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In looking back on the season of 1923 I am rather in doubt as to what should be said about it. Watching matches day after day at Lord's or the Oval, but nowhere else, I was on the whole disappointed. The dropped catches that left the Players nothing to hope for but a draw against the Gentlemen and the worse blunders committed by the England eleven in the Test Trial match in August had on me a depressing effect. Mistakes in the field now and then are inevitable but it was a new and painful experience to find two representative sides at Lord's so continually at fault. At both matches one had an uneasy feeling that if our best men went on like that the prospect of beating Australia in the near future, either away or at home, must be remote. Comparison with the wonderful fielding of Armstrong's team in 1923 could not be avoided.
There were other disappointments in London cricket last summer, among them the tragedy of the University match and the lamentable lack of bowling in the Eton and Harrow elevens. At the Oval, where the cricket rarely lacked interest, the thought always uppermost in my mind was what a team Surrey would have put into the field if Mr. Fender had had a Lockwood or a Tom Richardson to help him. So much for the feelings of Londoners. Turning to the other side of the picture I can imagine Yorkshire people regarding the season as the most delightful they had ever known. Their eleven beat all records as regards matches won in the Championship and suffered one defeat--by three runs! Our Yorkshire friends had abundant reason to rejoice. With a little more class and brilliancy in the batting the eleven, as an all-round fighting force, would have been ideal. Even the batting, as one realised at the Oval in September, was much stronger, given a perfect wicket, than most people had supposed.
I think all good judges of the game will agree that the most hopeful feature of last summer's cricket was the improvement in the bowling. If the Australians had been here in their strength we should have been far more formidable in attack than in the unhappy Test matches of 1921. The rise of Tate and Roy Kilner would have made a marked difference and in Arthur Gilligan we should have had a fast bowler capable on occasions of getting his fifty runs. Howell at Trent Bridge and Durston at Lord's in 1921 were fast bowlers--not very effective ones as things turned out--and nothing more. Leaving aside Tate, Kilner and Arthur Gilligan, I think Macaulay is the most likely bowler who has not yet played in Test matches at home, but whether he has the right temperament for such nerve-taxing cricket is a question. He got on fairly well in South Africa without doing anything out of the common. The Test matches this year may enlighten us a good deal as to how we stand in bowling with regard to the bigger tasks that lie ahead.
Amateur batting last season showed even more than in 1922 a return to something like the pre-war standard and at least two or three new reputations were made. M. D. Lyon's splendid hundred for the Gentlemen at Lord's was in a sense the event of the year. Nothing in his previous record suggested such a feat. His consistently fine form for Somerset all through the summer proved that his success was no accident. Given his first chance in a representative match he rose to the occasion and became famous in a day.
Scarcely less striking than Lyon's rise was the sudden jump to the front of T. C. Lowry, the New Zealand and Somerset batsman, who is to captain Cambridge this year. He did many brilliant things but, unlike Lyon, not when a big score would have meant most to him. In the University match he had to bat on a ruined wicket and in the following week he failed for the Gentlemen. The best proof of his quality as a hitter was given in a wonderful innings against the Lancashire bowlers at Cambridge. It was an extraordinary thing that he should have scored over a thousand runs for Cambridge after having just missed his blue in the previous year. A third Somerset batsman, J. C. W. MacBryan, made a great advance, but in his case there was no element of surprise, his play in 1922 having removed all doubts as to his class. His innings at Lord's for the Rest against England proved him good enough for almost any eleven. Not often nowadays do we see such safe and skilful cutting.
The presence in the Gentlemen's team of J. L. Bryan and M. D. Lyon was a pleasant reminder of the great days of Rugby batting. Since C. F. H. Leslie's time P. F. Warner has stood almost alone in keeping up the old tradition, though to say this involves some injustice to E. W. Dillon and E. R. Wilson.
I seldom went to Lord's or the Oval last summer without hearing complaints about the extent to which present-day batsmen carry leg-play, but to the best of my knowledge there was no public expression of opinion except when a distinguished Oxford cricketer was actually praised for stopping a tremendous break-back with his leg. That was too much for me. Continually as the thing is done I had never before known it commended in print. I protested in the strongest words I could think of, with the result that some interesting letters appeared in The Times. The Hon. R. H. Lyttelton, who feels very strongly on the subject and always has the courage of his convictions, wrote me a letter from which I will quote a few points. As an illustration of the change that has come over the game he gave me statistics for four years--taken at random but with long intervals between them--of the number of wickets that fell in first-class matches and the number of cases of l. b. w. The figures are, to say the least, startling:
|Year.||No. of wickets.||Lbw.||Percentage.|
|1870||1772||44||1 in 40|
|1890||3792||219||1 in 17|
|1910||6704||451||1 in 14|
|1923||7919||921||1 in 8|
Mr. Lyttelton went on to say:
"The above table shows how quickly the doctrine so rightly called pernicious by a critic in The Times has established itself, the doctrine being that the legs are considered to be, rightly a second line of defence. To show how great a contrast has been brought about it will be of interest to give some figures to show how different the methods of batsmen of the old time were from those now in vogue. In the late William Caffyn's book '71 not out' a representative England Eleven is given, and I take four of the batsmen--Hayward, Carpenter, Daft, and R. A. H. Mitchell. Tom Hayward, of Cambridge, played from 1856 to about 1870, but at the beginning and end only intermittently, and I have taken his innings from 1858 to 1870 inclusive in which he was only once given out l. b. w.. Bob Carpenter in the same space of time was out five times and Daft three times. I have not counted how many innings R. A. H. Mitchell played, but I had it from his own mouth, and I have checked it, that he was never given out l. b. w. in all his first-class career. Lord Cobham was out l. b. w. only once. Now let 1923 be considered and I find that Sandham was given out l. b. w. 13 times, Mead 8, Makepeace and Shepherd 9 times. This makes 39 l. b. w. cases in one year among four batsmen, while four of the older batsmen in all their first-class cricket careers, or very nearly so, were only given out nine times. In Gentlemen and Players, at Lord's, in the ten years 1870-9, there were six cases of l. b. w.; in the ten years 1905-14, thirty-five. Mr. Spofforth, in the five years he bowled for Australia, took 658 wickets, and out of these 13 were l. b. w. or 1 in 50.
While all this vast increase in leg play has taken place the wickets have been improving, and there is a continual groaning about the decadence of bowling, especially fast bowling. I say that the bowling, other than fast bowling, is as good as ever it was, but bowlers do not get a fair chance and they are over-bowled. I respectfully argue that the l. b. w. rule be altered and a final blow be given to the detestable doctrine that the legs are a legitimate second line of defence. Not until this is done will bowlers get a fair chance."
Mr. Lyttelton's words may be left to speak for themselves. They afford abundant food for thought. I would only add that umpires complain bitterly of the manner in which so many present-day batsmen get right in front of the wicket and hide all three stumps before the ball has got half-way up the pitch. This is carrying the second line of defence doctrine to the furthest extreme.
Perhaps I may be forgiven for patting myself on the back over the fact that something I have argued for again and again is being done this year. Prior to the first Test match with the South Africans the England Eleven will play a trial game with the Rest at Trent Bridge. I presume the England side will be definitely chosen in advance of the Trial and that, unless found imperative, no last minute changes will be made. There is something rather amusing in a step being taken that was not thought necessary when the Australians had to be faced in 1921, but let that pass. The great thing is that the authorities have reverted to the wise policy adopted in 1912--the year of the Triangular Tournament. Even then the original idea was not carried out in its integrity. In view of the Tournament three trial games were arranged in 1911 but the first two proved so unsatisfactory that the third was cancelled. I have never had the slightest faith in trial games as a means of choosing England players, the notion of selection depending on success on a particular occasion being absurd. A man known to be good enough on his general form could not with any show of reason be dropped on account of a single failure. On the other hand the arguments in favour of giving the selected England eleven the chance of playing together before engaging in a Test match are unanswerable. Fieldsmen can accommodate themselves to unfamiliar positions and the wicket-keeper is freed from the anxiety of standing up to a bowler with whom he may never before have played on the same side. Such a match as the one we are to have at Nottingham is on quite a different footing from the Test Trials last season. They were arranged with the idea of finding men fitted for something bigger than an ordinary county match and they served their purpose very well.
Mr. A. P. Lucas's death leaves Lord Harris the only survivor of the England Eleven he captained against Australia at the Oval in 1880--the first Test match in this country. Of the England Eleven that beat Australia in one innings at Lord's in 1884, Lord Harris--again captain--and Mr. Stanley Christopherson alone are with us and of the eleven that in 1886 also gained a single innings victory at Lord's, the only man still alive is Mr. E. F. S. Tylecote. Mr. A. N. Hornby, Mr. C. T. Studd and Maurice Read can still tell the story of the disastrous seven runs match at the Oval in 1882.