, but a really first-class bowler has something else to think about. He is played to get men out, and by hook or crook he means to do it.
Messrs. Spofforth, Boyle and Ferris, of the Australians, and Mr. A. G. Steel, Freeman, A. Shaw, Southerton, and Tom Emmett, were a treat to witness in that respect. They gave the batsman no rest, and tried him with every conceivable kind of ball until he made a mistake. If he had a particular hit they humoured him, but they took care to have a safe pair of hands waiting for it: if they failed to beat him with a break-back, they tried a simple straight one, or tossed a full-pitch at him; in short, did everything to prevent him from feeling at home. I remember once at Cheltenham, when playing for Gloucestershire v. Nottinghamshire, placing an extra man at long-leg and bowling entirely for catches, and it was amusing to find how one after another fell into the trap and were caught out. Of course I could depend on my fieldsmen, and that is a point slow and medium-pace bowlers must always consider.
Fast bowlers depend on their pace and length to beat the batsmen, slow bowlers depend principally on their fieldsmen. I am sorry to say there are exceptions here and there. More than once I have seen a medium-pace bowler deliver a goodly number of balls, all of them a good length, who thought he had done particularly well because no runs had been scored. He felt slightly hurt when it was pointed out to him that there were ten men in the field who would not mind attempting a catch and be glad to have a little more exercise than the mere promenade at the end of each over. Most big hitters lift the ball occasionally when they are given a straight half-volley, or one slightly to leg. And remember that though the old trap of bowling outside the off-stump and causing the ball to break away from the batsman is well known, very few can resist having a smack at it some time in their innings.
An article on bowling would not be complete without some reference to slow underhand, or, to use the familiar word, "lobs." Fast underhand and daisy-cutters are seldom seen now-a-days, and would have little chance on our perfect wickets; but lobs are still as effective as ever, and there are two or three first-class batsmen who, after playing all kinds of round- arm bowling with confidence, lose their heads entirely at the sight of lobs.
The lob bowler, like the slow round-arm bowler, must depend on his field, especially on his wicketkeeper, and not mind being hit. Good men have been and will continue to be clean bowled by a ball of that kind, but for one clean bowled the lob bowler may expect half-a-dozen caught out or stumped. The bowler should guard against being too slow, or a quick-footed batsman will hit him full pitch; but whatever mistake he makes, he must not bowl too short. And the elevation should not be too high, or he will get hit all over the ground; although there are some batsmen who spoon a ball which is bowled straight at them before touching the ground. Of course the more break a lob bowler can get on the better, and he must be very accurate in his length. That was the great characteristic of old Clarke's lobs, the finest lob bowler we have ever had; but he also possessed the gift of making the ball come quickly off the pitch. I have it on good authority that at his best he could pitch a ball half-a-dozen times in succession on a spot not more than three inches in diameter; and I firmly believe that if we had a lob bowler of his quality at the present time, he would get good batsmen out even on our perfect wickets.
From what I have said the young player will gather that there is a large amount of thought required ta make a first-class bowler, and that he must not expect to do brilliant things at first, even if he possess the perfection of style. Style is the foundation of a good bowler; but hard thought and constant practice are necessary to make him first-class.