1900 May 8, 2010

Cricket's net loss

Few changes to the Laws have been as drastic or, even without the benefit of hindsight, crazy than the one tried out by the MCC in 1900

The Laws of cricket have been constantly tinkered with ever since they were first drawn up in 1744. Most changes have been for the good, others quietly discarded, but few have been as drastic or, even without the benefit of hindsight, crazy than the one proposed by the MCC, the guardian of the Laws, in 1900.

In the last decade of the 1800s the authorities grew increasingly concerned over the perceived imbalance between bat and ball. Improvements in groundsmanship and equipment meant pitches had been transformed from dangerous, even surfaces into flat, batsman-friendly ones. Huge scores by teams and players were on the increase and the MCC was alarmed that big hitting was dragging the game down. The previous season had seen Albert Trott become the first - and to date only - man to clear the Lord's pavilion with a massive drive. In another game Surrey had amassed 811 against Somerset at The Oval.

At its AGM on May 2, 1900 the MCC made important changes to the Laws. The over was increased from five to six balls; the follow-on and declaration limits were changed. Other proposals, including ones to increase the width of the stumps and reduce the size of the bat or give bonus points in the County Championship for maiden overs, were rejected.

But one was accepted as a trial: the enclosing of grounds with a net of between two to three feet in height to try to eliminate boundary hits, "the most fantastic of experiments" according to the Times. Any ball becoming lodged in the net would get two in addition to any runs actually run, instead of four. Any hit clearing the net would get three in total.

Barely had the meeting ended than the flaws of the net scheme became obvious. The Times predicted that a hit into the net could get as many as five or six runs, while should "a Jessop bang the ball over the net and hard against the boundary it would be to his disadvantage".

On the day of the AGM, the first of several experimental matches started at Lord's as MCC & Ground took on Nottinghamshire. "It can hardly be said to work satisfactorily," said the Evening Standard. "Fives were fairly plentiful, and fours were scored with the old frequency… the innovation is hardly likely to be favoured by cricketers, as it tells perhaps even more against the fielding sides." The Times was clear "the experiment has failed… the new system thoroughly exposed".

The Guardian was not impressed either, referring to it being "a grave menace to the dignity and ease with which the bat has been wont to pile up fours". The biggest gripe was that a snick through the slips could result in five runs, while a textbook cut over the netting only three.

The players were also perplexed. No sooner had play started than the umpires had to make a ruling. Some of the fielders believed the law meant the ball was dead as soon as it hit the net and that only runs completed before that instance counted. Others maintained the batsmen could keep running until the ball was retrieved and returned to the middle. The latter was the finding, meaning no longer could fielders stand and admire a rasping shot to the boundary and wait for its return by a spectator - they now had to chase it down.

The ground-level spectators were also unimpressed at having a net impair their view, while the lack of a gap in the netting meant players had to straddle it on entering and exiting the field, which caused padded batsmen more than a few tricky moments.

On the second day poor weather and dismissive comment in the news kept the crowd small but the newspapers and players had already reached their conclusion. "We wish we could congratulate [the MCC] on the experiment," lamented a correspondent in Cricket, to the effect it was brave but not worth continuing with. Others publicly called for the match not to be counted in the first-class records.

On May 7, the first-class Championship season started with "an irony worthy of the best traditions", noted the Times as the ball dominated across the country. Worcestershire were bowled out for 43 as Yorkshire beat them in a day. At Lord's, the MCC lost to Leicestershire inside two days as the net experiment was tried again.

On May 10, the MCC played Sussex and fielded no fewer than eight professionals, an unprecedented number for the club. The implication was clear - the gentlemen wanted nothing to do with the new law. Even the three amateurs were not regulars.

As a concession to criticism, the MCC revised the experimental law so that hits out of the ground counted six, over the net five instead of three, while "hits which bounded over the net, through it or under it" gained four. It failed to impress. The public stayed away, Sussex won in a little over a day-and-a-half of play, and Cricket observed the standard was of a "Saturday afternoon variety".

The plan, as adopted, placed brilliant hitting at a discount and put such a premium on hits that just reached the ring that it deserved to fail
Wisden Cricketers' Almanack

On May 14 the fourth game under the net experiment saw the MCC hand Yorkshire their only loss of the summer. The pitch was very close to the Mound Stand side, making the net there almost redundant other than as a way of cutting down runs, but towards the Grandstand side there were no shortage of sixes and sevens scored. There was one other oddity. Cyril Sewell of Gloucestershire played for the MCC under the pseudonym CL Lewes, presumably because, like others in years to follow, he was supposed to be elsewhere.

Pelham Warner captained the MCC in this match and made 83 ("worth about 65 to 70") and 69 ("about 54 to 58"). In all, he estimated the net rule added about 15% to overall scores and noted "it was the fieldsmen who complained of being overworked".

The fifth and final first-class match under the experimental rule was all but dead, and the game was notable only for Samuel Wood managing to score 10 off a single hit, thanks to the net and then subsequent overthrows.

"The whole notion was abandoned," wrote Wisden, noting the net remained in place for the rest of the summer purely as a boundary marker. "There was something to be said for having all hits run out and perhaps the experiment would have had a better chance if there had been no allowance of two runs when the ball was stopped in the netting.

"The plan, as adopted, placed brilliant hitting at a discount and put such a premium on hits that just reached the ring that it deserved to fail."

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Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa