The Back-foot No-ball Law by John Holder

5th September 2015

Patrolling the Boundary  – a view from the outfield

I was fascinated this week to hear former Australia wicket-keeper, and now selector, Rod Marsh give his opinions on the no-ball law. As part of his MCC Spirit of Cricket Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s on Tuesday, he expressed a strong preference for the old back-foot law, and urged its return in place of the front-foot law which was introduced in 1962.

(A transcript of March’s lecture can be read here, while it can be viewed in full here. The coverage also includes a subsequent panel session hosted by Mark Nicholas with Marsh, Mahela Jayawardene and Alastair Cook. They talk a little more about the back-foot no-ball law in that conversation). 

Marsh is not the first to propose such a move. Don Bradman was always an advocate of the ‘old’ back-foot law, as was Richie Benaud, who insisted on referring to the front-foot no-ball law as the ‘new’ law, and with some disdain, till the end of his commentary days some half-a-century later.

In more recent times, Ian Chappell wrote in favour of it in 2012, and Geoff Boycott spoke positively about it in an interview earlier this month.

The no-ball ‘problem’, and specifically the front-foot law, has been brought into sharp focus lately due to the large number of no-balls apparently going uncalled in Test cricket – with the unsatisfactory result that many batsmen are being recalled to resume their innings after seemingly being dismissed. This in turn has led to discussions on whether technology should be used, and whether the calling of no-balls for over-stepping ought to be left in the hands of the third umpire.

In an excellent article for ESPN Cricinfo recently Osman Samiuddin wrote convincingly of the difficulties a modern umpire faces in calling bowlers for over-stepping, especially in this era of increasingly chest-on bowling actions.

But rather than introducing more technology into the game, those with longer memories, like Marsh, Chappell and Boycott, have advocated instead a return to the ‘old’ law.

But would such a change be, figuratively, if not literally, a ‘backward step’?

To try to answer that I asked the opinion of someone who understood the complexities of the issues, their relative merits, and the advantages/disadvantages of the respective (foot) positions.

John Holder officiated at the highest level in a career lasting almost thirty years, and not only umpired throughout that time using the ‘new’ no-ball law, but had to adapt to the change as a young quick bowler in Barbados when it was introduced. I dropped him the following email:

Hi John

I’m sure you saw Rod Marsh’s comments on wanting to see a return of the back-foot no-ball law. Don Bradman and Richie Benaud were also big proponents of the old law.

Geoff Boycott has spoken on Cricinfo in support of the old law, saying there aren’t any draggers anymore in the game. But he said that the administrators wouldn’t want the old law to return. But what has it to do with them? Surely we should be asking the players and the umpires?

A lot of this follows comments about the dangers to umpires being close-in to look for (or, as alleged, NOT look for, no-balls). There was also a very good article on Cricinfo last week highlighting how difficult it can be for umpires to identify no-balls, especially with so many chest-on actions these days.

What is your view? As both a player (I’m guessing you had to bowl with the old back-foot law in your teens in Barbados?) and of course as an umpire?

Which law do you personally prefer?

Best

David

Here is his reply:

Hi David

Much of Marsh’s lecture is excellent but I disagree with his views on the front-foot law. Prior to its introduction many bowlers dragged and there were pictures of bowler’s back foot past the bowling crease and the ball had not yet been released. By the time of release, their front foot could be two feet past the popping crease, meaning that the ball was delivered at times twenty yards from the striker. At least with the front-foot law the bowler must deliver from much further back, nearer to 22 yards.

Some bowlers make it difficult for umpires to pick no-balls. Two of the worst in my time were Malcolm Marshall and Wasim Akram. Malcolm sprinted to the wicket. He was light footed and ran quickly through the crease, hardly making a mark. You just had to concentrate that bit harder so as not to miss no-balls. Wasim was different. In delivery his back foot obscured his front foot. Merv Kitchen and I devised a method of picking his no-balls. Our shoes were similar in length to Wasim’s, so we drew a line in front and parallel to the popping crease a shoe length away and if the front of Wasim’s boot landed past that line we called no-ball. It worked for us both.

The subject of umpire safety has concerned me ever since I almost got struck by a throw from Boycott to the keeper from mid on. It was in a county match at Harrogate around 1984. The ball was driven hard to Boycs and the batsmen went for a quick single. I was young and fast on my feet and quickly raced into position on the off-side but Boycs’ throw narrowly missed my head. He actually said to me, “I nearly got you there, Benson”.

In those days it was drilled into umpires that they should always move to the side where the ball was played. That was nonsense, dangerously so. I then started closely looking at how and where the top umpires positioned themselves on the field. When the ball was played in the vee between mid-on and mid-off they moved to the opposite side. This meant that they did not risk obstructing a throw to the keeper, did not risk injury and were perfectly positioned to see the ball thrown at the bowler’s end wicket.

When standing at square leg and the ball is played behind you, turn sideways watching the ball but constantly looking back at the batsmen running. NEVER stand with your back to the fielder who has the ball in hand or who is about to field the ball. Sometimes it is necessary to kneel or get as low as you can at square leg because the ball will be thrown in to either end and would strike you.

The massive improvement in bat technology and much greater strength of today’s players mean that the ball is struck more powerfully and much further than before. These two factors especially make the job of umpiring far more dangerous.

During the last T20 World Cup in England some umpires suggested the idea of them wearing helmets for safety. This was a common sense suggestion. The Israeli umpire Hillel Oscar would most certainly be alive today if he was wearing a helmet. A good friend of mine was once struck in the testicles from a straight drive which was deflected off the wicket. He spent time in hospital recovering. I sustained heavy bruising and internal bruising to my shin from a ball which was deflected from the bowler’s hand. It took a couple of months to heal properly.

For practical purposes I can see umpires wearing helmets, boxes and chest pads. This is merely facing the reality that umpiring is inherently dangerous, with hard balls whistling about at up to 100 mph. In baseball, not only do the catcher and umpire wear protective equipment, so does the pitcher who wears a helmet. As he follows through after pitching, a thunderous strike straight back could catch him off balance and do serious damage. Bowlers, especially fast ones, run the same risk today but bowling fast wearing a helmet would not be comfortable or practical.

John Holder

John Holder is a highly respected former international umpire, who stood in Tests & ODIs between 1988-2001, and in 1st-class cricket from 1982-2009. He was also the innovative mind behind the introduction of the ‘bowl-out’ to settle washed out one-day games.

John is also, of course, the ‘adjudicator’ in The Observer’s hugely popular weekly column ‘You Are the Umpire’. You can find all of this season’s ‘posers’, which John skillfully gives his verdict upon, here.

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