Published on January 1st, 2019 | by Abhishek Mukherjee1
Cricket history in quotes, part 33: “… or shall have been pitched on the off-side of the striker’s wicket”🕓 Reading time: 7 minutes
Abhishek Mukherjee, cricketsoccer’s prolific writer, brings to you the words, verbal or written, almost never intended to be pathbreaking quotes in the history of cricket in this fascinating series……
Complete quote (law 24, 1937): “Or, if with any part of his person (except his hand) which is between wicket and wicket he intercept a ball, which in the opinion of the umpire at the bowler’s wicket shall have been pitched in a straight line from the bowler’s wicket to the striker’s wicket or shall have been pitched on the off-side of the striker’s wicket and would have hit it: Leg before wicket.”
You may explain the three meanings of the word “wicket” to the cricket-agnostic (hence unfortunate); you may justify a mandatory daily break named after a beverage; chances are that someone with reasonable mathematical prowess will even get Duckworth-Lewis-Stern, but you will still struggle to explain the LBW.
Indeed, such are the intricacies of the dismissal that practitioners of street cricket (where the umpire is often from the batting side) typically do away with it altogether.
Things have always been confusing. The 1744 laws do not mention LBW at all. One wonders what umpires would have done had batsmen decided to sit down on the pitch. Draw swords, perhaps.
Jokes aside, one can understand why the use of the foot was not considered a major problem. First, there was little concept of a pitch (the playing strip was where the sheep cleared grass the most during their pre-match snack); and secondly, with no pads, stretching the leg out was a brave act.
The 1774 laws at least mentioned a thing or two: “The striker is out if he puts his leg before the wicket with a design to stop the ball and actually prevent the ball from hitting it.” This probably demanded the umpires to demonstrate telepathic skills, but then, the elders were capable of things we cannot imagine.
1788 saw an improvement. “With design” was replaced by the condition “the ball must pitch straight”. This was not very clear either. The 1823 version, “the ball must be delivered in a straight line to the wicket”, was much better.
But even that was not foolproof. Will Caldecourt and James Dark, two leading umpires of the 1830s, failed to come to an agreement over the implications of the law.
Both Caldecourt and Dark bowled right-arm underarm in their playing days, which coincided with their umpiring days. Now Dark generally bowled over the wicket, while Caldecourt bowled round. This led to confusion.
Let me quote Gerald Brodribb from Next Man In: “Dark considered that the ball must be delivered from a spot which was on the line of wicket and wicket, but Caldecourt … said that it was equally correct for the ball to travel straight from hand to wicket.”
So they modified again, in 1839: “If with any part of his person he stop the ball, which in the opinion of the umpire at the bowler’s wicket shall have been delivered in a straight line from it to the striker’s wicket and would have hit it.” As it often happens – if you mind the pun – the Dark side won.
They stuck to this for some time, despite numerous grumblings, mostly from bowlers who specialised in off-breaks and off-cutters, and later the in-swinger. One must remember that this was an era when the batsman got the benefit of doubt in close calls.
However, a problem arose. Since the batsmen knew that they would not be given out to anything pitching outside off, they simply padded away everything not in line. This led to an increase in pad-play, which obviously did not make for great viewership. Not for the last (or first) time did bowlers grumble about the laws being tilted towards batsmen.
Arthur Shrewsbury, who played off the back-foot as clinically as anyone, perhaps benefitted the most. He went back to anything pitched outside off and used those wrists to perfection. If he connected he got runs; and even if he missed he was safe.
But Shrewsbury was not the problem, for he was good enough to score runs under any law. The problems arose when mediocre batsmen thwarted excellent incoming deliveries by thrusting their pads out. Pitches were better and pads were in vogue, so why not update the archaic law?
Bob Thoms, who had umpired in the first two Tests on English soil, aptly summed up in 1888: “This very unsightly play cannot be termed batting; ’tis simply scientific legging, and ought to be stopped.”
MCC had to do something to please the bowlers (professionals, not amateurs) happy. So they called pad-play “contrary to the spirit of the game and inconsistent with strict fairness,” but that was about it. They probably expected batsmen across the country to uphold the spirit and abandon pad-play with immediate effect.
Several cricketers insisted on reform, perhaps none more than Alfred Lyttelton, but nothing came of that. In a monograph in the 1924 Wisden, Lyttelton demonstrated how the proportion of LBWs had increased from 1/40 in 1770 to 1/17 in 1890 to 1/14 in 1900 to 1/8 in 1923.
This may seem counterintuitive. If LBWs were more difficult to obtain, the count should have gone down, not up, correct? In reality, so obsessed were batsmen with pad-play that the average ones often preferred it to the bat. The rate of LBWs had shot up as a result.
It was not until 1929 that MCC decided to act. That year they implemented a law, to be followed only in English domestic cricket, that a batsman would be given out if he edged the ball and all other conditions of the LBW held. This was in practice till 1933.
The other change in 1931 was implemented at a global level. The wicket, previously 8 inches in width, was now altered to “not less than eight inches and no more than nine inches”; and the height increased from 27 inches to “not less than twenty-seven inches nor more than twenty-eight inches out of the ground”.
In other words, the 27” x 8” dimensions were now 28” x 9” – a 17% increase.
But none of these addressed the problem of pad-play, for batsmen kept offering their pads to anything pitched outside off. They probably took their stance an inch towards off and watched out for that extra movement that might have induced an edge, but that was it.
So they changed the law again, in 1935. This was perhaps the most significant change of law in the history of batting: the batsman could now be given out, all other conditions remaining same, even if the ball pitched outside off.
Once again, this was implemented only in First-Class cricket in England, including the home Tests against South Africa. Australia were reluctant to accept this.
MCC took measures to check the efficiency of the method as well. The umpires signalled whenever there was an LBW according to the new rule but not according to the old rule; the scorer noted it down as “LBW (n)”; and the scorecard was sent to the authorities for analysis.
This changed things drastically. Of the 1,560 LBW dismissals in 1935, 483 had “(n)” next to them – a whopping 31%. It had been a success. Australia agreed to implement the law for the 1936-37 Ashes (New Zealand had agreed earlier).
The change generally received positive responses. “The innovation has been proved to be in the interests of the game, if only by helping to bring more matches to a definite decision,” lauded Wisden editor Wilfred Brookes.
Several county captains voiced their support as well. Brian Sellers of Yorkshire said: “I think the new rule has come to stay.”
Similarly, Walter Robins of Middlesex: “If the experiment becomes law, we shall go a long way towards obtaining ‘brighter’ cricket.”
Geoffrey Lowndes of Hampshire: “I think the new L.B.W. rule has, on the whole, been a success.”
George Heane of Nottinghamshire: “The new L.B.W. rule eliminates a large amount of pad play, and it quickens up the game, with the result that more matches are brought to a definite conclusion.”
Tom Pearce of Essex had mixed opinions: “The new rule has been a great success … [but] has been a little severe on opening batsmen playing against the new ball.”
Bob Wyatt of Warwickshire, on the other hand, thought “it encourages bowlers to bowl off-breaks and in-swingers resulting in less off-side play and also affecting the hook shot.” However, he also admitted that “it does make batsmen play at more balls outside the off stump.”
Errol Holmes of Surrey thought the law “has curtailed strokes of back players considerably.”
Other than Wyatt and Holmes, Herbert Sutcliffe was not too keen on the change either. The legend, now past 41, had already played his last Test. It was perhaps too late for him to adapt.
How did these three men adapt in 1935?
“Class told,” commented Wisden, while commenting on their rise through the ranks, especially Sutcliffe’s. Wyatt’s average had fallen but his rank had risen considerably, and Holmes seemed to be another batsman. One wonders why they had opposed.
That Sutcliffe coped better than almost any top batsman is evident from the fact that he rose in ranks despite no improvement in average. The only person to finish ahead of Sutcliffe in 1935 was Wally Hammond.
Indeed, class told.
Law 24 was amended for all countries in 1937. The updated law has been reproduced above.
Pad-play to anything pitched outside off was eliminated. Batting became more aggressive and scoring rates increased, and as batsmen took risks, wickets fell too.
The subsequent change
One problem remained. When the batsman was sure that the point of impact would be outside off, they kept offering their pads. In 1969-70, Australia and West Indies experimented by giving LBWs even if the point of impact was outside off, provided the batsman had not offered a stroke. England adopted this in 1970.
However, it was not before 1980 that the law was changed. The new law (now Law 36) now had a section titled “(b) Striker Making No Attempt to Play the Ball.” It read: “The Striker shall be out L.B.W. even if the ball is intercepted outside the line of the off-stump, if, in the opinion of the Umpire, he has made no genuine attempt to play the ball with his bat, but has intercepted the ball with some part of his person and if the other circumstances set out in (a) above [other conditions for an LBW] apply.”