Widening the track? (1904)

Notes by the Editor

Sydney Pardon

When the last few pages of Wisden's Almanack for 1903 were going through the press the proposal by the county captains to widen the wicket from eight to nine inches had, without warning, been sprung upon the cricket world. Writing within two or three days of the captains' meeting, before anything like a general expression of opinion had been obtained from the leading counties and other bodies, I expressed a hope that the proposal would not be entertained by the Marylebone Club. I thought then that any purely problematical gain to first-class cricket from the adoption of the alteration would be far too small to justify the disturbance of the game all over the world. The opinions of the English, Australian and American cricket authorities proved to be very divided, the balance, however, being decidedly against the change, but the subcommittee of the M.C.C. to whom the matter was first submitted and afterwards the full committee of the club approved of the alteration which, with all the weight of official support, was brought forward at Lord's on the 7th of May, the annual meeting the Club being made special to deal with the question. Mr. A. G. Steel, the retiring President, made a strong appeal to the members to support the committee and was backed up by Lord Harris, but the proposition signally failed to obtain the two-thirds majority requisite to bring about a change in the laws of cricket, the numbers being, for the proposal 215, against it 199. Thus, there was only a bare majority of sixteen votes, and the question fell through, not to be heard of again during the remainder of the year. I have the greatest possible respect for the Committee of the M.C.C. - a body composed exclusively of first-rate experts - but I cannot understand why they were so anxious to adopt the wider wicket without putting its value to any test or why, ignoring the very practical difficulty of getting a sufficient number of thicker stumps from the various manufacturers, they should have wished to bring the alteration into force during the season of 1903. As a rule they are - quite properly - much less hasty in attempting to alter the laws of the game. For many reasons I think it is a good thing that the alteration was not carried. Opinion, as the voting proved, was far too sharply divided to justify an immediate change, and more than that I have yet to be convinced that the alteration if carried would have had any effect in bringing about the result desired - the reduction of the present excessive scoring on hard wickets. Personally, though I think it would likely have helped the bowlers on bad wickets, when they need no assistance, I do not think it would have made any difference to them in fine weather. When batsmen of the class of Ranjitsinhji, C.B. Fry, MacLaren, and Victor Trumper - I mention only the most famous names among contemporary players - are making long scores the ball, unless intentionally let alone, so seldom passes the bat that I cannot believe the widening of the wicket by an inch would have any effect. The proposal, it should be remembered, was brought forward with an almost exclusive regard to first-class cricket, there being no contention that the change was needed y the thousands of moderate players who week after week during the summer take part in Saturday afternoon matches. The change, if passed at Lord's last May and at once carried into effect, would have involved a great deal of confusion, as from sheer inability to get the thicker stumps required the majority of cricketers would have had to keep to the old law.

Whether, when we are once more favoured with fine warm summers such as we enjoyed from 1895 to 1901, the proposal will be brought up again it is impossible to say, but for the time it is dead. No reference to it was made, so far as I know, at the captains' meeting this month, and it was not mentioned the following day at the annual meeting of secretaries. I think the true reform in first-class cricket, and it is one which can be brought about without any interference with the game itself, concerns the preparation of wickets. There is a strong and growing feeling against the excessively prepared and very artificial wickets which of recent years have been given up at Leyton, where they simply spoilt the cricket, and I am told that at The Oval the method of preparing the pitches has been considerably modified. Yorkshire is on the side of reform in this matter, and in one match last season Lord Hawke, having the choice of two wicket, chose the one that had not been artificially prepared.

It is difficult at the time of writing to tell what will be the ultimate upshot of the proposed county tournament on the "knock-out" principle, in which Mr. C. B. Fry has so keenly interested himself. It adopted in 1904 the tournament cannot be carried out on anything like the scale originally designed, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Surrey being so fully engaged as to leave themselves no room for extra fixtures. Moreover, Yorkshire, as I understand, does not favour the scheme at all, and Surrey, together with some other leading counties, has declared against it. As some of the first-class counties, however, approve of the competition, there seems to just a chance next season of a modest beginning. I do not see any objection to the tournament on principle, but I cannot help thinking that it is a mistake to increase a programme which is already too heavy. First-class cricket has increased enormously since the promotion of various counties in 1894 and I am not alone in thinking that now-a-days we have too many matches. In my opinion, bowling and fielding would be better if the leading players were not so constantly kept at full tension six days a week. Not many years ago the leading bowlers were able to vary their serious cricket with a holiday match now and then and the relief did them good. Now they are hard at it from the first week in May till the first week in September, and in fine summers are very apt to get stale.

The death roll in the cricket world this year has been very heavy, among the most famous of those who have passed away being Arthur Shrewsbury, Bob Thoms, George Pinder - one of the greatest wicket-keepers to fast bowling we have ever had - and Mr. Arthur Haygarth, to whose labours in compiling Scores and Biographies everyone interested in the history of the game owes a debt that can never be paid. It was a thousand pities that from financial reasons he was not able to bring out any later volume of his monumental work than the one dealing with the cricket of 1877 and 1878. I believe he left all the materials for subsequent volumes behind him, but in the event of anything being done with them they would have to be greatly reduced. Mr. Haygarth's mistake was to preserve so much. The plan that answered perfectly well with his early volumes when comparatively few matches were played was quite impracticable when applied to modern cricket. The careers of Arthur Shrewsbury and my old friend Bob Thoms are touched upon in another part of the Almanack, and I need not here allude to the painful circumstances under which Shrewsbury's life came to an end. Late in the year there died within a few weeks of each other two bowlers - Crossland and Nash - about whose methods of delivery controversy raged fiercely twenty years ago. Without wishing to stir up old quarrels, I have no hesitation in saying that at the present time no county captain would venture to go on to the field with men on his side who bowled as Crossland and Nash did in the early '80's. Thanks to the concerted action of the county captains three years ago - though they were not allowed to do as they proposed - we have almost entirely got rid of throwing in first-class matches in England. In this connection as I have at times been accused of making too much of the unfair bowling question, I may perhaps be permitted to make one statement of a personal kind. A few weeks before his death I had a long talk with Bob Thoms, and in the course of his talk the veteran umpire said, without the least reserve, that all the prominent bowlers whose action had been called into question during the last twenty years were in his opinion unfair. I wish that Thoms while still standing regularly in county matches had no-balled some of the offenders, but for some reason he could never see his way to do so. Still, I was glad to find the last time I saw him that he did not think, in all the controversy about throwing, injustice had been done to any fair bowler.

© John Wisden & Co