What is the leg theory in cricket?

The Laws of Cricket were first drafted in 1774. Back then, protective gears like helmet did not exist and pace bowling was not as fast seen today. Laws related to field restrictions and limit on short-pitch deliveries were non-existent back then. The game was relatively slow compared to the T20 era of today.
The part of the field towards the batter’s bat is called the off-side, whereas the one corresponding to the legs is the leg-side. The leg theory is a tactic whose story can be narrated in a timeline that is split as before 1932 and after 1932.

Before 1932

The earliest noted incident of the use of leg theory tactic in cricket was in 1903-04 by George Hirst. According to this theory, pace or spin bowlers intentionally target their deliveries on the legs of the batter, forcing them to play a shot towards the leg-side. The field setup was heavily dominant on the leg-side, thereby preventing the batters from scoring runs or making them vulnerable to caught out dismissal.

Many spectators and players believed that such bowling is negative and unsportsmanlike. Captains of some sides would even tell their bowlers to not to resort to such techniques. Before 1932, the bowlers who notably used this tactic were Frank Foster (1911-12), Jack Scott (1925), Lance Gun (1925), Nobby Clark (1927), Harry Alexander (1928-29) and Learie Constantine (1930).

After 1932

When the English side lost the Ashes on their home soil in 1930, they were outclassed by the prolific batting abilities of Don Bradman. Bradman’s average hovered around 100 back then, twice then the second best batter. The 1932 Ashes series was to take place in Australia and the English were already wary of what Bradman could produce in his home soil.

In order to restrict Bradman, Douglas Jardine, the then English captain devised a ploy. It came to his notice that Bradman might have struggled with pace bowling in a good number of occasions. Jardine thus asked his pace bowlers Harold Larwood and Bill Voce to practice the art of a rising short-pitched delivery that is in line with the batter’s leg stump.

The English won the series 4-1 but was accompanied by chaos, ruckus and relentless pressure on the English side throughout the series. The leg theory was now called fast leg theory and the series was known as Bodyline. A range of Australian batters were injured, including a blow to the heart bone of Bill Woodfull and a skull fracture of Bert Oldfield.

The MCC, who drafted the laws of cricket, immediately pronounced that body attacks will not be allowed. However, it was not until 1957, that a smarter modification of the law was officiated. According to the new rule, no more than two fielders can stand behind square on the leg-side. This meant that the field that would ideally be required to employ a Bodyline tactic would not be possible.

Later law changes also saw a restriction on the number of bouncers that a bowler can bowl in an over. Cricket today is relatively much safer, given the advanced protective helmets. The helmets were modified and more armored following the unfortunate death of Phillip Hughes due to an unintentional short-pitch delivery.
MCC Laws – 1957

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