“Great Bowlers and Fielders: Their Methods at a Glance” — 115 years old but still worth a look today?

In 1906, the photographer and former cricketer George Beldam and sportsman, politician, diplomat, academic, teacher, writer, editor and publisher (from his profile on Wikipedia!) C.B. Fry published “Great Bowlers and Fielders: Their Methods at a Glance” [1]), a collection of Beldam’s ground-breaking action photographs of bowlers (and fielders) of the Edwardian age with Fry’s commentary and analysis.

In a series of staged images, Beldam and Fry gave a unique insight into how bowlers actually bowled (or thought they bowled [2]) in the 1900s.

And I believe that there is a lot to be learned today from a closer analysis of Great Bowlers and Fielders (henceforth GBF) .

Why do we need to look to the past?

Where is the variety in the modern game?

Commentator’s still get excited by the googly (popularised, though perhaps not actually discovered, by BJT Bosanquet in the early 1900s: GBF pp 362-386).

Wrist spin bowlers get T20 contracts on the strength of a googly.

And good luck to them. It’s not so long ago that the googly bowler was dismissed as “too expensive for the modern game”. Times change.

But who bowls the flipper, today?

Since Shane Warne, does any bowler have the range of deliveries to utterly confuse the very best batters?

The doosra bowlers (see “A question of spin”) have been hounded out of the modern game.

And as for the teesra (which is just the flipper, from an off-spinner’s grip) — did it ever really exist?

How many bowlers try to “swerve” the ball, today? Spin-swerve, as used by just about every baseball pitcher…and by the incomparable SF Barnes (and, apparently, several other bowlers in GBF!).

But so many of the bowlers in GBF are reported to have applied “finger spin” to the ball, not just those who would today be classified as “spin bowlers”. And their bowling actions, although mostly recognisable, have enough variations from today’s “textbook” style, to show that there are more ways to bowl.

Perhaps we can find something interesting in the bowling techniques in GBF?

Why bother looking at bowlers from the 1900s?

Still relevant today?

The bowlers featured in GBF were largely self-taught. Mostly professionals (certainly all those who truly qualify as “great”), so without access to coaching at private school or University, they will have developed methods that worked for them, rather than having their styles moulded to suit the latest coaching orthodoxy.

The modern bowler, by the time he has reached the professional stage, will have been coached for many, many years, to conform to the current conception of the “correct” bowling action.

Perhaps, somewhere in the miscellany of “personal orthodoxies” in GBF, there might be something that could work today.

Better than biomechanics?

With due respect to the sports scientists and the biomechanicists, they can only analyse the bowling actions presented to them. Are they analysing the best bowling actions, or only those that have survived extensive coaching?

Extreme actions, outliers, might be commented on, but can’t be easily included in any analyses — Lasith Malinga is exceptional, but who is to say what parts of his idiosyncratic bowling action made him the exceptionally successful bowler that he was? Was it the low release point? Or the spin he could impart on the ball by “undercutting” at release? Is that how his yorker dived under so many defensive strokes? Could we coach this skill?

GBF in 2021 and beyond

My intention is to take a look at some of the bowlers featured in GBF to see if their bowling styles have anything that can be applied to cricket coaching today.

Over the autumn, I hope to write on some of the unique actions presented in GBF, and to consider how (if) these techniques can be adapted for the modern game.

I’m sure there will be lots to learn!

Disclaimer

I am certainly not saying that coaching orthodoxy and biomechanical analysis are wrong.

Only that you can’t easily classify the exceptional in amongst the means and medians. Successful outliers might be dismissed as being too difficult or dangerous for young bowlers to copy. And that we might be missing out!


  1. I have been haunting abebooks.co.uk for several years, watching as copies of GBF were offered for a wide range of prices and in various states of preservation. And over the summer, I realised that if I didn’t buy a copy, I never would get to study Beldam’s remarkable images (unless I could track down a library copy). So in June I bought a copy described by the seller as “good….Green boards lightly soiled with light edgewear, the front decorated in gilt; the spine lettered in gilt. FEP has been removed. Internally VG; rear of colour frontis foxed ; contents clean, tight and unmarked.” And I am very pleased with it! No, not perfect, but IMO well worth the price asked.
  2. Most of the “action” photographs in GBF are clearly staged in or around the nets — with the camera technology available at the time, it would not have been possible to capture the bowlers in mid-delivery from the boundary line. Several of the subjects will have been in their 40s when Beldam captured their actions, and quite possibly past their physical peak. So the images are perhaps of an idealised action, which might not be exactly how the bowler delivered the ball when faced by a batsman in a match, but do still, hopefully, display those idiosyncrasies that the bowlers themselves felt were important.

Published by Andrew Beaven

Cricket coach, fascinated by the possibilities offered by the game. More formally - ECB level 2 cricket coach; All Stars Cricket Activator & Tutor; Chance to Shine & Team Up (cricket) deliverer; ECB ACO umpire; ECB Coach Developer

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