Moments that changed cricket forever: Evolution of bowling – underarm to overarm

The infamous Trevor Chappell ‘underarm’ incident (Image courtesy

February 1, 1981; MCG – 3rd final of the Benson & Hedges World Series Cup: After Australia had scored 235/4 in their 50 overs, New Zealand had managed to reach 229/8 off 49.5 overs and needed a six off the last ball to tie the game.

Brian McKechnie was the batsman who had to face the delivery. Aussie skipper Greg Chappell instructed the bowler, who also happened to be his brother, Trevor Chappell, to bowl an underarm delivery.

The bowler obliged to his captain’s demand, rolling the ball along the ground to prevent McKechnie from hitting a six. McKechnie tapped the ball to on side and flung his bat away in disgust.

The Aussies had managed to win the match, and their last-ball tactics were within the laws of the game. However, the conduct was deemed unsportsmanlike and received a lot of criticism. It also prompted the ICC to have a re-look at the bowling action laws.

It is said that underarm bowling is as old as the game of cricket itself. During the early 18th century, the most common bowling action involved the bowler bending one knee and rolling the ball along the pitch. If the ball went rolling along the ground slowly, it was called a ‘Trundle’. If it rolled quickly instead, it was called a ‘Skimmer’.

Just like in modern times, the rules of the game were tilted in favour of batsmen, which meant that bowlers needed to keep coming up with new ways to restore the balance.

By the 1770s, bowlers had started to pitch the ball through the air instead of rolling it along the ground. This move gave the bowlers the option of confusing the batsmen with variations in length and pace. It also opened the possibility of spinning the ball while bowling.

In the 1780s, bowling style changed from underarm to round-arm. Tom Walker of Hambledon club is largely credited for the change. Deciding to experiment with his bowling, Walker thought to try to bowl with his hand away from his body. It is believed that he lifted his hand up to waist-high. Back then, he was reprimanded for playing in an unfair manner, but it sparked off the chain of events which ultimately brought changes to the art of bowling in cricket.

The turn of the century saw round-arm bowling becoming increasingly popular. A popular story credits a woman for being the reason for the style becoming a popular trend. It is said that Christina Willis, sister of Kent player John Willes, was bowling to him in their garden. Because of wearing a voluminous skirt, she wasn’t able to bowl underarm, and had to raise her arm higher than usual.

Christina’s son Edward later recorded his mother’s contribution to cricket in an article in 1907.

“It was my mother’s skill in throwing the ball to him (John Willes) for practice in the barn at Tonford… He then trained a dog to fetch the ball, and there was a saying that Willes, his sister, and his dog could beat any eleven in England.”

The idea of round-arm action caught the fancy of Willes, who decided to promote the bowling style. Meanwhile in 1816, laws were changed to ban round-arm bowling. Until that time, anything other than the underarm action, though not considered illegal, was said to be ungentlemanly. Umpires were allowed to no-ball anyone who they thought was breaking the law.

Sport. Cricket. pic: circa 1740. This illustration shows how cricket was played in the 18th century.

Cricket in circa 1740

In response to the increasing number of bowlers resorting to round-arm technique, MCC decreed in 1816 that “the ball must be delivered underhand, not thrown or jerked, with the hand underneath the elbow at the time of delivering the ball.”

Despite the rule, in a game for Kent against MCC at Lord’s in 1822, Willes bowled with a round-arm action, and predictably was no-balled. It is said that Willes threw the ball down in anger, mounted on his horse, and left, vowing to never play in a match ever after.

In 1826, the unofficial champion team of Sussex had achieved its success largely due to the bowling of William Lillywhite and James Broadbridge – both having round-arm actions. There was a lot of ambiguity and confusion among the players and public on what was legal and what wasn’t. Batsmen often objected to facing round-arm bowlers.

The MCC introduced a new law in 1828 which allowed bowlers to raise their arms to elbow height while bowling, but this move still didn’t manage to totally sort out the confusion. Eventually in 1835, MCC rewrote the rulebook, adding that “if the hand be above the shoulder in the delivery, the umpire must call “No Ball”, thereby legalizing round-arm deliveries.

In 1845, MCC changed the laws yet again, this time giving umpires more power, establishing that their decision was final. Just as it had been the case with round-arm action, soon over-arm bowling became popular, largely aided by the fact that many umpires did little to prevent bowlers from doing so.

On August 26, 1862, Surrey played the All England team at The Oval. Edgar Willsher deliberately bowled overarm, and was no-balled six times successively by the umpire.

The irony was the fact that the umpire John Lillywhite was the son of William Lillywhite, who had taken the initiative to bring about change in bowling action rules in the game 36 years ago. In retaliation to the umpire’s constant no-balling him, Willsher and his teammates walked off from the field.

Sensing that the tide was beginning to turn, MCC changed the laws once again in 1864, this time legalizing overarm bowling, and only the throwing/jerking action while bowling wasn’t permitted.

But even after the new rule, bowlers with underarm and round-arm actions continued in the game, with many achieving success. However, the overarm technique had become the most popular and preferred style.

Interestingly, round-arm action disappeared from the game much before the underarm one, which continued right until the World War 1.

While Australia first fielded an all-overarm attack in 1878 and continued that trend thereafter, England occasionally continued to play underarm bowlers even in the early years of the 20th century.

In fact, one underarm bowler, George Simpson-Hayward aka “lobster” toured South Africa in 1909-10 and was the English team’s most successful bowler, taking 23 wickets at an average of 18.

Though overarm bowling was the most common technique used after the World War 1, there were still some instances of underarm bowling, mostly in first-class cricket.

However, after the uproar created due to the Chappell brothers’ tactics in the game against New Zealand, the ICC banned underarm bowling, calling it as “not within the spirit of the game”.

The sport of cricket that we know today is a result of numerous changes that were brought into the sport to make it more competitive and play it in the right sense. The evolution of bowling underarm to an overarm action is a perfect example of this.

The journey is still far from over. Bowlers keep adapting to the growing challenges and spring up with new actions. Rules were amended regarding the bend of the elbow in the famous case of Test cricket’s highest wicket-taker, Muttiah Muralitharan. Lasith Malinga’s ‘sling’ action has brought in a new dimension to the limited overs cricket.

It’s a continuous curve which will keep evolving to meet the new demands and challenges that the game would face in times to come.


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