What is an LBW in cricket?
It all appears so simple. The expression ‘leg before wicket’ suggests that if the leg gets in the way of the ball hitting the stumps, the batsman is out, yet it becomes more complex than that. That is why the LBW Law causes more argument and discussion than any of the other 41 Laws of Cricket as determined by the MCC.
That august body sets it out in black and white in Law 36 (Leg before wicket): “The striker is out LBW in the circumstances set out below. (a) The bowler delivers a ball, not being a No ball and (b) the ball, if it is not intercepted full pitch, pitches in line between wicket and wicket or on the off side of the striker’s wicket and (c) the ball not having previously touched his bat, the striker intercepts the ball, either full pitch or after pitching, with any part of his person and (d) the point of impact, even if above the level of the bails either (i) is between wicket and wicket or (ii) is either between wicket and wicket or outside the line of the off stump, if the striker has made no genuine attempt to play the ball with his bat and (e) but for the interception, the ball would have hit the wicket.”
In plain language, the batsman is out if the umpire can be satisfied that a legal delivery striking the batsman on the pad did not pitch outside the leg stump and would have gone on to hit the wicket. That is providing it did not make contact with the bat before the pad and, if it strikes the pad outside the line of off stump, the batsman was making no effort to play the ball.
Is that language plain enough? Probably not, but that is exactly why Law 36 becomes such a contentious area. As soon as you take the opinion of a human being into the equation, you have grounds for debate. This is because you have at least two other human beings a) who will not be totally convinced that the umpire deserves to be included in the term “human race” and b) whose day, match, season and entire life could revolve around this one decision.
For every batsman who thinks that a) it pitched outside leg and/or b) he got an edge and/or c) it would not have hit another set, there is a bowler who is equally convinced that it would have knocked all three stumps out of the ground. If the umpire turns down the appeal, he is likely to be subjected to sarcastic questions from the bowler like: “How was that missing? Was it going under?” or, “What was that missing, then? Middle stump?”
Before 1744, there would have been no grounds for such banter, as there was no such thing as leg before wicket. The batsman could simply kick the ball away with impunity, except for a lingering pain in his shin, as pads were not worn in those days. In that year, however, an embryonic LBW regulation emerged as umpires were empowered to prevent a batsman “standing unfair to the strike”.
The law really took shape in 1774 when a batsman could be given out “if he puts his leg before the wicket with a design to stop the ball from hitting the wicket”. As the legislation of the game advanced at pace, an amendment appeared in 1788 which demanded that for an LBW decision to be possible, the ball had to pitch between wicket and wicket and to be going on to hit the stumps, but the clause covering the batsman’s intent was omitted.
The bowlers found that the balance swung in their favour in 1929 when there was an experiment to allow the batsman to be given out even if the ball hit the bat on its way to the pad and everything else allowed the decision to be given. What many people, virtually all of them bowlers, think to be a sensible idea lasted only until 1933.
It was in 1937 that the first major change to the 1788 law took place. There was a two-year experiment before it was deemed that a batsman could be out LBW to a ball pitching outside the off stump, providing it struck the pad between wicket and wicket.
In practice, this meant that it was only when going back that a batsman could be given out LBW to a ball pitching outside the off stump. If he went forward and he was hit on the pad in front of the wicket by a ball pitching outside off stump, it would almost certainly be going down the leg side. So, batsman soon learned that they could go forward and kick it away in safety.
This was not edifying as a spectacle, yet it had become such a widespread strategy that yet another experimental ruling was introduced in 1970 whereby the old 1774 intent clause came back into play. A batsman could be given out LBW even if the point at which the ball struck the pad was outside the line of off stump, if he made no attempt to play the ball. Considered a success, the experiment was accepted officially in 1972 and included in the MCC’s Laws of Cricket 1980 version.
Essentially, in three stages over two hundred years, cricket had moved from asking the umpires to judge whether the batsman was “standing unfair to strike” to the current situation whereby he has to answer other questions requiring keen judgement. Did the ball pitch outside leg stump? Was it going to hit the stumps? Did the ball touch the bat? And, for the first time since 1788, if the ball made contact with the pad outside off stump, was the batsman playing a stroke at the ball?
Upon the umpire’s instant decision can the outcome of a cricket match sometimes depend. There can be other consequences as well, with the aforementioned impact on the day, season and entire life, but if the official had to consider those as well, there would be few willing to do the job.