The Crisis in Cricket and the "Leg Before Rule"/Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX

THE PREPARATION OF WICKETS

IT is not necessary to go back before the 'sixties to show the evolution in the preparation of wickets. I can remember the days when the implements used were the scythe and the waterpot, the broom and the light roller and nothing else. The year 1866 was the first year I saw first-class cricket in London, and the matches were Gentle­men v. Players both at Lords and the Oval. I believe I am right in saying that at the Oval in 1866, sheep were penned up in the north-west corner at the Vauxhall end, and when stumps were drawn, were let loose over the ground and supplemented the work of the scythe by nibbling the grass. I have heard they were used at Lords a few years before, but I cannot vouch for the truth of this.

Bowling in those days was fast, faster than it is now because grounds prepared as they were then favoured fast bowling. Real slow round arm bowlers were very few in the 'sixties, not more than three or four among the professionals, though there were some lob bowlers. But it was not until 1864 that a law was passed making overhand bowling legal, and real high bowling, such as that of Richardson, Mold and Woods did not come in to any great extent for some years; the first eleven whose bowlers were all of high action was the Australian eleven of 1878. It may seem strange, but I believe that, leaving out Lords for the moment, the comparatively primitive methods of preparing wickets were sufficient. The Oval, Fenners, Brighton, Cowley Marsh at Oxford, Trent Bridge, were all grounds on which run-getting was sufficient, and the cricket was good. And yet some of the bowling was very fast, Jackson and Tarrant being as fast as Richardson and Mold, though their action was not so high.

Lords was different; the heavy soil and slope and something, I do not know what, brought into existence the Lords' shooter, the like of which has never been seen, and more shooters were bowled at Lords than on all the other grounds put together. To play a great innings at Lords up to 1870 was a thing to be proud of. Reginald Hankey's famous innings of 70 in 1857 in Gentlemen v. Players against Jackson, Willsher, Wisden and Caffyn was talked about for years, and C. G. Lyttelton always used to say that he felt as satisfied after an innings of 28 in Gentlemen v. Players at Lords against Jackson, Tarrant and Wootton as after almost any innings of his life.

It must be admitted that the probabilities are that against really high overhead fast bowling like Kortright, N. A. Knox, E. Jones and others, Lords would have been dangerous in the 'sixties, but there was not much complaint about any bowlers being dangerous except possibly in the case of Jackson. He andTarrant were asfast as any ofthe modern bowlers, but they bowled with arms not above the level of the shoulder. The great R. A. H. Mitchell at Lords was very likely the best player in England in the four years between 1862 and 1865. During this time Mitchell played in four University matches and several for the Gentlemen against the Players, beside others, and I have often heard him say that though a Lords' wicket was diffi­cult, this was mainly on account of the shooter and it was never dangerous, and he thought that cricket was more interesting there than anywhere. I once played at Upping­ham against the School and had a talk with H. H. Stephenson, who played in Gentlemen v. Players at Lords in 1865. The late F. R. Evans bowled successfully for the Gentlemen, and was fast with a doubtful action. H. H. Stephenson told me that he hit George Parr a pretty severe crackon the head, and in his opinion, the wicket was dangerous. Mitchell, who was playing, and played a very good innings of 44 not out, told me that the wicket was quite a good one. Caffyn, like all Surrey players of that date, played most of his cricket at the Oval and did not like Lords, and in his book, 71 Not Out, says he was not always sorry when he got out at Lords when Jackson was bowling, and how Jimmy Grundy stamped and swore like a lunatic when Jackson cut him over on the arm, but I do not think that in the opinion of the majority of cricketers Lords was thought dangerous. The only serious accident was when Summers was killed in 1870, but if he had obeyed his doctor instead of a quack, who in this instance was his mother, he might have been alive now.

But, taking England altogether, the wickets in those days were adequate when bowling was not so high, but changes in the preparation of grounds gradually came about. The mowing machine brought in about 1870 made an enormous difference, and so did the heavy roller still later, but it was not till about 1897 that groundsmen introduced marl and other artificial means. In Wisden's Almanack of 1902, it was remarked that on wickets prepared by modern methods, it became increasingly difficult to finish matches and the captains of the first-class counties asked the M.C.C. to confirm two resolutions passed by them, one of which was that the bowling crease should be widened, the other that artificial preparation of the wicket was undesirable. The widening of the bowling creases was passed by the M.C.C, but no legislation against artificial preparation of wickets was put forward. Apparently the mere fact of the matter having been brought forward by the captains had some effect, for Wisden in the 1906 edition said that the simpler methods of preparing wickets had worked well. Now the use of marl and artificial means have returned, and though never used at Lords or, I hear, in Yorkshire, is habitually to be seen at the Oval, Bristol, Brighton and other grounds.

To describe the effect that marl and other methods of artificial preparation have on wickets, I cannot do better than quote what has been written by Strudwick in his book, Twenty-five Tears Behind the Stumps. Strudwick has played cricket in England, Australia and South Africa; he has kept wicket on every first-class ground in the three countries and nobody has so good an opportunity of knowing how balls come off the ground as a wicket-keeper, and this is what he says in Twenty-five Years Behind the Stumps: "The wickets . . . are all against the bowler—all the life is taken out of the pitch." "Unless a ball is pitched short, one rarely sees it get up stump high" (p. xix). "We hear a lot about the dearth offast bowlers, but it is the lifeless wickets that have killed them off." "Give him a little encouragement . . . and we shall have as good fast bowlers as we ever had." Again in the Evening Standard of the 25th May, 1927, there will be found some remarks made by Larwood, the young Nottingham fast bowler, who apparently had been talking to Strudwick, and he writes: "Struddy told me that if Tom Richardson were bowling to-day he would not be any more successful than the average fast bowler."

I do not altogether agree with Strudwick's last remark, but what he writes about the modern lifeless wickets is true and should be borne in mind by those who are so ready to throw all the blame on the unfortunate bowlers for the present unsatisfactory state of things. Some time in the middle of June of last year I was watching a match at the Oval, with the ground for the most part as hard as a drought for five weeks could make it. The ball was thrown in from the deep field about forty yards in the air and came down on the marled part just on the pitch, and instead of bounding about five or six feet in the air rose as if it had been pitched on a sort of mattress. The groundsman cannot be blamed, he is supposed to make a wicket as easy to bat on as he can; he gives no thought to the bowler and very likely congratulates himself when, after three full days' cricket, as in the match between Lancashire and Yorkshire in 1926, 861 runs are scored for nineteen wickets, and of course another detestable draw is the final result.

In Australia, as will be seen later, batting has been made so easy that matches run sometimes to more than a week, and this is the result of wickets being prepared to resemble concrete. Our wickets to a great extent, and according to Strudwick, have all the life taken out of them and are made dead easy to bat on by another sort of treatment—i.e. marl. The result is that three days are not long enough to enable a match to be finished. A remedy must be found and a natural question to be asked first is whether marling or any sort of top-dressing is necessary.

Nobody wants to see cricket played on wickets which make the ball kick enough to become dangerous. It would appear at first sight that marling is not necessary as it was not brought into use until about 1897, and there were previously to that, from say 1880 to 1897, fast bowlers like Crossland, Kortright, Lockwood, Rotherham, Richard son, Woodcock, S. M. J. Woods and Wilson of Worcester­shire, who did not hurt batsmen to speak of. Moreover, marl has never been used at Lords. I can only suppose that some intelligent groundsman found it out and gradually it spread until wickets are now, as Strudwick tells us, lifeless and impossible for bowlers. I admit that I heard that one well known groundsman has said that marling is necessary to prevent wickets becoming dangerous. My reply to this takes the form of two questions: (i) why did batsmen escape with their lives when they played bowlers like Richardson, Kortright and Woods on unmarled wickets? and (ii) why did county captains about 1901 pass a resolution that artificial preparation of wickets was undesirable? (Wisden, 1902.)