The Crisis in Cricket and the "Leg Before Rule"/Chapter 3

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IN the last chapter the history of l.b.w. has been given, and though it is not possible to give chapter and verse for the earlier incidents from 1774 to 1837-8, it is probable that the following chronological table is correct.

  1. Passing of the first l.b.w. law in 1774.
  2. Ring and Taylor's "shabby" play somewhere about 1775 and 1780, and several new l.b.w. laws passed.
  3. Umpires generally gave batsmen out to balls pitched inside and outside the bowler's territory.
  4. The Dark and Caldecourt incident and ruling of M.C.C that the ball must pitch in bowler's territory for a batsman to be l.b.w. in 1837-8.
  5. Shrewsbury introduced about 1885 systematic leg-play to balls pitched outside the bowler's territory, frequently putting the bat out of action.

The third item in the above is correct on the evidence of Lord Bessborough's letter, a portion of which was read by Lord Harris at the first meeting of the County Cricket Council in December, 1887. In this letter, as said before, Lord Bessborough suggested a return to the old law of "fifty years ago," which was 1837, with a view of lessening the l.b.w. nuisance. Whatever the rule was supposed to mean, it was differently interpreted by the Umpires in 1837, and Lord Bessborough wanted to return to it.

Since the Dark and Caldecourt dispute and ruling by the M.C.C., the law of l.b.w. has been substantially the same, but batsmen for fifty years until Shrewsbury's day, about 1885, played according to the spirit of the old inter­pretation of the law, and did not use the legs as a means of defence. But though it took a long time in coming, there has been a huge increase of l.b.w. cases, as the following table shows:—

The above table shows the effect of Shrewsbury's action, and since his day cases of l.b.w. have increased by leaps and bounds. Not long before his death I had a most interesting conversation with the late F. R. Spofforth, who many think was the greatest bowler that has ever bowled in England, and he told me how the prevalence of leg play struck him. In 1884, he got more than two hundred wickets, and only three times were batsmen out l.b.w. to him. This interested me so much that I carefully examined Spofforth's bowling figures in England in 1882 and 1884, the years of his prime.

Year. No. of
wickets taken.
l.b.w. Percentage.
1870 1772 44 1 in 40
1890 3792 219 1 „ 17
1910 6702 451 1 „ 14
1923 7919 921 1 „ 8
1926 8528 957 1 „ 8
1927 8061 863 1 „ 9

In these two years he got four hundred and four wickets, only six of which were l.b.w., or one in sixty-seven. Spofforth made the ball break back from the off as often as anybody of his pace did, and his four hundred and four wickets were got at the expense of twelve runs per wicket. If batsmen who played Spofforth had used their legs as J. W. Hearne and many modern batsmen do, by standing clean in front of the wicket with both legs, he would always have been a great bowler, but he would not have been so effective, because there would have been scores of cases of batsmen saving their wickets with their legs to balls pitched outside the off stump and breaking back, and his average of runs per wicket would probably have been nearer twenty runs than twelve. Some people may argue that this would have been no disadvantage, but if there be some who say this, they must either not have thought enough of the effect this would have in producing more and more drawn matches or they must more or less approve of drawn matches, and if this is the case I am sorry for them. Great bowlers like Spofforth, Barnes, Foster, Turner and Richardson are entitled on their merits to get wickets for something like an average of twelve runs a wicket, and if they fail to do this, it is because the conditions are not fair. The really great bowlers like Spofforth and those I have mentioned are comparatively few in number, and if an average of twelve runs per wicket is the best thing they can do, the average of the ordinary bowler on modern wickets must and does run to twenty and more, and the result is drawn matches.

The rise in the percentage of cases of l.b.w. between 1870 and 1890 is startling enough. But now it is just about twice as much as it was in 1890, and after reading the report of the speeches made at the first meeting of the County Cricket Council referred to in the last chapter, one does feel surprised that nothing has been done in the way of altering the l.b.w. rules so as to stop the practice of deliberately defending the wicket with the person instead of the bat. It is only necessary to read and re-read what the M.C.C. Sub-Committee said in the resolution which was passed by them in 1887 "that the practice of deliberately defending the wicket with the person was contrary to the spirit of the game and was inconsistent with fairness and which the M.C.C. would discountenance and prevent the practice of by every means in their power. . . ." But this strongly expressed opinion fell on barren soil and ended in absolutely nothing and might just as well have never been said. Many of our leading batsmen deliberately put the bat out of action and cover the wicket with their legs. Indeed, this is openly taught as correct play in text books and the M.C.C. Sub-Committee has been flouted and ignored.

It is curious to see how differently the subject has been regarded at different times. When Ring and Taylor used the legs to save their wickets to balls pitched outside the wicket about the year 1782, old Beldham called it shabby and public opinion apparently agreed with Beldham, at any rate to a considerable extent. But when Shrewsbury in the middle 'eighties did what Ring and Taylor did a century before, it was condoned, for nothing was done, notwithstand ing the strong remarks made at the County Cricket Council in 1887. Since then nearly forty years have passed and the l.b.w. cases have increased enormously and still nothing has been done.

The effect of leg-play, and of course easy wickets, has been to drive bowlers to try monkey tricks, googlies and such­ like, which do undoubtedly get wickets. But the number of balls of every variety of bad length is enormous, and they are most expensive. Mailey and Grimmett are probably the two best of these bowlers and they had to carry the last Australian Eleven on their shoulders in 1926. In the five Test Matches in England in 1926 Mailey's record was 14 wickets for 42 runs per wicket, and Grimmett's 13 for 31, while in Australian Inter-State Matches in 1926-7 Mailey's 23 wickets cost 39 runs each and Grimmett's 27, 41. As long as conditions make batting so easy, the monkey trick bowlers will continue, because they get more wickets, but the scoring will be enormous.

It has been said by some that a proof of the decadence of modern bowling is the large scoring of bad batsmen, and it must be admitted that compared with old days it is very large indeed. In Australia, the tail get more than the head did fifty years ago, either in England or Australia. But itis more than probable that in England, at any rate, this is due largely to the fact that after five or six wickets have fallen, the bowlers are thoroughly worn out because of the huge scoring of the first batsmen, and because modern wickets are so easy that very few batsmen are bad in the sense that they are unable to score. Excluding 1927, first-wicket partnerships alone since 1919 have made one, two, three or four centuries about thirty-four times. Bowlers, especially fast ones, get thoroughly tired and those who throw all the blame on the unfortunate bowlers forget this. Bowling fast is tremendously hard work, and when our friends mention the name of the great Tom Richardson they should be asked how many bowlers of Richardson's pace, skill, length of run and stamina have been known in the history of cricket. Richardson bowled in eight years nearly fifty-nine thousand balls for sixteen hundred and ninety-six wickets for an average of eighteen runs a wicket, a vast majority of which were bowled on the Oval, perhaps the easiest ground in England. The answer should be that nobody has ever done such a magnificent feat in the history of the game or ever will again under present conditions, and according to Strudwick, as will be seen later, Richardson on modern wickets would have been almost an ordinary bowler.

To show how completely the preponderance of the bat prevails, it is both interesting and sad to refer to Wisden's Almanack for 1928. Beginning on page 173 and going on to the middle of page 197, there is a wearisome list of batting records. "Great individual scores from 288 to 429." "Two separate hundreds in one match." "Long partnerships," and many others of a like nature. And after twenty-four pages of this we come to the bowlers—poor devils. They have to be content with less than five pages to commemorate their records, a hideous state of things indeed, and all the more so because of the batting feats the vast majority took place since 1900, only two finding a place before 1870, while to get bowling feats the editor has to go back as far as 1845, when wickets were not so easy and batsmen did not use the legs to save their wicket.

A point to be remembered which is important is that coaching is mainly responsible for the great preponderance in the number of batsmen as compared with bowlers. I am not talking of batsmen and bowlers who are so by nature, for these need hardly any teaching at all. Any boy who has a reasonably good eye may be made into a batsman quite capable of getting plenty of runs on modern easy wickets by practice and good coaching, but this is by no means true of bowlers. Everyone who knows anything about cricket and has watched the game for some years, can call to mind many cases of batsmen who have been good enough to play in the best company, but who owed this to perseverance, good coaching and much practice and not to their natural gifts. This is not the case with bowlers to anything like the same extent. Personally I am sceptical about the possibility of any of the great qualities which make a real good bowler being taught at all; they must be in the boy by nature. Something may be done, such as telling the youngster not to tire himself by bowling too fast or taking a run of fourteen yards or more instead of eight, but the magic gifts of spin and turning of the ball are gifts of the gods and not from anything man can do. So we see year after year ten good or at any rate effective batsmen brought out to one bowler. Spin, i.e. pace off the ground, is perhaps the greatest gift which goes to make a great bowler and is a mysterious thing. Nobody knows whether it comes from the hand, wrist, arm, shoulder, or from a combination of all these, but one fact is certain. It is the first thing to go, and it goes very likely never to return if the bowler, especially the fast bowler, is overworked. Loss of spin alters the bowler from greatness to mediocrity; overwork brings on mediocrity sooner than it ought, and there hardly exists a fast bowler who is not overworked at the present time.