No magic in fast bowling

Charles Kortright



Tom Richardson, "the finest bowler" Charles Kortright ever saw © Getty Images
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The name of CJ Kortright in cricket circles is almost legendary. Many people who saw him play consider he was the fastest bowler during a period that was notable for the number of speed men in England and Australia. A reference to the 1944 article in Wisden on fast bowlers by the late Sir Stanley Jackson bears out this fact. After a career beginning in 1889, the famous Essex amateur gave up county cricket 11 years before the first World War. At 77 he is still a keen observer of cricket, and in the belief that his views on bowlers past and present will not only throw much light on our present problems, but will also inspire the younger generation to take up fast bowling, the editor persuaded him to express his opinions in the pages of Wisden.

One of the questions my friends most frequently ask me is why there are so few fast bowlers today compared with the start of the century, and why the few there are attain comparatively small success. They seem to think there was some sort of magic about the old-time men of pace, and that I may be able to explain how it was obtained. Let me disillusion them at once. There is no magic in fast bowling; but, on the contrary, much hard work, coupled with intelligent methods, is the key to success.

I have little patience with modern bowlers who condemn these shirt-front wickets and ask how can they be expected to get men out when the pitch will not help. There were many such pitches in my playing days, the sort on which if we could bounce the ball bail high we thought ourselves pretty clever. Yet every county fielded two, sometimes three, genuinely fast bowlers, who were not discouraged by the wickets.

A basic principle of cricket which I feel is sometimes overlooked is that the prime object of a bowler is to get batsmen out. For this reason I do not favour the modern craze for such expressions as inswingers, outswingers, all sorts of spins and swerves. Some bowlers seem to concentrate on these dubious achievements so much that they forget to keep a length and to bowl at the stumps.

A striking sign of this tendency is the present cult of offspin bowling to a cluster of short-leg fielders, who would not have been allowed to stay in their suicidal positions by some of the old-time batsmen like Gilbert Jessop and Johnny Tyldesley. This style compares very poorly with the methods of Tom Richardson of Surrey, the finest bowler I ever saw. He used only two leg-side men, a mid-on and a deep fine-leg to save snicks, because he bowled consistently on the off-stump to that beautiful length, which meant that batsmen could never leave the ball alone.

Richardson's long easy run, fine action, accuracy and speed, coupled with a little break-back from the off, made him a bowler to be feared; and another man I greatly admired was Walter Brearley, who took a much shorter run, but achieved real pace through a splendid body action. Such men as these could take seven or eight wickets in an innings on plumb pitches, nearly all clean bowled, because they bowled a length, bowled with their heads, and bowled at the stumps. What is the use of swerves if you beat the batsman, beat the wicket-keeper, and everybody else? Bowlers like Richardson used to move the ball just that vital inch or two off the pitch, and they hit the stumps.

If England can find a real fast bowler who is willing to take a bit of advice from an old-timer, here is a wrinkle he might well remember. He should never forget to try bowling a fast yorker on the leg stump to a newly arrived batsman. It can be a deadly ball to face early in an innings; I have dismissed many top-class batsmen with it. I frequently used to advise the late Kenneth Farnes to pitch the ball farther up to the batsmen, because I considered that he wasted too much energy on pointless short deliveries, like many other modern pace bowlers.

Another encouragement which I would mention to bowlers and those aspiring to success with the ball is that they enjoy many advantages compared with those of the old days. They have a slightly smaller ball - easier to get the hand round - a wider crease, which helps in varying the angle of delivery, bigger stumps at which to aim. There is also the new leg-before-wicket law by which it is possible to get a decision from a ball pitching on the off side of the wicket, a boon to the modern bowler. Last but by no means least among present-day benefits is the high standard of umpiring in first-class cricket, one respect in which I admit the game has made a great advance since my days.

The umpires of today are very good and impartial. They watch the ball extremely closely and know the game thoroughly, so that any bowler can feel confident that he will get any decisions he has earned.

A young bowler should not be allowed to over-tax his strength and, although there is no reason why he should not bat well, it should always be remembered that his real task is to take wickets. I remember Alfred Shaw of Nottinghamshire telling me when I was a youngster why the best bowlers so seldom make runs. He said: After holding a bat for a long time we lose that freshness in ourselves, and that suppleness in the fingers, which helps so much in bowling. So it is better not to bat too much when one will soon have to bowl.

[Shaw, between1864 and 1897, took 2072* wickets for 11.97 runs each, much the lowest figure of the twenty bowlers who have taken over 2000 wickets in first-class cricket. - Editor]

Another thing a bowler should always remember is to mark out his run and stick to it, even at practice. Too many no-balls are delivered by men who should know better, and they represent free gifts to the opposing side.

 
 
A basic principle of cricket which I feel is sometimes overlooked is that the prime object of a bowler is to get batsmen out. For this reason I do not favour the modern craze for such expressions as inswingers, outswingers, all sorts of spins and swerves. Some bowlers seem to concentrate on these dubious achievements so much that they forget to keep a length and to bowl at the stumps
 

Perhaps one of the greatest differences between modern and old-time bowling lies in the attitude towards the new ball and the method of gripping it. Personally, I didn't worry a great deal about how I held the ball in relation to the seam as long as I got a firm grip on it, and I think most of my contemporaries felt the same. We wanted to be accurate, and to make the ball move a little off the pitch through finger action. For that reason, fast bowlers often roughened a new ball by rubbing it in the dirt, to obtain a good grip. Now bowlers dirty their clothes in efforts to keep the ball shiny, but I feel sure they do not control it so well.

I do not think we shall get a plentiful supply of bowling talent again until the youngsters realise that there is no easy way to become a good bowler, and no secret either. The road to success lies in enthusiasm coupled with patience and willingness to devote as much time as possible to practice. I do not feel that young cricketers today are always prepared to take the trouble over their game that they should, possibly because there are so many counter attractions.

One of the clearest recollections of my early days is the little cricket we played at Brentwood school. This involved creeping out through a window at four in the morning, with any sort of makeshift gear, to play against the chapel wall until seven o'clock, the official time for rising. If discovered, we were in trouble, but I thought the game well worth the risk, and I was always ready for two-and-a-half hours of compulsory cricket practice when school was over for the day.

In those days almost invariably I was holding something to throw or bowl, if not a ball a sizeable stone, which I would hurl at a convenient tree or post. All this helped to develop a sense of distance and timing, and built up the muscles of hand, arm and shoulder. I was for ever wanting to project things farther or faster than any of my friends, and this I think accounted for the pace I was able to develop later as a bowler.

The present-day lack of enthusiasm for practice, especially in bowling and fielding, was brought home to me a few years ago when I tried to coach two youngsters in whom I was interested. They batted in the nets for about half an hour, then they wanted to be off to knock a ball about at some other game. As for bowling to somebody else or getting fielding practice - that mattered not at all.

Yet I would stress to all cricketers, especially the youngsters that if we are to develop great bowlers again, and especially fast bowlers, there must be much greater concentration on fielding. Any bowler is so much better with the support of a keen field, and every player in any side should impose an unwritten law on himself to field well even if he can do little else. I used to enjoy Free Foresters cricket immensely because it was played in a really sporting spirit and the standard of fielding was very high.

As a final word to budding fast bowlers, let me again emphasise that you should not be afraid to pitch the ball well up, and remember the value of the yorker on the leg stump against a newcomer. The first time I hit the stumps in county cricket was with that ball, in the Essex and Surrey match at The Oval in 1892. I bowled Billy Brockwell with a fast one which hit the base of the stumps and brought the bails forward, one breaking as it flew over my head. Another of my yorkers which remains in my memory rebounded from the bottom of the stumps and went back past me almost to the boundary.

[In the match to which Kortright refers, he took in all five wickets for 71 runs, three of them bowled, but Surrey, for whom Tom Richardson gained match figures of twelve for 100, won by 195 runs. - Editor]

My favourite story is rather hard to believe, but I vouch for its truth. Playing in a club match at Wallingford on a very small ground with a pitch perhaps best described as sporty, I bowled a ball which rose almost straight and went out of the ground, without a second bounce. I suggest that this made me the first man to bowl a six in byes! The ball was pitched right up to the batsman and on the wicket, so that it was undoubtedly within the striker's reach, and there was no question of wides being awarded.

* Wisden's career figures differ slightly from those used by Cricinfo and the Association of Cricket Statisticians because they rely on an older system for qualifying which matches count as first-class.

© John Wisden & Co