An old Cambridge captain, 1895

Cricketers - past and present

VERY few persons will agree about the relative merits of past and present cricketers. Wherein do they differ? Were the batsmen of half a century ago equal to those of to-day? Was the bowling as straight and as difficult then as it is now? These are questions which are not very easy to answer. I do not wish to take the position of a dogmatic umpire upon them, as some of my friends do. "What," they exclaim, "is the good of discussing the subject? Look at the gigantic scores. Look at the batting averages. Look at the bowling feats. Look at the brilliant fielding. Look at the truly magnificent wicket-keeping. The past will not bear comparison with the present in any department of the game." But I venture to think that there is a little, at any rate, to be said on the other side. The cricketers of a bygone age are not to be robbed of their glory without some calm considerations. Are the environments similar? Were the general purposes of the old batsmen the same as those of the modern school? In what respect is the bowling of to-day superior to that of the best bowlers, say, of the day when W. G. Grace first began to play?

I notice that most of the writers upon cricket make gods of their own contemporary heroes; and this is very natural, for their special style and exploits get indelibly fixed in the mind and necessarily affect the judgement. But it is a little irritating to be told that such a boat was the finest that ever rowed on the Thames; or such an eleven the best that ever left any University; or some particular batsman the best (W. G. being, of course, condescendingly barred) that ever handled the willow. Superlatives are dangerous weapons and require very cautious handling. And equally annoying is the modest, if not half-hearted, patronage of athletes of the first rank, because they happen not to be contemporaries. If some of the cricketers of the past had given themselves up to cricket, not for one season but for several seasons, as many cricketers of to-day do, a long list of new names would have been added to the roll of cricket heroes. Public opinion has changed about our national game. An absentee from the Oxford and Cambridge cricket match, even under parental authority, would create a commotion all over the country. Parsons are not now supposed to have deserted their cloth by appearing upon the tented field. Assumed names in matches are things of the past. Partly because of prejudices, partly because of business, partly because of the clerical or legal profession, partly because of emigration, some of the most skilful of players have been lost to cricket in early life. Yardley, the best batsman I ever bowled to on the leg side; Alfred Lubbock, a very correct and finished player; F. Penn, with his cool judgment and straight bat; Mitchell, with his long reach, hard drives, and leg hitting; C. T. Studd, with his masterly defence-had only comparatively short cricket careers. It would be very hard to say what these men might have accomplished had they been able to play as much as some distinguished men do now. For myself, I never had the privilege of playing even through a single season, so that I never could really measure myself with others. Yet, I may add, lest my readers should think I have little right to address them about cricket, that, when I could play, I was admitted to all the best matches and made my century, while my bowling average for such season as I could obtain, stood at the top with about nine runs per wicket.

In weighing the difference between past and present players much is said about the improved state of the grounds. While this is quite true, still such grounds as Fenner's at Cambridge, the Canterbury ground, the Oval, etc., etc., were both true and good. They had not, indeed, the advantage of the mowing machine, but they were well kept and sheep-eaten, and the ball travelled truly. What the over-hand balls would have done on those wickets I cannot say. On Lord's they would probably have broken our heads! Then (as now) Lord's was the finest ground in the world for scoring runs upon. There is something in the soil that makes the ball travel very fast. I have seen a four made from a middle-stump shooter. It is a fact that men who could score at the Oval could not distinguish themselves at Lord's . It really required some courage to face Jackson or Willsher when the wicket happened to be "a bit bumpy." The batsmen got hit on the legs and fingers a little more frequently then than on our present easy grounds. But it stands to reason that the men who could skilfully score on wickets where the ball twisted and bumped and shot, could surely score to a far greater extent on wickets that were smooth. If George Parr then made his fifty, would not the fifty have become a hundred under the present easier conditions? As regards batting itself, I do not allow that the playing of to-day is more skillful or scientific than it was thirty or forty years ago. It has to a great extent altered its style. There is far more cricket in the whole country, and as a natural consequence there is a greater number of really first-class players. That is obvious to every one. And the driving is more general and far harder than it was formerly. You may watch a player have a long innings and note that nearly all his runs, as far as hits are concerned, are made by drives or hard forward play. His position at the wickets suggests these forward strokes. He is not afraid of shooters because he has no experience of them, and they hardly ever come. He never sets himself to hit a ball to leg because balls on the legs are so rare. He is afraid of cutting because there are so many fields on the off side, and he may be caught. And so he waits, sometimes with amazing patience, for the one ball off which he can score safely. As an all-round player he is inferior to a Parr, a Hayward, or a Carpenter. The old players had to play every species of ball, including shooters and poppers, and to hit all round the wicket; and they did so with wonderful success. One thing I think I can say positively-they were never yorked out as they are too frequently nowadays. A yorker is very apt to capture a hitter, but why it should get a player out is to me very strange. I never saw W. G. Grace puzzled with one. It is possible that the very high delivery may be deceptive, but to be out to an over-tossed ball is rather a disgrace to a batsman with anything like a decent reputation.

There is no stroke in which there is greater variety than the cut. George Parr and W. G. Grace made the cut safe by hitting it on to the ground-by chopping it; but that is quite a different stroke from the old-fashioned cut. Felix, Julius Cæsar, C. G. Lyttelton, Carpenter, and many others hit with the bat parallel to the ground with a power that no chop can ever give to the ball. But with all the fielders on the off-side, men are afraid of making this stroke lest they should be caught; and they either leave the ball alone altogether or gently tap it. A literal "tip" in the slips, not because the ball has beaten the batsman, but of set purpose, is considered scientific play by too many spectators at a match! The practice of leaving balls to the off alone is downright bad cricket. If the ball is off the wicket it ought to be hit somehow or other. Shrewsbury, Gunn, Brockwell, and others may think it an evidence of skill and science, but it is nothing of the kind. It is a proof that there is a ball they do not know how to hit correctly. Either the off ball ought to be driven, or hit with a mowing kind of stroke in front of cover-point, or cut with tremendous force towards point's left side. I have seen ball after ball, of beautiful length for hitting and just about the height of the wickets, allowed to pass without any attempt to score off it! "But the field!" The batsman's first business is to hit the ball correctly, no matter where the fieldsmen are; and if he loses his chance of doing so, he shows himself to be a defective player.

In modern cricket the leg hit has almost disappeared, partly because there are few balls given on the leg side, and partly because few men know how to make it correctly. When Spofforth was at his best he often placed Boyle close up on the leg side, not behind but in front of the batsman, who secured many a catch off him. I do not think I am wrong in saying that George Parr or Mitchell instead of poking Spofforth's deliveries into Boyle's hands would have sent them into the ring, if not out of the ground to leg. How seldom one sees a hit out of Lord's now; but Parr, Adams, Fitzgerald, and others used to give us this treat. It should be remembered that those half drive and half square leg hits which are sometimes made in our matches would have been bonâ fide leg hits by Parr.

There is a fashion in cricket as in every thing else; and in my time, and particularly before my time, it was not considered good form to go to the wicket with the idea of sticking there all day, and working to obtain a high average. After getting thirty or forty runs it was considered quite proper to go in for a little free hitting. Exception of course was made in some of the grander matches. I am bound to give it as my opinion that if there had been that settled determination to make run-getting a serious business, the averages of some of the old batsmen would have been much higher. In a scientific point of view men like Pilch, Guy, Parr, Carpenter, Ponsonby, Haygarth, and Hankey were most correct. They played the game, the whole game, and nothing but the game-forward play, back play, and always with straight bats, and they hit at all loose balls. There was of old far too much tame blocking, and the forward play was not strong enough. The batsmen scarcely ever took a liberty with straight balls. I doubt, however, whether our modern bowlers would have found it very easy to capture their wickets. One of the Australian eleven, when he first met Gunn, said: "If he played forward more, we would never get him out." He has improved in this respect of late years, and with great advantage. On hard, fast, dry wickets the excellent reach and forward play of the old batsmen, with their perfectly straight bats, would master some of the best of our modern fast bowlers. Fuller Pilch, Guy, and Tom Hayward, with their tremendous reach, on fast and smooth wickets, might have given a lesson to some players of great reputation. Nor should it be forgotten, when a question of averages is raised, that it is one thing to get fours by a hit into the ring and another to have to run them out. Many fine players and grand hitters have lost their wickets through the exhaustion caused by rapid scoring. Their behaviour at the wickets savoured more of modesty than of conceited actions. They were not given to making a fuss over a hard blow on fingers, legs, or body. They did not pat the ground, when patting was not of the slightest service. Nor did they take a long time in recovering their wind after a mild tap for three! Nor did the bowlers waste time, at every change, by bowling four, five, or six balls "to get the arm in." The penalty of greater crowds is the exhibition of a few little weaknesses.

Turning now to another department of the game, I must confess myself surprised to find that Grace and R. H. Lyttelton both think that the bowling of to-day is straighter than it was some years ago. W. G. ought certainly to know, for he has had marvellous experience both of round-arm and "over-hand" deliveries. I grant that there are more straight bowlers than there used to be, and that probably the high delivery is conducive to accuracy. A year or two ago Carpenter asked me what I thought of the bowling as compared with my own day. After I had expressed my opinion he said:- "Well, sir, I have been umpiring now for a long time. I have had opportunities of watching all the best bowlers in the country, and I have come to the conclusion that they are neither as straight nor do they keep as good a length as they did when I myself played." Was Carpenter right? I say nothing about what the over-hand bowlers might do if they really tried; but, as a matter of fact, they are not careful about being particularly straight. Almost to a man they bowl over the wicket, and as nearly every fielder they possess is on the off-side, they purposely send many a ball a little wide of the outside stump. No doubt this often pays, but it takes away from the straightness of the bowling. Nor would it probably be so frequently repeated if the batsmen had the ability to punish crooked balls to the off. There is a terrible sameness in over-the-wicket break-back bowling, and it should be remembered that some batsmen are seldom puzzled by off balls, for they can see them more easily than those on the leg side. The breaking-back off bowler never gives the really difficult leg-stump ball, for when it is pitched straight on that stump it misses the wicket on account of the break, and very often it escapes the wicket keeper's vigilance and runs away in byes. There was far greater variety in the bowlers of a past day, and straightness and a good length distinguished the most celebrated of them. If old Clarke could hit the same spot on the ground nine times out of ten with his under-hand balls, so could Wisden with his round-arm. I have seen Grundy bowl nine or ten maiden overs in succession, and every ball on the wicket. Alfred Shaw was famous for his accuracy. Willsher was marvellously straight, even when his arm was lowered. Once, in a tent at Canterbury, we discussed his ability as a bowler both before and after he was no-balled. As he happened to pass, I asked him, "Are you as difficult as you were before you lowered your arm?" He answered, "No. The difference is to me like the difference between light and darkness." He never got back the old spin that took so many wickets, yet what a wonderful bowler he was up to the end of his career! I often speculate as to how modern batsmen would fare with Bickley, Jackson, Buttress, Hillyer, Wisden, and others, who bowled round the wicket and "came in a bit" from leg. I hold strongly that the most difficult ball to play is that on, or just inside of, the leg stump; and yet it is a ball that the players of to-day seldom have to face. There is no really good bowler who can make the ball, at any decent pace, turn in from leg when delivering from round the wicket. I agree with A. G. Steel, that it is much easier to break back than to twist in. Great pains and trouble have to be expended in learning the latter art. Some, like Jackson of Nottingham, turn in naturally, but then only to a limited extent, and because of a spin. Buttress could do more with the ball than any man I ever saw, and on any ground he could get wickets. He possessed long, thin figures which went all round the ball, and his twist in from leg was done by his third finger. He could make the ball leave his hand just as a top spins. Like Spofforth, he could deceive the batsman by a scarcely perceptible alteration of pace. After a tremendous spinner, he would give what appeared like the same ball, but it was found not to have an atom of the devil in it-perfectly plain and common place. The great difference was the great danger. There have been remarkable feats performed by modern bowlers, but mostly on "bowlers' wickets." A reference to old scores will show that Bickley, Buttress, and Jackson have got crack elevens out, even on "batsmen's wickets," for very small totals. The bowling averages compare very favourably with those of modern times.

One reason why so few bowlers bowl round the wicket now is because they cannot do so safely without a long stop. I may be wrong, but my opinion is that the ball which beats the batsman inside the leg stump will very often beat the wicket-keeper too, especially if it shoots. Bowlers don't like the balls to go for byes. Aiming at the leg stump, some balls must go crookedly and outside the legs of the batsman, and these the very best of wicket-keepers cannot always secure. Nor is it always a bad thing to send a twisting leg ball, for a catch at square leg or long leg or short leg or long stop is not at all an unlikely result. Lyttelton seems to think that George Parr would have made short work of bowlers of the Martingell type, but Buttress, who was famous for curly ones from leg, used to get Parr's wicket. Of this I am perfectly certain-that the cricket world of to-day needs a tip-top bowler round the wicket, who would hammer away at the leg stump; and, from a conversation I had some time ago with Earl Bessborough and W. G. Grace, they both think he would be successful. I believe he would "skiddadle" some of our swell players one after the other ; but the labour of learning to bowl this way is very great, and all fingers are not suitable for it. Besides, it requires courage to run the risk of byes and to alter the field to the old-fashioned style. I do not think that very high bowling is suitable for the telling balls I once more desire to see. I am quite confident that if Buttress had been able to go just a bit above the shoulder now and then he would have captured by catches more wickets. It may be granted that high bowling gives some special powers; but old round arm is not without its advantages. Were I a bowler of to-day I should use both styles, but never be too high or too low. It is said that the excellent condition of the ground prevents shooters; but I am not sure that such is the case. I never saw a match on the very best grounds in my time in which some wickets were not taken by shooters. With spinning round-arm bowling some shooters are bound to come. A "screw" will, every now and then, go differently to what was intended. I have pitched such a ball on the off stump and hit the leg bail! Not because there was anything in the ground, but because in the air the ball got some change and fell differently to what was intended, and with all its spin upon it, it was bound to do something irregularly. For the same reason shooters are bowled-the spin as well as the ground makes them.

I would put in a plea also for a really good lob bowler of the old school. Clarke stood alone as a slow bowler. He was not, strictly speaking, a lob bowler, nor is it right to say that he had a tremendous twist. He was an underhand bowler with his hand higher than his hips and close to his side, while his elbow was well out; and though he could twist he only liked the ball to have what he called "the bias" -about the breadth of the ball. He did not "lob" so much as bowl, and his success lay in his accuracy and in his judgement. Bowling with him was a well-studied art. After a season in which Felix bothered him by running half down the pitch to hit him, Clarke during the winter practised in his back yard, so that he might be able to pitch a ball right on top of the stumps, and what was the result? As soon as he met Felix again he tempted him off his ground to hit him, but a ball or two after Felix was down the pitch and found himself bowled. Before I went to Cambridge I met Clarke in a match. According to his custom he went to the practice wickets with a ball in his hand. "Might I bowl you a ball or two?" he asked, and I was quite flattered by the request and said, "Certainly." He gave me about a dozen, made an observation or two on my play, and passed on to another wicket. Now what happened? He saw that I was a player and a hard hitter, but no "slogger." As soon as I came in he tossed me up one to hit, and I hit hard along the ground and got a couple of runs. Before he gave the next ball he brought Anderson up from the long field and put him about thirty yards behind him on his left side. He then pitched a ball in the same place as before, but a trifle slower, and I drove it hard and low straight into Anderson's hands, and I had to retire. He not only carefully watched men's play, but he had the rare faculty of remembering them when they came to the wickets, though they were strangers to him. There have been only four or five good lob blowers that I can remember, the Walkers, Money, Rose, Ridley, and E. T. Drake. In my opinion V. E. Walker was out and out the best, and his fielding to his own bowling was most brilliant. Money was very successful in the University and Gentlemen and Players' matches. Wood of Oxford is too fast for a bonâ fide lob blower, and by no means accurate, but how badly the Cambridge men played him! It was quite evident that, with one or two exceptions, there was no real knowledge as to how such bowling ought to be dealt with. I think it not at all improbable that V. E. Walker would have sent the best of the Australian elevens to the right about, for what a mess they made of very second-rate lobs! It is absurd to suppose that "anyone can bowl a few lobs," and that some stale old cricketers are the right men to "have a try" at them in a match. No department of bowling requires greater care, study, accuracy, judgement, or more continuous practice. It is just this latter point that is the weakness of our gentlemen bowlers-they will not give themselves sufficient time and trouble really to learn the art. I like to see a man of the Matt Kempson type bowling by the half hour at a single stump, with perhaps one or more bits of paper on the ground as marks for a good pitch. I like to note that he holds the ball in a variety of ways, seamwise, across the seam, not touching the seam, in a full hand or with two or three fingers, and closely watching what each ball does. I like to observe that he does his best to make the ball get up quickly, or in a commonplace way, at will. Random bowling is irritating, and accidental wickets are not satisfactory; but nothing is more delightful than to watch a good, true, painstaking bowler, with accuracy, a good length and judgement, working to gain his end. His success is an exhibition of real art.

As regards fielding, the difference between ancient and modern players is not very great. The latter, I think, are more skilful in their returns, and certainly more accurate in having a shot at the wickets; but none of them have eclipsed Broughton, Royds, Hornby, and Bell at cover point, Absolom and Kempson at short slip, I. D. Walker at mid-off, Bob Fitzgerald and Smith at long leg, E. M. Grace at point, and Teddy Drake and V. E. Walker to their own bowling and in almost any place in the field. Nicholson and Lockyer had indomitable pluck as well as skill at the wickets, and under the altered conditions of the grounds would be inferior to no one in the present day.

As time passes it is to me a matter of joy that the game of cricket has become so universal and that it retains its purity and its freedom from those evils which surround some other of our pastimes. No whisper of matches being sold for money is ever heard. No charge of cheating is brought against players. No system of gambling is attached to the greatest of English games. Cliquism, with its silly exclusiveness in too many country mansions and social gatherings, has not destroyed the unanimity which works with the common goal of victory in view, and makes a match both agreeable and intensely interesting. "The gravity with which Englishmen disport themselves," as a Frenchman said, is an element of success; and it goes a long way to develop those distinctive features of endurance, patience, and fair play which form noble and chivalrous characters. If differences of opinion exist about the merits and advantages of old and present cricketers, there is one sentiment which sways every true player and every good man, and it is this-that in all the religious, political, and secular affairs of life, as well as in every match, may the best side win.

© John Wisden & Co