Not for seventeen years has the reputation of English cricket stood as high as at the present moment. Away back in 1912, of the three games England played against Australia in connection with the ill-starred Triangular Tournament, the only one brought to a definite issue, was, it is true, won by the Old Country, and in 1926 the programme of five Test matches yielded a similar result, but for anything approaching the triumphal progress so far enjoyed by A. P. F. Chapman and his men we have to go back to the Australian season of 1911-12 when the team, taken out by P. F. Warner but captained on the field, owing to that player's illness, by J. W. H. T. Douglas, proceeded, after losing the first of the representative encounters, to win the other four. This was the tour rendered especially memorable by the bowling of Frank Foster and Sidney Barnes for whom it was claimed that, had they been entrusted with the attack at the commencement of the opening encounter as they were at the start of the other contests, England would have been successful in all five matches. That chance being let slip, no such opportunity has again come the way of English cricketers until now. In the interim, on the other hand, followed that deplorable post war period during which three consecutive tours--two in Australia and one in this country--resulted in twelve defeats for England, only one victory and two drawn games. Well may it thus be, after such an experience, that the triumphs of our players--I am writing prior to the fourth Test match--have aroused a measure of enthusiasm unprecedented in the history of the game. The pronounced success is the more refreshing as, when the selection was made, not only did much doubt exist as to whether Larwood--especially after his breakdown in the previous season--would stand the strain of six and seven day cricket on the hard wickets of Australia, but the inclusion of Geary, seeing that the Leicestershire man's bowling arm had been operated upon during the summer, appeared to many people to be courting disaster. The M.C.C., however, had obviously been well-advised as to the condition of the two men in question and, if possibly they took something of a risk, the course adopted has been convincingly justified. That the side will maintain their splendid all-round form and come away with the finest record ever gained by a band of English cricketers is devoutly to be wished but, should these possibilities not be realised, there must yet remain much pride in the prowess of men who so speedily and decisively determined the issue of the rubber.
The great work in Australia follows upon what--certainly in the south of England--was a most enjoyable season. May, admittedly, brought with it, after the first ten days, a good deal of rain but early in June the weather improved and thenceforward, with only occasional interruptions, cricket was carried on under most favourable conditions. Unfortunately, the happy experience of the South did not obtain to anything like the same extent in the North. The north country had its full share of rainy days in May and early June and towards the end of the summer the weather broke up again. Indeed, so unfortunate were Yorkshire in their home matches, with some days when little cricket proved practicable and others when play was impossible, that the county lost money. Still, taken as a whole, the season was a good one and, if heavy run-getting struck the dominant note of it, the outstanding achievements were accomplished by a bowler and a wicket-keeper, A. P. Freeman taking 304 wickets and so beating Tom Richardson's record of 290--made in 1895--and Leslie Ames disposing of 121 batsmen--sixty-nine caught and fifty-two stumped. But for Ames, Duckworth, in securing 107 wickets--seventy-seven caught and thirty stumped--would have established a record. The visit of a team from the West Indies was anticipated with considerable interest but proved a disappointment, the side being scarcely as well-equipped as that which came here in 1923. Experience showed only too clearly that the arrangement of Test matches between England and the West Indies was at least premature. Still, the games being treated seriously by the Selection Committee, furnished some useful practice for England's representative players.
While there is naturally widespread satisfaction over the achievements in Australia, those responsible for the control of the game are still faced--and to a greater degree than ever before--with the difficulty of reducing run-getting to reasonable limits. During the summer, according to the figures of Mr. Ashley-Cooper--and those are always beyond question--there were thirty-seven totals of 500 or more and seventy-two games which produced an aggregate of at least 1,000 runs. The first wicket partnership of 200 or more numbered thirteen and the individual scores of that amount were twenty-nine. Furthermore, on one occasion four separate hundreds were put together in a single innings and the season furnished fifteen instances of three batsmen reaching three-figures in the same innings. Altogether the summer produced no fewer than 414 individual hundreds, in the making of which 139 batsmen were concerned, three of these players scoring thirteen hundreds each and two others twelve hundreds each. The extent to which, under present day conditions, the batsman becomes more and more master of the situation, is suggested very clearly by the fact that whereas the individual centuries last summer numbered 414, a year before the total was 309, so the season of 1928 produced 105 additional three-figure innings. It may be noted, too, that five players scored over 3,000 runs apiece whereas previously the whole history of cricket furnished no more than ten instances of that aggregate having been reached. What was in store the first ten days of the season showed only too well. During that period eighteen first-class matches were contested and they realised 17,014 runs--an average of 949 runs apiece. With the scoring so high in the large majority of games in 1928 and, owing to rain, very little play in seven encounters, rather less than half the 240 contests constituting the county championship programme were brought to a definite issue.
That this heavy scoring is bad for the game practically everybody agrees, but the tackling of the trouble is by no means an easy matter and as to the methods to be employed to that end opinions differ very widely. There exists one school which believes that an alteration in the law as to leg-before-wicket would put matters right, another that the way out of the difficulty is to increase the height and width of the stumps, while the third--and largest--urges that salvation will be found when--and only when--the modern practice of preparing a wicket by applying marl, liquid manures and other dressings is abandoned.
With the reformer who would have the law so altered--or revived--that a batsman shall be out, if being between wicket and wicket, he stop with any part of his person, a ball which in the opinion of the umpire would have hit the wicket, there will be general sympathy. It is nothing short of an outrage for a batsman to step across his wicket and, making no attempt to play the ball, stop it with his pads and it is all against the spirit of the game for a batsman, when a bowler gets the ball past the bat to use his pads as a second line of defence. The former action, happily, is not very common but it ought to be illegal. The latter, unfortunately, is a practice adopted by three batsmen out of four and, in the present state of cricket opinion, threatens, as it appears to be encouraged among the rising generation, to become more and more general. I note that some famous cricketers have urged the trial of an alteration in the l. b. w. rule but these are players who, if of high standing in the councils of the game, are not now engaged in the active pursuit of it. It is possible the special committee of which Lord Harris is chairman, may deal with the l. b. w. question, action with regard to the preparation of wickets would appear the more probable.
In any event--whether the authorities tackle the l. b. w. matter or, before taking action, wait for the education of public opinion on the subject--the preparation of wickets is essentially the question of the moment. It may be there are some grounds where the turf is such that something to make it last three days is absolutely necessary--I seem to remember many years ago one or two which in dry weather used towards the end of a match to turn either fiery or dusty--and it is likely enough that some of the old ground-keepers applied privately some decoction of their own. Unless I am much mistaken the wickets of fifty years ago were, generally speaking, naturally prepared pitches, i.e., made fit for play by water and roller only, the roller, moreover, being of no such weight as that in use at first-class grounds to-day.
As arguments in favour of the artificial preparation of wickets, it is contended that some application is essential if the game is to last three days and that, in the absence of top dressing, fast bowling would be absolutely dangerous. Possibly on a pitch only naturally prepared, games might more often end in two days or early on the third day but that would not necessarily be a disadvantage as the batsmen would have their skill more severely tested. That bowling on a natural wicket would necessarily be dangerous is a remarkable contention, remembering the many famous bowlers of great pace who used to figure in first-class cricket. No doubt, if not on their toes, batsmen, especially those adopting the two eyed stance, might get knocked about a bit but the really first-rate player would be equal to the situation as was he of an earlier generation.
Meanwhile I may recall the statement of Mr. J. W. Trumble in a letter published in the Almanack of 1927, stating that on the Melbourne Ground to a depth of more than a foot below the surface, the soil represents an accumulation of heavy black clay top dressing which has been put on yearly over a period of some forty years. In preparation for a big match, the area is flooded and, when the moisture has soaked in, the surface is worked up daily by the heavy roller until at last it becomes of the hardness of a marble slab. Mr. Trumble went on further to urge that, if the conditions he found at Melbourne represented the result of allowing groundsmen practically a free hand in the employment of binding soils and in the use of the heavy roller, it behoved the English authorities to watch lest similar developments obtained in this country.
Yet a further plan for deciding the County Championship is to be tried this year, and, inasmuch as it does away with the necessity for percentages, it will give satisfaction to many worthy people, some of whom would have been still further pleased had the Committee, drawing up the new scheme, seen their way to abolish first innings points. Eight points are at issue in every match as under the previous system but whereas these, under the plan of 1927, lapsed when there was no play or no result on the first innings, each side in such circumstance will take four points. The big departure is the arrangement that, instead of the various counties playing whom they like, with of course, a minimum number of engagements required to qualify for participation in the competition, every county now plays twenty-eight matches, with the Committee deciding which two of the other sixteen counties shall not be encountered. Likely enough the new plan will work out satisfactorily but it seems to be invested with distressingly business-like regulations which have not hitherto invaded the great cricket competition.
During the forthcoming summer the arrangements for Test matches will follow the lines of previous years, the first four being limited to three days apiece and the last--if neither England nor South Africa has secured an advantage--being played to a finish. When, however, the Australians come here in 1930 four days are to be allotted to each of the first four contests, with the last, if the position so demands, played to a finish. The experience of 1926 when the first four games were drawn, no doubt, strengthens the hands of those anxious for the extension and apparently there exists no idea of ever going any further in the number of days to be set apart for a Test match. That is the state of things at the moment but if four days do not suffice for the playing out of a game, it will be difficult, logically, to resist a demand for five or six days. Perhaps, however, in the course of the next four years, with natural wickets and a new l. b. w. law, three days may once again suffice for the satisfactory decision of a Test match.
In view of the abnormal run-getting of 1928, with seventy-two first-class matches producing over a 1,000 runs apiece and no fewer than 414 individual innings of three-figures, it may be of interest to mention that fifty years ago--1878--one game, and one game only, resulted in an aggregate of 1,000 runs. The hundreds made that year were thirteen in number as follow:--
In matches of importance but not first-class there were the following innings played:
Admittedly games, in those days, were far fewer than at the present time--possibly not a third of the total now annually arranged--and opportunities consequently much less numerous but still the increase from 13 to 414 is something more than suggestive of the more favourable conditions for batting which now obtain.