A cricket ball is a peculiar object. Primitive, volatile, a relic of the game’s origins in a pre-industrial world, its behaviour still baffles physicists. Over the years, bowlers, seeking to exploit the mysterious properties with which the solid sphere of leather, twine and cork seems endowed, have done just about everything imaginable to it. They have polished and scratched, dried and moistened the ball, applied spit, sweat, sawdust, sun cream, lipsalve, hair oil and, yes, dirt.
Cricket’s tradition of nursing a single ball as long as possible, rather than replacing it with a new one, derives from an era when balls could not be mass produced (cricket balls are still expensive items). Along with the vagaries of the pitch and the weather, the ever-changing condition of the ball became one of the prerequisites for the display of all the game’s varied skills and moods. It also became a key factor in cricket’s perennial controversy over the rival claims of bat and ball.
At the dawn of cricket’s history as a modern team sport – the world’s first – there was already debate over the legitimacy of bowling actions. Jerking, throwing, pitching, pushing were all denounced, but it always proved difficult to define them clearly enough to allow umpires to make consistent rulings. The laws have been tampered with even more than the ball in a vain quest for the perfect balance between bowler and batsman.
In the course of the 19th century, the argument between batsmen and bowlers was shaped by cricket’s peculiar division of labour. For the landed élite who dominated the game, bowling was disdained as a species of manual work. These lofty amateurs cultivated their strokeplay with the help of professional bowlers, often retained as personal servants, who bowled to them for hours on end. Public schools and universities followed their example. Because they had the better bowlers, the professional players usually beat the amateur gentlemen in their annual contests. But it was the gentlemen who made the rules, in cricket as elsewhere.
In the mid-19th century, over-arm bowling transformed the game, making it both more skilful and more explosive. It was an innovation wrought by the best professional bowlers of the day and it was against the laws. Despite a rearguard fight by the anti-professional traditionalists, the MCC, the premier club, recognising as always that some accommodation with the realities of the marketplace was essential if it was to preserve its ancient privileges, legalised over-arm bowling in 1864. But it offered the batsmen compensation by requiring that the ball be delivered with a straight arm. The speed of the bowler’s action makes this rule hard to enforce and there have been rows about ‘chucking’ ever since.
Only a few years before the advent of over-arm, Tom Brown’s School Days had placed cricket on a par with Britain’s unwritten constitution. The ancient festive pastime was becoming ‘more than a game’. With an ideology fashioned in the burgeoning public schools, it soon acquired the pomp and pretension of a national institution. ‘Chucking’ became not just an infraction of the rules, but a crime against ‘the spirit of the game’. Offenders could expect little mercy.
‘Playing the game’, abiding by its unwritten constitution, became the first duty of all cricketers, and especially the captain of the side. In the early years of the 19th century, cricket captaincy was seen as an exercise in cunning. By its end, the cricket captain stood for an ideal of leadership, for the natural moral and intellectual superiority of an élite. At the same time, captaincy became the preserve of amateurs. Those who exercised leadership off the field had to be seen to do the same on it – even if they were patently unqualified for the job.