200 years of laws

And LBW still the most controversial, 1975

200 years of laws

Gordon Ross

The precise origin of a set of laws for the game of cricket is obscure. Even the monks of the fourteenth century who played a game with enough in its character to suggest that it might have been the forerunner of cricket, must have had some laws to go with it. History subsequently uncovered a document dated July 11, 1727 relating to two matches played between teams raised by the then Duke of Richmond, and a Mr. Broderick, but they were designed mainly for the purpose of deciding bets and supplementing laws generally accepted for common use. Other laws were drawn up at varying intervals. It seems fairly certain that it was in 1774 that a set of laws was produced which was widely accepted, and which has stood the test of time remarkably well. A Committee of Noblemen and Gentlemen met at The Star and Garter, Pall Mall, on February 25, 1774 and produced New Articles of the Game of Cricket.

Those attending this historic meeting were: Sir William Draper (in the Chair), His Grace the Duke of Dorset, The Rt. Hon E. Tankerville, Sir Horace Mann, Sir John Brewer Davis, Philip Dehany, Harry Peckham, Francis Vincent, James Cooke, Charles Coles, Richard James and The Rev. Charles Pawlett. The laws these gentlemen conceived were quite comprehensive. They dealt with the ball, the bat, the stumps, the bowling-crease, the popping-crease, the toss, the bowler, the circumstances in which the striker is out, the wicker-keeper, the umpires, bets and single-wicket. Much of it would make commonsense today; indeed, some of it still remains having prospered for two centuries.


A Brief For Mr. Griffith

It is just coincidental that, after exactly two hundred years, Mr. S. C. Griffith, so recently retired from being Secretary of M.C.C. that he is well in touch with current affairs, began the execution of his brief to re-examine the whole of the laws, tidy them up by incorporating various additions and amendments into the laws themselves and making any suggestions and recommendations he may think fit. The need for this to be done was expressed at an International Cricket Conference meeting in July, 1972 which reported as follows:

'Following upon a suggestion from M.C.C. this Conference is unanimously of the opinion that the stage has been reached where for the purpose of removing anomalies, consolidating various Amendments and Notes, and achieving greater clarity and simplicity, the 1947 Code of the Laws of Cricket should be revised and rewritten as soon as is reasonably possible. To this end:

  • (I)M.C.C. has agreed to undertake this task.
  • (II)All Member Countries of the I.C.C. i. e. both Full and Associate Members are invited to examine the existing Laws of Cricket (including Notes) and to recommend any deletions, additions and amendments thereto.
  • (III)Such deletions, additions and amendments should be in the hands of the Secretary of the Conference at Lord's not later than September 1, 1973.
  • (IV)The Secretary of the Conference will collate the recommendations from Member Countries and submit these to the person nominated to revise and rewrite the 1947 Code of the Laws of Cricket and also to all Members.
  • (V)On receipt of the draft of the proposed revised and rewritten Laws of Cricket, such draft shall be circulated to all Member Countries of the I.C.C.
  • (VI)Within one year, or such other time as may prove to be necessary after such draft has been circulated as aforesaid, this shall be submitted either to the Annual Conference of the I.C.C. or, to a Special General Meeting of that Conference, called for that purpose, with the object of first discussing the draft and any other matters relevant thereto and then agreeing upon revised Laws of Cricket for adoption.
  • (VII)Recognising from past experience that there is often divergence of opinion with consequential delays in final decisions, at such Annual or Special General Meeting each Member Country should be represented by a member or members of its Board of Control (or other governing authority) who has the discretionary authority to vote as he considers best in the interests of cricket.
  • (VIII)The revised and rewritten Laws of Cricket as then approved by the I.C.C. shall be recommended to the members of M.C.C. for final approval and adoption as the Laws of Cricket.
  • (IX)It will be accepted generally that the then new Laws of Cricket should not be altered or amended for a period of at least two years from the time they come into operation.'

In his daunting task, Mr. Griffith will be thinking of the game as a whole, and not simply of first-class cricket which, in addition to the Laws, has its own special experimental regulations. M.C.C. are constantly receiving requests from clubs for them to adjudicate on a point on which the Laws are not too explicit; this illustrates the manifest difficulties of interpretation.


Leg-Before-Wicket

As a player of considerable first class experience since his days at Cambridge, and with enormous administrative experience during cricket's most difficult years, 'Billy' Griffith is admirably equipped to look at the problems through various pairs of discerning eyes; most of all, he will want, most desperately, to do the right thing by cricket. Of course he has his own views on the major issues formulated both from being out in the middle, and later in high office. Whether his findings will produce any comment on the most controversial issue in the whole of cricket's history -- that concerning leg-before-wicket and the change which began operating in 1935, remains to be seen.

Since its inception l. b. w. has always been a bone of contention; there have been many ideas, some accepted, mostly rejected, but there is precious little in cricket which has stimulated such strongly held views; some regard the change as total folly, with the widest possible implications to the overall detriment of the game. Much talking on the subject has been done -- and is still done, but as the number of people on committees who played first-class cricket before 1935 becomes less and less, a change back becomes more remote.

The critical amendment to the law was decided at a meeting at Lord's on November 21, 1934, and had its trial in the 1935 season, when instructions were given to umpires as follows:

"In regard to l. b. w., Umpires must note that in all Inter-County matches in the First and Second-Class County Competitions, in all Universities' Matches whether played at the Universities or away, and in all South African matches, they are to read Law 24 as follows:

'The striker shall be out l. b. w. if with any part of his person (except his hand) which is between wicket and wicket he intercept a ball which, in the opinion of the Umpire at the bowler's wicket, shall have been pitched in a straight line from the bowler's wicket to the striker's wicket, or shall have been pitched on the off-side of the striker's wicket and would have hit it.'

Umpires will observe that the only new instruction is that the striker is out to a ball which, pitching on the off side of the striker's wicket, would have hit the wicket had it not been intercepted by part of the striker's person which was between wicket and wicket at the moment of impact."

So a batsman could now be given out to a ball pitching outside the off-stump. P. R. Sunnucks of Kent was the first batsman to be given out under the new law at Gravesend on May 1, 1935 when leg-before to H. A. Smith of Leicestershire for nought. On the face of it, the new law gave enormous advantages to the bowler; basically, one imagines this law had been devised in order to achieve a greater balance between bat and ball.

The early 'thirties had been a period of huge scores in first-class cricket. In 1934, fourteen players averaged over 50; the Nawab of Pataudi had an average of 78.75, and Walter Hammond, 76.32. It was felt that the change in the l. b. w. law would even things out, and give the bowler a fairer crack of the whip. Did it? Well, this is the whole crux of the matter. Wisden pronounced its views after the first experimental season as follows:

'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.'

The Editor then sought the views of players and listed A. B. Sellers, R. W. V. Robins, W. G. Lowndes, T. N. Pearce and G. F. H. Heane as being in favour of the change and R. E. S. Wyatt and E. R. T. Holmes being against. As far as the first-class averages were concerned for 1935, not one batsman achieved an average of 50, Hammond being the nearest with 49.35. The effect seemed to be marked but consideration must be given to the fact that in 1935, May was cold, June was wet and the weather was unfavourable later in the season. Overall, however, there seemed to be general satisfaction.


Far Reaching Effects

In retrospect, of course, one season was not enough in which to assess the far reaching effects on the game. One player who soon began to comment, and whose views have become even stronger with the passing years with a great deal of evidence to substantiate them, is G. O. Allen. He saw the reason for the change not only to level out between batsman and bowler, but because top-class batsman were becoming so adept at leaving the ball alone, none more than Jack Hobbs, then in his latter days, and Herbert Sutcliffe, and this, it was considered, was not good for a game in which the whole object is to hit a ball with a bat -- not to leave it alone.

The cardinal point that Mr. Allen makes is that it is not enough to examine any new law, but also to consider the by-products which might stem from the change, many of which could be evils. If equality was being sought between bat and ball, then perhaps, in some measure, this was achieved. It did help all types of bowlers, but the help was grossly disproportionate. The off-spinner and the in-ducker were in clover, but what about the leg-spinner and the orthodox left-arm? Where are they now? Are we to believe that their virtual disappearance is coincidence? Surely not. Did it really make the batsman, instead of leaving the ball alone, play a lot more off-side attacking strokes? Charles Barnett gives his answer to this question:

"Prior to the alteration, if any medium to fast bowler pitched a ball of negative length outside the line of the off-stump, I would attempt to square cut behind cover. If the ball turned back it hit my pad and not the wicket. I was, therefore, not out, but if it went on its original line, then it was hit for runs to third man, or a catch given, or it was missed altogether, thus providing a variety of action for the spectator. Once the new Law had worked to make an l. b. w. wicket to the bowler who could hit the right pad, then the scoring stroke outside the off-stump at a negative ball had to be given up. The result was that a batsman had been deprived of an attacking stroke. This, surely, was never the intention of the legislators who conceived the amended law."

Charles Barnett also recalls a conversation he had with the great Hedley Verity discussing the introduction of the change. Verity said "It will be a move in the wrong direction. The most difficult thing for a bowler to do is to make the ball move from leg to off, and he has learned to overcome these difficulties; remove the difficulties and the standard will fall."

Verity's thinking was a rational piece of philosophy, because if it was made easier for a bowler to get wickets, it opened the way for less talented bowlers. Distance, we know, lends enchantment; the days and players of yesteryear mellow in our minds as a good wine matures, and perhaps tend to cloud our judgment of the present day, but even with this fact well in mind, we may still reflect on how many more wickets Maurice Tate would have taken in his career, if he had operated all his life under the changed Law.


Batting Has Deteriorated

There is a universally held view by those who played before and after the change that batting standards have deteriorated as a result. Modern batsmen have found that by pushing forward they can survive, because they have a good chance of not being given out leg-before when playing well forward, yet the vast majority of great players have been great because of their ability off the back foot-- Hutton, Hammond, Bradman, McCabe, Headley, May, Cowdrey, Compton, Dexter, Clive Lloyd, Procter, Weekes, Worrell and Walcott. By playing back they increase the size of the arc through which runs can be scored. It is not by sheer coincidence that many back foot players are from Overseas; they have been nurtured on pitches where the ball does not deviate appreciably, and even when playing on English pitches where it does, they play as they have been bred. By playing back they are in a better -- in fact the only -- position, from which to hook, so by playing forward almost before the ball has left the bowler's hand, the batsman is depriving himself of a range of scoring strokes. Further, by being able and willing to play back or forward according to the length of the ball, he must be more difficult to bowl to.

R. E. S. Wyatt, listed by Wisden in 1936 as one of the opponents of the new Law writes:

"The alteration of the Law has put a premium on the type of bowling which has thrown the game mainly on to the on-side. I take the view that the batsman of to-day is greatly handicapped by the l. b. w. Law, as it stands. He has many fewer opportunities of playing the most attractive strokes than the pre-war batsman had, with the result that a lot of the beauty of the game has been lost in this country. In an attempt to brighten the game various incentives for batsmen to attack have been suggested and introduced such as Bonus Points, but it seems to have been overlooked that all such incentives are equal incentives for bowlers to bowl defensively. If it were decided to return to the old Law it would now be necessary to compensate bowlers by introducing a wider wicket. There appears to be a general objection to four stumps on ethical grounds but the appearance is not ugly if the two centre ones are close coupled; alternatively, three stumps would suffice if in order to avoid heavy stumps they were made elliptical in section."

Cyril Washbrook, a player and selector of immense experience, merely confirms the opinions of Allen, Barnett and Wyatt. He writes:

"There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the change of the l. b. w. law in 1935 caused many problems, and although many minor alterations have taken place since that date, it still remains a bone of contention throughout the world of cricket. What the change in 1935 brought about, was in the line of attack. Prior to that date bowlers directed the line to middle and off-stump, or outside the off-stump, endeavouring to make the ball move away from the batsman by swing or spin, as the case may be."

"From 1935 onwards, there was gradual change of line to middle and leg-stump, and even outside the leg-stump, by the fast and medium-paced bowlers. This was supported by a close attendance of leg-slips and on-side fielders. Defensive cricket is bad cricket. Bowlers discovered that it was more economical to bowl this line at the inside edge of the bat rather than the outside edge as they had previously done. It was hoped that the new law would encourage bowlers to pitch the ball on or about the off-stump; this would have the effect (it was hoped) of improving off-side play as well as giving the bowler a better chance of a wicket. This did not take place. The bowlers turned the rule to their advantage by the alteration in line of attack, supported by a defensive field on the on-side. Batsmen were not entirely free from blame, because they discovered that if they played well forward to the ball pitched on or outside the off-wicket, umpires were reluctant to give them out l. b. w.. This produced, particularly amongst the moderate batsmen, a predominance of front-footed players with a committed ugly lunge forward almost before the bowler had delivered the ball. Legs became the first line of defence and not the second as in previous years."


Leg-Side Limitation

When, over a period of time, the batsmen had worked out their antidote to the new law, it led subsequently to a weakening of the off-spinner's position -- one bowler it had appeared to help in the first place. Because of the change of line to middle and leg stump it was found necessary to place a restriction on the number of fielders on the on-side, so the genuine off-spinner was at least one fielder short on the on-side, particularly when the ball was turning. It was also distasteful because it deprived the captain of his inherent right to place his field as he thought best. This restriction was introduced to reduce the effectiveness of the in-slant bowler. It did, but like so many other innovations it produced an evil by-product -- it handicapped the genuine off-spinner, who was thus not prepared to flight the ball and employed instead, a flat trajectory. Basically, then, the new l. b. w. law was designed to help the bowler; the immediate effect was to give relatively less help to the leg-spinner and the orthodox left-arm bowler; the long term effect has been to reduce the effectiveness of the off-spin bowler when the ball is turning. What is there left?


Slow Over-Rate

This evolution has contributed considerably to a slowing down in over-rate because today, the preponderance of seam bowlers has eliminated many overs during an innings which were once bowled by spinners in half the time, and with the great emphasis on defence by the fielding side, it has cut down the run-rate as well. Perhaps, even more important than this situation, it has robbed the game of the endless variety which was once its charm.

Bill Edrich, who played his first first-class match in 1934, and so saw very little of the l. b. w. Law as it once was, is still strongly in favour of reversion to it. "It has killed leg-spin" he says, "and given a free rein to the in-slant bowler." Ken Barrington, who never knew the old Law favours reversion to it, but he, like Bob Wyatt, would be in favour of wider stumps in order to compensate the bowler. Barrington's principal point is a much up to date one and concerns the recent amendment whereby a batsman is out, if he offers no stroke to a ball pitching outside the off-stump which would, in the opinion of the umpire, have hit the stumps if the batsman's leg had not prevented it. Barrington says that it is making the batsman play a ball well outside the off-stump and going away, for fear of the odd one cutting back.

Harold Gimblett believes that the interpretation of this is difficult for umpires, because some players have developed the skill (players always seem to find a way round a new Law which defeats the object of that Law!) to have appeared to have played a ball, and have not actually done so, but on the other hand, Jack Robertson says that he was never a player to plonk his front leg down and outside the off-stump and let the ball hit it, but having watched this being done in recent years he felt it was logical that the new Law should come about. It will certainly not have the implications and by-products of 1935.


Front-Foot No Ball

A significant piece of legislation in recent years has been the change from the back foot to the front foot in assessing a no-ball. On the face of it, this can produce few by-products but will naturally be a source of irritation to some bowlers. It is very difficult for a fast bowler tearing in from a long distance to know exactly where his front foot will end up, but it will, no doubt, be overcome in time. To the impartial observer the real disadvantage is that the bowlers land in the same place and tend to dig a hole. If this is the only disadvantage, then the new Law must have been worthwhile. It has eliminated the draggers -- and there were some who bowled from nineteen yards -- and it has removed any inconsistency on the part of umpires where a dragger was penalised by an umpire at one end but was passed by his colleague at the other. It has also minimised the bowler running down the pitch.

Batsmen complain that they are given less time in which to help themselves off a no-ball. The object of a no-ball was not -- and is not, to present the batsman with four runs; it is to prevent an illegitimate ball being used to the batsman's disadvantage, just as a foot-fault is called in tennis to prevent the server stealing an advantage for himself. His opponent does not get a point; at least in cricket the batting side gets one run automatically. Yet Alec Bedser always said that he could not bowl well if he had to think about where his front foot would land. In the days of Harold Larwood, who did drag a fair way, the umpires drew a line behind the bowling crease, and then said to him: "Drop behind that line and I will let you go." There was never any trouble.


Leg-Byes

In addition to major issues, there are a number of anomalies in cricket, which, although Mr. Griffith may not concern himself with them, and perhaps his brief does not provide that he should, are still worthy of discussion. There is, for instance, a strong body of opinion, which resents leg-byes altogether. Why should a bowler if, by his own skill, he beats the bat and hits the batsman's legs (unless he is bowling down the leg-side and then he must expect revenge to be exacted) be penalised for it? In this case, however, the obvious by-product could be the worse of the two evils. If runs are not being scored then there is no reason for the fielder to hurry to retrieve the ball. He could walk at a slow pace, especially if it suits the fielding side to waste time (and we have enough skilled time-wasters without giving them another string to their bow). Supposing the ball went down in the direction of third man if there happened to be no third-man; the time-wasting possibilities are too all-embracing to contemplate.

There is also a strong feeling that a fielding side should not be penalised when a brilliant throw hits the wicket, with the batsman having just made his ground, and the fielding side have to suffer the indignity of overthrows. Should not the ball be dead when it hits the wicket? Here again, there is a by-product. Supposing one batsman, due to the inevitable misunderstanding that has existed in the game of cricket since its inception, is stranded in mid wicket, approaching the end where the wicket has been broken. If the ball was deemed to be dead the fielding side would lose the opportunity of breaking the wicket at the other end before he can get back, and thus lose the chance of a run-out. So it is better to let sleeping dogs lie. Charles Barnett, incidentally, feels that a fine throw in the field bringing about a run-out when the fielder hits the stumps should be credited to him, just as catches are, but then sometimes a throw into the wicket-keeper's gloves or to the bowler at the other end is just as effective as actually hitting the stumps, and it would be unrealistic to differentiate one from the other.

In another context, it is hard on the bowler having to pay the penalty of overthrows, but cricket is, after all, a team game, and it is the team that matters. In any event, overthrows usually result from a ball being hit some distance from the wicket, so the bowler is merely paying a slightly higher price for bowling a ball from which the batsman has scored.


Bonus Points

Bonus points are not a matter within the strict term of laws, they are experimental regulations governing first-class cricket, but since there is conflicting opinion as to their profitability, it is worth mention here. The Editor of Wisden, I know, does not favour the arrangement for the award of bonus points because he feels that the bowling side has a very marked advantage, something over which the batting side has only limited control. The batsman's simple answer is not to get out, but there is always a far greater chance of wickets falling than not. Bill Edrich is against bonus points. His view is that a sensible game of cricket can suddenly go berserk to the complete astonishment of the spectators, until it is realised that a bonus point is lurking round the corner. This is false cricket and therefore bad cricket.


Close Fielding

Jack Robertson makes a cogent observation and he is not alone in this. He writes: "It seems to me that most of the alterations to the actual playing laws have been brought about by the players themselves. The next one I can see coming, is how near can the fielder be to the batsman. Surely, Sarfraz, in last year's England v. Pakistan series, was in a position to inhibit the batsman's stroke to leg? One could not really swing to leg for he was within striking distance of the bat, which must be wrong."


Preparation Of Pitches

Preparing of pitches is not a law, and even a direction cannot be complied with one hundred per cent, because the state of a pitch is governed to some extent by the amount of rain in the spring and the soil and the sub-soil, but when marl became unfashionable and gave way to Surrey loam we seemed to get fewer fast pitches. When cricket ball manufacturers were instructed to put more stitches into a ball it seemed to have the detrimental effect of more and more losing their shape long before what should have been the end of their reign.


Worthwhile Innovations

If this article has given the impression that the law-makers over the years have made a pretty poor job of it, this should be discounted at once. Many innovations have proved quite invaluable, none more than that insisting that twenty overs should be bowled in the last hour; increasing the number of overs before a new ball can be taken (it was once 55 overs, which was absurd), and amendments to the regulation concerning the follow-on are but a few of highly constructive pieces of legislation.

To present merely the existing laws and notes and amendments as one entity will be as complicated for Mr. Griffith as orchestrating the score for a musical. It may be that this will be his only concern for the moment and to want to suggest turning things inside out will be a non-starter. The modern players and administrators may think that the elder statesmen have talked enough over the years about returning to the old l. b. w. law and should now let it rest. Be this as it may, I am engrossed when listening to them on the subject, mainly, I suppose, because I am absolutely certain that they are right. The puzzle to me, is that no set of administrators has heeded their views sufficiently to have done something about it. Perhaps one-day cricket with its different set of values has diminished the aesthetic qualities of the game without it mattering. Variety, the spice of life, was once its never-ending charm. I wonder if it does matter!


© John Wisden & Co