Above everything else in the game itself last season the experimental leg-before-wicket rule stood out as most important. A year ago Wisden's Editor, together with many other good judges, welcomed the change, but very naturally wished to see how it worked before confirming his approval. That he is not with us to express a matured opinion is to be deplored, but like the vast majority of players and spectators, Southerton would have felt satisfied. Those who watched cricket day after day in variable weather on all kinds of pitches could see how the game benefited from the alteration. Facts cannot be denied and we find that of 1,560 leg-before-decisions favourable to the bowler in first-class matches last season 483 were under the new rule. In the County Championship fixtures there were 1,273 instances of a batsman being out L.B.W and of these 404 were due to the operation of the amended law.
The idea held by many people in the past that on a difficult pitch off-break bowlers would have matters all their own way under the altered rule and that on fast, true turf batsmen still would hold the upper hand, was proved by experience incorrect. The skill of modern bowlers in swinging the ball made all the difference when the conditions favoured run-getting. A batsman dare not cover-up to the ball that was coming wide of the off stump in the air unless prepared to pay the penalty.
The swerving ball and the break-back each took toll of doubtful batsmen, but very soon much of the uncertainty as to what to do with the well-pitched-up ball disappeared. After being a few times in trouble batsmen became alive to the need of depending upon the bat to deal with likely break or swerve--and this for the most part meant getting to the pitch of the ball. Quick footwork and the straight bat were used to solve the difficulty and if these genuine methods in the art of batsmanship failed, the bowler very rightly earned the verdict he deserved.
Sutcliffe, who anticipated the new law with misgiving, found that in practice his fears were dispelled. He was among the early converts and as the summer advanced almost everyone fell into line by acclaiming the success of this variation of Law 24. There came a decided check to those interminable first-wicket partnerships which were so detrimental to the game. It was not surprising that, facing the swerve with the ball brand new, the early batsmen found their task harder than previously. A good deal of criticism was also offered by left-hand batsmen who had to play deliveries pitching in the rough of the bowlers' run up, where the ball often does a lot.
The definite results reached last summer in so many matches, the reduction in scoring with consequent livening up of the game and obvious progress towards a finish pleased the majority of cricket lovers. Unrepentant players could not argue against the innovation without confessing their faults and admitting inability to remedy their own shortcomings. The fight between bat and ball became more equal than it had been for many seasons. Even on pitches still over prepared by artificial aids, bowlers knew that their efforts would not be in vain because of obstructive methods; batsmen discarded their cramped, pokey style for freedom in stroke play and the cut and off drive were brought into use almost to the same extent as when these glorious strokes gave chief charm to the game. Umpires found their duties lightened if anything; they did not have to decide that the ball pitched straight but only that it would have hit the stumps and that the obstruction occurred in the line between wicket and wicket.
To emphasise how the altered rule affected cricket in all respects the following facts are of the highest value, even if other causes may have contributed to them. Definite results in the 234 County Championship matches played last summer numbered 161 as against 134 in 1934 when there were 232 fixtures--an increase of 27 victories. Of regular players Hammond again came out at the top of the batting averages but his figures fell from 76.32 in 1934 to 49.35, the smallest average to head the list since 1910 when the weather was deplorable. Allowance must always be made for loss of form, but last season only seven batsmen had aggregates reaching 2,000 as compared with nineteen a year before. Strangely enough, R. E. S. Wyatt, E. R. T. Holmes and Sutcliffe, of those who did not like the experiment, made considerably more runs than in 1934. The Yorkshireman rose from seventeenth to second in the averages. Class told.
To generalise over the whole area of cricket the number of batsmen reaching the 1,000 aggregate showed a decrease of nine to 76. Among bowlers Freeman, with his 212 wickets, did not monopolise the honours, Verity taking 211 and Goddard exactly 200, while 27 men were rewarded with at least 100 wickets as against 18 who enjoyed this amount of success a year before; also seven bowlers took 42 or more wickets at a lower cost apiece than the 17.07 with which Paine excelled over all his rivals in 1934.
The experiment has brought great gains to cricket. Our legislators can be relied upon not to act in a hasty manner and their broadcast request for the provisionally altered law to be tried in all cricket during 1936--a suggestion which has received widespread support--shows the desire to test the innovation as thoroughly as possible before making any permanent change in the laws. A trial over three seasons should be sufficient to determine whether the alteration goes far enough to adjust the balance between batsman and bowler. There is always the possibility that by the end of another season the batsman may have mastered the changed theories.
Following are some opinions regarding the experiment expressed by County Captains at the invitation of the Editor of Wisden:--
Mr. A. Brian Sellers (Yorkshire):--
I think the new rule has come to stay. I have found it to help the bowler a great deal and that is what was wanted. There are a good many batsmen who have got out when playing at the ball which last year they would have padded off, or left alone.
Mr. R. W. V. Robins (Middlesex):--
I am a firm believer that, if the experiment becomes law, we shall go a long way towards obtaining 'brighter' cricket. Our wicket at Lord's last year gave the rule as big a test as any other ground in the country and in no case did I hear an umpire during the whole season suggest that it made his duties more difficult. On the contrary, many agreed that it lightened their task. It is up to the rest of the cricketing countries and all Club Cricket Associations to try the experiment thoroughly without delay. We in Middlesex were delighted with the experiment and think that it has given a very much needed filip to the game.
Mr. W. G. Lowndes (Hampshire):--
I think the new L.B.W. rule has, on the whole, been a success. This year, with its bad and wet wickets, may not have given it a fair trial, as it was not intended to prevent players using their legs on these wickets so much as on hard and fast pitches. I do not think it has made any difference to the player who has always been taught off-side shots playing forward.
Mr. T. N. Pearce (Joint Captain of Essex):--
In my opinion, the new rule has been a great success for the following reasons:--(1) It has aided the bowlers who most needed help, namely, the fast and fast-medium. (2) Batsmen have had to play forward at the good length ball pitching just outside the off stump, thereby bringing back into first-class cricket an almost obsolete scoring stroke. On the other hand, the rule has been a little severe on opening batsmen playing against the new ball.
Mr. G. F. H. Heane (Joint Captain of Nottinghamshire):--
The new L.B.W. rule eliminates a large amount of pad play, and it quickens up the game, with the result that more matches are brought to a definite conclusion. It provides a difficulty for left-hand batsmen owing to the assistance given the bowler by foot marks outside the off stump made by the bowler at the opposite end.
Mr. R. E. S. Wyatt (Warwickshire):--
Although there is something to be said in favour of the new L.B.W. rule, I am not in favour of it being continued. My reasons are that it encourages bowlers to bowl off breaks and in-swingers resulting in less off-side play and also affecting the hook shot. One thing in favour of the rule is that it does make batsmen play at more balls outside the off stump.
Mr. E. R. T. Holmes (Surrey):--
I am not in favour of the new rule being continued. From the point of view of the game, I say it has not achieved its object. It puts a premium on forward play. It has made little difference to forward players but has curtailed strokes of back players considerably. It has not helped me personally as a bowler.