Great Bowlers & Fielders — what was bowling like in the 1900s?

Before considering some of the individual bowlers featured in Beldam & Fry’s Great Bowlers & Fielders (henceforth Great Bowlers), I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the range of bowling styles that would have been on display in the early 1900s.

And it’s not quite what we see, today.


Bowlers are classified by pace, from Fast to Slow, although in the absence of a speed gun the classifications are going to be subjective.

The only guide to pace, then, is the experience of the authors — Beldam and Fry will have played against most, if not all , of the bowlers included in Great Bowlers. They will have been surprised (dismissed, even), by the bowler who is faster than he looks, momentarily non-plussed by the delivery that doesn’t ever seem to reach them from the bowler who is “not quite as fast as he looks”….

Significantly (perhaps), “fast” bowlers are commended for their ability to maintain their pace throughout a long day, for their ability to make the ball deviate off the pitch, or for being able to make the ball bounce higher than expected from a good length, without resorting to banging the ball down short.

Two bowlers (one Australian tourist, one South African) are noted as being the fastest, but absolute pace was not, apparently, considered that noteworthy.

  • The quicks weren’t expected to take wickets through pace alone.

Several bowlers are noted as bowling fast on fast pitches, and slower on slow or sticky wickets.

  • Bowlers were expected to be able to adapt their pace to suit conditions.
    • I do wonder if this reflects the “professional” status of the majority of bowlers at this time — they were being paid to bowl, and bowl they would, irrespective of the conditions, even on mud heaps.

Style — “Rotary” and “slinger”

Actions are described as either “rotary” or “slinging”.

The former are variations on the modern “eat the apple”/“figure 6” swing.

“Slingers” are more common amongst the quicker bowlers, perhaps, but not uniquely so. The action is something like Jeff Thomson or Mitchell Johnson’s, with the bowling arm swung or even held stiffly down “by the trouser pocket” (or, indeed, swung behind the bowler’s back) and then catapulted up and over.

BTW — there appear to be no “mixed actions”. Hips & shoulders are mostly aligned at BFC, although some of the slower bowlers are quite “closed off” at FFC, with the front leg and shoulder carried across the direct line to the target in the delivery stride.

There is a lot of “lateral flexion” of the spine prior to FFC, however, and a number of bowlers are commended for “lifting from the back” — leaning back from the waist, again most evident at BFC.

Almost all resolved by FFC, where there is a picture, at least — Beldam captured many images around BFC, but fewer at or just after FFC (and, regrettably, none showing the completion of the action beyond FFC).

The absence of any images of the bowlers’ follow-through leaves an unanswered question, for me. Whenever I coach a bowler, I do look at that first step after the ball is released, as a proxy for energy transfer — ideally (in my head, at least), if the bowler’s momentum is directed towards the target, then so must be that first step.

Several of the bowlers are noted as bowling from wide on the crease, over or around, to generate an angle into or across the wicket, but only one or two are reported to have deliberately changed their release point to deceive the batsman.

Was there any incidence back injury?

Quite a few of the bowlers adopt poses that might set health & safety alarm bells ringing, today, most notably with the spine twisted and extended at, or immediately after, BFC.

Perhaps, given the volume of bowling the professionals would have endured, and the more active lifestyles in a pre-motor car age, those who featured in Great Bowlers were indeed survivors, massively muscled and protected from stress fractures?

Or, as I have seen speculated (most notably in Doug Ackerley’s Front Foot! The Law That Changed Cricket), did the “old” No Ball Law, with its emphasis on landing on the back foot, preclude the excessive front foot impact associated with back injury?

Gripping the ball

Many of the bowlers were asked to demonstrate their grip on the ball, and any variations that they used. Many of the grips are adapted in some way for spin (even amongst the quicker bowlers), with fingers and thumb distributed in different, occasionally idiosyncratic ways around the ball (one uses an almost symmetrical 4-fingerered grip).

There is clearly no standardisation on the modern “bunny ears”/hand-behind-the-ball mantra for medium pace and quicker. With little seam on the ball and no reliable swing (see below), bowlers clearly felt that some form of lateral spin was preferable to pushing the ball straight on to the middle of the bat!

How to take wickets

In a fascinating monograph, FR Spofforth, the original “demon bowler” (not long retired at the time the book was published) writes on the technical/tactical thinking behind the bowler’s art.

A bowler, having learnt accuracy, should then study variation of pace and break…

Variations of pace are quickly dealt with — “…the best plan is to hold a small portion of the ball and get the impetus that propels the ball forward from one side.” There are, unfortunately, no photographs of bowlers using Spofforth’s ”small portion” grip, but the concept is self-evident, hopefully.

But it is spin that marks out the ”crack” bowler.

Spinning the ball…is the principal means of getting wickets a first-class bowler uses, and no one can possibly be a “crack” bowler unless he can “turn the ball.”

Interestingly, Spofforth qualifies this “spin” as including cut — when spin in imparted by turning the entire hand and wrist at the point of release, with little or no extension or flexion of the fingers — as well as finger spin. But he is clearly intending something more than rolling the fingers off the side of the ball, if the analogy with billiards is to be taken seriously.

Spofforth also mentions “action break” for fast bowlers, “…a species of cut, which comes from the sweep of the fingers across the ball.” Even the quicks weren’t too worried about keeping their hand behind the ball at release.

It would seem that most of the bowlers who appeared in Great Bowlers adhered to The Demon’s advice. Some are described as “cutters” (although some must have been giving the ball a rip), but some of the medium-pace (and faster) certainly applied finger spin rather than (as well as) cutting.

This attitude is supported, incidentally, by Charles Kortright, reportedly the fastest bowler ever to play the game (and still active when Great Bowlers was compiled, but not, regrettably, photographed by Beldam for inclusion in with the other ”Greats”).

Personally, I didn’t worry a great deal about how I held the ball in relation to the seam as long as I got a firm grip on it, and I think most of my contemporaries felt the same. We wanted to be accurate, and to make the ball move a little off the pitch through finger action. For that reason, fast bowlers often roughened a new ball by rubbing it in the dirt, to obtain a good grip. Now bowlers dirty their clothes in efforts to keep the ball shiny, but I feel sure they do not control it so well.

No magic in fast bowling – Charles Kortright, Wisden Almanack 1948 :

Did cricket balls swing in the 1900s?

Some bowlers, mostly slow/medium slow, are described as “going with the arm”, especially when the ball is new, and some grips for this delivery do indeed look like the (now standard) seam/swing grip — seam vertical, perhaps canted in the intended direction of deviation, first & second fingers on top of the ball, thumb opposite and underneath.

But Spofforth, in his monograph, dismisses “swerve” (by which he means what we now call “swing”, rather than spin-swerve) as only a “very doubtful” tool for the wicket-taking bowler!

And looking at the balls featured in some of the photographs that show the bowlers’ favoured grips, it appears that few of them have a seam prominent enough to encourage a modern swing bowler, hence the emphasis placed on spin, for all bowlers, slow or fast, and Spofforth’s dismissal of “swerve” as a worthwhile weapon for bowlers.

No wonder bowlers looked to spin and cut to beat the bat.

Leg breaks & googlies

In addition to Spofforth’s monograph, Great Bowlers features articles by B.J.T Bosanquet and R.O. Schwarz on the original “mystery ball”, Bosanquet’s (re-)discovery. Neither the master (Bosanquet) nor his star pupil (Schwarz) are especially clear in their description of the wrong ’un…possibly deliberately, for fear if disclosing a “trade secret”?

None of the “Greats” featured in Great Bowlers are reported to have adopted the googly — it really was a new invention, hence the invitation to Bisanquet and Schwarz to contribute to the book.

None of the “Greats”, judging from the photographs or descriptions, used the exaggerated wrist-snap action now associated with leg spin/googly bowlers, although several are reported spinning the ball from leg by finger action alone or by “rolling” the wrist behind the ball. Several bowl both leg- and off-breaks — certainly easier to do with some degree of disguise if the leggie is not delivered more from the front of the hand, and not from a bent wrist.


Not surprisingly, perhaps, whilst Beldam (a more than useful all-rounder, from his stats) is included in the photographic section, CB Fry is not, nor are any of the other bowlers caught up in the great throwing scandal at the turn of the century.

Old Ebor has written entertainingly about The Throwing Question — well worth a read.

Of all the images, there is just one that appears to show a seriously bent elbow in the delivery swing (and that before the arm has reached the horizontal), one of a “slinger” whose flexed arm might still be swinging back at the instant the picture was taken.

(I appreciate the caveats about trying to use single, static, 2d images to judge the legality of a bowling action…but a bent elbow is a bent elbow, however it is revealed…).

In conclusion

The bowlers featured by Beldam & Fry showed a wider variety of actions than might be seen nowadays.

“Slingers” were more common, and there was much less emphasis on achieving the highest possible release point (perhaps because the bowlers were always trying to hit the stumps?).

Few, if any, relied on extreme pace. Indeed, many are noted as skilfully adapting their pace to suit conditions.

Few tried to swing the ball, certainly not once the ball was no longer new. Most (all, possibly) looked to impart spin on the ball.

Published by Andrew Beaven

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

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