The Crisis in Cricket and the "Leg Before Rule"/Chapter 6

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IN 1902 the Minor Counties, at the request of the M.C.C., gave a trial to see how the change in the l.b.w. rule, as carried by an insufficient majority at the M.C.C. annual meeting would work in their competition matches. The late Mr. Pardon, for Wisden's Almanack for 1903, asked the various counties concerned to send in their opinions as to how the change worked. Before going carefully into the various replies three points must be borne in mind. In the first place, as no doubt umpiring under the changed rule was different though not more difficult than it was under the old law, the trial was not satisfactory; it should have been made in first-rate cricket and with first-rate umpires, instead of second-rate cricket with second-rate umpires. In the second place the number of cases of l.b.w. in 1901 and 1902 was one in nineteen wickets, but in these days it varies to one in eight or nine which shows that the l.b.w. cases are more than double now what they were in 1901-2, and the evil therefore greater. In the third place, whatever the rule or the interpretation may be, umpiring in l.b.w. cases must always be difficult.

It must be admitted that a majority of Minor Counties' captains and secretaries of the various clubs were averse from any change in the law, but a careful perusal of their letters, which will be found in the 1903 Wisden, does not leave any decided impression on the mind of the reader. Mr. Allen, of Bedfordshire Cricket Club, said he was opposed to the change because there were two cases of unsatisfactory decisions which were likely to continue . . . it was im­ possible, or so he thought, for any umpire to calculate with certainty the angle of any break, and why, Mr. Allen asked, should this extra duty be placed on the umpire? . . . it was undesirable to increase the responsibility of the umpire, especially in the direction of doubt . . . he would be worried with appeals and general unpleasantness would be caused. Bedfordshire played ten matches in 1902 and if there were not more than two unsatisfactory decisions, there was very little to complain of, and Mr. Allen may be assured that even first-rate umpires are not always infallible. As to the impossibility of calculating with certainty the angle of any break, umpires have to do that now to appeals for l.b.w. to balls pitched on the bowler's territory, and this is more difficult to do now than it was in 1902 because batsmen, following the Badminton Library advice, cover up and totally hide the wicket from the umpire more than they did in 1902. Colonel Fellowes, whose opinion was a personal one, stood umpire himself on two days, and thought an l.b.w. appeal was easier to decide under the new rule, but there were a number of appeals and the rule was not thoroughly understood, while the players did not understand that the leg must be between wicket and wicket. Colonel Fellowes seemed to think that when the new rule got to be understood the appeals would not be so many. The late Mr. J. H. Brain was strongly against any change, but he gave the strange reason that on fast true wickets the change "does not help the leg break bowler, as unless one is almost treading on the wicket, one's leg is not in a line between wicket and wicket, while on the plumb wicket the off break bowler can't do enough for the new rule to help him." Mr. Brain unfortunately died in 1914 and if he had lived and read the new Badminton and seen J. W. Hearne and hosts of other modern batsmen and moreover heard modern umpires complain as they do of the complete concealment of the stumps by the legs, his opinion might not have been the same. It is useless to quote his authority now. Mr. Turner, of Oxford County, thought the change unsatisfactory, partly because a batsman had to adopt a different style in Minor County matches, and it would throw additional responsibility on the umpires. His first reason would fall to the ground if the change were made universal, and as the batsmen got more used to the new rule, umpires would not have so many appeals. The late Mr. Paravicini did not think that a fair trial was given on account of the wet wickets, but he approved of the change, and he replied to the argument that it did not make any difference on good wickets, and that on bad wickets the game was difficult enough as it was, by observing that any legislation should be for good wickets as the season (1902) seldom occurred. Mr. Paravicini thought that on good wickets the change would make batsmen play at balls two or three inches outside the off stump which now they very frequently leave alone, stepping in front of their wicket. Mr. Earle Norman, of Herts, was against the change because it was ineffectual on hard wickets, but on soft and slow wickets it reduced scoring when not particularly required. Mr. Barker (Surrey 2nd Eleven) only saw about six instances of the new rule being put into force, and "Therefore I can only conclude that the new rule had the desired effect of stopping men playing with their legs and not the bat." Mr. Barker's opinion is valuable and, if correct, is a triumphant vindication of those who want the rule changed. Mr. Hancock (Staffordshire) thought the alteration had not had sufficient trial to enable a definite opinion being given on it, and umpires differed as to the interpretation of the provisions of the proposed alteration which Mr. Hancock rightly thought perfectly plain. Mr. Wheeler (Wilts) said that no practical difference was made to the game, but he thought that there was a tendency for unnecessary appeals which was to be deprecated. Mr. Whitwell (Durham County) said the change was not a success owing to the wet season. He also said that when the ball goes straight the rule was quite ineffective, and when it does a great deal, the umpires cannot tell whether the ball would hit the wicket and consequently they decide in the batsman's favour. But Mr. Whitwell thought that in a dry season when wickets got crumbly, the change would help very materially to shorten the innings, which is exactly what is wanted to diminish drawn matches. Mr. Clayton (Northumberland) thought the change had not enough in it to justify the alteration, and gave umpires too much scope.

The reader will find the above letters given more fully in Wisden's Almanack for 1903. On reading them as a whole it is impossible to say that they bring much conviction. If the writers had met and tried to make a sort of general report, they would probably have failed to have come to an agreement. One thought that the proposed alteration had not had a sufficient trial, two or three thought umpiring would be too difficult, one was against any change but added that he thought in a dry season when wickets got crumbly it would help materially to shorten the innings, which isthe very thing that all who have the interests of the game at heart want to see, and another thought the new rule was not understood. It is quite true that a sufficient trial had not been given, but those who thought that too much was thrown on the umpires, apparently overlooked the fact that under the proposed alteration it is not necessary to judge whether the ball pitched straight or not and the umpires would be relieved of what is the most difficult point to decide. Two of the most experienced cricketers who gave their opinions were Mr. Brain and Mr. Paravicini and these differed in opinion. Mr. Brain said that on fast true wickets the alteration would not help the leg break bowler as the legs are practically never between wicket and wicket. In these days legs are between wicket and wicket continually to balls of all kinds, but in Mr. Brain's day this was not so prevalent as it is now, but still it was by no means rare, though apparently Mr. Brain did not notice it. Mr. Brain then makes the extraordinary statement that "On the plumb wicket the off break bowler can't do enough for the new rule to help him." Mr. Brain must have seen bowlers such as Spofforth and Palmer, J. T. Hearne, Lohmann, to name only a few, and did he really mean to say that even on plumb wickets such bowlers did not get hundreds of wickets with off breaks? In these days batsmen get in front and save their wickets with the legs; in Spofforth's time they did not do so nearly as often and hundreds of wickets were got by the ball beating the bat. Mr. P. J. Paravicini was altogether in favour of the change, though he did not think it had had a fair trial, but he was clearly of opinion that anything which made the batsmen play at the ball with the bat instead of putting the leg across and not trying to play the ball, must help the hard worked bowler. Mr. Barker, Captain of the Surrey 2nd Eleven, saw very few instances of l.b.w. and concluded that the change had the desired effect of stopping men playing with their legs and not with the bat. If this was the cause of six matches producing definite results out of ten played and all of them being limited to two days, the change was a striking success.

An important point to be borne in mind about the Minor Counties' trial of a changed l.b.w. rule is that it was made in 1902 when l.b.w. cases were rather less than half in number compared to what they are now. Would the gentlemen whose opinions have been given have thought the same in 1927 as they did in 1902? That is the point. All things considered, the vagueness of some of the statements, the very wet season, and the different style of batting owing to the far more prevalent habit of covering up with the legs after about 1920 compared with 1902, the inexperience of the umpires in 1902 and the making of such an important trial in second-class cricket with second-class umpires, all these things contributed to make the trial of 1902 more or less useless as a guide to help the authorities in these days to come to a decision on an alteration of the l.b.w. law. It was not a sufficient trial and should be ignored, and the wholequestion considered on its merits in the light of up-to-date experience.