Adelaide Oval December 1999
India are visiting Australia for the Test summer. A batsman’s ground with short square boundaries and the ability to run a 5 if you hit it straight and long enough, but not too long.
This is the era before India became a cricketing superpower. Before pink balls and T20 and the Big 3 and player drafts. Instead it was dominated by playing legends.
Sachin Tendulkar makes his quick shuffle to the crease. India are on the ropes.
3/24 chasing 396. Laxman is back in the sheds. So is Dravid. The match is effectively over.
McGrath bowls short to Sachin. He leaves or ducks the first four balls he faces. Sachin isn’t intimidated by McGrath. He isn’t intimidated by anything.
The fifth ball he faces pitches well short of a length. Sachin ducks again, but this time the delivery doesn’t bounce truly and skids through to strike Sachin on the left arm.
Australia appeal. Umpire Darryl Harper raises his finger. Sachin walks.
Leg Before Wicket. But the ball never touched a leg and was also never going to touch the wickets. It was probably going over by a foot. Perhaps two. But how will we ever know?
In 1924, P Ashton of Middlesex was struck on the head while sweeping. When he rose from his daze, the umpire had fired him LBW.
In 1902, England’s Jessop was stuck in the throat in a Test match against Australia. He was given out LBW.
In 1956, Jim Laker took all 10 wickets of an Australian innings. His 10th wicket was an LBW decision.
In 1986, Greg Matthews bowled to Maninder Singh with only 2 balls left in the Chennai Test. The match was tied when Singh was trapped LBW.
This is cricket.
In the early days of the game this law never existed. When the game was played with a curved stick in the 1700’s, the batsmen’s stance was so far from the wicket that it was unlikely he would ever stop a ball with his legs or any other part of his body. But when players began to use straight bats, a batsman’s stance was brought to current day places. One where the body could be used to block a legitimate delivery from hitting the stumps.
The first LBW type law appeared in 1774. This is fourteen years before Australia was discovered by the English, so it has been around a long time. However, it was drafted in such a way that the umpire had to work out if the batsman had intercepted the ball “with design”. In essence, you could only be out LBW if the umpire decided that you meant to use your pads, rather than just being beaten by a good delivery.
This of course created all sorts of issues. Umpires are not mind readers. Back in 1774, there was no amazing flux capacitor that could be used to enter the brain of a batsman to determine if he was padding up deliberately or just a crap player.
So in 1788, the year that the original English Captain Cook first discovered Australia some 40,000 years after the Aboriginals did, the law was changed. The reference to “with design” was removed and was replaced with “the ball must pitch straight”.
So now intent didn’t matter, but some ambiguous wording about where the ball pitched did. It was generally interpreted as to mean that the ball must pitch in that straight line from wicket to wicket.
This again caused all manner of debates and arguments. And the reality is that up until 1839, every umpire, captain, player and spectator had a differing view of how the law was to be interpreted. The result is that of all the known recorded scores during that period, only 1.8% of dismissals were LBW.
1839 saw some more structure brought to the table.
The batsman was out “if with any part of his person he stops the ball, which if in the opinion of the umpire at the bowler’s end shall have been delivered in a straight line from it to the striker’s wicket and would have hit it.”
In 1937, the law went through the last of its radical changes, with the batsman now being even if the ball pitched outside the off stump. Two years prior, County Cricket trialed a version of the law that gave you out LBW even if you had snicked it prior to it hitting your pads. In the interests of sanity, it was quickly forgotten.
By 2016, Test cricket had clocked over 10,000 LBW decisions globally.
The great thing about the LBW law is that it is not based on fact. It is based on a guess. For no one truly knows whether the ball would have gone on to hit the stumps. Even DRS uses mathematics and algorithms and ancient witchcraft to try and predict the ball’s trajectory. But it is still an educated guess.
And given that when batting you are only afforded one terminal error per innings, having a law that involves a 3rd party guessing on what might have happened seems ridiculously unfair.
A catch is binary. It happened or it didn’t. Same with a bowled decision. Or a no ball. Or a stumping. Or a run out.
One can tick off the individual elements as fact to determine whether that mode of dismissal occurred or did not occur.
But with LBW you cannot do that. Would the ball have hit the stumps? I don’t know for sure. But I’ll take a stab at it.
No other law has this element of guesswork in the whole of sports. Not in football. Not in golf. Or swimming. Or athletics. Or hockey.
It is humanity at its brilliant best. It relies on judgement and experience and feelings.
“I felt it was going to hit the stumps. Off you go son.”
Because it relies on all these non binary elements, the LBW law is probably the main reason we now have neutral umpires in international matches. That, and Shakoor Rana.
For years, many touring sides to Pakistan and India doubted the bona fides and objectiveness of the locals. Some would argue that it was pointless even appealing when you hit a local on the pads. But if it was the visitor who was trapped, then all hell would break loose. Irrespective of where the path that the ball was ultimately going to travel along. But the reality is that every country suffered from this. Just search for “bad LBW decisions” on YouTube.
LBW is also the one law that gets challenged the most in DRS. But the reality is that instead of trusting a learned professional standing behind the bowlers stumps to make a judgement call, we are ceding that power to a nerdy computer programmer and his funky algorithms.
Either way, the decision is based on a guess.
So why not just let the human be human in a game that involves humans?
LBW also acts as a reminder that the stumps are a sacred shrine, to be protected at all costs.
The LBW law essentially says that if the bowler is skilled enough to deliver a ball that is going to hit the stumps, your only choice is to hit it with your bat. Because if you don’t, you are either going to be bowled or LBW. Unless Steve Bucknor is umpiring. He had no idea. But usually, either way, you are out.
In 1961, C Pugh ducked into a full toss in a match between Gloustershire and Northants. The ball thudded into his face and broke his jaw in two places.
He was given out LBW.