From underarm to overarm

The evolution of bowling

Martin Williamson

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Originally, all bowlers in cricket delivered the ball underarm. Although to the modern mind this conjures up images of children's games, the reality was that the best bowlers could impart considerable spin on the ball, and deliver it at quite a pace.

By the early part of the 19th century, the balance between batsman and bowler had swung very much in favour of the former, even though poor pitches kept the scores down. To counter this imbalance, bowlers started looking at ways of redressing the balance.

What happened - by natural evolution rather than any conscious decision - was the emergence of round-arm bowling with the ball delivered at or below shoulder height.

The popular story states that this came about when Christina Willes, sister of Kent cricketer John Willes, was bowling at him in their garden, and unable to bowl underarm because of the voluminous skirts that were the fashion of the time, she raised her arm higher than was usual. Probably more likely is that it came about through experimentation, and Hambledon's Tom Walker is widely regarded as being at the forefront of such innovation. That was backed by the testimony of "Silver Billy" Beldham, who insisted that Willis had not invented the style, merely "revived what was forgotten or new to the young folk" and that "jerking" as it was previously known had plagued cricket in the 1780s until outlawed by the Hambledon club.

It was Willes who championed the style, and in 1816 the Laws were changed to ban round-arm bowling - until then anything other than underarm had not been illegal but was certainly considered ungentlemanly - and to allow umpires to call no-ball for anyone breaching the law.

On July 15, 1822, Willes bowled round-arm for Kent against MCC at Lord's and was no-balled. Willis threw the ball down, mounted his horse, and rode away, never to play in a major match again. But he had started something, and through the 1820s round-arm became more prevalent.

By 1826, Sussex, the unofficial champions, built their success on two round-arm bowlers - James Broadbridge and William Lillywhite - and confusion grew among players and public about what was allowed. Often it was left to individual umpires, and objections from batsmen facing round-arm bowlers was common.

In 1828, MCC modified the Laws again, allowing the bowler to raise the arm to elbow height, but the round-armers continued, as did the confusion. Seven years later, admitting defeat, MCC rewrote the Laws to permit round-arm deliveries.

No sooner had that debate been ended than the arms began to creep above shoulder height, and in 1845 MCC yet again changed the Laws to try to give the umpires more power, enshrining in the Laws that their decision was final. Just as had been the case with round-arm, over-arm bowling became more widespread, aided by a number of umpires doing little to prevent it.

Matters came to a head on August 26, 1862, when Surrey played All England at The Oval and Edgar Willsher deliberately bowled overarm and was no-balled six times in succession by umpire John Lillywhite. The irony was that Lillywhite was the son of the very man who almost four decades earlier had done so much to change the Laws. Willsher and the other eight professionals in the England team walked off and play ended for the day.

Perhaps sensing that the tide had turned, MCC changed the Laws in time for the 1864 season, permitting the bowler to do anything other than throw the ball. Things did not change overnight, and round-arm bowlers continued to be seen in first-class cricket well into the 20th century, as did the occasional underarmer.

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo

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Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.
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