April 1987

Lobs - Past and Future?

Scyld Berry examines the possibility of resurrecting a dead craft

Scyld Berry examines the possibility of resurrecting a dead craft

George Simpson-Hayward: probably the best lobster © The Cricketer
'When is a bowler deceitful?' This conundrum was propounded, though probably not for the first time, in a London journal at the turn of the century. And the answer is, of course: 'When he is under-hand.'

For too long now lob bowling has been associated with effeminacy and sharp practice. The latter is illustrated by the popular preference for the term 'under-hand' rather than under-arm': 'under-hand', as Ranjitsinhji wrote in The Jubilee Book of Cricket, 'admits of misconstruction.' A daisy-cutter, a legal and important part of the lob-bowler's armoury, is derisively called a 'sneak' and thought a caddish trick.

So too is lob-bowling deemed 'cissy' by boys and men. 'Bowl properly, mum!' Johnny will say, having hauled his mother into the garden to bowl to him, only to be confronted (and no doubt perplexed) by mere lobs. Likely as not he does not know that he is deriding the most traditional form of bowling, one which has satisfied more generations of cricketers than roundor over-arm bowling. The men of Hambledon were content with under-arm: they could spin the ball both ways and bowl quite fast enough for safety, though with less bounce obtainable the stumps were naturally lower.

After 1828 when round-arm to the height of the shoulder was permitted, some still continued to practise the ancient art. Most notable of them was William Clarke of Nottinghamshire and All-England Elevens. Delivering the ball from below the arm-pit with a half jerk, half-push movement, Clarke got more bounce than most and between 1849 and 1854 in important matches he took 2105 wickets.

No-one laughed when opening the bowling in the 1850s and '60s with John Jackson, Nottinghamshire's finest right-arm fast bowler before Larwood, was Robert Crispin Tinley, with lobs slow and twisty. Battering-ram and tempter was thought a very effective combination. In the late 'nineties Tom Richardson of Surrey often had D. L. A. Jephson, another lobster, opposite him. Later captain of Surrey and mainly a middle-order batsman, Jephson took close to 300 wickets for his county, but his most famous performance was when he took six for 21 for the Gentlemen against the Players in 1899. In general a surprisingly large proportion of his victims, were bowled.

Two other lob-bowlers post-Clarke claim mention. One is Walter Humphreys of Sussex who in 1893 took 150 wickets at 17 each. He was the last county cricketer ever to have been chosen regularly for his lob-bowling. He was taken to Australia a year later but had no important success. More famous was G. H. Simpson-Hayward of Worcestershire. To him fell lob bowling's greatest Test achievements (neither Humphreys nor Jephson played for England). Playing in all five Tests against South Africa in 1909-10 he was his side's most successful bowler with 23 wickets at 18 runs apiece. With his low trajectory and ample turn off the matting he could not be 'lofted' with safety or even driven along the ground with confidence; pushes and pokes were the best means of resistance.

Simpson-Hayward was probably the best lobster since Clarke, and indeed since pitches lost their unpredictability with general use of the heavy roller he has been the only attacking lob-bowler. Under normal conditions it has to be admitted that batsmen get themselves out when faced with lobs which seldom have the technical excellence to beat a defensive stroke. Simpson-Hayward was outstanding because in addition to the normal lobbed off break, rolled off the outside of the thumb, he could bowl another sort by bending his fourth finger beneath the seam and with practice making his thumb strong enough to flick the ball onto a reasonable length. This turned much more than the ordinary off-break and enabled him to dictate the terms.

But let there not be discouragement if we fail in emulation. There are still tricks enough: the leg-break, bowled palm facing the batsman with the little finger and one or two big fingers beneath the ball to impart the spin, is the biggest weapon and can be turned on any wicket. (As the left-hander's equivalent turns into the right-handed batsman this perhaps explains the absence of any left-handed lob bowler of distinction). So we are already equipped to turn the ball both ways. Back-spin, palm facing the ground, and over-spin, normal straight delivery with a final touch of the fingers, can be acquired later. Then there is the lob that balloons twenty or more feet into the air, aimed to explode on the batsman's stumps; if set on the right course it is a fiendishly difficult ball to play because if the batsman is going to keep a straight bat then the only place for him to dispose of it is over his head and the boundary too. One success in contorting the batsman thus compensates for all the laughs and scorn a lob-bowler may initially receive.

Then there is the second-bounce yorker, and of course the daisy-cutter; the full toss straight to the shoulder, to be pushed away to short or square-leg; and as a first ball speciality the harmless low full-toss to the off stump that is tentatively driven to extra-cover. So the variety easily exceeds that which any over-arm bowler, bound by fashion not to introduce originality, can achieve.

But a lob-bowler has the psychological advantage too. When he goes on, to the mockery of his fellows perhaps, it is immediately up to the batsman to show what tripe he is facing and to lash about him - which plays into the lobster's claws; if he doesn't the jeers will turn on him till he loses patience. And if he remains cautious and crease-ridden a lob bowler has as great a chance as anyone of dismissing him with his assortment of tricks.