The Crisis in Cricket and the "Leg Before Rule"/Chapter 7

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WHEN cricketers talk about style in batting they generally mean style in hitting. There is a style in defensive play, but it is not noticed so much. In discussing style in this chapter, the word is limited to style in the scoring of runs, in cuts, off and on drives and leg hits. The real and most fascinating style is not easy to define, but it is seen perhaps best when the ball goes to the ropes along the ground with an apparently entire absence of effort. In these days it is carried out to perfection in Woolley's off drives, and the general appearance is enhanced by the fact that the striker is a tall spare man with little muscular developm ent; for the natural supposition would be that a hard hit would come from brute strength, which is far from being the case. What is necessary is perfect timing and power and flexibility of wrist, and this has been often seen in batsmen of spare build, such as Alfred Lubbock and Daft in the 'sixties, and in later times William Gunn, L. C. H. Palairet, Francis Ford, Woolley, and Seymour of Kent, to name only a few.

Some critics maintain that the best style is that which produces most runs, and this is to some extent true, but the best style is not necessarily the most attractive to watch. W. G. Grace had a great style, with perfect power of timing and every appearance of being an absolute master of the bowling, but as a stylist he could not be compared with those just mentioned. It is said truly that the kick of a cart-horse is not so painful as that of a thoroughbred; there is something slow in the first, the thoroughbred's kick is quick as lightning, like an electric shock; one is admirable, the other not only admirable but fascinating; you dream of it. There was always something of the cart-horse in W.G.'s hitting.

The cut, the leg-hit, straight drive, driving on the off in the direction of cover point, these are what make cricket fascinating. But it may be asked what has this to do with l.b.w., and the reply is that the modern use of the legs to act as a second and first line of defence has largely done away with the beautiful hitting of the former days. Modern batsmen are taught to stand in front of the wicket facing the bowler with their left shoulder pointing to short leg, and from this attitude it is impossible either to cut or drive straight. The one and only real hit possible is the pull or hook to leg unless the batsman is supernaturally quick on his feet. Nobody can say that the pull is anything but a most effective hit; it certainly is, but it is a coarse, vulgar, brutal sort of hit. "Bullock drivers would make it all day," was the remark of a famous cricketer of a generation ago. To make a hard straight drive or cut, it is essential that one of the feet should be practically still; in the cut the foot which is not thrown across is kept still; in the straight drive not only is the right foot fixed, except when the batsman steps out to drive the slower bowlers, but the left shoulder is forward, and that is not visible half so often as it should be. You can see a whole day's cricket with hardly one straight drive to the ropes along the ground.

The pull and hook to leg is with some batsmen almost an obsession. They begin to move into position for it nearly every ball. A well-known cricketing journalist told the writer that one of the enterprising snap-photographers of these days was lucky enough to snap a batsman standing at the wicket to a ball that never came, because the bowler got wrong in his step and stopped. The photograph showed the batsman standing with both legs right in front of the stumps and facing the bowler. From this position it is impossible for any batsman either to straight drive or cut a fast ball, when there is not sufficient time to move the feet to another position. If a straight ball well up is delivered he can only push it, as anyone can find for himself who takes a bat and puts himself in front of the wicket facing the bowler. If the ball is short and outside the off stump his position prevents him cutting, but he pulls the ball to leg, and the most beautiful hit in cricket, in the opinion of many, is sacrificed in favour of the coarse, brutally efficient pull. It is strange but true that, if it is important to keep down run-getting, the best ball to bowl to some modern batsmen is the straight half-volley which, owing to the posi­ tion they have taken, cannot be hit but isgently played back to the bowler or mid-wicket fieldsmen.

All this ugly and tiresome state of things is really largely due to incessant moving of the feet in front of the wicket. Not only does this make the batsmen impotent, as far as cutting and straight driving is concerned, but it leads to much waste of time by batsmen leaving many balls alone. Not many seasons ago in a county match at Lords, one over of six balls was bowled and the batsman walked in front and covered the wicket and made no attempt to use his bat at all. It must be admitted that to have done so might have led to the batsman being caught because, owing to the position he took up, to make a scoring hit was so difficult that from one point of view it was not worth while to run the risk. But the batsman of the type of Palairet and Seymour would have scored off many of these balls by standing firm on the right foot, putting the left across and selecting the right ball to hit. They would not have put their legs in front (because it would not have been considered sportsmanlike) if at the same time they had put the bat altogether out of action. In these days the advice as given in the Badminton Library is too frequently observed. Bats are pointed to the sky and legs are put in front to guard the wicket, and the result is tired bowlers, bored spectators, and the curse of drawn cricket matches.

It may be argued that with bowlers placing their field in a small crowds in the slips, or at short and fine leg, batsmen have no option left, but must leave balls alone, and there is some force in this argument. But this state of things has come about largely owing to the unfair use of the legs. Batsmen are now taught to cover their wickets to every sort of ball, partly because they can see the line of the ball better, but mainly because the legs are put and used as a second or first line of defence to all balls. This, added to abnormally easy wickets, has driven bowlers to adopt more or less fantastic devices. Alter the l.b.w. rule and two things will occur: less run-getting, because it will be dangerous to cover up with the legs, and an improvement in the style of hitting because batsmen, seeing the danger of covering up, will learn to keep their legs clear of the bowler's territory; bowlers will not be driven to crowd the slips and short leg with fieldsmen, and we shall see less of hammering away on the off side and at the legs for catches, and much valuable time will be saved because batsmen will not leave so many balls alone. There need not be any fear of batting being made too difficult by an amended l.b.w. rule; it has not been too difficult for many years on fast wickets, the modern pitches are too easy ever to make batting too difficult unless the weather plays pranks, and when this is the case cricket is dull whatever happens. The point to be kept in view is by proper legislation to keep run-getting within reasonable bounds so as to diminish drawn games in fine weather to a vanishing point.