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POINT OF THE BAT

With this autumn’s second Ashes Test match due tomorrow, stand by for more of the sledging now traditional when England’s and Australia’s cricketers clash.

I’m antique enough to regret this. Say what you like off-field, but a once-gentlemanly game is degraded by on-field threats and gibes. It’s mere evasion to call these “banter”, as Australia’s captain, guilty of a nasty example in the first match, put it. But why call it sledging, one of the oddest of cricket’s many technical terms? The word once meant going on a sledge across snow. Its use in cricket supposedly derives — by a route I won’t waste time on — from a song by an American pop-singer, Percy Sledge. Alas, the song was put out in 1966, when the cricketing term was already, just, in use. Another theory connects it with one cricketer reacting “like a sledge-hammer” to the gibes of another. But that’s a reaction, not the gibe. I’ve yet to meet a persuasive answer.

Cricket’s own verbiage is not all so odd. Bat, ball, pads, gloves, helmet, no problem. The creases used to be cut into the ground, like creases in a sheet, not whitewashed on it. The stumps are not unlike cut-down tree-trunks or masts. The bails? An old French word for any wooden crosspiece; similar meanings survive in English. And the whole wicket? Well, it’s fairly like a wicket gate. The word’s extension to mean the space between the wickets is odd, but that’s how language happens. But, whether as that space or the whole field, why the pitch? Because that’s where the players pitch — throw or bowl — the ball? In a rival theory, the reference is to pitching the stumps, as with tents, pushing in the tent-poles. Humph.

Most names for on-field places are simple enough. The on (long ago near) and off sides are those of a horse; the rider gets on from the horse’s left. The leg side, another version of on, is where his legs are. And for a batsman (unlike riders) it’s natural to reverse the words when he is left-handed. Most fielding positions too are self-explanatory; for example, square leg or mid-wicket, plus such adjectives as long, short or silly. But point is harder: it was the point of the bat 250 years ago. Cover covers what point may miss. The slips cope with balls that slip off the bat, as one 19th-century writer put it. And gully? The narrow space between point and slips.

What happens on-field is less simple. The batsman’s glance to leg explains itself. A hook is like a boxer’s one. One can, rarely, see a cut in that shot. But drive demands some imagination. Slog may be linked to slug, “hit hard”— or may not. As for a cow shot; there was once, allegedly, a cow corner at an English public school, where a herd grazed, and such a shot might land. Oh yeah?

And the bowling? The fast bowler’s bouncer does what it says, only high. Bodyline means bouncers aimed to hit the batsman, as in England’s ugly tour of Australia in 1932-33. The beamer, aimed at, or anyway liable to hit, his head, is not obvious; but baseball has a similar bean-ball, and bean can be slang for head. The yorker? There was once an English dialect verb york, “to cheat”; there’s little evidence that fact or word began life in Yorkshire.

The spin bowlers’ terms are a mixed lot. Leg-break and off-break may spring from break as a “sudden change”. But googly? This seeming leg-break that actually goes the other way was briefly called a bosie by Australians, after its 1890s’ English inventor, Bernard Bosanquet. But googly, its commoner — and equally ancient — name, remains a mystery.

Doosra, its mirror-image, needs no explanation to north Indians, I trust. The chinaman, another weapon of left-arm spin bowlers, was invented by a West Indian of Chinese origins in the 1930s, and so called, supposedly, when an English batsman who had just fallen to one, exclaimed, “Fancy being done by a bloody Chinaman”.

With which Americans, women and chess-players may re-enter the room.