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Wisden's ask me to "elaborate" something I said at the Annual Meeting of the Cricketers' Fund Friendly Society about the style of batting frequently noticeable nowadays in first-class cricket.
I have elaborated it already twice, and meant thereafter to hold my peace, but from such an old friend as Wisden's I cannot refuse a request.
Let me say this much for myself: I hope I am not so decrepit, nor so bigoted a "laudator temporis acti" as not to be able to adapt myself to change of style and of opinion as the advance of time requires, and if I could feel that the change of style, which some of us critics deprecate, is necessitated by factors which were not present from, say, 1860 to 1890, I would not venture to comment adversely on it. But, except as regards one factor which I will allude to presently, I cannot see that there is anything necessitating a style which, in its worst form, would make those great masters of style and great tutors R. A. H. Mitchell, I. D. Walker, and H. H. Stephenson hold up their hands in horror.
I regret to have to say so, but I do declare that in the little first-class cricket I see nowadays I have seen more bad batting this year than I can remember to have seen in any previous year; and I fear that a bad style is spreading, for I know from conversation with young cricketers that this style is not condemned by them; and I therefore venture in the interests of English cricket, and for the welfare of school cricketers, now while there is yet time, to raise one voice at any rate against it.
I have already said that I cannot see in the contingent factors anything to necessitate this bad style. The wickets are unquestionably far easier than in the period I mention. A contemporary of mine wrote to me this year: "I've been getting a lot of runs on tour, but really on these modern bread and butter wickets it is no credit to me."
The placing of the field does not necessitate it, for that has not materially altered, except for the preference of three short slips, to two short slips and a point, I mean a legitimate point, not a deep cover point square. The bowling is not more accurate than it was, I doubt if it is as accurate as in the days of Willsher, Alfred Shaw, Attewell, Martin, and others I could name. Certainly I see many leg balls bowled, and not a few wides; which in their days were both very rare. I have elsewhere recorded George Wootton's reply to Mr. Mitchell who advised him to try a ball or two wide of the off stump, "I can't Mr. Mitchell, I can't."
The only difference in the bowling is that there are nowadays more hammering fast bowlers who try for the short slip catch, but that in itself does not necessitate the modern style which we old-fashioned critics deprecate; and there are more swervers; but there always were swervers, and the old style with the left shoulder up was quite equal to resisting their peculiar form of attack.
And now having advanced my premises let me make quite clear what I, at any rate, am railing against. It is not getting in front of the wicket, when the ball requires that action: but getting in front of the wicket unnecessarily, to the detriment of the batsman's freedom of action, and not infrequently whatever the ball be, off, straight, leg, short, or pitched up; in fact being predisposed to get in front, and all batsmen know how dominant is predisposition. And it is not merely the unnecessary getting in front of the wicket, but it is the getting in front and facing the bowler which is playing havoc with some of our young batsmen whose eyes are evidently all right: for I put it to the greatest admirers of this modern style and I put it with confidence that the answer must be "NO", "Can you possibly cut or drive as well when you are facing the bowler as when you have the left shoulder up?" If the answer is, as I submit it must be, in the negative, then surely it must be admitted that by facing the bowler the batsman is limiting his capacity for attack; and indeed I go further and question whether he is improving his defence except as regards one ball, which is the factor I said I would presently refer to.
As regards getting in front I draw a distinction between getting in front and getting in front unnecessarily. I say without any hesitation that all of us as long as I can remember have got in front, and had to get in front for certain balls. To get well over a short to good length ball outside the off stump you must put your right leg in front, it is unavoidable. To keep the toe close to the bat when playing forward at the pitched up ball outside the off stump it is unavoidable to put the left leg in front and therefore I, personally, have never been able to agree with the extremists against getting in front.
On certain wickets and against certain bowlers it is impossible to stay there and score without getting constantly in front. I imagine the finest innings I ever saw played was Shrewsbury's on an impossible Lord's wicket against Spofforth's bowling from the Pavilion end: breaking back and getting up constantly. Shrewsbury played back to everything he possibly could, and only attempted to score off straight balls breaking to leg, and his eye and judgment were such that he made on one of the worst wickets imaginable 160. To do this he must have been constantly in front of course, and it paid; so pray understand my young friends that I am not declaiming against getting in front per se: it is the bad habit of a predisposition to get in front and face the bowler on all sorts of wickets and against all styles of bowling, and for every ball, that I venture to think is spoiling your play.
And now I come to the one contingent factor which I think has induced this style of play and perhaps necessitated it; and that is the fast swerving ball from the off. I believe I played George Hirst once and was then caught short slip off a ball that certainly did not swerve in, so I am not speaking from personal experience of his bowling, though I played Walter Wright several times who had the same swerve: but watching George Hirst it has seemed to me that the batsman did strengthen his defence, at the commencement of his innings, by getting in front and facing the bowler.
In playing forward on the off side the left hand does somewhat obscure the batsman's sight of the ball, and if the ball swerves late in its flight there is I should say more chance of missing it than if you face the bowler and drop your bat on the popping crease. I hold that one can play a true yorker swerving either way just as well with the shoulder up as facing the bowler: but there's a sort of no man's land between the pitched up ball and the yorker; where, if the ball swerves from the off late in its flight, one is liable to miss it because the sight is somewhat obscured.
Now that ball has a very limited range and there are not-so I should say-nearly as many swervers from the off as there are from leg: and I submit that to depart from a style of play which has been the first principle of good batting, I mean that principle which includes the left shoulder up and the full face of the bat, which, through many decades, has proved its excellence so surely, that every cricket tutor of renown has advocated it, merely to meet more surely one rare ball is altogether wrong and unjustifiable. The new style is an exaggeration and distortion of an attitude occasionally adopted-and perhaps for that one rare ball rightly-by the best batsmen of recent years; it leads to a cross bat, and less than the full face; it is insidiously dangerously attractive when used successfully; but it is, in the opinion of us who protest, reducing materially the capacity of some of our brilliant younger cricketers to play successfully all sorts of bowling on all sorts of wickets and we hope that our agitation against it will have such effect on the cricket tutors of the present day that they will rigorously discourage it.