Not an easy comparison, 1909

Cricket in the sixties and at the present day

Alfred Lubbock

Comparing the cricket in the sixties with that of the present day is not easy, for many reasons; namely, that it is played under very different conditions and on totally different wickets. I consider that Cricket County Championship has also made a difference in the game. It has made it more a matter of business than pleasure, and it is played in a far more serious manner than formerly. In the sixties the chief matches were, Gentlemen v. Players, North v. South, Gentlemen of the South v. Players of the South and a few such-like games. The Gentlemen v. Players matches at Lord"s and the Oval generally made a fine week"s cricket for the onlookers, and except about a couple or so at the end of the eleven (a different bowler or wicket-keeper), the sides in both matches were nearly the same. Now, owing to county matches, it is difficult always to get the best elevens-a good deal more so at the Oval than at Lord"s. As regards the actual players, I consider there are more good players and this, no doubt, has been caused by the county championship rivalry. As to individual men in the batting line I think Bob Carpenter, Tom Hayward, Richard Daft and one or two others were quite as good bats as any professionals of the present day, though I admit they didn"t get quite so many hundreds as are now obtained. The simple reason for this is that now the wickets are so perfect that bumping balls, shooters, shooters, or bad kickers, are seldom seen. At Lord"s, it was a common occurance to have three shooters and the other ball out of an over of four bump right over the batsman or wicket-keeper"s head. A proof of the altered conditions of the wickets is that now a long-stop is dispensed with in most cases altogether, whereas in earlier days a long-stop was an absolute necessity. From what I have seen of the present wicket-keepers they are not better than Tom Lockyer and Pooley at their best. I think Blackham had something to do with the no long-stop game, and in my opinion he must be considered the best wicket-keeper seen for a long time and, while mentioning Blackham, it has struck me that we picked up one or two other wrinkles from the Australians. It must also be remembered that when they first came over on their visits the wicket were already fast coming to the billiard table level, but even then, to the fast bowlers, Blackham stood a bit back. Now as for the Gentlemen batsmen in the sixties there were a few quite as good as any of the present day, and I have heard it said more than once that had W. G. Grace had the present wickets when in his prime he never would have been got out at all. I myself can"t go quite so far as this, but still it would have been a job. I consider there were others quite as good and with better style than W.G., but not so safe and sure. One of the reasons why W. G. made more hundreds than other Gentlemen was because he always played so carefully and never took risks. In fact often after he had made a hundred or even two hundred he would play on quite as steadily as when he first went in, and being very strong and always in good trim he never seemed to tire. Many other amateurs after they got a hundred would slog out at everything, and so almost get out on purpose. This I never saw W. G. do. One of the chief reasons for it was because everything was then, and batsmen had often had about enough of it and didn"t care to run any more. Now a man can go in and get a hundred by tapping balls to the boundary, and be just as fresh and strong as he was when he started. One batsman of the old school had he had the present wickets to bat on would I think have been quite as good, if not better, than any of the present bats. That was Bill Yardley. He was a wonderfully fine bat all round and fast run-getter and had quite as good a defence as W.G., but not the steadiness or patience W. G. had. As to the bowlers of the present I do not consider that there are any much better than Tarrant, Freeman, Wootton, and Alfred Shaw. As in the case of batsmen, there are more good bowlers all round but, from what I have seen, none better than the above. Another bowler, who about that time was one of the best, was Edgar Willsher (left-handed)-for many years he was the mainstay of Kent. He started at first bowling fast rather over his head and there was a great outcry at the Oval one year because he was no-balled for bowling over his shoulder. He after this lowered his arm and slowed down a good deal, but was always a good bowler, and a more steady, obliging civil professional was not to be found. He kept on for many years and finished up with being ground-keeper and odd bowler at Princes.

As to school cricket, taking it all round, I consider it is far above the 1860 school cricket. This is easily accounted for by the fact of the severe systematic coaching boys have received not only from some good professionals but also from good amateurs. Before 1860 some of the school batting partook more of the crooked bat village green style. One curious fact, is, notwithstanding the coaching schoolboys get now, it is a long time before they reach the stage of Gentlemen and Players. This I chiefly put down to the fact that the old stagers, so to speak, keep longer at the game, probably from the fact that they have not got to run so much either in batting or fielding owing to the boundaries. Formerly a man after leaving school soon appeared in Gentlemen v. Players and, if I remember rightly, the late Mr. R. A. H. Mitchell and the present Lord Cobham were invited to play for the Gentlemen while still at Eton.

One other fact I might mention in reference to amateurs of the present day as compared with formerly is this: in the sixties we (with a few notable exceptions) had to pay our own expenses. This fact debarred many good amateurs from being able to play. Now, in nearly all cases amateurs have their hotel bills and travelling expenses paid for them by the county club. Also many of the good amateurs formerly were in business, so could not spare the time or the money. The fielding I do not consider has improved at all; it may seem better, but it must be remembered that now the out-fielding is very different from what it was. On most of the leading grounds now you might get a perfect wicket on any part of the ground, and the ball comes along smoothly. Formerly at Lord"s at cover point both sides, where I continually had to field, there were cracks big enough to put your fist in, and it was impossible to tell how a ball was coming to you. It might kick at right angles, shoot or bump over your head; at long leg and near the boundary far worse. I have often been asked whom I consider the best bat of the present day. My answer has always been, I can"t say, but I will tell you who I would rather see make 25 than any of the others make 100, that"s Ranjitsinhji. I think for ease and grace he is far above any of the others. G. L. Jessop is a fine hitter, get his runs fast, and is amusing to watch, but I should not consider as an actual hitter he is anything to be compared to C. I. Thornton, and the latter was quite as fast a run-getter at times. As to the best bowler now, I think they were mostly good on different wickets and none facile princeps. For the most useful all-round man I would rather have Hirst on my side than any other professional. An A1 field, a difficult bowler, and although his batting is not taking to watch he is always good for runs, more especially when they are wanted.

Besides the great improvement in the wickets and the out-fielding ground there are other changes which gave a help to the present players. Not only do they have a great white tarpaulin behind the bowler"s arm but the umpires are also clothed in immaculate white coats. Formerly they used generally to have black coats. I remember rather a good story about this; the batsmen used frequently to ask the umpire to stand further back, and one day old Jimmy Grundy, who had a somewhat portly figure, was kept being asked to stand further back by the batsman, with no avail, till at last the batsman said, perhaps if you stand sideways it may do. Old Jimmy, grinning to the bowler, said, don"t make much difference which ways I stand, I am about the same both ways. I remember once, I think it was in Gentlemen v. Players at Lord"s, there was no tarpaulin and the bowler"s arm was just in a line with one of the little trees that were waving about in the wind. I never had a ghost of an idea where the ball came so was promptly shot out by what I was afterward told was a regular long hop. It was a fast bowler, J. C. Shaw, or Silcock, I think. The Pavilion at Lord"s was a nasty back ground and people continually on the move. Now steps are taken to prevent this. We also used to go on playing when it was raining, and in the ten years I played in first-class matches I never remember the game being stopped on account of bad light, a thing often done in the present day, and to knock off the game for tea was a thing unknown.

Although, when I mentioned the improvement of the wickets I was chiefly thinking of Lord"s, I may add that the Oval and Canterbury, were always better, I mean easier for batting; still there is a vast improvement in those grounds now to what they were. One day, about 1900, the late C. F. Buller came to London for a day and having lunched with me suggested we would go down to the Oval to watch a good match that was going as he said he hadn"t seen any good cricket for about 20 years. It was a first-class match and many of the best men were playing. When we had been there about two hours he said he had had quite enough and was sick of it. I said, Well, Charley, what do you think of it? He replied, Well, Alfred, what licks me is how they ever get anyone that can play out at all on these wickets; we have been here two hours and I haven"t seen a ball do anything yet.

Another great innovation, too, has crept in which I do not consider is an improvement and that is the leg play or rather stuffing the legs in front of the wicket, and I have always maintained that the lbw rule ought to be that, if in the opinion of the umpire, the ball would have struck the wicket, if impeded by the leg or any part of the body except the hands and arms, the player should be given out. I think the late Arthur Shrewsbury was the greatest culprit in the art of defending his wicket with his legs, and helped a good deal to set a bad example. Anyone who was watching the Australian match against England in 1886, when Shrewsbury scored over a hundred must have been disgusted, as Giffen was, as Shrewsbury ball after ball repeatedly and deliberately saved his wicket with his legs, and if I remember rightly Giffen at last threw the ball down in disgust. I used to have great arguments with the late Mr. R. A. H. Mitchell, on the subject of the lbw rule, and at first he was dead against me owing, as he said, to the difficulty for an umpire to decide. He afterwards came round to my way of thinking and did his best to get the M.C.C to alter the rule; in fact was one of the leading spirits who sent in the petition a few years back for the alteration of the rule to the M.C.C. committee. There is another thing some of the best bats do now, and that is pose themselves in the attitude they played a ball in as if they were going to be photographed. One of the best bats of the day especially. It may be done for the benefit of the snapshotters but I maintain it does not look pretty. No, play a ball and have done with it. A thing, too, you seldom see now is a ball thrown in from long leg properly; boundary hits may help to account for this but not wholly. Many of the best players now are deplorably bad throwers and you often see a ball rolled in underhand or bowled in. It may be all right, but it doesn"t look smart.

Going back a little I consider Tarrant was a better fast bowler than Freeman. He varied his pitch more and would perhaps bowl you a fast yorker first, then a good length ball, then a full pitch at your head or something. I remember his getting three of us out three balls running at Canterbury. It was during the Canterbury Week and one of the matches then was always XIII. of Kent v. England. I was playing for Kent, and he got me with a very fast yorker; the next two, one with a very fast full pitch and the other with a splendid good length ball. He took for such a fast bowler a very short run, and the ball was on to you before you knew where you were. Freeman took a longer run and would go on pegging at you with little variety and a trifle short. I played both often and always considered Tarrant the best. I know the Walkers didn"t agree with me and maintained Freeman was the best. I may be wrong but I always fancied a bowler who took a long run was easier to play than a man who took a short run. It may only be fancy, but with a long run you have more time to concentrate your attention on the bowler and the ball. Wootton, who generally bowled one very fast ball an over, simply took about two steps, no run. I have never seen any bowler before or since bowl in the same way. He took as I say about two steps, two sorts of a twiddle with his arm, and the ball was gone. He had an easy delivery and there seemed no effort or labour in his bowling. I cannot see where the advantage comes in the very long run of some bowlers of the present day, and it must be very tiring too. I cannot at the moment remember any Gentlemen or Professional bowlers who figured in good matches in my time taking such long runs as many do at the present day. Tom Emett was at one time very fast, left handed, and could bowl a very difficult ball, but like many other fast bowlers he slowed down a good deal. There were many others I could mention who, I think, would be quite up to the present day form. I can"t say that among the Gentlemen there were any first-class bowlers, and in the Gentlemen v. Players matches we had a great difficulty to pick up good bowlers. David Buchanan and Arthur Appleby were about the best and quite up to any present form. We had to resort to lobs, and we had Walter Money who was not only a fine bat but a good lob bowler and one of the best fields to his own bowling I ever saw.

Rhodes more reminds me of Wootton than any of the other present bowlers, but he takes one if not two steps more than Wootton did. J. C. Shaw, Old Jimmy, was also a most effective bowler, and got many wickets and could bowl all the day long. He was quite one of the best, and if you take these- A. Shaw, G. Tarrant, J. C. Shaw or Willsher, and Wootton, and Freeman, I think you will find that most old cricketers will say they were quite as good as any same number at the present day. E. M. Grace was a most brilliant all-round man, quite as likely to make a hundred as anybody, a splendid field anywhere, especially at point-where he always stood close up, not about twenty yards off like many do now-and a very tricky bowler. A. N. Hornby also was a splendid bat and got many large scores.

Owing to the placing balls to leg and the leg glide you never see the fine leg hitting you used to see; no doubt the new style is the safer game, but not so ornamental. W. G. chiefly started this and Ranji. brought it to perfection. In my opinion, publishing the batting and bowling averages in the daily papers may have a good deal to do with the tediousness of the game. Many batsmen play for their average and won"t take liberties, and bowlers for their analysis. The latter, instead of trying for a wicket by hook or by crook, will keep plodding away over after over with the same sort of ball. On the whole, although I consider that now there are six good cricketers where formerly there were only one or two, they are not actually better than they were 40 years ago, but they have more advantages, and from an onlooker"s point of view I do not think the game (unless Jessop is in and scoring) quite so attractive or interesting as it was in the sixties.

© John Wisden & Co