DM168

THE RULES OF THE GAME

Michelle Pfeiffer, Percy Sledge and the cricket lingo connection

Michelle Pfeiffer, Percy Sledge and the cricket lingo connection
Tom Blundell of New Zealand digs out a yorker during day three of the Third Test match between England and New Zealand at Headingley on 25 June 2022 in Leeds, England. (Photo: Visionhaus / Getty Images)

Cricket is a weird game. Full stop. It’s a constrained artifice full of dense complexities.

The laws of cricket (there are 42 of them plus five appendices) run to 63 small-print pages. And beyond that thicket of regulation lies an abundance of things you should not do according to some unspoken codes, the transgression of which incurs the ultimate British Imperial slur: “That was just not cricket, sir.”

Explaining the game to a novice is almost impossible.

In the 1980s, I played plenty of cricket by the Thames in southwest London on the beautiful Kew Green, where the game was first recorded in 1732. Because it’s on the pedestrian route from the bus stop and train station to the tourist magnet of Kew Gardens, matches on the Green attract hordes of bewildered multinational spectators, many of whom walk straight across the pitch while the action is on.

I was once wicketkeeping, crouched in the cordon awaiting a delivery from our fearsome quickie, when I was tapped on the shoulder and asked in a thick German accent: “Vot are you doink?”

In a typically laddish exploit, we took to amusing ourselves by inventing explanations of the game to unsuspecting tourists enquiring about our curious sporting activity. “If the two men wearing leggings hit the chukka with their futtock into the two men wearing coats then they get a goal. If the man running in fast hits the dedans his team gets a chiselwangel. The team with the most of both after 10 days wins the crested swan.”

Mind you, we needn’t have bothered with fiction because the real lexicon of the game is strange enough. You can, for example, be playing in an Ashes Test and be yorked by a Jaffa for a duck as part of a hat-trick that gave the bowler a Michelle and be sledged on the way off.  

As Manuel in Fawlty Towers would say: “Qué?”

Let’s break that down.


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The Ashes is the name given to the series between England and Australia. The ashes were metaphorical after a shocking English defeat in 1882 that produced a mock obituary in a London newspaper saying English cricket should be cremated and the ashes sent to Australia. They became tangible when Australia lost heavily at home a year later and a group of Melbourne women presented the triumphant England captain with a tiny urn containing the ashes of a burnt bail.

A Test — a five-day international match — also has a literal derivation. The first English teams to tour Australia were “testing themselves” against the opposition, often in games of 11 against 18.

A yorker — a fast full delivery that passes under the bottom of the bat — reportedly takes its name from an old saying, “to put Yorkshire on someone”, which meant to outwit them. Clearly, the northern English county — the home of Len Hutton, Fred Trueman, Geoffrey Boycott and Joe Root — has a reputation for cunning.

A Jaffa — an unplayable delivery – derives either from Jaffa oranges or the iconic English Jaffa Cake, both of which are very sweet.  

A duck — the humiliation of getting out without scoring — comes from the shape of the number nought, which looks like a duck’s egg.

A hat-trick — the rare achievement of three wickets in three consecutive balls by the same bowler — stems from spectators taking a collection for a man who performed the feat in the 1850s and buying him a hat with the proceeds.

A Michelle is a bowler taking five wickets in an innings, otherwise known as “a fifer”, which rhymed with actress Michelle Pfeiffer who was big in the 1980s, and it stuck.

And sledging is the nasty habit of personally abusing players. The term is believed to have arisen in Australian cricket in the 1960s, when a player made a crass remark about a woman and was described as being “as subtle as a sledgehammer”. This morphed briefly into Percy Sledgehammer (Sledge was riding high at the time with the hit When a Man Loves a Woman) before settling down as the verb “to sledge”.

And there are plenty more linguistic nuggets to be found amid the flannelled foolery.

A French cut is a fortuitous inside edge that goes down to fine leg — a reference to the garden game of French cricket, which has limited strokes and often involves edgy angles. Why French cricket is so called I cannot discover, but there’s a theory that cricket originated in France before, presumably, they got bored with the pastime and decided to invent croissants instead. (Except they didn’t invent them. Marie Antoinette, who was Austrian, took croissants to Paris from Vienna in 1770 when she married the ill-fated Louis XVI.)

The French cut is also known as the Harrow drive, a term presumably invented as an early sledge by Harrow School’s historic rivals Eton, where Bernard Bosanquet went.

Around 1900, Bosanquet introduced to the top levels of the game a delivery out of the back of the hand that spun the opposite way from its apparent direction.

It was called the Bosie in his honour but these days is more commonly known as a wrong ’un or a googly. The etymology of googly, according to the Chambers Dictionary no less, is “dubious”.

But it seems that deliveries that did strange things were called googlers since the 1880s and this may have referred to a google egg or was a combination of “goo” and “guile” or may have derived from a Maori word meaning ghostly, or any number of other unfounded ­theories.

When the Bosie was bowled by a left-hander it used to be called a Chinaman because, it was widely assumed, Ellis Achong, a West Indian player of Chinese heritage, bewildered a few English batters with it in 1933.

But not so, according to some detailed research by The Guardian, which revealed that Yorkshire players were referring to it as “t’Chinaman” many years before. Why? No one really knows, except that it possibly was a metaphor for something very foreign and strange. The term is now considered racist and has been consigned to the dustbin. Today it’s called a left-arm unorthodox spin.

A dolly — an easy catch — does not derive from the Dolly nickname of our legendary all-rounder Basil D’Oliveira, born in the Bo-Kaap and forced by apartheid to find fame as an English Test cricketer, but from a baby doll, which represents something simple.

And, thinking of legendary South African all-rounders, Madiba, sadly, is not the man behind cricket’s Nelson, the superstitious score, for a team or an individual, of 111.

The mythology is that the 111 refers to Admiral Lord Nelson of Trafalgar because by the end of his life he had “one eye, one arm, one leg”. Except, here we go again, he didn’t — he had two legs.

So, my expert weight lies behind another seductive theory, which is that Nelson’s 111 refers to “one eye, one arm, one arsehole”. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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