Seeking a remedy, 1956

Growing pains of cricket

W.E. Bowes

    What is wrong with the modern game of cricket? Anything?
  • Are you satisfied with the present lbw rule?
  • Is the present trend of leg-theory bowling excessive and, if so, is it for the good of the game?
  • Do you agree that there is a general lack of high-class batsmen and that the cover-drive, one of the loveliest strokes in cricket, is disappearing?
  • Are you completely satisfied that the present-day pitch is the ideal surface on which to see cricket at its best?

These questions were posed to me by the Editor of Wisden. My replies brought an invitation to conduct a thorough investigation into the problems confronting the game at the present time, and to assist in this regard, a letter was sent to prominent personalities in the game, the majority of whom played first-class cricket before and after the lbw law was altered, asking their views.

As one who has always regarded Wisden as the Textbook of Cricket, I was delighted to be made responsible for the main inquiry; but let me point out this one important feature at the outset: my own findings are opinion not fact. The replies received from famous personalities in the game were expressions of opinion, nothing more, and in fairness to them, especially where we differ, I have given their comments as received.

It is a remarkable thing that away down the years, prominent writers and cricketers have expressed the view that unless there was a new approach to cricket, unless rules were changed and the game made more attractive to the public, cricket would die a natural death. Very fortunately our administrators have not easily panicked. Changes to the Laws have been made only when, as a general principle, the mass of those playing the game demanded it.

No game can stand still. It must go either backward or forward, and to the everlasting credit of M.C.C., no matter how much the County game to-day might depend on football pools and the share-out of Tour profits, cricket has progressed. Always it has been allowed to develop easily, naturally. Progress has been maintained in the natural sequence of bowlers finding a method of getting batsmen out, and batsmen then finding the counter. Curved bats, like hockey sticks, were discarded for the straight bat when bowlers began to bounce the ball, or undulations in the pitch caused the ball to bounce over the curve of the bat.

The art of batsmanship improved considerably as the bowlers, continually looking for something new, introduced spin; with the advent of overarm bowling, speed; and, in later years, swerve, the googly, off-theory, leg-theory; and finally to the point where, using one skill or the other, specialist fieldsmen were employed in cleverly thought-out positions, and bowlers learned to bowl accurately to them.

With each skill in bowling came improvement in the art of batsmanship. In the days of W. G. Grace, P. F. Warner and the Palairets, batsmen used the right leg as a pivot. The left foot was put towards the ball and strokes to the covers were made in abundance. Bowlers replied with off-theory. They found that by bowling at the off-stump, and just outside, that the batsmen were not always far enough across to the ball when driving, and slip catches resulted.

The newer school of batsmen, Jack Hobbs, Wilfred Rhodes (with his famous three lines of defence, left foot, bat, right leg swinging across), Mead, Hammond and others came along. Instead of the right foot being used as a pivot, the first movements were to cover up the stumps with the pads. Do you recall that shuffle across of Philip Mead? My own early recollection of first-class cricket, every time I bowled a ball just outside the off-stump, was seeing Jack Hobbs, Sutcliffe and the rest, shouldering arms. Without playing a shot, they put bat above their heads, pads in front of the stumps, and allowed the bowler to waste his energy.

The leg-break bowler, the out-swinger with speed, became vital necessities in any attack, and when groundsmen prepared a pitch of such excellence that swing and spin was impossible, I was advised by every batsman in the country (particularly when playing with him and not against him) to bowl the bouncer. It was bowled not with the intention of hitting the batsman, but in the hope of moving him away from the stumps, or getting a catch to long leg. I know of no batsman who denied the right of the fast bowler to bowl a bouncer.

Particularly do I contend that, from the beginning of cricket until 1932, the game was allowed to develop on natural lines, the bowlers calling the tune and the batsmen evolving methods that were many times beautiful to watch. Then came that fast leg-theory of Harold Larwoood in Australia during the tour of 1932-3 which later became known as The Bodyline tour of D. R. Jardine.

It is not for me in the scope of this inquiry to discuss the merits or demerits of the attack used. I can only point out that the world's greatest batsman, Don Bradman, in his book (Farewell to Cricket, page 71) states, "Bodyline was first used against me in a match on the Melbourne Cricket Ground between the M.C.C. and an Australian XI. I reported privately to certain cricket administrators that, in my opinion, there would be serious trouble unless the matter was dealt with quickly."

I shall always regret that The Don, with his great ability, condemned Bodyline from the first moment. The swervers of George Hirst and the googlies invented by Bosanquet had the world's greatest batsmen floundering for a complete season or more, but the batsmen found the answer eventually.

Perhaps the physical danger of Bodyline made it different. Sufficient it is to say that the weight of opinion caused this natural development of cricket theory and tactics to stop. After careful deliberation M.C.C. decided to legislate against Bodyline, and I believe, realising that the bowlers must be given something in return and that pitches were of such perfection that batsmen had all the favours, they made experiments with the lbw law and provided earlier opportunity for the new ball to be taken.

It must be remembered that shortly before the advent of Bodyline more help had been given to bowlers. In 1927 the circumference of the ball was reduced and in 1931 the wicket was enlarged by making the stumps higher and broader.

D. R. Jardine, the England captain, during the Bodyline tour, suggested a yet smaller ball, but this was not tried until last season when it was used in a few non-competitive first-class matches. It did not win much support and has been discarded.

Now, twenty years after the lbw change, we are asked, "Were the measures taken satisfactory? Did they work towards the betterment of cricket?"

Without hesitation my reply is: No. The new lbw rule, good in theory, has worked badly in practice. I believe, with all my love of the first-class game, that the village green is the real home of cricket. For club cricketers the game was hard enough before. Rules should be kept simple and anything which complicates the game should be avoided. If it is necessary to give the bowlers an advantage, well, go the whole way. Make it so that the Law applies to deliveries pitched on either side of the wickets, or at least, make it so that any ball pitching on the off gains the umpire's verdict of out if the batsman prevents it hitting his stumps with the pads. Let us not complicate the issue by saying the batsman is out "If, with any part of his person except the hand, which is in a straight line between wicket and wicket," etc. etc.

But I am moving too fast. If the game is to be played with enjoyment on the village green it should be worth the watching when the finest exponents in the world have the ball and bat. The weight of opinion seems to be that the lbw law has not improved the game either in skill or spectacle.

It is all very well to say that the laws are all right; it is the interpretation by the players that is wrong: to point to the splendid scoring feats that are shown on the third day of a match, after a fancy declaration, and ask, "Why cannot we have more of that enterprise on the first day?"

To my mind that very argument proves that the attitude of the present-day cricketer is good. When the occasion demands he can set about the bowling without thought of averages and failure. The real question is this: what manner of batsman is it who does not think himself capable of making a century no matter how much the bowler is being favoured?

I have seen those great left-arm bowlers, Rhodes and Verity, achieve some unbelievable performances on sticky wickets. Verity could never have gained an analysis of ten wickets for 10 runs if every batsman in the opposition had gone down the pitch and had a wallop. But, if that had been the attitude of cricketers whenever bowlers were on top, then I would never have seen any magnificent technical fighting innings like those of Hammond, Woolley, Hobbs, Mead, Hearne... performances which would send me the length of England if I could see them again.

The Findlay Report of 1937--which is accepted as impartial--suggested that players should have a different approach to the game. No doubt some could adopt a more dynamic attitude, but this in no way changes the argument.

The more help you give the bowler the more defensive must be the attitude of the batsman. It would be wrong otherwise, for no batsman worth his salt would give the bowler best.

The new lbw rule, designed to encourage the batsmen to hit the ball towards the covers, did not do so. Batsmen accepted the extra limitations, and I believe they found that excessive pad-play, or getting pads outside the off-stump, helped them. The need for this exaggerated pad-play, and the necessity of the batsman to play at the ball pitching just outside the off-stump, again in the natural sequence of development, caused the bowlers to search for fresh ideas.

They found that a leg-stump attack to expert short-leg and leg-slip fieldsmen paid dividends. It was discovered that the medium-pace bowlers, swinging or cutting the ball inwards to the batsmen, were as potent as it was hoped Larwood with his extra pace (apart from physical danger) might have been under the old lbw law.

The new lbw rule unwittingly encouraged the use of the leg stump attack and sent the wheel its full cycle. It was found the nearer you bowl to a batsman's legs--with a well-placed field--the more you limit his scoring strokes. During last summer the South African bowler, Goddard, showed that this type of attack could be extended to well outside the leg-stump and still be successful.

The new rule brought an undesirable trend into the game and from the replies to the questionnaire sent out by the Editor of Wisden it is clear that almost every cricketer deplores the lbw law as it is now framed, or its consequences.

Not for a moment am I prepared to admit we have not the batsmen to-day that we had in years gone by. Leg-theory bowling must close up the game. Bradman fell a victim to Bedser's leg-stump attack three times before he accepted the limitations and began to take four instead of two and a half hours for a century. Bailey at Leeds four years ago prevented an Australian victory against the clock by bowling wide of the leg-stump. South Africa with negative bowling against England almost took the rubber. Hutton, May, Cowdrey, Compton and Graveney have cover drives as beautiful as any seen on a cricket ground, but they are seldom permitted to use the stroke. An attack directed at the legs of the batsman will always close the game.

No alteration in rule can make a batsman score freely from the attack directed at the leg-stump, but maybe an alteration in rule can make a bowler want to bowl straighter. On that point I believe everyone is agreed. Suitable pitches, of course, would make any bowler attack the stumps, but such is the variable nature of soils and pitches throughout the world that any legislation is impossible.

By legislation it strikes me there are only four possible methods:

  • Scrap the present lbw law and go back to the old.
  • Limit the fieldsmen a bowler may use on the leg-side of the field.
  • Extend the lbw law further to include both sides of the pitch or provide that any ball pitched between wicket and wicket or to the off is successful if a batsman stops it from hitting the stumps with his pads, etc.
  • Make any runs scored on the leg-side count double.

If the old lbw law came back, then, I presume, cricket would soon drift into the type of play which caused the administrators to make changes. The bowlers needed help.

To deny a bowler the right to use his fieldsmen to the best advantage to suit the tactics of the moment or the state of the pitch would, I believe, be another retrograde step, but, just as in football it was necessary to alter the offside law in order to help the attackers, so may it work out in cricket. It would have been interesting to see the results when this idea was first produced by the New South Wales Cricket Association. It was a pity they did not give it a trial.

The extension of the lbw rule to include both sides of the pitch would not be good. I can imagine Tyson, Statham, Trueman and the rest of the fast bowlers moving to round-the-wicket attack.

The physical danger would again become important, and rules would become far more complicated, or the game suffer, if the bowler's right to deliver over or round-the-wicket was limited. The second alteration of the law seems much more feasible, i.e. to delete the phrase about stopping the ball with a part of the person in a direct line between the stumps.

If the batsman could be out lbw to any ball which, pitching straight or on the off, would hit the stumps, it seems likely that the leg-break-googly bowler would be encouraged, that bowlers would attack, and batsmen would use the bat more. In practice it may well be found that the off-spin bowler would reap tremendous advantage. Certain it is that the batsman scoring a century would deserve his name in the record book! Yet, once accustomed to a new sense of values, it may not be a bad thing to have the run worth more. Good fielding would be most important.

The fourth suggestion about doubling the score would only work if, by trial and error, the bowlers found it was more expensive to attack the batsman's legs. If every run conceded by South Africa's Goddard had been doubled, he would still have been a most economical bowler on last season's performances.

Suggestions that our England cricket suffers because of the staleness of our players through too much cricket, I have ignored. The leg-stump attack is used almost universally now and was not employed by the South Africans because of staleness.

The idea of using a fourth stump similarly does nothing to eliminate bowling at the batsman's legs. It does not follow that the batsman, given more to defend, will take bigger risks. They are likely to be more careful. And bowlers will not change a mode of attack unless in the process of trial and error they find some other type more successful. Time limits and penalties for bowlers or batsmen are a very last resort. Yet something should be tried.

Why not, in the Festival matches at the end of the season, try out the idea of limiting fieldsmen on the leg-side to four? If it makes for better cricket the Festival Committees and the public will be delighted. Why not, in M.C.C. matches at Lord's, try out an extension of the lbw law and make it known that the results do not count in the first-class averages? I am sure the Australian legislators, anxious to brighten and improve the game just as much as we are, would give this idea a trial.

A remedy for the present growing pains of cricket is hard to find. General opinion points to the latest lbw law as the cause, and if that is so, it should be discarded or widened in scope. It must come sooner or later ... and the sooner the better.

Sir Pelham Warner (Middlesex and England): There is little, if anything, wrong with the laws; it is the approach to the game that matters most. I am surprised at the numerous injuries these days. Fifty years ago we had plenty of fast bowlers but one did not hear of broken fingers as we do now. Has the ball become harder? Certainly batting gloves are not so effective as in my younger days. We used to have open, airy gloves with plenty of rubber on them. We do not want slow easy pitches, but in recent years some pitches, in my opinion, have been unfair and dangerous to batsmen.

There are too many first-class matches. The players become jaded and consequently lose their power of concentration, especially in Test matches. More consideration and encouragement should be given to the players, particularly when they are out of form. To avoid tedious railway journeys and to enable players to get to their destinations at a reasonable hour in the evening we should become more air-minded. The Board of Control should be prepared, if necessary, to charter special planes to move England players about the country.

Sir John Hobbs (Surrey and England): The decline in the arts and grace of batsmanship began with body-line and later the change in the lbw law further hampered stroke-making. The bat was given to the cricketer to defend his wicket and to hit the ball; it was not intended as a weapon for self-preservation. The modern bowler is no better than those of years ago, but methods have changed. We have at least one great stroke-player in Peter May, but there should be more.

The bumper and leg-theory have caused the batsman to think primarily of defending himself and consequently his first inclination is to go back. More forward play would improve batting, but above everything else it is the spirit of the game which matters most. The off-drive is a simple stroke, but it requires courage and so many modern players are afraid to let the bat go right through with the stroke. The game needs fast, true wickets; then the batsman and the bowler have an even chance.

I do not think you will get the old freedom in batting while the packed leg-side field remains. I am among those who would like to see the on-side restricted possibly to not more than four fielders.

Sir Donald Bradman (Australia): You suggest that the lbw rule of 1937 has a tremendous influence on the modern game of cricket. I very much doubt the accuracy of your belief. Furthermore the prevalence of defensive leg-theory bowling is, in my view, in spite of (and not because of) the present lbw law.

Since 1932 I have contended (Harold Larwood agrees with me--see page 59 of Bodyline, written by him in 1933) that an extension of the lbw law on the off-side so that a batsman could be given out even though his leg be outside the off-stump, would be the best antidote to leg-theory bowling.

I think leg-theory is used as a policy rather than because of a law. Remember it was often used prior to 1937 when the captain or the bowler saw fit to do so.

The dearth of leg-spinners in England is not easy to explain, but no doubt it is in part just a cycle, in the same way that at certain periods fast bowlers are scarce.

In addition to that, however, I am reliably informed that English coaches have preferred and encouraged the off-spinner type, claiming that leg-spinners are too expensive. I have been told that players' styles have actually been changed by the direction of a coach and if this is true, it becomes again a matter of deliberate policy.

As for the preparation of pitches, I think it fair to say that those prepared for the 1953 Australian Test series gave less cause for complaint that those in the 1934 series. There has recently been a wide variation in Australia due to special causes, but if we come to a discussion on pitches, who is to be the judge as to the ideal pitch anyway?

I have written before and I still contend that the mental outlook of those who play cricket is the most important thing. Players can ruin any game by their wrong interpretation of its character.

However, if the mental approach is sufficiently wrong to cause serious concern about the welfare of the game itself, then I for one see no harm in conducting experiments to see whether some of the undesirable features complained about can be eliminated legislatively.

Take the lbw law. Some say it is the cause of leg-theory and that we should revert to the old law whereby the ball must pitch in line with the stumps. Others say an extension of the lbw law on the off-side would do more than anything else to eliminate leg-theory. And there is certainly a strong body of opinion which favours the limitation of the number of fielders on the leg-side. How you are to know the answer to these theories without trying them I do not know.

Herbert Sutcliffe (Yorkshire and England): I have, over the years, expressed my views in no uncertain manner with regard to the lbw law, which is responsible for both negative batting and negative bowling, and indeed the answers to the first three points are tied up with the lbw rule.

The lbw rule encourages in-swing bowlers and off-spinners, and all bowlers to-day appear to be exploiting this particular theory with a packed leg-side field. Therefore, you will agree it is all against the elementary principles of batsmanship to attempt the glorious cover drive which, without doubt, is the most fascinating stroke in a batsman's repertoire.

There is a dearth of leg-spinners mainly because the off-spinners are given the additional advantage of the new lbw rule, and indeed leg-spinners and out-swing bowlers have, during the last few years, been greatly discouraged, so that there are very few in first-class cricket.

R. W. V. Robins (Middlesex and England): It seems the main issue is the desire among some for a change in the lbw law. I do not agree with the present theory, which the majority of cricketers hold, that the game has deteriorated as a result of the new law. My reasons are:--

  • The game in the '20s and early '30s was by no means so wonderful as the old-timers would have us believe now. In those days the then old-timers were deploring the approach to cricket as compared with the game in their day.
  • The present technique of batsmen, bowlers, captains and fielders is merely a natural modern development of the game. There has been no advance in attack since I began in 1925 and all developments (which have been considerable) have been in defence, be it in batting, bowling or fielding. Other games are suffering from a defence complex.
  • Some think that a change-over to the old lbw law will change the tempo of the game. It won't. Neither will it switch the play over to the off-side, because bowlers have now learned a new technique of preventing fast scoring. A batsman takes a greater risk in trying to score quickly on the leg-side compared with the off-side.
  • To go back to the old law would be a retrograde step unless the bowler is given something in return, such as a fourth stump. The suggestion which New South Wales made, to limit the number of fielders on the leg-side, was a far better one than most people imagine. The pity was it was never tried.

L. N. Constantine (West Indies): I have always been opposed to the new lbw rule. Not because of any conservatism but for reason of batting aggressiveness.

Before the rule was introduced you could play the off-break bowlers off your back foot, and by jumping to the pitch of the ball range your shots from the extra cover drive, if you got there, to sweeping to square-leg or long-on, if you did not, providing it was pretty safe to do so. Otherwise you just blocked. The top-class bowlers would often lure you and get you. I mean bowlers like Kennedy, Jupp, Parkin and Tom Goddard.

The rule was introduced in my opinion at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons. Pitches were like feather-beds. Players were holding on to safety tactics and, to confirm their intention, they sneered at the batsman who lifted the ball.

Any discussion of the off-break must necessarily include the in-swinger. The off-break bowler for a time came into his own. But the history books of cricket tell us that every new devastating weapon invented by bowlers is mastered by batsmen in the course of time, and the new lbw rule has travelled the same road. In mastering the dangers pregnant and potential, batsmen have evolved a movement which not only prevents the ball ever getting in line with the wickets, but frustrates any second thoughts of aggressiveness, even when it is discovered that the ball was straight, i.e. it had nothing in it. So batsman after batsman pushed his left foot down the line, suspicious and afraid. Of course, the process means a longer stay at the wicket, even if runs come by pushes and singles; the then newly-acquired modus operandi takes on the garb of a philosophy of security and industry. I have another name for it--the Hall-mark of Mediocrity.

Ian Johnson (Australia): The lbw rule of 1937 is not so effective in Australia as in England, for the wickets take less spin and the ball swings less in the air. I doubt very much if, in Australia, it has had any appreciable effect on the batsmen or the game, because of this fact. Leg-theory bowling to my mind is, in nearly every case, a curse on the game. It is negative and shows both lack of confidence on the part of the bowler in his ability to beat the batsman and lack of initiative.

The lack of leg-spinners has been noticeable throughout the cricket world. I think it is due more to the new ball rule than to any change in the lbw law. When the new ball came at a set number of overs the spinners fell into the background and rather than risk the luxury of a few possibly expensive overs from a leg-spinner, captains preferred to bowl tight while waiting for the over that would bring the new ball.

Regarding the general lack of high-class batsmen: they probably asked the same question twenty years ago and twenty before that too. Certainly in Australia, though, the pitches are now less reliable than pre-war. The general falling off in the standard of pitches has been attributed to many things, but probably the major factor is the 40-hour week which tends to make a man work by the clock instead of the result. For the most part in Australia there is too little grass on the wickets.

V. M. Merchant (India): The lbw rule of 1937, it was felt, would greatly encourage forward play. It has not done so. There is as great a tendency at present to play back as there was before 1937. This rule has only encouraged off-spin and in-swing bowling to the detriment of the game in general. If this rule is to have greater effect on the batsman and the bowler is to be helped, it should be extended to balls pitching outside the leg-stump also. Then there would be less of back and padded play.

Leg-theory bowling on good wickets has come to stay. Mostly this leg-theory is negative and the bowler is satisfied with keeping the batsman quiet. Most of the glorious off-side strokes have disappeared from the game except in rare cases. The best way to do away with it is to prevent by law the placing of more than four fielders on the on-side and not more than two behind the square-leg umpire. Then only will bowling again be directed to the off-stump and outside it and bring into play the late-cut, square-cut, the off and the cover drives. I am opposed normally to the change of rules, but the outlook of cricketers at present is such that unless they are changed cricket will cease to entertain.

The 65-overs new ball rule dealt a stunning blow to leg-spinners. Fortunately it has now been done away with. Even so, negative leg-theory bowling will prevent leg-spinners being encouraged. Captains do not want attacking bowling these days in preference to economic bowling. My suggestion about limiting the number of fielders on the leg-side might bring back the genuine leg-spinners.

The general lack of high-class batsmen is due more to back play where one has to wait for a certain kind of ball for making strokes. It will be generally agreed that forward play is more attacking and a high-class batsman has to attack and make his runs against good bowling. Anyone with a certain amount of technique and a lot of patience can make big scores on good wickets. Big scores do not constitute high-class batting.

No other country in the world affords as much cricket as England does, and with the present high standard of bowling in England one cannot understand why England lacks young professional batsmen of the highest class. I wonder if this is due to too much cricket in England where batsmen either go stale or make runs against the lower-placed bowlers and feel complacent about their batting.

R. E. S. Wyatt (Warwickshire, Worcestershire and England): Ever since lbw was introduced in 1935 I have been of the opinion that such a law is not in the best interests of the game because it encourages the types of bowling (in-swing and off-spin) which decrease the most attractive strokes in cricket, such as the off-drive and late-cut. Furthermore, I consider it was a mistake to put a premium on any particular types of bowling. If it were decided that batsmen were using their legs too much as a second line of defence, I think any such law should have applied to the leg-side as well.

I feel that the latest lbw law has over the years had a great influence in slowing the scoring rate of modern cricket and has been very largely responsible for the present on-side attack which, assisted by this law and probably better field-placing, is more economical.

It is difficult to provide the answer, but I do think that fast pitches and a return to the old law with possibly a wider wicket would produce better and more attractive cricket with a greater number of off-side strokes.

I. A. R. Peebles (Middlesex and England): With regard to the lbw law it has always been my opinion that it should be carried further and Bradman's Amendment adopted. That is to say, that the provision about the legs being between wicket and wicket should be scrapped. It is a complex question, but I feel that this would be an improvement and would not affect off-side play.

Leg-theory to my mind should be kept under close observation during the next season and, should there be any serious recurrence, some form of legislation should be introduced. What about saying that any ball pitched outside the leg-stump is a no-ball when there are more than six fielders on the leg-side? I do not believe in appeals to spirit as this is capable of such wide interpretation. I think the dearth of leg-spinners is a symptom of a utility age and the fact that we play far too much cricket.

The lack of high-class batsmen I would also attribute to the same cause and the gradual disappearance of the cover drive to the prevailing trends in bowling. The lack of young professional batsmen to replace Test players must be due to many contributory causes--possibly finance, to the extent that careers in industry are more attractive from the material point of view, if less glamorous.

The most desirable quality in the preparation of the pitch is surely pace. The worst which can happen is that we get another series of dead, doped pitches for the Test Match series.

W. S. Surridge (captain of Surrey's Championship team, 1952-55): Cricket is rarely monotonous when the struggle is even between the batsman and the bowler. The state of the wicket governs the approach to the game. You do not see packed leg-side fields for off-spinners when the pitch is so true

© John Wisden & Co