[See end notes for attribution to Wodehouse.]
Daily Mail, May 17, 1907
ON FAST BOWLING.
By N. A. KNOX.
It is a very difficult thing to give advice on how to become a fast bowler. Pace is to a great extent a gift, like red hair or a taste for collecting postage-stamps.
No man by thought can add a cubit to his stature, and that is just the difficulty, for it is height as much as anything that makes a man a fast bowler. Batting can be acquired (personally, I have never done it, and am never likely to), but a fast bowler, like Topsy, “jest grows.” Lack of height is no drawback in a batsman, witness Able and Tyldesley. But in a bowler who wishes to cultivate speed it is a very serious drawback. I can imagine Little Tich, if he gave his massive mind to the business, becoming a stylish and effective batsman; but I do not see the wicket-keeper retreating a dozen yards or the batsman leaping nimbly away to square-leg if he began to bowl.
Height is not everything, of course. Fielder and Cotter seem to get on very well without it. But it is half the battle. I might have headed this article, “For tall men only.” We will assume, therefore, that the would-be fast bowler is a man of inches. One of the worst pitfalls which will lie in his path is the temptation to over-bowl himself when he is a boy. It is a strong temptation. At school pace is such a very valuable asset. Sheer speed is enough to account for the average school batsman who is not in the first eleven. Wickets in minor matches at a public school are usually of a bumpy and corrugated nature, and a reputation for being able to “plug them down” is worth six wickets an innings to a boy.
THE WISDOM OF NOT OVER-BOWLING.
In these circumstances he is scarcely to be expected to refrain from sacrificing everything to pace. But if he is wise he will not do it. The momentary pleasure is great, but it is not a good preparation. One knows of scores of cases where promising fast bowlers have bowled themselves out at school. This is particularly so when they play in important cricket at an early age. The average school captain is not likely to spare a bowler who can get wickets against another school, however bad it may be for his future to toil away while his strength is undeveloped. The first year I was in the Dulwich team I only bowled thirty-three overs. I did not like it then, but I am glad of it now.
Another danger is that the fast bowler when at school will devote himself to pace at the expense of spin and break. This is fatal. On modern first-class wickets one must get some spin and break on if the ball is to beat the bat. At school fast, straight bowling will always get wickets. Unless the habit of breaking has been acquired gradually and thoroughly, a bowler cannot succeed in first-class cricket. I would advise the man with aspirations towards pace to bowl fast medium, except in actual matches, and to concentrate his whole attention on length and spin. Accuracy is just as important for a fast bowler as for a slow. A poor batsman will frequently be “outed” by a half-volley, if it is speedy enough, but it is not often that one catches a county cricketer off his guard. A fast bowler who loses his length is a gift to any good batsman.
Height makes for pace in a bowler, but still more so does looseness of limb. To keep his shoulder loose is the first duty of the man of pace. Mere strength is often a drawback. It is an excellent trait in a man to be able to lift big dumb-bells with his right hand, but if he means to go through a first-class season he would do well to choose some other form of amusement for his spare time. Personally, I never use dumb-bells or anything of the kind. In the winter I play golf whenever I can. I play for pleasure and not with any idea of training for the cricket season, but I play left-handed, and my right shoulder consequently comes in for a good deal of exercise. I should imagine that boxing was a very fine form of exercise for a bowler, but I have never tried it.
WHERE MENTAL ENERGY COMES IN.
Lastly, to my mind the chief quality necessary for the man who wishes to succeed as a fast bowler is a certain mental energy. Fast bowling may be scientific or it may be merely brutal—to judge from some of the letters I saw in the papers last summer I should think a good many people took the latter view—but, whatever it is, it is not a restful occupation. If the doctor ordered me a complete rest I should not go out in a hot sun and bowl my fastest on a true wicket to Tom Hayward or Hirst. It is real work all the time. I am particularly unfortunate in finding it necessary to take such a long run. (Even this, however, has its consolations. On some grounds I invariably cause the crowd to roar with laughter by this simple method; and it is nice to feel that one is amusing people.)
It is a very severe strain to keep up one’s pace even on a cool day. But a hot day is the real test. Last summer was anything but a treat for fast bowlers. There are days when the Oval turf seems like concrete, and when it is like bowling in an oven. The last day of the Surrey and Middlesex match at the Oval was one of them. It was the sort of day one would have liked to spend in a hammock or on the river. At the end of half a dozen overs I felt that I would like to sacrifice everything in the world for an iced drink. At such a time it is only by the exercise of much will power that one can force oneself to bowl really fast. To drop into fast medium would be such a relief. It is a struggle to fight down the temptation. But unless you can do it, you cannot be a really good fast bowler.
The word “trier” has been overdone by writers on cricket, but really it is the only word which adequately describes the good player. Walter Lees, to my mind, is the model trier. He puts his heart into every ball, and lets himself go as cheerfully when catches are being dropped off him as he does when everything comes off right for him.
I began my remarks on the determination and keenness which go to make the good fast bowler with the word “Lastly”; but I shall have to imitate the curate and follow my “Lastly” with “But one word more.” Too much stress cannot be laid on the value to any bowler, and to a fast bowler more than all, of an equable temper. To lose one’s temper under stress of adverse circumstances is bad at any game, but worst at cricket. A bowler who does so when his catches are not being held has every possible excuse. But he does not want excuses. He wants wickets. And the way to get them is to keep an unruffled mind. It is maddening, when you have been tempting a batsman to “touch” one in the slips at the expense of several boundaries, to see that catch laid gently on the floor by one of the slips. It is also annoying when an obviously beaten batsman snicks your best off his wicket to the boundary, or when an appeal for an obvious lbw is given against you, though, in this last case, you have the small satisfaction of feeling that the batsman is not altogether happy either.
But all these things must be borne with fortitude. A fast bowler must be a machine. His run, if it is not to wear him out in a few overs, must be as regular and mechanical as possible, always the same number of strides, and his mind must work like a machine too. He must be above disappointment at any bad luck he may have. If county bowlers did not train themselves into this frame of mind they would become grey-headed in a couple of seasons. Aequam memento rebus in arduis should be the motto of every fast bowler; or, to translate freely, “Buck up, and never mind what happens.”
As to lunch, in conclusion. A dangerous meal, lunch. I have known men bowl like angels before it, and roll on to the field like gorged pythons afterwards. One wants enough to keep up one’s strength, but not too much. Avoid whisky. For half an hour after it one feels like working miracles. After that half-hour what one wants is a miracle to enable one to feel like working. Dry ginger-ale is the best lunch-drink in my opinion. It quenches the thirst and has no bad effect. I might advertise a certain brand which I always drink during matches; but I will refrain.
N. A. KNOX.
Wodehouse entered this article in his Money Received for Literary Work notebook, with the notation “(signed N. A. Knox, written by me)”—but this is not one of his pseudonyms; rather it is a rare case of Plum as ghostwriter. Neville Alexander Knox was a cricketer for Surrey. According to Wisden’s 1907 Cricketer of the Year citation, he was in the Dulwich College first XI before he was sixteen, just as Wodehouse was leaving Dulwich in the summer of 1900, so there can be no doubt they had known each other for years when this article was written. Wisden describes Knox as “loose limbed and standing well over six feet” with a “long and peculiar run, which starts from somewhere in the neighbourhood of sharp mid-off.”
no man by thought can add a cubit: Matthew 6:27 and Luke 12:25
Topsy: A young slave in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin; she never knew her mother or father, and suspected that she “growed.”
Little Tich: Harry Relph (1867–1928), diminuitive (4′6″) English music-hall comedian and dancer.
to take such a long run: The Wikipedia article on Knox linked to his name above says [unsourced] that his run-up was “over 20 metres—very long for the time.”
aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem: “Remember to keep a clear head in difficult times” —Horace, Odes, book II, poem iii, 1–2.