Gregory-McDonald to Lindwall-Miller, 1956

Two eras of Australian pace

This summer we welcome the Australians again to our shores. Already they have been here twenty-one times since their first visit in 1878. They come as challengers, for England hold the Ashes which were regained at Kennington Oval in 1953. We, in England, regard the Australians as our most formidable opponents and another exciting series of Tests can be expected. Usually the Australians ride rough-shod over the County clubs. Not since 1912 has a County eleven lowered their colours. During that tour the Australians were without some of their leading players and they suffered eight defeats including five by the Counties: Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Lancashire (twice), and Hampshire. The nearest any County has come to mastering them since then was in 1930 when Gloucestershire tied at Bristol. (Editor.)

Barring mishaps, it does seem certain that once again England will see the old firm of Lindwall and Miller in action. In the past there have been premature reports of their impending retirement, and even at the moment of writing when Sheffield Shield cricket in Australia is well under way and the selectors are doubtless studying the individual form of the players with anxious eyes, both have been troubled by injury. Whatever the future may bring, a comparison between Lindwall and Miller and their only rivals as a pair in the present century of Australian cricket, Gregory and McDonald, is fascinating as it is inevitable.

In making any such comparison it is necessary to recognise that fashions and techniques in cricket, as in other matters, have changed with the passing of the generation which separates two distinct eras. It is a wide subject and, as space will allow only the study of certain aspects, these few reflections are perforce confined to the bowlers' point of view, and again largely to that of the pace bowler.

This will be the third Australian team to visit England since the war, and it will embark on the sixth series since that major interruption. In the number of matches and in actual years this period is almost the exact counterpart of the between the end of the first war and the eve of the 1930 tour. There is also a close parallel in the trend of events. In both cases England were outplayed in the reopening tour and the return visit, achieved a solitary victory in the third series and won the fourth in each case by a final deciding match at The Oval. The succeeding series, those of 1928-29 and 1954-55, saw England once more in the ascendancy by a good margin.

The similarity in result during these decades was reflected by a close resemblance in the actual play. A period of Australian supremacy, achieved by a combination of powerful batting, devastating fast bowling and much superior fielding, was followed by a gradual English resurgence led by an outstanding fast-medium bowler. Finally, there comes a complete reversal of the balance, largely brought about by a counterblast of fast bowling. Certainly there were many other factors which contributed to the ebb and flow of the tide, some alike and some totally dissimilar, but few cricket cycles can have been so alike in broad outline.

Bradman Intervenes

They were divided by the era of Bradman who made his first appearance in the 1928-29 series and led the triumphant teams of 1946-47 and 1948. Despite the overlap, the division may be regarded as fairly clear, for on the one hand, despite early success, he was still something of an unknown quantity and, on the other, although still a tremendous force, he was scarcely the man who changed the character of international cricket in the 'thirties. In comparing the two eras, it is possible to identify several elements which affected tactics and techniques; but to say for how many of these Bradman was directly or indirectly accountable or to estimate his total influence on the game as a whole is very difficult. What is plain is that the game as played in the post second war years differed considerably in form from that of 1921.

To start with cold, impersonal figures--if indeed cricket figures can ever be cold or impersonal--surely the most pertinent item amongst Mr. Roy Webber's exhaustive figures dealing with these years is the fact that in the 1920-21 and 1921 series England, a well-beaten side, scored forty-nine and fifty runs per hundred balls bowled. Australia were naturally rather more expeditious scoring fifty-three and fifty-six. In the first two post second war series the rates dropped to thirty-seven and thirty-eight for England and fifty and forty-six for Australia. Thereafter the Australian rate dropped farther back. The trend in the intervening years had been a steady decline in the pace of scoring despite a large proportion of runs supplied by Bradman at an exceptionally high personal rate. Even if the 1920-21 and 1921 seasons were abnormal, it hardly calls for the mass of additional evidence available to demonstrate that the play of thirty-five years ago was of a considerably freer character. Whether it was as efficient is another matter.

What is the main reason for this change or deceleration? The broad answer must surely be the transference of the bowlers' focus from the region of the off-stump to that of the leg and the consequent throttling of off-side play but, equally importantly, the denial of the safe deflecting stroke to leg. The causes of this transference are several and complex, and the credit or responsibility must be shared between groundsman, bowler and batsman in what proportion we may later determine. Somewhat unfashionably I am inclined to exculpate the legislators.

In 1921 the spearhead of the Australian attack, the speed of Gregory and McDonald, was directed at the stumps and supported by three slips. The good length ball aimed at the stumps pitched regularly to the off and it was desirable that any error should be further in that direction. If the error was to drop the ball outside the leg-stump the batsman could play boldly in the knowledge that he had free passage to a distant fine-leg who could, at most, rob him of three runs.

When Lindwall and Miller bowled the slips had increased in number and some of them had now migrated to the hitherto uninhabited regions on the leg-side. For England, Bedser, with his sharp in-swerver, had perfected the same technique and the impact on batsmanship must have been as profound as the introduction of the googly. What had been a safe and attractive scoring shot had now elements of suicide, for if the ball moved a little to the on a mishit was almost certain to result in a catch. Indeed, a correctly executed stroke was often fatal, owing to the difficulty of placing and keeping the ball down in this sector. The dangers of this situation were clear when Bradman, who seldom repeated a serious mistake, fell three times in succession to the backward short-leg position during the 1948 series.

The development of this form of attack is, as I have said, attributable to several causes. Most are agreed that the glory of cricket exists on the off-side, the highest art of the bowler to make the ball go away, and the beauty of batsmanship the variety of stroke between third-man and mid-off. But with the undoubted improvement in defensive back-play and the increase of dead, over-prepared pitches the bowler was given little incentive to attack, especially on the off-side.

While the old lbw rule prevailed it was extremely hard to dislodge a batsman who made good use of his pads, for under its terms the ball had to pitch on and hit. Geometrically it is almost impossible for the faster bowler to drop the ball on a good length and comply with these requirements, unless he turns the ball from the leg--a tall order in the circumstances where it is most required. (In passing, it seems strange that those who advocate the reintroduction of the old law, having robbed the bowler of what little opportunity the present rule affords him in that quarter, expect thereby a return to off-side play.)

When the bowler was shorn of practically all means of positive action on the off-side it was not unnatural that he should seek some line of defence, or at least economy, and the on-side offered decided advantages in time of stress. It was seen as an area of attack in the 1932-33 series, a state of affairs largely precipitated by the tremendous off-side attacks of Bradman on the paceless pitches of 1930. At the same time O'Reilly dimmed much of Hammond's brilliance by concentrating on his relatively weaker on-side play. From then on much thought was given to the placing and feeding of the close leg-side field.

In the present age the in-coming form of attack, so to speak, has been brought to a very fine art and one speculates on the reactions of the great stroke players of the past suddenly confronted with Bedser at his best. On the other side one wonders what additional problems Barnes and Tate might have raised by systematic use of the close leg field.

It is important to distinguish between the legitimate leg stump attack and leg-theory applied in a purely negative sense to discourage scoring. That any bowler should be permitted to pack the leg-side field and bowl outside the batsman's legs is deplorable and to be discouraged at all costs. Appeals to the spirit of the game are, to my mind, of dubious value, for the very good reason that the spirit is inclined to vary greatly with circumstances and in interpretation. A clear-cut law operates with certainty in all conditions, but the difficulty in this case is, admittedly, to frame such a law without adding further complication to an already intricate code.

My own suggestion to meet this situation has just that disadvantage but seems to have a basis of justice. If, which is perhaps improbable, this form of bowling should ever become widespread, would it not be possible to say that, when five or more fielders were posted to the on, any ball pitching outside the leg stump should be a no-ball? This may be cumbersome but it would exercise restraint where it is needed without interfering with the honest citizen.

The real answer to all cricket problems is, of course, to give the bowler fair incentive and opportunity to attack at all times. In doing so he will get wickets but will be more prone to make mistakes from which the striker can derive benefit and, indeed, in the absence of any guaranteed security, will be anxious to do so. This is hardly the place in which to reopen the discussion as to the best ways and means of achieving this healthy state of affairs, but, as I have implied, a return to the old lbw law is surely not one of them.

The point of these rather rambling reflections is really to say that could the modern spectator be wafted back thirty-five years he would not only see a faster scoring match but one of largely different character. It might or might not be that he would find them more interesting than the battles of attrition to which he has grown accustomed. It might be more accurate to say had grown accustomed, for it must be borne in mind that the recent series in Australia was the most exciting cricket, whatever its standard. But it was also exceptional.

Much of the action and excitement was due to the fact that the pitches gave considerable, and not always fair, help to the prevailing type of bowling. Their inconsistency occasionally gave the proceedings an air of hit or miss which went beyond the bounds of glorious uncertainty and must always detract from an equally balanced and scientific contest. To one who has played on it, the thought constantly recurs that the matting wicket of the old Wanderers ground at Johannesburg, with all its disadvantages, was the one surface which gave both departments full scope for their talents and was at all times a true reflection of merit.

The highlights of each era, Gregory and McDonald attacking Hobbs and Woolley or Lindwall and Miller in action against Compton and Hutton obviously transcended the differences in character to which I have referred and even the one-sided nature of the matches. The chief point in common amongst the batsmen is that they formed a first line of defence with little reserve behind them. The bowlers have much similarity in circumstance and in performance. They reigned supreme at a time when there was a world shortage of fast bowling and batsmen were ill-equipped to meet it.

Which was the finer pair and which the greatest individual must ever be open to argument and is much a matter of opinion. Certainly in span and in the matter of statistics the moderns have a much more impressive record. Gregory and McDonald appeared together in but eleven Test matches, eight against England and three against South Africa. The latter then left the international field at the height of his powers but his senior partner played for another seven years, a total of 24 matches. There is no doubt, however, that his powers declined greatly after the dissolution of the partnership.

Comparison of Figures

Up to the present Lindwall and Miller have appeared together on 46 occasions and have played 49 and 47 Test matches respectively. In his Test career Gregory took 75 wickets at 35.30 runs apiece and McDonald 43 at 35.60 each. So far Lindwall has taken 192 wickets for 21.88 apiece and Miller 147 at 22.99 runs each.

There can be little doubt that McDonald was the most graceful of the quartette and possibly the most perfect cricket machine of all time. In the opinion of many well-qualified judges he could produce a faster ball than anyone within living memory. In his county days he seldom exerted himself to the full; only recently I was given an enthralling eye-witness account of one of his latter bursts of speed, occasioned by the appearance of an amateur who had treated him roughly in a previous match. This apparently irritated him out of his customary impassive calm and the results were spectacular. My informant, who has played most of the fast bowlers of the last thirty years, says it was the fastest bowling he has ever seen and only approached by Lindwall's stupendous three-over burst at Manchester in 1948. It was interesting to hear that the only perceptible increase in effort was that he accelerated in the last five yards of the impeccable run up to a swift gallop. His point established he reverted to the normal cruising speed which carried him through many strenuous seasons.

Gregory was to my mind the most inspiring. One might apply to him the words of a motoring critic who said of a famous make of sports car that others might have gone faster but none had achieved the glorious frenzy of its progress. Estimates as to his maximum speed vary, but it must have been extremely swift especially in the opening overs, and his height and very high arm added greatly to the general hostility of the performance. It might also be said of both Gregory and Miller that, in contrast to the polished craftsmanship of their partners, they were both children of nature.

Lindwall Comes First

A large mass of opinion places Lindwall first of all fast bowlers, a judgement based on pace, variation, control and consummate technique of seam and swerve. In addition he is a wonderfully shrewd and discerning tactician. I have already dwelt on the modern emphasis on the leg stump and the close surrounding field. Lindwall has retained the classical off-side attack but has added to it the cramping assault on the region of the batsman's pads. The so-called Carmody field, which consists of a cover-point and a short-leg to the fore and the rest of the field spread on either side of the wicket-keeper like the horns of a Zulu Impi, would doubtless appear monstrous and absurd to an eye reopened after thirty years. In the hands of the master it is in fact a formidable instrument. When it is new, the bowler pitches the ball well up, almost to half-volley length, and invites the batsman to drive him into the untenanted foreground. But swinging bat and very late swinging ball are ill met and the mis-hit from either edge means almost certain disaster with the Australian in-field to hand.

Batsmen have told me that Lindwall's low arm gives the ball an awkward angle of flight in addition to the complication of his late and unpredicted dip in either direction. When, as in the last series, the ball came at varying heights from the pitch the skill demanded of the modern opener is such that it is not surprising that few regularly succeed in such circumstances. It may be observed that doped, paceless wickets kill these dangers just as effectively as they obliterate any other point of interest.

Of Miller it might be said that he is the most mercurial but, in the mood, as deadly as any. His careless, almost casual air bears no relation to the power and fire of his action which seems to develop its maximum effort and weight as the arm comes to the downward sector of its swing so that the ball hits the pitch with a resounding thump. Although it may be with less design than in the case of Lindwall, he makes the ball move sharply in either direction.

Miller The Menace

After the splendid performances of our own fast bowlers in Australia in 1954-55 it may seem almost ungrateful to say so but, with Lindwall in at least a temporary decline, Miller was the most menacing bowler of the series with the new ball. He may have lost something of his stamina but his opening assaults at Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide were positively hair-raising as seen through the eyes of a visiting supporter. Three balls at the start of the crucial second innings at Adelaide all but wrecked English hopes and remain vividly in the imagination. First there was a ferocious in-dipper, which appeared to affect Edrich's nervous system as violently as it did his middle and leg stumps. This was followed at uncomfortably short intervals by two very fast balls to Hutton and Cowdrey which left the pitch like leg-breaks and resulted in bullet-like catches, both beautifully picked up in the slips. The challenge was met by magnificent batting by May and Compton, but until the first welcome signs of fatigue appeared the final target of 94 runs seemed immeasurably distant.

Miller has the additional virtue of being a most entertaining bowler, and his impish delight in loosing off googlies and round armers without previous notice must be highly disconcerting, if it does not seem to meet with any great material success.

The Combined Effort

But when all is said and done, which of these great pairs will be given premier place in Australian cricket history in the years to come is very open question. Gregory and McDonald have one very special niche in all cricket history. At least so far as international cricket is concerned they were the pioneers of all fast opening attack. Since then it has been regarded as the most effective use that can be made of the new ball, and it can well be argued that two fast bowlers, provided they are of quality, have had more influence on the result of a given series than any other factor, with the possible exception of the phenomenal Bradman. In support of this view I would cite Larwood and Voce; Martindale and Constantine in their own country, Lindwall and Miller and finally Statham and Tyson. There have been many fine individual performers during the same time, but it seems that the combined effort is necessary to derive the fullest service from the individual.

© John Wisden & Co