Lob bowling was already a thing of the past by the time the Australians started playing First-Class cricket. However, there were quite a few lobsters in the southern land in the early history of the game in the country. Arunabha Sengupta covers the practitioners by journeying from colony to colony.
The first few games
By the time cricket in the southern colonies rid itself of the regional trappings, and a bunch of Victorian cricketers from the Port Phillip Club boarded the SS Shamrock onward to Launceston to take on the Tasmanians, it was already 1851. The match, gone down in history as the first inter-colonial encounter in the great country, was played in an era when lob bowling was already considered an archaic art.
Yes, in England William Clarke did continue to bowl under-arm and capture wickets by the cartload. However, he was considered old-fashioned and one-of-a-kind. The round-arm revolution was already more than a couple of decades old. Besides, although more than a dozen years from legalisation of over-arm, there were several who tested rules and umpires by raising their bowling arm higher than the shoulder.
Yet, the first ball bowled in First-Class cricket in Australia was under-arm. It was lobbed by the William Henty, a Tasmanian solicitor who would later become the colonial secretary in the cabinet, under the Premiership of William Weston.
At the other end was Edinburgh-born Robert McDowall. He too bowled under-arm. It was the Scotsman who provided the breakthrough, bowling Duncan Cooper for 4, obtaining the first ever wicket to fall in First-Class cricket in Australia.
After these two had bowled the Victorians out for 82, the Tasmanians batted. One of the new-ball bowlers for Victoria was Thomas Hamilton, an under-arm fast bowler.
Tasmania won the match by three wickets.
The return game was played in October of the same year, and took place in Emerald Hill, Melbourne. The Victorians clinched it by 61 runs. This time too, there was a profusion of under-arm bowlers, with Henty joined in the Tasmanian ranks by the left-arm lobster Henry Lette.
In the third match between the two sides, one saw Robert Still replacing Henty in the Tasmanian line-up with his fast under-armers.
By the middle of the decade, however, the first great Australian sportsperson had arrived on the scene. Tom Wills was a pioneering footballer and a champion all-round cricketer. At Rugby he had remodelled his bowling from under-arm slows to round-arm fast. His comrade in arms for Victoria was Gideon Elliott, another man who bowled quick and round-arm.
Together they steamrolled the opposition, first New South Wales, then Tasmania. When the Tasmanian batsmen, bruises all over their shins and arms, returned from the ground in 1858, they did so with plenty of misgivings. In Van Diemen’s Land, round-arm bowling had always been considered unsportsmanlike, and the players had had no practice against it.
It was just six years to the legalisation of over-arm, the age of round-arm excitement was in full pitch in England and there were frequent experiments with styles approaching the modern bowling form. Yet, communication systems of the day were not advanced enough to allow the game to march along in comparable parallels in Australia.
In fact, each colony had its own unique saga of cricketing development.
New South Wales and the Southern Lillywhite
In New South Wales, spectators in the 1830s saw Private Hyde of the 4th Regiment bowling under-arm, his twisters having a significant bias towards the right and considered virtually unplayable.
One other early master of the game was Harry Hillard. With a shiny bald head, short dark beard and unsmiling eyes, he had the looks of a Mormon preacher. He hit the ball hard and bowled fast under-armers.
Both Hyde and Hillard were excellent single wicket players.
According to Jack Pollard, it was the Cambridge man Richard Hardy who brought round-arm to New South Wales. Hardy had been influenced by GT Knight and William Lillywhite during his university days.
Arriving in Sydney, he worked as a copying clerk for the Executive Council and later joined the staff of the original Australian. It was he who bowled round-arm in Sydney on the Boxing Day of 1832, and it was he who passed on his style of bowling to Robert and William Still. The brothers Still became extremely successful in local cricket and were feared because of this new-fangled bowling method.
Yet, in spite of the Still brothers, under-arm bowling was marching. John Rickards bowled fast under-armers between 1832 and 1835, and became so successful that he was nicknamed ‘Australian Lillywhite.’ Quite a curious misnomer, really, because William Lillywhite was a great round-armer. However, the details of style and technique perhaps did not filter into Australian news from the distant English fields as much as the tidings of great success did. In fact, in one match the Sydney Monitor recorded a dismissal as ‘bowled Lillywhite’ instead of ‘bowled Rickards’.
Thomas Rowley, a team mate of Robert Still in club cricket, often shared bowling honours with the round-arm exponent. But, unlike Still, Rowley bowled under-arm, and was sometimes considered ‘unrivalled in the list of Australian cricketers’.
And perhaps the greatest under-arm bowler of New South Wales was John James McKone.
The Cricketer’s Guide noted that McKone’s bowling had a ‘subterranean touch’. And when he batted, he advanced metres forward to play every ball.
New South Wales played their first ever First-Class match in March 1856, against Victoria at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. McKone opened bowling alongside captain George Gilbert. Of course, Gilbert himself was a remarkable figure in the colony’s cricket history; their first captain, round-arm medium-pacer, who hailed from Gloucestershire and was the cousin of WG Grace.
McKone bowled straight and at the stumps, and captured 5 for 25 and 5 for 11, bowling the Victorians out for 63 and 28. However, with Elliott bowling for the hosts, the New South Welshmen lost 7 wickets before they managed the 16 runs needed to win in the fourth innings.
However, by the next time the two sides met, in the very next year, the game had changed almost beyond recognition. New South Wales won again, by 65 runs, and McKone did pick a couple of first-innings wickets. There was Oswald Lewis as well, a fast under-arm bowler, who picked 8 wickets in the match.
But it had turned out to be a battle of raw pace. Edward Ward, the first expert round-armer of New South Wales, picked 2 in the first innings, 5 in the second. Victoria returned the compliments in the form of Wills and Elliott.
It was quite apparent that the age was for quick bowling, and under-arm was fast becoming a throwback to the old times.
In Tasmania round-arm was unsporting
In comparison, Tasmanian cricket before 1850 was crude, backward and sedate. Round-arm bowling was virtually unheard of till then, more than two decades after it had been legalised in England. And therefore wicketkeepers wore no protection, and neither did the batsmen.
It was Tasmania that persisted with lobs long after the style was deemed obsolete. Launceston’s Henty was a great practitioner. Another was the Hobart bowler William Brown. In 1856, the name of the island changed to Tasmania from Van Diemen’s Land. In that same year, battered and bruised with their old fashioned batting gear, technique and convictions against the bowling of Wills and Elliott, the colony realised that the game had moved on.
By the early days of the following decade, fiery pace bowler Tom Hogg came into the picture, and was no-balled for raising his arm over his shoulder.
Victoria and the Tom Wills influence
Victoria, with the regular influx of British blood due to the relentless gold rush, leaned relatively early towards round-arm.
It is not that under-arm was not used at all. There were expert practitioners like Hamilton, once in a while the odd under-armer was spotted in the club games, and accounts of “trying out lobs” are still found in the writings of those days. Even the first great Australian cricketer, Tom Wills, started as a slow under-arm bowler.
But, as could have been expected, this was the colony that was the first to embrace the round-arm revolution.
Wills went to Rugby School in England, spending the period from 1852 to 1855 in the old country. He became the cricket captain of his school, played for MCC and I-Zingari and received regular coaching from John Lillywhite. It was little surprise then that he developed into an outstanding round-arm bowler. And with Elliott, he formed one of the early prototypes of the fearsome fast bowling partnerships.
It was with the success of the round-armers, appended by the exposure and interactions boosted by inter-colonial cricket, that the bowling methods of all the competing colonies were modernised.
South Australia: it is accepted
In contrast, South Australia’s entry into inter-colonial and First-Class cricket had to wait until 1877, taking place after the first Test match had been played. Yet, round-arm bowling did take root quite early in spite of the relative isolation.
South Australia’s first outstanding cricketer was John Collard Cocker. Born in Maidstone, he had played alongside Alfred Mynn and Fuller Pilch in 1842. Cocker arrived in Adelaide in 1846, and was soon recognised as the best under-arm bowler in the colony. He was also a batsman of quality.
Cocker, himself an under-armer, did have an important role in the development of other styles in the colony. After his cricketing days, he became a publican of the Kentish Arms in North Adelaide and formed a club called Kent and Sussex. This club became strong enough to challenge the Adelaide Club down the line.
In Cocker’s team there were the Botten brothers, Tom and Bill. Tom Botten was the first round-arm bowler in South Australia. The opponents and spectators frowned at this hitherto unseen way of bowling. However, Cocker assured one and all that the style was now accepted by MCC at Lord’s; and that when he had played against the Rest of England in 1842 almost every bowler had been round-arm.
The Blackham brace
In First-Class cricket, therefore, we do not have too many examples of successful lobsters in Australian cricket.
Perhaps no one was as strikingly good as William Clarke to keep the torch burning against the prevailing winds of change. In England, influenced by the incredible success of Clarke, VE Walker, Robert Tinley, Arthur Ridley and the rest of them continued to bowl in the traditional way; before the magnificent swansong was heralded by Walter Humphreys and carried on to conclusion by Digby Jephson and the unique lob-specialist Test cricketer GH Simpson-Hayward.
In Australia, despite a late start of over-arm, the style almost completely eclipsed the older method of bowling. A lot also had to do with the visits of the England teams, with their round-arm and over-arm bowling stars, from the early 1860s.
Curiously, the lobster Tinley was hugely successful in his antipodean quests, especially against the odds sides. Later Humphreys also obtained a lot of success against the weaker opponents, although the First-Class outfits played him with caution and managed to blunt his style.
But as far as inter-colonial cricket was concerned, the focus had shifted to round-arm and over-arm bowling. Englishmen like William Caffyn stayed back in Australia after their tours to coach the local talent in all the modern techniques. And soon there were the Fred Spofforths and the Harry Boyles, the Charlie Turners and Joey Palmers and the JJ Ferrises … together conspiring to push lob far into forgotten history.
By the time Tom Armitage tried out a few lobs in the first ever Test, the sight was so unique that it had the spectators rolling with laughter.
Curious then, that lob bowler to capture wickets in First-Class cricket in latter days while playing for Australia was Jack Blackham, one of the land’s greatest ever wicket-keepers.
In a career spanning 275 matches, Blackham bowled in 11 innings, almost always playing as a wicketkeeper, taking his pads and gloves off as a diversion, lobbing a few balls across the 22 yards.
However, the first time he took a wicket saw him take the field as a regular fielder, with skipper Billy Murdoch donning the big gloves. It was against Gloucestershire at Clifton in 1884, and WG already got his usual hundred. When Murdoch threw the ball to Blackham as his seventh bowler, the stumper sent down some innocuous lobs and surprised himself as much as the others by getting Herbert Page leg before.
Four years later, he did remove his pads and gloves and handed them over to George Bonnor against Yorkshire at Bradford. And then he proceeded to toss up his tempting lobs. And Bobby Peel hit one straight back to him. Blackham was not known to be too jovial a man, but these wickets must have tickled him pink under the formidable beard.
Lobs were rare in top-grade Australian cricket after the 1850s. Yet the lobsters did not quite disappear in that land.
A Balmain club bowler named Ted Sherwood continued to bowl under-arm leg-breaks in Sydney third-grade matches … as late as in the 1930s.