Those of lesser quality change method against the fast, 1978

Has the bumper ruined batsmanship?

Richie Benaud




Bodyline brought plenty of 'bumpers' to Australia © Getty Images
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The popular theory these days is that the bumper has ruined Australian batsmanship. Ruined is too harsh a word for me. Changed I could come to terms with, but, even then, it is an over-simplification. A bumper changes nothing really, nor does it affect anything unless it is a good bumper posing problems to the batsman. And the batsman, correspondingly, must be a poor hooker, or at least play a poor stroke, for it to have the slightest effect on him.

At least as popular as the above theory is the one that states that more bumpers are bowled these days. Memories are short. When I first came into the game just on 30 years ago as a player, Lindwall and Miller were letting fly, then Tyson, Statham, Trueman, Adcock, Heine, Hall and Griffith, followed by Snow, moved on to the turn of the '60s. I refuse to believe more bumpers are bowled these days than by that group. I was either on the receiving end of a lot of them or was watching from slip or the pavilion.

A few months ago in Sydney I met Neil Adcock again, and we swapped stories as middle-aged ex-sportsmen tend to do. Naturally, we both bowled and batted a little better than 20 years earlier but, on one thing, we were agreed -- that, comparatively, it is highly unlikely that any more bumpers would ever be bowled than in that 1957-58 series in South Africa.

There are very few good players of really fast bowling. The stories of olden-day batsman relishing fast bowling, even on untrue pitches, are, to me, a piece of whimsy. I have great difficulty in believing that anyone could look forward to facing Tyson, Thomson, Lillee, Lindwall and Miller on a fast, bouncy pitch such as Perth. You take your chance and you do not worry about being hit. As soon as you begin to worry about that aspect of batting you should be back in club cricket playing for Saturday afternoon pleasure.

To achieve a balance on whether or not the bumper has had an effect on Australian batsmanship, it is necessary to trace the history of Australian batsmen and opposing express bowlers over the years. Express is the operative word. An ordinary fast-medium bowler who lets go a bouncer is just asking for trouble, unless it is played with a quick, quick, slow foxtrot towards the square-leg umpire. Max Walker, for example, should never be guilty of letting go a bumper -- every time he does, it should be money for old rope.

The day I was born in 1930, the Australian team was returning by boat from England where Bradman and Ponsford had thrashed the opposing bowlers. The story goes that Bodyline was born on the final afternoon when Bradman and Jackson had to bat on a wet pitch. I find that difficult to believe. No captain would produce such a controversial scheme on the evidence of one short spell when the next tour was to be played on the bone-hard pitches of Australia.

Bumpers and the Bodyline field-settings certainly ruined Australian batsmanship for a time. I am not surprised. I have often wondered how I would have played Bodyline. Having talked with Sir Donald Bradman, Jack Fingleton, the late Stan McCabe and Bill O'Reilly about it, the answer is that I just could not have managed it. I was a compulsive hooker, and I guess I would have changed to being a compulsive ducker and weaver.

At 16, I first saw Lindwall and Miller in action and, because of their dominance in the fast bowling world, bumpers were not a dirty word to Australian batsmen until 1954. Really then, there was a time span of 20 years (including wartime) when Australian batsmen had little experience of short-pitched express bowling, other than in Sheffield Shield cricket. And I can assure you I was quite delighted when both Miller and Lindwall finished playing for New South Wales where I lived. Other Australians had other ideas. When New South Wales played Queensland on a green-top one year, players like Ken Archer and Colin McCool, both splendid cricketers, found themselves playing most of the time between waist- and throat-level. My arrival at the crease with the ball was usually greeted, if not with a war-cry, at least with barely disguised pleasure, bordering on contempt.

It was just as painful I suppose to Colin to be hit on the thigh or in the ribs, but not as dangerous as hooking or being hit on the head.

Batsmen like Arthur Morris, Sidney Barnes, Neil Harvey and Sam Loxton of the 1948 tour of England, were all virile players of the hook and pull, so too Sir Donald Bradman; but that changed for an Australian batsman when Tyson, Statham and Trueman came along, with Loader as very useful back-up material. Almost immediately Adcock and Heine were into us and Wes Hall was there in 1960-61.

There was a definite change in Australian batting against bumpers over that period. Jim Burke had retired in 1959, Colin McDonald, Bob Simpson and Bill Lawry were the openers in the early '60s and almost until 1970 -- but it had been an unsettling time before that. Tyson and Statham produced a lot of playing across the line of the ball in 1954-55. So too did Wes Hall in 1960-61. It is there I believe that the clue lies to Australians', and perhaps any other batsman's, skill against the bumper. Their batting can be ruined if the bumper causes them to change their style and play across the line.

Doug Walters is the classic example. It is the short-pitched delivery which dismisses Doug in, say, 80% of cases. Not directly, mind you, and I do not need a memory jog to tell me about Doug's record. I generally remind other people of it. But, being an admirer of his unorthodox skills and exceptional temperament should not blind one to the shortcomings. If you study his technique with the naked eye and on slow-motion replays, it is easy to see that indeed on occasions the bumper has ruined his batsmanship. He ducks and bobs and squats, and when the short-of-a-length ball comes along around the off stump he is never quite in position to play it. The two gullies and three slips are on their toes ball by ball. That, I hasten to say, is not meant to be a full explanation, because Walters is just as likely to come out tomorrow and paste the fast bowlers all round the ground, as he did in Perth in 1974-75 on a fast, bouncy pitch. There he brought up his hundred with a marvellous pull for six off Willis from the last ball of the day.

Where I think the bumper has definitely changed Australian batsmanship in recent times is at the top of the order. Let's go back for a moment to the mid-'60s, where we had Colin McDonald, Bob Simpson and Bill Lawry at the start of a ten-year span. Colin did not hook. The fast bowlers quickly got to know this and had to change their technique. It was just as painful I suppose to Colin to be hit on the thigh or in the ribs, but not as dangerous as hooking or being hit on the head.

Bob Simpson did not hook at all. He devised his own method of weaving away to the leg side and he played the short-pitched bowling well, even though at times it looked a little strange. Ian Redpath followed that technique and, although he always looked awkward, he rarely got out. Bill Lawry hooked and hooked well, but he was very selective. Then Keith Stackpole was elevated from the middle of the order and he was a brilliant hooker and puller.

Since that time it is hard to think of anyone to match those players in skill against the short-pitched ball. Graeme Watson, who opened occasionally, Alan Turner, Rick McCosker and Ian Davis are all indifferent players of the bumper, and this indecisiveness affects their footwork in the playing of other strokes. Mostly in recent years Ian Chappell has been coming in to bat with the shine still on the ball, so too his brother Greg when he took over the No. 3 position. Both are hookers, and good ones, though at times Ian has found problems with the stroke, but in both these cases it could hardly be said that the bumper has ruined their batting. The answer probably is a cliché ... class will out. The outstanding batsman is outstanding against any bowler and any ball.



Brian Close evades a Michael Holding 'bumper' in 1976 © The Cricketer International
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However, sitting back now and having looked at the Australian side of things, it is worth looking at all the other countries as well. Has the bumper ruined Indian batsmanship? It certainly does when they see one. There are no bumpers in India from fast bowlers because there are no fast bowlers. The same applies to Pakistan, but their batsmen like Mushtaq, Zaheer, Asif and Sadiq all play the short ball extremely well. Probably they see a few in English county cricket but when they play the West Indians and the Australians they were given plenty of practice. The Indians do not have a sound track record, and against pace in Australia last summer they were inclined to shuffle a little.

And what of the West Indians? They are regarded as the finest players in the world of the short-pitched ball. To see Viv Richards batting against Lillee is to see the ultimate in battles between bat and the fast ball. Clive Lloyd is tremendously powerful pulling and hooking. Yet in 1975-76 in Australia, only one of their Tests against Australia went past four days and then only minimally. Thomson, Lillee and Gilmour took 29, 27 and 20 wickets respectively, and the hook-shot caused most of the chaos. My first sight of the West Indians was in 1951-52, when Miller and Lindwall were at top pace. The West Indians wilted against the short ball, but then so would anyone else have wilted against that pair.

Englishmen have the same problems. Take David Steele, for example. When the Australians were in England in 1975 he was a hero. The following summer against the West Indians he again performed creditably in the opening Tests, but later his keenness to get on to the front foot against all bowlers allowed the bumper to destroy him. He missed the tour of India and was not seen in a Test in 1977.

It is then, I believe, a matter of technique, as is the ability to combat the good outswinger or inswinger. The fine pace bowler who delivers two searing outswingers and then cuts the next one back off the seam has an outstanding chance of taking a wicket. Equally, the chance is there for the bumper used, say, in two ways ... a couple of good bouncers in one over and then the outswinger well pitched up on the off stump to draw the batsman into the stroke. Or a couple of good outswingers followed by the bumper that slants in at the batsman and cramps him for room. Thomson bowls the latter ball very well -- it seems to follow the batsman and gives him little chance of getting inside the line to pull and hook. Davidson could do the same because of the angle, though I hasten to add, for Thommo's benefit, not at the same pace.

I suppose that this discussion is as inconclusive as most other cricket arguments between players and ex-players. But I definitely could come to terms with the thought that in the past seven years the bumper has had some effect on batsmanship in all countries, particularly Australia. Watching hours of slow-motion replays recently has bolstered my argument that runs along the line of the best players in any era being able to play any type of ball, but players of lesser quality change their method when really fast bowlers come on.

The change, simply put, is that they suddenly begin to play across the ball instead of through it, and I offer it not as a criticism but a fact from the replays. Having said that, I am immediately reminded that, playing golf last summer in a pro-am with Ken Barrington, he offered the same opinion. I had the yips at the time with my putting and did not pay him full attention, but he was absolutely right. Perhaps the Australian players, and those from other countries so afflicted, should spend a few hours in the videotape studios instead of in the nets!

© John Wisden & Co