The Crisis in Cricket and the "Leg Before Rule"/Chapter 8

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FOR many years I have read and heard everything I could on this subject of l.b.w. and I can honestly say that with one exception I fail to see any sound ground for opposing the change in the l.b.w. rule advocated in these pages. The one exception will be dealt with later. In regard to the arguments put forth by Mr. Warner, Mr. Maclaren and Mr. Knight, they all amount to this, though they do not say so in as many words, that bowling is too difficult for batsmen to hope to play with the bat alone. The bat needs to be reinforced and the obvious reinforcement must be the legs. This is not an unfair statement, for Mr. Knight says the legs may and should be used as an extra line of defence because presumably the batsman often finds it too difficult to play the ball with the bat. Mr. Warner and Mr. Maclaren do not say this, but both advise putting the legs in front to a certain type of ball, and the effect when the ball pitches off the wicket and turns and is not hit by the bat is that the legs prevent the ball hitting the stumps in hundreds of cases, as it did by Hayward's admission in his. With all respect to these three great cricketers I cannot think they are on sound ground, and what they advise is grossly unfair to the bowlers. First, I ask them for the moment to forget that they are, or have been, batsmen and try to imagine that they are bowlers. How can bowlers bowl batsmen out with balls pitched off the wicket when two well-padded legs are right in front of the wicket? How much more difficult the wicket, and consequently the bowling was, in the 'sixties and 'seventies, and how seldom comparatively did the batsmen get l.b.w. or get in front! Granted that they made far fewer runs, but was not that for the good of the game? How rare were drawn matches in fine weather. The wickets are far easier now; there would be more runs made than in the old days, even with the l.b.w. rule altered, but it is to be hoped that drawn games, as the result of too high scoring, would be considerably reduced.

Another class of objectors say that too much responsibility will be thrown on the umpires, and umpiring will be too difficult. Whether the rule is altered or not, umpiring must always be more or less difficult, but it will be made easier under an altered l.b.w. rule. By far the most difficult point for an umpire to decide is whether the ball is, or is not, pitched straight between wicket and wicket, but under an amended l.b.w. rule, this will not have to be considered at all. In addition to this, it may be hoped that if the change is made, batsmen will hesitate to cover the wickets to the extent they do now; it would be running too great a risk. Umpires will then see more of the wicket, whereas now, as Mr. Pardon wrote in Wisden of 1924, and a well-known umpire told me himself, they cannot see the wicket at all and they work in the dark.

There are other objectors who throw all the blame on the bowlers and say that the bloated run-getting is due to poor bowling. The reply to this is that it is difficult to believe that it is a mere coincidence that ineffective bowling prevails, if not all over the world, at any rate in England, Australia and South Africa, and this has never happened before. It would be more true to say that bowlers are not worse than they were, but they are not so efficient, simply because they are unduly handicapped by the too easy wickets and by leg play. No doubt bowlers send down many more bad balls than A. Shaw, Peate and the great Australian bowlers, but that is because of the monkey tricks played by googly bowlers, which get wickets, but at a very heavy cost. Good-length bowlers who could make the ball turn with a little help from the wicket, are not now efficient because no such help is obtained. Strudwick's remarks about modern wickets, which will be referred to later, are conclusive and give us the reasons. My own opinion is that it is wonderful they bowl so well considering that besides all these reasons, all bowlers, especially fast bowlers, are overworked.

The one point which I fully admit does present some difficulty in considering the advisability of changing the l.b.w. rule, is that batsmen will find themselves up against a cunningly placed field with a crowd of short legs and bowlers like Root, who keeps a dead length outside the leg stump, with the ball coming in frequently from leg. I may say that I think modern players when meeting slow bowlers of this type would play them better if they did not play so fast footed; most of them never saw batsmen like J. W. Dale, S. H. Akroyd, W. L. Murdoch and A. G. Steel, who used to run out and smother certain balls at the pitch. Steel often played Spofforth's slower ball in this way, and there is no reason why the slower leg-break bowlers should not be dealt with in the same way. There is also the possibility that if the l.b.w. rule were changed, batsmen would be compelled to stand less in front, so that the orthodox good-length bowlers like Staples, Parker and others would come to their own again, and less would be seen of the freak googlies which are so expensive and cause drawn matches. But I am fully aware that, though I still hold to my opinion that the whole hog should be gone for, it is better that the M.C.C. go too slow than too fast. So by all means for a beginning let the change apply only to balls on the off side and not on the leg, and it could be extended to both sides if run-getting were still to be too heavy, as in my opinion it assuredly would be.

In the Daily Telegraph of the 6th of June, 1927, Colonel Philip Trevor wrote with great ability on the l.b.w. question. Nobody has put the case more strongly in regard to the poisonous doctrine of batsmen standing in front of the wicket than he has when he wrote: "I unhesitatingly say that the huge majority of these obstructors "(i.e. batsmen who deliberately stand in front of the wicket)" do it for one reason alone, and that not an admirable one either. In the event of their making a mistake they want their legs as a second line of defence and they confidently rely on what they regard as an established custom of cricket . . . namely, that the umpire will see them through." In this sentence of Colonel Trevor's is found a severe indictment of Mr. Knight's Badminton Library teaching that "There is no possible harm in the batsman making use of a last line of defence (i.e. the legs), in the event of the bat not proving sufficient," and also of Tom Hayward's "Words of wisdom," "Oh, sir, why didn't you get your legs there in case the ball beat the bat!"

Colonel Trevor fully recognized the gravity of the case and suggested that an addition be made to law 24. "If in doubt give him out," and this principle should in official language be made law. He further writes with absolute truth: "I do not think that it can be seriously contended that the batsman was intended to have, either for offence or defence, any weapon but his bat and fingers." Colonel Trevor also points out what I have always thought and often maintained in conversation that there is nothing said in the l.b.w. rule about touching the ball first with the bat, though when the law was made it must often have occurred. If a batsman plays a ball with the inside edge of his bat and diverts it on to the wicket he is bowled out as he should be, though the ignorant call it unlucky. He has not met the ball with the middle of the bat and the bowler has beaten him. As the law says nothing about touching it first with the bat, why should the batsman be given not out simply because he has just touched the ball, very likely without turning it an inch, and saved his wicket with the legs? He is given in by an umpire-made custom established in the days when batsmen on more difficult wickets did not cover the wicket with the legs, did not make half the number of runs they do now and no drawn matches were played except owing to weather.

Colonel Trevor apparently does not want the l.b.w. rule to be altered, but is strongly in favour of giving the bowler the benefit of the doubt instead of the batsman. I should gladly support any movement in favour of this in default of anything more drastic being proposed, and very likely it is a wise policy for the M.C.C. to proceed cautiously, but I do not think it goes far enough. The late Mr. Pardon in the 1924 Wisden said that umpires complained bitterly of the way in which present-day batsmen hide all three stumps with the legs, and a well-known umpire said the same thing to me, but wickets are so easy now that batsmen would still stand in front and play the ball with the bat. If to the giving of the benefit of the doubt to the bowler and not to the batsman were added an instruction to umpires to ignore the custom which Colonel Trevor rightly con­demns, of making the batsmen immune from l.b.w. because he has just touched the ball without perhaps turning it an inch, some benefit may ensue, but drawn matches in hot summers will still be too many unless something more drastic is done.

Colonel Trevor's article is well worth reading, and he is the first, as far as I know, to advocate the abolition of the custom that any touch of the ball by the bat, ipso facto, makes the batsman immune from l.b.w.