There are far too many of them, 1899

Cricket centuries

IT is evident that if cricket is to be in the future, as it has been in the past, a game capable of being played to a finish, something must be done to check the centuries. If I may be excused the play upon the word, I will take half a century ago as the basis of my remarks to-day. There was good--rare good cricket then, but there were fewer, far fewer centuries. Such a luxury was seldom placed to a man's credit. What with a bumpy surface such as even "Lord's" was, and grass cut only by the scythe, head-balls and shooters prevailed then, perhaps in immediate succession, and would have sorely puzzled (mutatis mutandis) our very best modern batsmen. Incontestably something required to be done to make the batsman's tenure more certain by improving the grounds; but it had been well if greater care had been taken not too heavily to handicap the bowler.

In affirming, as I venture to do, that the noble game of cricket was never better, more interesting and diversified, more gloriously uncertain, than in the forties and fifties, I have no desire to appear indifferent to the splendid progress in scientific cricket of more recent players. The wicket-keeping of the day, e.g., is a notable symptom of advance upon that of former days, and is not to be accounted for altogether by the improved condition of the grounds. Both batting and bowling have become far more accurate, and taking the whole country throughout its length and breadth, good cricket has multiplied exceedingly. Yet possibly, by comparing the past and present, by tempering the experiences of the younger generations with the reminiscences of the elder, better results still may be obtained. If our great matches are to be played out as a rule in future, there seem to be two alternatives only. Either the Australian system de die in diem must be adopted until one side has won, or means must be found for minimising, in some reasonable degree, the centuries. I shall assume that in our busy country, the former alternative is impracticable; we must seek, therefore for a remedy in the minimising direction. Various remedies have been from time to time suggested, such as higher wickets, a fourth stump, doing away with the toss, fixed first innings, and so on. I am myself of opinion that before any of the above need be applied, an experiment should be made in some alteration of the l b w law.

But before I state my reasons may I put in a caveat, which would, and I think possibly should, apply to the more drastic of such alterations, and which may meet an objection sure to be raised to any change at all. Is it necessary that every rule applicable to first-class public cricket should be the rule everywhere; e.g., as an illustration upon the hypothesis that the game between "Gentlemen and Players" or "England v. Australia" is to be played with four stumps at "Lord's," is it necessary that "Wanderers v. Rovers" or "Residents v. Garrison" everywhere or anywhere should be subjected to the same rule? Not even the laws of the Medes and Persians would be so inflexible or unadaptable in such a sense. I fail to see the impropriety of some such arrangement, which would distinctly form a first class in cricket, and leave the great majority of players much where they are, with trouble enough to keep up one stump out of three, and to make their accustomed ne plus ultra of half a century.

Be this as it may, and begging my younger readers' pardon, let me go back half a century! Let me refer to 1845-1865, the period of the great batsmen, Pilch, Parr, Carpenter and Hayward, and of the bowlers, Mynn, Sir Frederick Bathurst, Harvey Fellows, Hillyer, Wisden, Jackson and Tarrant. My memory of that era is still keen; and what weighs with me chiefly now, in advocating a change of the L. B. W. law as a first step towards reform, is that all these bowlers, I believe, broke in from the leg. Those three monosyllables I may, as the lawyers say, adopt as my case. "From the Leg?" Yes, "from the leg!" I agree that the bowler has already received some advantage in being allowed to bowl above the shoulder with the habitual off-break, but this is clearly not enough, and if you would reduce the proved superiority of the batsmen in the present day, you must find some means of letting in once more the leg-bowler.

The present l b w law has always involved something more or less of a mathemetical impossibility. Upon its first introduction, it was generally applied cum grano, i.e., the intention rather than the letter, of the new law was regarded by the umpires. Bayley, and Caldecourt and Sewell, the then famous umpires at Lord's, knew full well that the law was altered in order to prevent unreasonable decisions by country umpires, and to relieve a batsman from the liability to surcease his innings, because (in the judgment of the local know-nothing) a ball--let it pitch how and where it might--would have hit the wicket. This latitude was evidently too great, and it was sought to remedy it; but most unfortunately the pitch of the ball in the direct line between the wickets, was determined upon as the sine qua non of L. B. W. Henceforth--if the rule was to be applied with mathematical preciseness--it became impossible for a bowler like Hillyer or Redgate, delivering round the wicket with a leg-break, to get a wicket. I do not think the L. B. W. rule was at all rigidly applied (for the reason I have given) for many years after the time of Hillyer or that most illustrious of Gentlemen bowlers, Sir Frederick Bathurst whom I so well remember, with his perfect delivery and leg-twist; but by degrees, as the letter of the l b w law has come to be applied more technically, overhand and off-break bowling has prevailed. The leg-bowler is now comparatively unknown.

How dreary, how monotonous, may I venture to say so much without incurring the indignation of the generation which now is--it is to see the whole of a field placed upon the off-side of a wicket, and the batsman standing in absolute padded immunity to ward off--if need be, sometimes to kick aside--any unhappy ball which might happen to pitch three inches, or even two, or only one inch on the leg side of the wicket, but not absolutely in the direct line between the stumps. I certainly believe that the interest and pleasure of on-lookers would be much diversified and increased by letting in once more the leg-bowler. I think his absence has more to do with century-getting than any other thing unless perhaps the non-necessity of running out boundary hits.

Surely some way may be devised of making the batsman fairly open to attack from both sides of the wicket. It is not necessary to go back to the old style of things which exposed him to the caprice of any umpire; but some regulation might be made which should be as much a matter of fact for the umpire to decide, as the matter of fact under present conditions, viz., that the pitch of the ball should be in a direct line between the wickets. How would it be to substitue the batsman himself (or any part of his person) for the pitch of the ball? There would be no hardship in requiring any batsman to stand clear of the direct line between the wickets. If he chooses not to do so and a ball hits him which would have taken his wicket, let him take the consequences. Phillips or West could arbitrate this just as easily as they could decide whether a ball which pitched straight would have taken the wicket.

It will be seen that such a solution is essentially different from the former unreasonable liability of a batsman to be given out, because any ball would have hit the wicket. The batsman would still have the advantage of covering the wicket with his person, so long as he does not stand in the direct line between the wickets. It may be that this suggested alteration of the L. B. W. law would not fully meet the case; but it would do something and it might be tried before proceeding to anything more heroic. From my own point of view, I am inclined to think the centurions would be somewhat effectually decimated; that more matches would be played out and finished; and that first-class cricket would gain greatly. Of course leg-bowlers would not spring up in a day, or in any quantity for a few years to come; but it may be predicted that they would come gradually upon the scene again, bringing with them a considerable check to century-getting, a proportionate variety in the game, and increasing satisfaction to the cricket-loving public.

L. B. W. previous to the present law was: "If with the foot or leg he stops the ball which, in the opinion of the umpire at the bowler's wicket, shall have been pitched in a straight line to the wicket, and would have hit it." In other words, the ball might have pitched six inches outside either the leg or the off-stump; but if the umpire choose to think so, a man was liable to be given out upon supposition only. The Marylebone Cricket Club, therefore, revised the old law, and while doubtless improving it by substituting for "foot or leg" the words "any part of his person," unfortunately added the crucial words "from it" (the bowler's wicket). The law stands thus at present:

"XXIV.--Or if with any part of his person he stops the ball, which in the opinion of the umpire at the bowler's wicket, shall have been pitched in a straight line from it to the striker's wicket, and would have hit it"-- leg before wicket ! The authorities, I submit, somewhat over-ran the necessity of the case. They could never have intended to bring about an entire revolution in bowling. Little could they have dreamt of the bowler of a future period pegging away at or outside the off-stump only, or of giving the batsman a position of virtual impregnability from attack on the leg-side. But this has come to pass, and was sure to pass, as soon as the new law was strictly and mathematically applied.

My own suggestion is, that Law XXIV. might be reasonably altered thus:

XXIV.-- Or if, standing in the direct line between the two wickets, with any part of his person he stops the ball, which in the opinion of the umpire at the bowler's wicket would have hit the striker's wicket-- leg before wicket!

Of course, as an individual belonging to what younger generations might consider a rather antique period, I give my opinion with some diffidence. Nevertheless, it was my privilege in those days before the flood to play with those men of Anak -- Felix and Pilch, and Mynn, and Hillyer--in the concluding level matches between Kent and England; so if I do seem to pose at all as laudator temporis acti, I must appeal to this aristocracy of cricket, and plead noblesse oblige! I do not think that years have at all blunted the intelligence of many an ancient cricketer--say, such men as Sir Spencer Ponsonby-Fane, or V. E. Walker, or Mr. Harvey Fellows ; and I may with some confidence suggest, that by comparing the old things with the new, the difficulty of the centuries may best be dealt with. I have given my own evidence (so to speak) for what it may be worth; and I can only re-affirm the strong conviction which I entertain, that the first step towards restoring first-class cricket to a game which is reasonably likely to be played out in these days, is to alter the l b w Law.

I am aware that no proposition for shortening batsmen's innings can be popular with the vast majority of cricket-players; and that as a rule, worse luck! great batsmen, rather than bowlers, predominate upon Club Committees; but I think that in these days of numerous first-class batsmen the question may possibly be indicated of some special distinction from cricket by the multitude; and that an additional grade of excellency may reasonably be expected from our best players, now that the game is so universal throughout England. Whether by a fourth stump, or higher stumps, I do not stop now to enquire, but if such a remedy should still need to be applied in first class public matches, I would say, let it be for these only.

But with regard to a new l b w law, I think it should be universally applied; not so much on account of the batsman (who could easily learn not to stand in the direct line between the wickets) as to encourage a new class of bowler. One can almost imagine the disembodied utterances coming back to us even now from the Paradisaical regions of departed bowlers; from the men of the forties, the fifties, and even of the sixties, for the re-instalment of the old attack from the leg-side. If not quite equal to the famous aspiration classically-- "Exoriare aliquis de nostris ossibus ultor!" they would at least desire to say in their own mother tongue, "Give us back our leg-break ; give us a reasonable l b w law!"


© John Wisden & Co