Moments that changed cricket forever: Evolution of law regarding LBW dismissals

Australia v India

The Glenn McGrath-delivery striking Sachin Tendulkar’s shoulder in front of the wicket led to the controversial Daryl Harper decision in the first Test at Adelaide Oval, 1999.

Wind the clocks 14 years back.

Adelaide Oval, 1999: India vs. Australia.

The much anticipated Sachin-McGrath duel witnessed a rather tame end when Tendulkar was caught in front of the wickets (so as to speak) after he misread a Glenn McGrath delivery that did not bounce as much as he had expected it to, and an evasive and crouching Sachin was hit on the shoulder.

Daryl Harper did take his time, but a cursory browse through the laws in his head convinced him of Sachin’s delinquency.

This famous (or rather infamous) incident created a media furore both in India and Australia.

Now, to the uninitiated, this anecdote would make as much sense as Steve Bucknor’s umpiring gimmicks. But the fact of the matter is that cricket is full  of such vagaries, and in the vanguard of such controversies, issues related to LBWs feature prominently.

Arguably so, considering the fact that for a single LBW decision that the umpire attempts to make, he has to factor in three basic criteria, efficiently promulgated by the DRS system.

The ball should pitch in line with the wicket, or on the off side of the stumps. Then the ball mustn’t make contact with the bat, at least not before it hits the batsman’s pad and that too in line with the wicket. And the obvious: the ball, if it wasn’t intercepted, should have, in all probability, hit the stumps.

Also, the umpire has to analyse the effect of the swing on the ball, the angle of delivery, as well as the batsman’s position: how far he was at the time of impact. Too many variables for a single function!

But these are not necessary (though admittedly sufficient) criteria that have to be factored in while an umpire rakes through his brain.

As the shoulder before the wickets incident elucidated, for a batsman to be given out leg before, it is not necessary that the ball hits his leg, nor is it mandatory that the ball must hit him in line with the stumps.

Navjot Singh Sidhu might have quipped, “LBW, to the fans, is like mathematics. It hardly makes any sense.”

And much like mathematics, which evolved from a paltry set of digits to algebra to statistics and what-not, laws regarding LBW too have transformed over the years, or rather, centuries.
Blog by: Mallika
The earliest known written record of the laws dated 1744 of cricket had no mention of any such rule regarding LBWs, considering curved bats were in vogue which did not permit the batsman to stand in front of the stumps. However, there was one clause that granted the umpires the authority to take action if they felt that the batsman was ‘standing unfair to strike’.

With the advent of straighter bats, batsmen were able to stand closer to the stumps, and some of them ignominiously involved themselves in football while at cricket, to preserve their wickets.

A television screen shows the Decision R

The DRS is another armour in the game which has tried to deconstruct the nuances of the menace of deliberate padding-up that had threatened to throw the game into disrepute.

A revision of the 1744 laws meant that a batsman was deemed out if he was guilty of deliberately stopping the ball from hitting the wickets. The umpires were to somehow ascertain the batsman’s intentions, leading to ambiguities and uproars.

The laws enacted in 1788 freed the umpires from the added responsibilities of a mentalist, and the batsman was declared out if he stopped a ball that pitched straight. And a revision of the law in 1823 added the condition that the ball must be delivered in a straight line to the wicket. This condition was further explained in 1839 by the MCC that the batsman was out if the ball pitched in line with the wickets and would have hit the stumps.

This wording remained in place for almost a hundred years. But as the game progressed and its reach widened, the game became more competitive and organised.

As a result, the batsmen started to employ pad play (football if you may) to negate deliveries that were threatening and did not fit the narrow 1839 definition that could get them dismissed.

Several attempts were made to curb the rising instances of pad-play, several reforms were proposed but with little effect. The pad-play was increasingly being employed, much to the bowlers’ chagrin.

Batsmen even started kicking the balls outside off stump rather than let the ball come to them. As a result, the ratio between the number of runs scored to successful LBW appeals was very high.

As a result of such unwanted developments, which were seen as having mediocre entertainment value, the MCC tried out some changes. The size of the ball was reduced in 1927 and that of the stumps was increased.

Many more changes were tried out on an experimental basis, for instance, declaring a batsman out even if he had hit the ball into his pads, which otherwise could have disturbed the timber.

One major change that was tried out in 1935, though still on an experimental basis, was that the batsman could be given out even if the ball pitched outside the off stump. However, the ball still had to angle in to hit the batsman in line and go on to hit the stumps, a change that was officially incorporated into the laws in 1937, a change that has survived the test of time, and is still in vogue.

But the practice of pad-play managed to survive through these changes. In what could be considered as another attempt to curb pad play, a new variant of the law was tried out in the 1969-70 season in Australia and West Indies, and in 1970 in England, wherein a batsman could be declared out vis-à-vis LBW if ‘a ball destined to hit the stumps pitched in line with the wickets or outside the batsman’s off stump and in the opinion of the umpire, he made no genuine attempt to play the ball with his bat’.

This revision meant that it wasn’t necessary for the impact to occur in line, but meant that if a batsman attempted a shot at a ball that pitched outside off-stump (and satisfied all the requirements as per the 1935 revision) could not be given out. Consequently, the number of LBW decisions saw a marked decline.

Much hue and cry was raised in Australia, and on the proposal of the Australian authorities, an additional provision was incorporated into the laws, which stated that ‘if no stroke is offered to a ball pitching outside the off stump which in the opinion of the umpire would hit the stumps, but hits the batsman on any part of his person other than the hand, then the batsman is out, even if that part of the person hit is not in line between wicket and wicket’.

In contrast to the 1935 revision, the impact could be outside off stump provided the batsman did not offer a stroke. This wording was officially included in the laws in 1980, and is still in use.

As if the already complicated LBW was not enough headache, batsmen like Kevin Pietersen had other plans to make life exciting for the umpires. Now that switch hits are being employed, the umpire has to take a decision as to which side of the ground is the batsman’s off side. The law does state that the natural off side for a batsman is determined by his stance when the bowler begins his run-up. That, ostensibly unfairly, takes care of such reverse antics.

The laws of cricket have been modified numerous times to keep up with changing times and changing practises, as is the case with the LBWs. None of them, however, has produced anything as befuddling, for the players, umpires and fans alike, as the concept of LBW has.

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