As published in Inside Sport, March 2011
Richie Benaud labeled it ‘disgraceful’. New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon called it cowardly and ‘disgusting’. Ian Chappell instinctively pleaded to his brother from the commentary box to desist. In the Kiwi dressing rooms, the stunned silence was shattered by an enraged Mark Burgess smashing a teacup!
Thirty years on and unsportsmanlike conduct in any caper invariably evokes the dirty ‘u’ word. Trevor Chappell’s underhanded underarm will never be forgotten, and only on a good day forgiven byAustralia’s Trans Tasman neighbours. Worse than connotations of effeminacy, one regrettable decision by a tired and emotional captain, and the hysterical fallout, has forever cast underarm bowling as pungent as, well, a fast bowler’s underarm.
Yet how the leather orb is propelled has forever been plagued by ambiguity and disputes. Commonly, a subjective ‘spirit of the game’ has been invoked in lieu of tighter rules and pragmatism. The rot started when the London Cricket Club neglected to define the delivery action when the game was codified way back in 1744.
Until the early 1800’s, fast skimming and slower trundling underarmers were the order of the day. A minor revolution took place in the 1760’s when pitching the ball superseded the Trevor Chappell lawn bowls technique. New possibilities of line, length, flight and spin beckoned. Those adept at hitting uneven parts of the pitch prospered – none better than Edward ‘Lumpy’ Stevens, with his repertoire of ‘shooters’, ‘twisters’ and ‘risers’.
It wasn’t until 1816 the MCC decreed ‘the ball must be delivered underhand, not thrown or jerked, with the hand underneath the elbow at the time of delivering the ball’.
As pitches improved, the imbalance between bat and ball stimulated the emergence of roundarmers. Legalised in 1835, the ball could not be ‘thrown or jerked in which the hand or arm did not go above the shoulder’. Still, underarmers persisted. Nottinghamshire bowling machine William Clarke’s prolific stretch from 1848-1854 saw him jag a lazy 2327 wickets!
Inevitable progression to overarm elicited the requisite hand wringing and controversy until the MCC acquiesced in the early 1860’s. By the 1880’s, underarm’s flickering candle was carried by luminaries such as WG Grace and Jem Grundy - typically in tandem with the pre-eminent speedster.
A batsman’s trepidation and fear of ridicule was the key, triggered by deliveries such as the donkey drop raining down from above with ludicrous intent. Depending on the outcome, one can imagine the batter or bowler wound up looking rather foolish. Despite other inventive balls – the second bounce yorker, daisy cutter and beamer speared at the shoulder (with leg side fielders waiting for the spoils) – the craft was virtually extinct by WWI.
At Test level, George Simpson-Hayward provided the last and only hurrah in 1910. His miraculous deeds inSouth Africa had him lauded an English hero, claiming 23 wickets in five tests, including 6/43 on debut atJohannesburg. Although referred to as the ‘last great lob bowler’, he actually bowled two variations of brisk, low trajectory off spinners. Simpson-Hayward’s particular effectiveness on South Africa’s matting wickets rendered him a short lived trivia question, for despite an average of 18.26, he never played another test.
Over the intervening years there were intermittent reprisals, most commonly as an expression of protest or frustration. And ironically, desperation by bowlers called for throwing. Only Mike Brearley, a renowned strategist, seriously considered how the lob might be reintroduced as an attacking weapon.
Following the Chappell incident, the ICC almost immediately banned underarm – but initially only in one day cricket. Curiously, Law 24 (1b) was eventually changed to state that underarm isn’t legal unless agreed before the match.
Yet, as T20 rises to prominence and leather flingers toil away fruitlessly in the long game, a recent innovation by bowlers to steal back some impetus has been stymied by the lawmakers. The ECB have overridden the MCC in making double bounce deliveries illegal (an emergent shock tactic in T20), explaining thus;
“Further to an ECB Cricket Committee recommendation, it is confirmed that the practice of bowling a ball that bounces twice should be disallowed with immediate effect. It is considered inappropriate for the image and spirit of our game.”
It hardly seems fair when batsmen play loose with the ‘spirit of the game’, with reverse sweeps and bats that blast the ball into the adjacent town. Nevermind the degree of difficulty in effectively executing a double bounce yorker!
Double bouncers have basically been tarred with the same ‘it’s just not cricket’ brush as underarm. But if the sport is to remain interesting, and bowlers interested, there needs to be room for progression. What if cricket’s early pioneers dared not experiment, and challenge the status quo? Trevor Chappell could still be rolling the ball down the pitch forAustralia! Even if the charm of the underarm doesn’t grab you, given cricket’s evolution, it’s fair to say the lost art form has copped a bum rap since that fateful ODI final at the MCG.
Alas, the loopy lobster still has a place in the backyard, saving aching backs and tying the kids in knots.