The Crisis in Cricket and the "Leg Before Rule"/Chapter 2

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IN 1774 the first law relating to l.b.w. was passed, and it was as follows: "The striker is out... if the striker puts his leg before the wicket with a design to stop the ball and actually prevent the ball from hitting by it."

It was no skilled draftsman who wrote this rule, because nobody can say what sort of "design" a batsman can have in his mind or what is meant by "before the wicket," but a great deal of light is thrown on the subject by some remarks made by the most famous cricketer of his day, William Beldham. This dear old man was born in 1766 and died in 1862, and in the well-known book, The Cricket Field by the Rev. James Pycroft, Beldham is quoted as saying, "I remember when many things first came into the game which are common now. The law of l.b.w. was not made nor wanted till Ring, one of our best hitters, was shabby enough to get his leg in the way and take advantage of the bowlers, and when Tom Taylor, another of the best hitters, did the same, the bowlers found themselves beaten, and the law was passed to make leg before wicket out." Mr. Pycroft's story may be taken to be correct; he was born in 1813, and must often have seen and talked with Beldham and could hardly have invented this saying. In those days newspapers were few in number and casual in appearance, and the general public could have known little about the matter, as l.b.w. cases were not reported at all and the first recorded instance is to be found in 1795, when, in Scores and Biographies, we find "Hon. J. Tufton, l.b.w., b. Wells, 3." It was probably owing to that lack of information that Beldham was wrong in saying that there was no l.b.w. rule, because the first one was passed in 1774, when he was eight years old, but he was very likely right when he said the law was not much wanted till Ring brought the question up by what Beldham called "shabby" play. How was Ring's play shabby? He was born in 1758, and was therefore subject to the 1774 rule. It is a reasonable supposition that to be shabby his conduct must have been of a nature that defeated the law. It is also probable that the 1774 rule was interpreted in the sense that it is now, viz: to get a batsman l.b.w. the ball must pitch between wicket and wicket, and the shabby play of Ring and Taylor consisted of using the legs to save the wicket when the ball pitched outside the wicket. If Ring and Taylor had got in front to balls pitched between wicket and wicket, they would have been given out, and they might have been called bad players, but not shabby, for they paid the penalty.

Ring and Taylor's shabby play very likely was the reason why the rule was altered, and it is needless to discuss all the changes that have been made in the l.b.w. law; it is sufficient to say that from 1774 to the present day the law has been changed ten times and not once has a satisfactory definition of a straight ball been given; the question has been simply shirked. The present law stands as follows: The striker is out "if with any part of his person he stops the ball, which, in the opinion of the umpire at the bowler's wicket, shall have been pitched in a straight line from it to the striker's wicket and would have hit it." But what do the words "from it" mean? If it means what it is taken to be at the present day, "it" ought to be struck out, and "the bowler's wicket" substituted; if from the bowler's hand, "bowler's hand."

After Ring and Taylor's "shabby" play, about the year 1782, it is probable that umpires for some years were in the dark and followed no settled principle in giving l.b.w. decisions, some thinking that for a batsman to be given out l.b .w . it was necessary that the ball should pitch between wicket and wicket, while others held that where the ball pitched had nothing to do with the question. The rules gave them very little help, although nine revisions were made between 1774 and 1831. But there is some evidence that later, probably about 1831, it was commonly understood that where the ball pitched was immaterial. There is no written record to prove this, but what I am going to write is based on what was told me more than forty years ago. I have a very retentive memory for all matters connected with cricket and I remember the conversation I had with a very distinguished old cricketer as clearly as if it took place yesterday.

About the years 1885-7 I had a conversation with the late Lord Bessborough on the l.b.w. question which was very much to the front then owing to Shrewsbury's action, which will be described later. Lord Bessborough, better known perhaps as Fred Ponsonby, a good cricketer, a famous Harrow coach and a first-rate judge of the game, who played in the great matches from 1836 to about 1845, told me that about the years 1836-9, during a match at Lords, there was a difference of opinion between Dark and Caldecourt, the two leading Umpires of the day, on the interpretation of the l.b.w. rule. The question was referred to the M.C.C. Committee, who decided then and there that for the batsman to be given out l.b.w. the ball must pitch in the bowler's territory, i.e. between wicket and wicket. Lord Bessborough further added that somwhere in the archives of the M.C.C. some record would be found of this incident, but things were not done so systematically in those days, and no record exists. But he was positive about the facts and I remember the whole conversation distinctly. Moreover, Lord Bessborough's statement is corroborated by what fol lows, and may be taken as true. At the first meeting of the County Cricket Council, a report of which will be found in Wisden's Almanack of 1888, there was a great discussion about l.b.w. Lord Bessborough was not present, but Lord Harris, the Chairman, in an interesting and important speech, said that Lord Bessborough was in favour of an alteration in the l.b.w. rule, and later on read a portion of his letter, "in which the writer suggested a return to the old law of fifty years ago." This remark of Lord Bess­ borough's is very interesting. First it tells us that Lord Bessborough was in favour of an alteration of the law as it stood in 1887, and as it still stands, and secondly, Lord Bessborough "suggested a return to the old law of fifty years ago." This suggestion of Lord Bessborough's was made in 1887, and fifty years before that was 1837, which was the approximate date of the Dark and Caldecourt incident, when the M.C.C. laid down that the rule should be that for the batsman to be given out l.b.w. the ball must pitch between wicket and wicket. Previous to that it is clear that the l.b.w. rule was interpreted differently owing to Ring and Taylor's "shabby play," and it is a fair inference that for a batsman to be l.b.w. the pitch of the ball was not limited to between wicket and wicket, but anywhere, and if the batsman saved his wicket with his leg he was guilty of unfair play and was given out l.b.w., and this interpretation of the rule was what Lord Bessborough wanted to reinstate.

It is probable that most of us have forgotten about this first meeting of the County Cricket Council in 1887, but it will repay everybody to study it carefully. At that meeting there was an almost universal expression of opinion amongst the delegates, many of whom were most distinguished cricketers, that some alteration in the l.b.w. rule was necessary. Lord Harris, the Chairman, in his opening speech said that in that year, 1887, "the scores were very abnormal"; "there was a very strong feeling that these scores had been very much the effect of a style of play that had become noticeable within the last three or four years"; "gentlemen of the older cricket world were decidedly of opinion that some alteration was required in the law of l.b.w." Lord Harris himself "had abandoned any idea of changing the size of the wicket and was inclined to think that an alteration of the l.b.w. rule would be valuable and of importance." The great R.A.H. Mitchell wrote, "that a man should be out whose leg was between wicket and wicket and was hit by a ball that would take the wicket."

Mr. V. E. Walker wrote what was practically the same opinion. Finally, M r. Ellison gave notice that "At special meeting of the Council to be held in February he would move a resolution to call the attention of the M.C.C. to the unsatisfactory effect of law 24 and to recommend that it should be so altered as to secure that a batsman shall be out if with any part of his person, being in a straight line between wicket and wicket, he stop the ball, which in the opinion of the Umpire would have hit the wicket."

At a special meeting of the County Cricket Council, held on the 8th of February, 1888, Mr. Ellison's resolution was put and carried by eleven votes to three, and the centre of interest was shifted to the M.C.C., who, on the 13th of February, 1888, appointed a sub-committee "to consider and report to the General Committee whether any undue advantage rests with the batsman or with the bowler under the existing Laws of Cricket, and if so, what steps should be taken to remedy this defect." This sub-committee made several proposals but did not recommend any alteration of the l.b.w. law, on the ground that stopping the ball wilfully with the legs was done by a very limited number of cricketers, and before making any change in the law, ample opportunity for discussion should be given, and unanimity as far as possible arrived at. The Committee, however, passed the following resolution: "That the practice of deliberately defending the wicket with the person instead of the bat is contrary to the spirit of the game, and inconsistent with strict fairness, and the M.C.C. will discountenance and prevent this practice by every means in their power." The Committee also recommended that "Instructions be given to all Umpires the club may employ, that should they at any time see any batsman deliberately in their opinion defending his wicket with any part of his person, they shall report the same to the committee, and they hope that with the co-operation of the County authorities and cricketers generally this step will be found adequate to prevent the evil complained of. If not stronger measures may be necessary, but time will have been given for mature consideration, and the risk will be avoided of making an alteration in a most important law which experience may show cannot be maintained."

The Sub-Committee which passed the resolution and recommendation fully set out in the last paragraph consisted of Lord Bessborough, Lord Lyttelton (formerly Hon. C. G. Lyttelton), C. E. Boyle, A. W. Ridley, W. E. Denison, V. E. Walker, A. J. Webbe, Hon. Spencer Ponsonby and H. Perkins. When the resolution and recommendation came before the meeting, made special after the annual general meeting of 1888, a motion to defer the consideration of the alterations of the laws proposed by the Sub-Committee was carried in order to obtain the opinion of the leading clubs in England and elsewhere.

The next step in this controversy was a meeting made special after the annual general meeting in May, 1901. One resolution was moved and debated upon, and to under­ stand it better the present l.b.w. law must be read, which is as follows: "The striker is out... if with any part of his person he stops the ball which in the opinion of the Umpire at the bowler's wicket shall have been pitched in a straight line from it to the striker's wicket, and would have hit it l.b.w." The resolution that was proposed was to alter this rule and substitute the following: "If with any part of his person (except the hand) which is between wicket and wicket, he intercept a ball which would hit his wicket l.b.w."

It is not necessary in these days to say much about this debate except to say that it was carried by a majority of 71, but not passed, two-thirds of the majority not having been got. But the point that was not strongly enough brought out in the debate was that no batsman could be out l.b.w. unless the part of his person hit by the ball was between wicket and wicket. In other words, if the batsman keeps his legs, which are practically the only part of his person that need be considered, clear of the wicket, he cannot be out. But this has not been sufficiently recognized; if it had been the voting would have been different. Nobody ever lived who loved the game more or has done more for it than Lord Harris, yet even he seems not to have known this. I myself in a letter to The Times of the 22nd of July, 1926, suggested that a new l.b.w. rule be drafted, but I carefully added, "it must be remembered that no batsman can be l.b.w. if he keeps his legs clear of. . .the space between wicket and wicket. "Lord Harris, in a letter to The Times of the 24th of July, 1926, called my suggestion novel "because hitherto he and others have advocated such an alteration of Law 24 as would expose the striker to the risk of l.b.w. wherever the ball pitched and whether he was in front or not." My proposal was practically the same as was brought forward in the M.C.C. debate in 1901, and it has never been formally put forward in any other shape.

Reviewing all these facts it will be seen that more than forty years ago the proceedings at the first meeting of the County Cricket in 1887 show us that great dissatisfaction was felt, and at a special meeting of the same body in 1888 a motion in favour of an alteration in the l.b.w. law was carried by eleven votes to three, the effect of which was that a batsman should be out l.b.w. "if with any part of his person, being in the straight line from wicket to wicket he stops a ball which in the opinion of the umpire would have hit the wicket." The very strongly worded resolution of the M.C.C. Sub-Committee was also passed in the same year, but nothing whatever was done, and then came the full dress debate in 1901, and though; there was a majority in favour of changing the law, still nothing was done.

It might be said by some that no change was necessary because l.b.w. cases were not numerous and drawn matches were not common in those days. In 1890, for instance, l.b.w. cases were nothing like so numerous as they are nowaday. Admitting this, surely the fact that the percentage of cases of l.b.w. having risen from 1 in 17 in 1890 to 1 in 8 in 1926 and 1 in 9 in 1927 is more than enough to justify a change in opinion as well as an alteration of the law. In seven weeks in 1927, out of one hundred and twelve matches played on dry easy wickets, forty-two were drawn simply because of the gigantic scoring. Do cricketers really think that such a state of things is satisfactory? Has not the time come for the "stronger measures" alluded to in the last paragraph of the report of the M.C.C. Committee of 1888?