Moments that changed cricket forever: Evolution of bowling – underarm to overarm

The infamous Trevor Chappell ‘underarm’ incident (Image courtesy http://postferment.wordpress.com/)

February 1, 1981; MCG – 3rd final of the Benson & Hedges World Series Cup: After Australia had scored 235/4 in their 50 overs, New Zealand had managed to reach 229/8 off 49.5 overs and needed a six off the last ball to tie the game.

Brian McKechnie was the batsman who had to face the delivery. Aussie skipper Greg Chappell instructed the bowler, who also happened to be his brother, Trevor Chappell, to bowl an underarm delivery.

The bowler obliged to his captain’s demand, rolling the ball along the ground to prevent McKechnie from hitting a six. McKechnie tapped the ball to the on side and flung his bat away in disgust.

The Aussies had managed to win the match, and their last-ball tactics were within the laws of the game. However, the conduct was deemed unsportsmanlike and received a lot of criticism. It also prompted the ICC to have a re-look at the bowling action laws.

It is said that underarm bowling is as old as the game of cricket itself. During the early 18th century, the most common bowling action involved the bowler bending one knee and rolling the ball along the pitch. If the ball went rolling along the ground slowly, it was called a ‘trundle’. If it rolled quickly instead, it was called a ‘skimmer’.

Just like in modern times, the rules of the game were tilted in favour of batsmen, which meant that bowlers needed to keep coming up with new ways to restore the balance.

By the 1770s, bowlers had started to pitch the ball through the air instead of rolling it along the ground. This move gave the bowlers the option of confusing the batsmen with variations in length and pace. It also opened up the possibility of spinning the ball while bowling.

In the 1780s, bowling style changed from underarm to round-arm. Tom Walker of Hambledon club is largely credited for the change. Deciding to experiment with his bowling, Walker thought to try and bowl with his hand away from his body. It is believed that he lifted his hand up to waist-high. Back then, he was reprimanded for playing in an unfair manner, but it sparked the chain of events which ultimately brought changes to the art of bowling in cricket.

The turn of the century saw round-arm bowling becoming increasingly popular. A popular story credits a woman for being the reason for the style becoming a popular trend. It is said that Christina Willis, sister of Kent player John Willes, was bowling to her brother in their garden. Because of wearing a voluminous skirt, she wasn’t able to bowl underarm, and had to raise her arm higher than usual.

Christina’s son Edward later recorded his mother’s contribution to cricket in an article in 1907.

“It was my mother’s skill in throwing the ball to him (John Willes) for practice in the barn at Tonford… He then trained a dog to fetch the ball, and there was a saying that Willes, his sister, and his dog could beat any eleven in England.”

The idea of a round-arm action caught the fancy of Willes, who decided to promote the bowling style. Meanwhile in 1816, laws were changed to ban round-arm bowling. Until that time, anything other than the underarm action, though not considered illegal, was said to be ungentlemanly. Umpires were allowed to no-ball anyone who they thought was breaking the law.

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