June 9, 2008

The changing of the guard

A look at the history of cricket's opening ceremony

Leg, please: batsmen have individual styles of taking guard when they come to the crease © Getty Images

Alistair Cooke, doubtless with his American constituency in mind, once described cricket as a form of "ceremonial coma". He had a point. It is a game engrained with rituals and archaisms that, passing as fluidly as a waking dream, have become barely noticeable, yet whose absence would strike one immediately as a breach of protocol, even a lapse in taste.

Consider the act of taking guard. Every batsman from one to 11 goes through the pedantic, fussy formality of ascertaining where he is standing in relation to the stumps, holding the bat side-on and upright for the umpire's instruction. Over a match's course a crease will become fissured and grooved in the relevant reference points: middle, two legs, one leg. Yet apparently nobody trusts bearings other than their own: one would no sooner rely on another cricketer's guard than share his socks.

An apocryphal story concerns the tailender's tailender "Bomber" Wells taking strike without seeking an umpire's advice, deprecating the technicality: "No thanks, I've played here before." It relies for its humour on an awareness of the solecism, which only the likes of the waggish Wells could get away with: somewhere there is probably an HM Bateman cartoon showing a quivering bunch of fielders levitating in shock at The Batsman Who Didn't Want a Guard.

It is a custom, too, to which every batsman brings a certain individuality. Ian Chappell, a great bustler to the crease, always attended briskly to his markings, as though he could not wait to get to grips with the bowler. Graham Gooch would hold the bat erect with his right hand atop the handle, full face showing, exuding solemn permanence. Nobody today makes a bigger deal of scoping his property out than Matthew Hayden, who wants GPS standards of exactitude and digs a mark like the Mariana Trench.

"Guard", of course, began in cricket as a descriptive rather than a technical term and dates back more than 250 years, James Love's epic poem of 1744 featuring the couplet: "Now the two mightiest of the fainting Host ... With pow'rful Skill, their threat'ned Wickets guard." The notion of orienting oneself at the crease then flowed from the phasing in of the third stump, an outcome of "Lumpy" Stevens' famous torments at the Artillery Ground in 1775. The primo professional allrounder of the early 19th century, William Lambert, was the first to advocate choosing a particular stump to protect. The Surrey man who hit "what no man could meddle with" recommended in his exquisite little primer, Instructions and rules for playing the noble game of cricket, as practised by the most eminent players (1816):

As guarding the wicket may be considered a very necessary part to be observed by the batsman, we shall remark that as the bat is only four and a half inches wide and the wicket seven inches, the striker cannot guard all the three stumps ... therefore we consider it necessary for a young beginner to guard the middle stump, or that which is most generally hit by the bowler, always guarding the weakest side.

Frederick Gale, who would write voluminously as "The Old Buffer" but then signed himself as "A Wykehamist", refers to the act of making a mark in Practical Hints on Cricket (1843): "Let the player first obtain guard ... for the middle stump, and then mark it carefully ... Draw a straight line from the guard to the crease." In describing the "off-cut half-volley" in Felix on the Bat (1845) - a "stroke violent in its intentions" that "produces a mighty stir in the field" - the polymath Nicholas Wanostrocht depicts the batsman's guard as his base of operations: "To spring from your guard to adopt this most effective hit, the ball should pitch, say, four inches wide of off stump."

First evidence of the umpire's involvement is found in the inaugural edition of Fred Lillywhite's Guide to Cricketers (1849), with a couple of variations on later practice. "In taking the position at the wicket inquire from which side the bowler will deliver the ball; Lillywhite counselled. "Also ask the umpire from whence the ball is delivered to give you guard." Now and again one still encounters a batsman who asks for guard from the bowler's position - conduct frowned on by commissars of correct technique. "I know many club cricketers ask for a guard `from where the bowler bowls'," grumbles Geoff Boycott in Geoff Boycott on Batting (1980). "That makes no sense at all." But it actually seems a vestige of the initial practice.

Lillywhite was also the first to fix a name to a particular guard: "The best guard for the young cricketer to take is between the middle and leg stump, commonly called 'two leg'." But he also recommended adjustment if the bowler changed direction: "If the bowler should change his side you will require another guard, which, by asking the umpire, he will give you. Place your bat on the spot upright and make a mark on the ground so that you may know it again."

How one referenced the guard was also left to the individual. At around that time Edward Ward, the first Australian round-arm bowler was taking strike backside first - 180 degrees to the way Peter Willey finished his career. And as late as the beginnings of Test cricket, the umpire's assistance was discretionary. The definition for "Guard" in Charles Box's lexicon of the game in The English Game of Cricket (1877) explains: "A batsman often applies to the umpire for guard, i.e. to know which stump or stumps his bat is defending." In other words the Bomber Wells gag would not have got a laugh quite yet.

It is not uncommon for batsmen to alter a guard to deal with a particular bowler. In the West Indies in 1980-81, Geoff Boycott acted on Mike Gatting's advice to bat on off stump to Colin Croft, whose peculiar angle from wide of the crease drew batsmen into playing at deliveries they should not

Guards have gone in and out of fashion, each having its advocates. "Centre" has always been a kind of golden mean and became the default option in Australia. "Custom and tradition," noted Eric Barbour in The Making of a Cricketer (1926), "lead us to obtain from the umpire the line of the centre stump, so that we may let the bat rest on it." It is probably still used by nine in ten Australian club batsmen and recommended by Warren Smith, coach to Michael Slater and Phil Jaques. "I always reckon a young player should take centre because he or she will have good eyes," he argues in How I Taught Michael Slater to Play Cricket (2006).

About 100 years ago the usual recommendation was "one leg", advocated by such Golden Age ornaments as Ranji, who thought umpires were naturally "more inclined to give decisions against batsmen who cover the stumps before the ball is bowled". Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe also subscribed to "one leg", Hobbs because it gave a "truer sight of the direction of the ball" and put him "in the best position to deal with all sorts of balls", Sutcliffe candidly because he felt vulnerable on the on side: "Personally I find great difficulty in distinguishing between a ball pitching on the wicket and one pitching two or three inches outside," he noted in Batting (1937). "But I do feel certain the 'one leg' guard helps considerably."

Their contemporary Bill Woodfull argued for "two legs" for equal and opposite reasons to those of Ranji, believing it important that "the player does not show the bowler too much of the stumps for, if the attacker sees the way wide open, it gives him added confidence". Bradman took "two legs", too, and it seems to be the vogue at the ECB National Academy, where John Abrahams, the assistant coach, describes it as arising from an "imaginary line drawn from the batsman's middle stump through the back of his head, coming out between the eyes and continuing down the pitch to the bowler's middle stump". The effort of drawing these imaginary lines may explain the introversion into which English batting has sunk.

Yet Barry Richards, blessed with as naturally excellent technique as any batsman in history, deplored "two legs". A batsman, he thought, should either take "one leg", as he did, because it allowed "plenty of room to hit my off-side shots", or "centre", like his confederate Mike Procter, whose back foot tended not to go so far across. "I am not an advocate of this guard [two legs] because I think it is neither one thing nor the other; it falls between two stools," Richards said in Attack To Win (1973). "If you have trouble outside the off stump, take centre; if you do not, take leg stump." Nor is it uncommon for batsmen to alter a guard to deal with a particular bowler. In the West Indies in 1980-81, Boycott acted on Mike Gatting's advice to bat on off stump to Colin Croft, whose peculiar angle from wide of the crease drew batsmen into playing at deliveries they should not. Latterly Ricky Ponting among others has crept over to off stump when facing Muttiah Muralitharan to keep his pads outside the line of the stumps.

The only wrong answer to the question of the right guard, then, is "none of the above" - the reason being that it is not merely a matter of technique. For taking guard is a key to the routine of preparing for the first ball, part of the act of stimulating and harnessing adrenalin: the unconscious familiarity of the actions helps calm nerves, gain time, proclaim resolution and direct thoughts. In the wonderful account of Derek Randall's marathon 150 at Sydney in January 1979, which forms part of Mike Brearley's The Ashes Retained (1979), Dudley Doust describes how the elementary business of taking two legs set the Englishman at once in a positive frame of mind.

He scratched his right boot across the ground, loosening the hard-packed soil. Jabbing down his bat, he called to the umpire, Bailhache, "Two legs, please, Robin." By chance it came right, spot on, the face of his bat square to the line between middle and leg stumps. Bailhache signalled as much, and Randall was happy. A simple act had worked perfectly, first look and neat as a notch, and he found it remarkably comforting. Eagerly he knocked in his mark with the toe of his bat, deriving palpable pleasure from the feeling of it in the soil ...

An oldie but a goodie: the "one leg" guard was a staple of the Golden Age © Getty Images

Too much fiddle-faddle, meanwhile, can evince conglomerated thoughts. Marjorie Pollard became so frustrated with women cricketers taking guard 70 years ago that she reprimanded them in her book Cricket For Women and Girls (1934).

There is no reason to plant the bat down somewhere on the crease and let the umpire signal or call several times before you get "middle" or "middle and leg", or whatever it is you want. Look at the wickets, make a rough calculation which is "middle and leg" if that is what you want, and then put your bat there, hold it up straight and look at the umpire.

She will move it, by word or sign, to the required position. If she says "covering one" she means that your bat is covering the leg stump. "Covering two', which is what most players want, means that you have got a position in which your bat is covering the leg and middle stumps. Having got your guard, make a mark. There is no need to dig yourself in - this thumping and excavating advertises nerves again.

Nor does cricket always stand comatose on ceremony. There is a story, too, of a Sussex v Hampshire match in the early 1970s where John Snow was bowling to the Hampshire lower order and was brought up short by the sight of Bob Stephenson, whose homespun crouch bore an unfortunate resemblance to a batsman in the act of taking guard. Snow started his run, pulled up halfway through, heaved a sigh and walked back. Then he turned, started again, and again pulled up, this time with an oath, and walked back again. A third time he started and again stopped himself, now more volubly - how long was this going to take? Learning that Stephenson was actually ready, legend has it, added 20mph to Snow's usual pace. Whenever the counties met in future, the sight of Stephenson roused Snow to full fury.

Cooke is famous for saying that the essence of his favourite game, golf, lay in its embarrassments. It is a pity he did not know cricket well enough to see the parallels.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer. This article was first published in the June issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here