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Leg Before Wicket

Billy Bowden delivering a verdict

All of cricket’s 42 laws have, at one time or other, caused consternation, controversy and debate and like all good legal systems they have been subject to regular reappraisal as that which they govern evolves. One of those laws in particular stands out, head and shoulders above the others, for the sheer weight of difficulty that it has caused. It is, of course, Law 36 – Leg Before Wicket.

When the laws were first codified, back in 1744, there was no provision for LBW. There was simply no need for it as a batsman with a curved bat was highly unlikely to position himself right in front of the wicket. In the ensuing years bats straightened and some batsmen began to use their legs as a line of defence, the disincentive to doing so brought about by the absence of any sort of leg guard notwithstanding. The 1774 revision sought to deal with this new tactic and did so by empowering umpires to give a batsman out if, with design, he prevented the ball from hitting his wicket otherwise than by the use of his bat.

Without leg guards, and given that the spirit of the game frowned upon such obstruction, LBW decisions were rare but it was quickly realised that the with design provision placed an impossible burden on the umpire, when dealing with poker-faced batsmen, as to whether their actions were carried out with or without intent.

As a result of that particular difficulty in 1788 those charged with the task of drafting the laws made a revised attempt. The problematic expression, with design, was omitted and in its stead a requirement introduced that the ball must pitch straight. Further tinkering in 1823 brought in a condition that ..the ball must be delivered in a straight line to the wicket. This amendment succeeded in causing much confusion as the two leading umpires of the day chose to interpret the phrase differently (ie was the “straight line” between wicket and wicket or between the bowlers point of delivery and the wicket). It was not until 1839 that the law was clarified once more to make it clear that the “wicket and wicket” approach was the correct one.

Despite these problems the issue was not, in fact, a particularly serious one as LBW was not a significant cause of dismissals – by way of illustration in 1848 less than 2% were LBW. There was a move in 1863, no doubt from bowlers, to radically change the law by removing both the requirement to pitch in line and indeed to necessarily be hitting the stumps. The matter never actually reached the discussion stage however and, bowlers being given the ability to bowl overarm the following year, they presumably took the view that they had, with that change, got everything they were likely to get.

It was to be with the next generation of players that the issue flared up again in the 1880’s. By now leg guards had become part of the game and, as importantly, a new generation of professional batsmen started to play the game rather differently. Pitches were much improved and it became possible for batsmen to watch the ball off the wicket and play back rather than, as hitherto, simply playing forward to everything, and it made sense in those circumstances to use the legs as a second line of defence. The Notts professional, Arthur Shrewsbury, was the first to perfect this technique, but he very soon had a legion of imitators.

By 1888 the bowlers had had enough and it was proposed that the law should be changed by allowing an lbw decision if a batsman should ….wilfully cross the wicket to defend it with his person . The spectre of the problems that were caused by the 1774 law, more particularly the with design provision, proved too much for the MCC and they contented themselves with reminding the game that deliberate use of the pads in the manner complained of was …contrary to the spirit of the game….

This entreaty worked for a while, but by 1902 the 1888 proposal was back on the table. Again it failed to gather sufficient support to be introduced into the laws, although it did secure a trial outing in the Minor Counties Championship that season. The experiment was not a success and no further serious attempts to change the law took place before the Great War.

One of the most vociferous supporters of the movement for change was RH Lyttelton, a member of a famous cricketing family, and in 1924 a letter he wrote to the Editor of Wisden was published in that years edition. In the letter Lyttelton set out some interesting figures about the incidence of LBW decisions in the First Class game – in 1870 they ran at just 2.5% of all dismissals. By 1923 it was 12.5%, thus a fivefold increase in just over half a century. Despite this nothing was done and as the 1930s dawned mediocre batsmen were still scoring heavily, safe in the knowledge that nothing pitching outside their stumps could dismiss them.

Finally in 1929 the law-makers acted albeit not, initially at least, by amending the LBW law. Their first effort was to increase the size of the wicket, a sensible move in an attempt to rebalance the game but one which in fact had no significant impact. The next attempt was the ill-fated and, at first blush absurd, snick rule, by which a batsman could still be out LBW even if he got an edge. In fact the idea is perhaps not so ridiculous as it initially seems. It does, after all, remove a significant area of potential error for umpires, and if the point of the LBW law is to reward a bowler who has beaten the batsman and would, were it not for the pad have bowled him, there is no logical reason why a faint edge should come to the batsman’s rescue. In any event whatever the rights and wrongs of the snick rule it did not last for very long.

The change that has endured was introduced experimentally in 1935 and, two years later was made permanent, and ever since then a batsman can be given out LBW to a ball that pitches outside the off stump, provided always that the ball strikes him at a point in line between wicket and wicket and, of course, it would have gone on to hit the stumps. The result of the change in the law was that, from an average of 13.5% of all dismissals between 1931 and 1934 being LBW, that figure increased to 17.8% in 1935, fell to 16.5% in 1936 and, the batsmen having adjusted their techniques accordingly, for the remaining three pre-war seasons the average was, at 13.4%, actually marginally lower than before the law changed.

The reason for changing the law was, as much as anything, simply to tilt the delicate balance between bat and ball back in favour of the bowler who, it was clear from what was happening on good wickets, was facing an increasingly unequal struggle. The change inevitably encouraged in-swing and off spin bowling and discouraged the wrist spinner. If it was seriously intended that it should reduce pad play, and return batting values to those of the fondly remembered Golden Age, then it was a poorly thought out piece of legislation as all it actually did was to require the batsman to get his pads outside the off stump, at which point he could not be given out.

That defensive pad play was still a part of the game was most vividly, and famously, demonstrated by Peter May and Colin Cowdrey when, at Edgbaston in 1957 for England against West Indies, they continually padded Sonny Ramadhin away in their record breaking fourth wicket partnership of 411. As we have already seen cricket’s law makers do not make fundamental change in a hurry and, despite increasingly negative cricket slowly strangling the game through the 1960s, it was to be 1970 before the LBW law was changed again.

For 1970 and 1971 the law, largely, reverted to what it had been prior to 1935. For those two seasons a batsman could not be out LBW to any delivery that pitched outside the off stump, subject to the proviso that he had to offer a shot at the ball. This meant two changes. Firstly a batsman could now be out if he padded up to a delivery that would have hit the wicket even if the point of impact was outside the off stump, but only if he offered no stroke – so effectively the law as it is today. The second change, and this is what lasted only two years, was that if a shot was offered the batsman could not be out to a delivery that pitched outside off stump, even if he was struck in line. Thus for two years, for any batsman who was always looking to play the ball, the law reverted to its pre-1935 state.

The effect of this showed through immediately in the statistics. In 1969 LBW made up 11.2% of dismissals. Under the batsman-friendly law of 1970 and 1971 that figure became 8.0% and 8.2%, a significant reduction. Even more marked was the change after the current law came in – there was almost an immediate doubling, 1972 seeing a rise to 15.2%.

What happens next is rather curious. In the light of what happened in the 1930s it would have been reasonable to expect that, after an initial increase in LBWs, batsmen would have worked out their tactics and levels would have fallen back as adjustments were made. In fact there has been a gradual increase and by the 2010 English season as many as 22.1% of all dismissals were LBW – almost half as many again as in 1972.

Why is this? A major factor, I have no doubt, arises out of another change in the laws in the 1970s when covering of pitches began. The wet or drying wicket and the “sticky dog” of the past were consigned to history, and batsmen no longer had to be ready to bat on the sort of pitches that had so tormented their predecessors. This meant that batsmen could have confidence in playing their strokes at all times and they have become less defensive as a result. The examples set by successive West Indies sides in the 1980s, and Australians in the 1990s and 2000s have also served to discourage negative batting. A watchful, defensive batsmen is much less likely to miss the ball, and consequently be struck on the pad, than one who is on the offensive, looking for runs.

Umpiring is also affected by the covering of pitches. The old wet or sticky wickets would cause the ball to behave unpredictably and the removal of those conditions from the game must have served to increase umpires confidence in their judgments as to what might have become of a ball’s behaviour had it not been intercepted by the batsman’s pad.

Also a factor here is modern technology. Hawkeye has amply demonstrated that many deliveries that strike a batsman’s pad when he is well forward will go on to hit the wicket. In years gone by, and certainly when I received what coaching I did in the 1970s, I was always assured that a decent stride down the wicket would ensure that no half decent umpire would ever give me out. That was how it proved to be, even in the pretty poor standard of cricket (and consequently umpiring) in which I spent my playing days. At First Class and Test level, the long stride amounted to, effectively, immunity from dismissal – times have changed.

Something else that has changed over the years is in relation to the interpretation, by batsmen and umpires, of whether or not a shot has been played. For a number of years it seemed that the only batsmen caught were those who shouldered arms and, to all intents and purposes, kicked the ball away. Those cannier batsmen who came forward with their bat tucked in just behind the pad generally got away with it. As we have acquired coaches, players and umpires who have never played under the pre 1970 law that is something else that has changed. Batsmen are less inclined to do it anyway, after all their coaches have to warn them it could result in dismissal, and if they do umpires are much less willing to have the wool pulled over their eyes. The resulting changes in batting and umpiring have contributed to the increasing incidence of LBW decisions.

So what of the future? I believe that we may soon reach a situation where the LBW law has to be looked at again. It seems to me that it must be inevitable, even if they have not at this stage done so, that in the near future the Hawkeye and Hotspot technologies will have become, to all intents and purposes, infallible. Equally it cannot be so very far in the future that these technologies develop in such a way as to provide the umpire with an instant analysis, thus removing the need for any human element at all in the dismissal, other than the, potentially, vexed question of whether or not the batsman has offered a stroke to the delivery pitching, and striking him, outside the off stump – but that would always be a matter for the sole judgment of the onfield umpire.

At the moment a batsman has to be given the benefit of the doubt. How many batsmen that saves it is impossible to know, but if doubt is eliminated logic would suggest that more batsmen than previously will be out LBW. To be set against that of course is the fact that some batsmen are adjudged out when they are not, but that is surely much less frequent than the combined total of those who are currently either erroneously given not out, or correctly given the benefit of the doubt. Once the technology is available there will no longer be those deliveries that might just have slid down the leg side, might have been missing off or gone over the top. Certainty will be available – might LBWs go up to 30% of dismissals, or perhaps even more?

If there is such an increase what, if anything, will the ICC need to do about it? Will the balance between bat and ball have been shifted too far towards the ball? In that respect it should be borne in mind that there will also be no need for the benefit of the doubt to be given for the vast majority of catches either so there will be another factor that should, in theory at least, work in favour of the bowler.

It may be that the balance, which certainly will move, will not do so sufficiently to cause the need for any change to the law but what if it does? A problem will arise because while I have no doubt that this technology will exist at International level, I doubt that in domestic First Class games it will be cost effective to set up, and most certainly at the game’s lower levels I cannot see that technology will usurp any part of the umpire’s role in the foreseeable future, if ever – it is not as if there is any prospect that Hawkeye, Hotspot and Snicko are about to become available via the latest generation of smartphones. So if change were needed I cannot see that that could be achieved by altering the LBW law. A universal change in the batsman’s favour, while it might redress a perceived imbalance in the International game, would almost certainly go on to create one beneath that level. A change at the top level alone would require batsmen to change their approaches, and for some no doubt their entire techniques, depending on what sort of game they were playing – that cannot be the answer.

If a change is needed then it seems to me that there are only two possible answers. The first, to me unattractive alternative, would be to reduce the width of the stumps slightly. More realistically that could be done solely in a virtual sense, and the area that counts for LBW decisions, but only in cases where technology is available, could be reduced thus cutting the number of such decisions, and preserving the status quo.


Interesting read. Thanks

Comment by JBMAC | 12:00am BST 12 September 2011

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