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The Forgotten Art

Trevor Chappell demonstrates how not to bowl underarm

In the beginning all bowling was underarm, but there were always tensions. As time passed bowlers increasingly wanted to raise the level of their arms and eventually, in 1827, something else that is never seen today, round arm bowling, became legal. At a stroke the majority of bowlers switched their style. There remained just one great exponent of underarm to come, William Clarke, the founder of the All England XI. Clarke died in 1856 having continued to play regularly until a couple of years before his death.

Eight years after Clarke’s death, in 1864, the law changed again and the overarm bowling that we know today was legalised. This had much the same effect on round arm as that style had had on underarm back in 1827. By now the underarm, or “lob” bowler had become a curiosity. Not quite extinct, but distinctly uncommon. There are some figures to illustrate this. Between 1871 and 1876 a total of 19 different lob bowlers took at least one wicket, and the average number of victims of all of the “lobsters” per season was about 75. AW ‘Jammy’ Ridley was the most successful, and EM Grace was responsible for a goodly number as well.

By the end of that decade however underarm was much rarer, and it took Alfred Lyttelton to famously bring it back into the public eye when he, leaving his pads on, came on to bowl in a Test against Australia in 1884 and took four quick wickets with his lobs to finish off an Australian innings.

In 1871 Walter ‘Punter’ Humphreys had made his debut for Sussex, and looked like a promising young batsman. By the end of the decade however he was gone, after just 57 matches with an average of 16. He had bowled only 40 deliveries altogether, and there was not a single scalp to show for them. It is believed that those forty were all overarm. Pushing thirty Punter went back to his trade as a cobbler and to club cricket where he then developed as a lob bowler. He did enough to be noticed again by the county. In 1880 he took five Australian wickets, but still only figured in four games in 1881. The following year, in which he turned 33, he did better, and between then and 1891 he averaged 36 wickets a year, so respectable but nothing remarkable.

But then there was a transformation. In 1892 Humphreys took 92 wickets, and the following year 150. It seems that the handling of him by his captain, Australian Billy Murdoch, was part of the reason. Murdoch gave him frequent short spells and always brought him on to greet new batsmen. It is also said that wicketkeeper Harry Butt finally got to grips with the particular problems that the underarm bowler brings. In 1894 the 45 year old’s tally dropped right back to 36 but he had still done enough to get a ticket to Australia with Archie MacLaren’s 1894/95 side. On the hard Australian wickets he was reasonably successful in the minor matches but took just six expensive wickets in the First Class games, and didn’t figure in the Test side. To all intents and purposes Australia was his last hurrah.

As Humphreys departed another man arrived to fly the lobsters’ flag, Surrey amateur Digby Jephson. Between 1900 and 1902 Jephson was Surrey’s captain and he played until 1904. He never had a season so spectacular as Humphreys great year, but he took 77 wickets in 1901 which, to go with 1,436 runs, demonstrated that he was a very capable cricketer indeed. Jephson’s finest hour came in the Gents v Players match at Lord’s in 1899. The professionals generally won these encounters but this time the amateurs won by an innings, and in the Players’ first innings they collapsed in the face of Jephson’s lobs as he dismissed Tom Hayward, William Brockwell, William Storer, George Hirst, Albert Trott and Walter Mead at a personal cost of just 21.

In 1899, the middle of the ‘Golden Age’, the only underarm bowler ever to enjoy success at Test level began his career. George Simpson-Hayward found the matting wickets he encountered in 1909/10 in South Africa much to his liking and in the five Tests he took 23 wickets. He took those wickets at a cost of 18.26 and had a strike rate of 39. In the summer of 1908 he had struck even more frequently for his 68 wickets, so he was clearly an attacking bowler. Simpson-Hayward had the full repertoire of variations, but his main weapon was a fiercely spun off break, which bit and seemed to gather pace off the South African mat. The snap of his fingers as he delivered the ball was audible to the batsmen, so when he bowled another of his more destructive deliveries, the one that he didn’t spin at all and went straight on to get an lbw, he would snap the fingers on his other hand to ensure that the batsman had no clue as to what was coming his way.

The Great War brought down the curtain on Simpson-Hayward’s career. All told he had taken 503 First Class wickets, during an era remembered most for the quality of batsmanship in the English game. He had paid 21.39 for those wickets with a strike rate of just 40.24. His average was five points higher than his great spin bowling contemporaries, Wilfred Rhodes and Charlie Blythe, but he shaded them on strike rate, and if his economy rate was inferior as well, it was not hugely different. Time has shown that ‘Simmo’ was the last man to play regularly as a lob bowler, and indeed since 1919 only one man has ever been selected to play First Class cricket purely as an underarm bowler, Trevor Molony of Surrey.

The birth of The Cricketer in 1921 coincided with Molony’s debut, and contained a report of the Bank Holiday fixture at Trent Bridge when Fender introduced him to the side. Surrey had a disastrous start, all out for 76 after Fender won the toss and elected to bat. The home side sailed past that with just three wickets down, and were on 170-5 before Molony was introduced to the attack – the verdict was He is a lob bowler who bowls leg theory and bowls it accurately too. He varies the flight of the ball excellently and bowls an exceedingly good full toss at an awkward height.

Fender’s field placings for Molony were unfamiliar to say the least. There were four men on the onside boundary, four more in an inner ring, and the sole man on the off side was a wide mid-off. Completely non-plussed the Notts batsmen’s attempts to deal with Molony caused great amusement in the crowd. They struggled to score runs and three of them were lured to their fate. First Walter Payton, a batsman who played almost 500 First Class matches in a 25 year career, holed out to fine leg. The next man in was Fred Barratt, an England fast bowler and batsman good enough to score two centuries in his career. He put one down the throat of deep square leg. Finally England batsman Dodger Whysall, playing what the report describes as an overhead tennis serve shot through the unguarded covers succeeded only in picking out the man on the off side. Notts were restricted to 201 and Molony’s figures were an impressive 7-1-11-3.

Surrey did rather better in their second innings, but Notts still had a modest fourth innings target which they reached comfortably enough for the loss of just three wickets. Molony proved difficult to get away again though, his figures being 7-0-19-0, but he was shown rather more respect this time. A local Nottingham newspaper made the observation that batsmen would learn to score without falling rapidly into simple traps if they had to face underarm bowling more often.

Molony was retained in the Surrey side for their next fixture at nearby Leicester, not in those days strong opposition, and Surrey won comfortably by 8 wickets. The figures that Molony returned were certainly respectable, 6-1-19-1 and 7-1-19-0. His solitary wicket was a catch behind the wicket by Herbert Strudwick. It was a very slow delivery well wide of the stumps. The Leicester batsman, who was on 86 at the time. struck it very hard indeed. Strudwick had the simple choice of either catching the ball or being hit by it and it is said he told the club later that either Molony wasn’t picked again or he was off. This amply demonstrates the difference between Molony’s leg theory and Simpson-Hayward’s more conventional line and length as ‘Struddy’ had kept quite happily to ‘Simmo’ in South Africa.

Given his pre-eminence in his field Surrey preferred to keep their ‘keeper happy. The only other first team appearance for Molony was about a month later, against Warwickshire whilst ‘Struddy’ was away on Test duty. In another Surrey victory Molony wasn’t called upon in the Warwickshire first innings, and signed off his First Class career in the second with 6-0-21-0.

Although no one has been selected for a First Class fixture as a specialist underarm bowler since Molony, that is not to say that there have not been underarm deliveries, that illustrated by Trevor Chappell to Brian McKechnie of New Zealand in an ODI retaining its notoriety more than thirty years later. Indeed it was that episode that gave the underarm bowler a bad name and hastened the law changes which have all but eradicated the possibility of the ‘lobster’ making a return.

In the years between Molony and Chappell there were a few occasions when underarm bowling was used, most frequently as a gesture of protest when the bowling side felt a declaration was overdue or, less frequently, to gift a batsman a particular milestone when a game was all but over. Genuine tactical decisions were rare, but occasionally came off. In 1933 Glamorgan skipper Johnny Clay, a fine off spin bowler, took a wicket with some underarm bowling in one match, as did the Australian mystery spinner Jack Iverson on a Commonwealth tour of India in 1953/54.

There were two promising developments in the 1960s. First of all Mike Brearley showed an interest in bowling underarm as a tactical variation, and tried it a couple of times whilst at Cambridge University. He revisited the idea in 1980 when he was Middlesex skipper but with no great success. In correspondence with Gerald Brodribb, the author of an entertaining little book on the sucject entitled The Lost Art, Brearley indicated that there was much hostility to the idea at the best of times, so it is unsurprising that he gave the idea up after the Chappell furore.

Most interesting of all were the efforts of another Cambridge man, Ossie Wheatley, an opening bowler who played for Glamorgan throughout the 1960s. Whilst skipper in the early part of the decade Wheatley invited Paddy Hennessy, a local Cardiff baseball pitcher, to the county’s nets. His rapid underarm yorkers and toe crushers were sent down with considerable success so much so that the Welsh county seriously considered playing him. In the words of Tony Lewis however we lacked courage, and a tantalising prospect was gone, and has never been repeated.

After the Chappell incident a blanket ban was put on underarm bowling. That lasted for two summers before, recognising that it would be wrong to outlaw completely something that was so fundamental to the game in its earliest incarnation, the bar was removed and replaced with a regulation that allowed the umpire to call ‘no ball’ if a delivery bounced more than twice, ran along the ground or if it otherwise came to rest before reaching the popping crease. A thoroughly sensible compromise.

The relevant law, as opposed to the supplemental regulation mentioned in the preceding paragraph, was and is Law 24 which, in the 1980 version of the Laws expressly permitted underarm bowling. The current code is the 2000 edition which specifically forbids lobs, except by special arrangement, although the circumstances in which such dispensation might be given are wholly unclear. The saddest aspect of the change is the way it sneaked in, much like Trevor Chappell’s infamous delivery. The new code first appeared in the 2000 edition of Wisden, complete with a summary of the “substantive” changes – how could the effective abolition of one of the building blocks of the game not fall to be considered in that list?

Setting out the history of underarm bowling is all very well, and thanks to Brodribb’s book can be done comprehensively – but how do you bowl it properly? There is no one now alive who saw Molony bowl in 1921, and even Norman Gordon, who passed away last September in Johannesburg at 103, had not been born when Simpson-Hayward found the South African mats so much to his liking in Edwardian times. So without a soul living who saw it done properly, and no film to speak of, it is necessary to look through the game’s vast literature to try and rediscover the secret.

The first instructional treatise on the game that I am aware of is Thomas Boxall’s book, Rules and Instructions for Playing at the Game of Cricket. Boxall was a professional cricketer who plied his trade in the late 18th century and who published his book back in 1801 in the days when all bowling was underarm. But his book says very little. It is not a long book, and talks mainly of run-ups and speed, and one is left to assume that the state of wickets at the time was such that imparting spin or break on a ball was not something that the bowler actually needed to do.

The best account I can find of how to bowl underarm comes from Alf Gover, who played for Surrey between 1928 and 1947 and was picked for four Tests either side of World War Two. A distinctly swift right arm fast bowler Gover’s main fame came later, when for many years after he left the First Class game he ran a very successful indoor school in London.

Gover was too young to have played with Molony, and there is no suggestion in his 1991 autobiography that he ever saw him play or had any interest in underarm bowling. That said Gover did play for several years alongside Molony’s champion, Fender, and one way or other he wrote a thorough instructional piece for The Cricketer in 1979.

There are two basic types of delivery, unsurprisingly the leg break and the off break. The right armer’s leggie begins with the palm facing upwards and the fingers spread. The seam is kept horizontal and the ball placed in the palm. The third finger is primed along the seam and the ball supported by the thumb and little finger. The grip selected the wrist is then bent with the back of the hand pointing towards the on side. The wrist is then flicked as the ball is delivered, the coiled third finger imparting the spin as the back of the hand ends up facing the batsman.

The off break is the same, but with the forefinger crooked along the seam to impart the spin. This time the wrist is cocked with the back of the hand facing the batsman thus the ball is spun the other way. The two actions would be easy for the batsman to spot, so there is a googly as well. The set up is the same as for the leg break, the difference being that the wrist will stay cocked as the ball is released. Now the ball will be released with the palm of the hand and the fingers pointing downwards and facing the batsman.

The slight surprise is that although Gover recommends starting lob bowling with the arm in a vertical plane, that the aim should be to eventually have the arm around the horizontal at hip level. The reason is that the true underarm delivery will get little by way of bounce, and the higher arm will also permit the use of flight and loop. Gover also recommends bowling over the wicket, with a 6-3 off side field, although a heavily dominated leg field in the manner of Molony sounds rather more interesting.

Although I have seen references to it occasionally the Chappellesque ‘daisycutter’ can, it seems to me, be discounted as a delivery that need have any part in the game, unlike the ‘donkey drop’. The high full toss designed to drop on top of the bails is something that overarm bowlers can and occasionally do try, but in terms of giving the batsman the maximum time within which to dither before succumbing the slow lob bowler must have the edge. Batsmen are probably ambivalent towards such a classic lob, and its greatest detractor will always be the ‘keeper who, like Strudwick with Molony, could find his safety compromised if the batsman is prepared to take a risk.

Every now and again someone asks in all seriousness whether the underarm bowler might have a place in the modern game. No one has made the point this century,and a change in the law would of course now be required, but as the game changes with the passage of time it is still worth asking the question every now and again.

The starting point on the issue, for me, comes from the words of Ranji that were written in his Jubilee Book of Cricket back in 1897; When runs are of no consequence and getting wickets is all important, a lob bowler is a treasure. His great aim is to bowl balls which are difficult to score off unless hit in the air. Most batsmen fall victim to lobs, not so much by the intrinsic difficulty and merit of the bowling, but on account of their own nervousness and anxiety to score. In matches where nerve plays an important part, even bad lobs are extraordinarily successful.

Ranji wrote those words at the height of the Golden Age, when limited overs cricket was still more than 60 years in the future, and T20 over a century away. I rather doubt whether a lobster could make an impact in the First Class game, or even in 50 over matches, but I do wonder if he might add something to T20, certainly on grounds that have a large playing area. It would be nice if someone had a go, so let’s change the laws to allow underarm bowling in T20, and remove, just for the ‘lobster’, any sort of fielding restriction. I think it would liven the proceedings up considerably.


Another interesting article

It would be good to see it tried in T20 at club level

Comment by Midwinter | 12:00am GMT 20 January 2015

Fantastic, fred. Absolute top notch.

Comment by harsh.ag | 12:00am GMT 20 January 2015

Last year, I published a book (Swift Underhand) on John Kinloch, the last specialist underarm bowler selected for New South Wales. That was in 1861. Kinloch was classed as a fast underarm bowler – he seems to have varied between pitching a length (with a slight leg break) and rolling the ball fast along the ground. The point being that we tend to think today of underarm bowlers as slow, lob bowlers, but that wasn’t always so. The book was a limited edition (as it appealed, I admit, to a decidedly minority interest) but Roger Page may have a few copies left if anyone is interested in a study of the evolution of bowling techniques in early Australian cricket.

Comment by Max Bonnell | 10:29pm GMT 2 February 2015

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