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Turning Points

Overarm bowling

How the bowling arm made its way from below the waist to the shoulder to high over the head

Steven Lynch
Steven Lynch
05-Dec-2009
A cricket match at Lord's in London, during which overarm bowling was tested against the accepted underarm method, July 1842

A game at Lord's in 1842, during which overarm bowling was trialled against the established underarm form  •  Getty Images

1864
The earliest bowling was underarm, although that wasn't always quite as genteel as it might sound. The early cricket historian John Nyren wrote of David Harris, who propelled fast underarms from somewhere near his armpit for Hambledon in the 1780s: "How it was that the balls achieved the velocity they did by this mode of delivery, I never could comprehend."
The next step, around 1800, was to roundarm bowling. By legend this was started by a woman, Christina Willes, whose voluminous skirts meant she couldn't lob the ball underarm. It's a nice story, but is generally thought to be fanciful these days. What is true is that Christina's brother, John, was no-balled for roundarm bowling in a match at Lord's in 1822: in high dudgeon he jumped on his horse and galloped off, vowing never to play cricket again.
By the 1860s, roundarm bowling was the norm, but the bowlers were trying to sneak the hand above the shoulder, as what we would recognise today as bowling developed.
In 1862, Edgar Willsher, playing for England against Surrey at The Oval, was no-balled for overarm bowling. Like Willes before him, Willsher left the field, although he doesn't seem to have had a horse handy to ride off into the south London sunset. The match resumed the next day with a new umpire, and overarm bowling took hold as bowlers began to understand the possibilities.
Two years later overarm bowling was legalised - which is why cricket historians usually date the start of "modern" cricket to 1864.

Steven Lynch is the editor of the Cricinfo Guide to International Cricket. The Turning Points series of articles was first published in Wisden Asia Cricket magazine in 2003