Bowling googlies


Third test at Headingley, 1981: Willis bowling
(Photograph:  Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock via The Guardian)

Bob Willis died a few days ago. Famous English fast bowler. Headingley 1981. 130. 18 runs. 8 for 43. Pretty arcane stuff for those who never follow test cricket, as a lot more people did in the days when it was on the BBC rather than tucked away on commercial channels. For those who did—probably those of a certain age—those figures are as instantly evocative as, say, the opening seconds of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. And, in all likelihood, many of them watched a video of the highlights of that famous day and the narrow victory that seemed impossible until Willis blew the Australian batsmen away. A devoted follower of Bob Dylan, he added the name to his own by deed poll—becoming Robert George Dylan Willis—a craziness I could relate to, having been guilty myself of inflicting thunderous versions of ‘Tombstone Blues’ on drinkers in an upstairs bar and roaring ‘House of the Rising Sun’ into the microphone of a reel-to-reel tape recorder on the bare floorboards of somebody’s upstairs room – not the true original, rather the arrangement that Dylan had ‘borrowed’ from Dave Van Ronk.

So, after playing my part in a highly un-Darwinian scenario, that is, sitting on the step at the back door, gripping the cat tightly with both hands, saying ‘Drop it, Harry! Drop it! Drop the damned mouse, Harry!’ until he tired of growling at me, slackened his hold and watched Robert Burns’ wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie scurry off to the neighbour’s fence—survival of the weakest—after playing that part, I say, I turned on my computer and watched Willis play his own rather more heroic part on that far-off day made vibrantly present again, his odd, angled, jerky run-up, the tumbling wickets, Willis hardly reacting much of the time, fiercely concentrated, always reaching for the second sleeveless sweater while another batsman trudged back to the pavilion.


There have been a few famous cricketing writers—Conan Doyle, Harold Pinter, A. A Milne, P. G. Wodehouse, Siegfried Sassoon and, most notably, Samuel Beckett. And cricketing references often occur as indications of a certain kind or class of Englishness. Henry Green’s sly humour has one of his characters, Alexander, in a fogbound London, ‘bowling along in his taxi the length of cricket pitches at a time, from block to block, one red light to another, or shimmering policemen dressed in rubber.’[1]

I don’t recall Lawrence Durrell particularly as a cricketer—he’d done a bit of boxing, I believe—but a 1958 essay, ‘Old Mathieu’, bristles with cricketing references. ‘He utters the words with the hangdog air of a cricketer who might say: “We have been forced to invite three American baseball players to join the Test team!”’ Durrell wrote. And, ‘Talking of [wine] he sounds rather like old Wilfred Rhodes discussing famous spin-bowlers of the past.’ Then: ‘On his lips the famous names sound full of the regional poetry of old county regiments or county cricket teams decimated in a year of bitter crisis.’ Near the close: ‘It is not unlike a spell at the nets under an exacting yet patient coach.’ And: ‘(I am reminded of a difficult shot to cover-point – or of a glide through the slips.)’[2] Or was that an outside edge, Larry?

Ford Madox Ford employs cricketing references several times in Parade’s End, as he does in No Enemy, which has a chapter, ‘A Cricket Match’, also included in the original French, ‘Une Partie de Cricket’, as ‘Envoi’.[3] In Ancient Lights, he straight facedly asserts that writers in England, being ‘well aware that they are not regarded as gentlemen’, all ‘desire to be something else as well. Sometimes, anxious to assert their manhood, they cultivate small holdings, sail the seas, hire out fishing boats, travel in caravans, engage in county cricket or become justices of the peace.’[4]

But perhaps his most extended engagement with the subject occurs in a late work, Great Trade Route, where he recalls his visit to the United States thirty years before, and tells the story of Philadelphia’s cricket team, claiming that he met a young man in 1906 who ‘introduced into the English game’ the googly. In a footnote he mentions that ‘the patient and omniscient gentleman who reads my proofs’ has pointed out to Ford that the googly was invented by an Englishman named Bosanquet. Ford assures him that he’s not forgotten Bosanquet but insists that in late 1906 his friend ‘bowled to me in the nets for a quarter of an hour or so balls that broke back both in the air and on the ground and that I found absolutely unplayable. His fellow cricketers who were more used to them played them more easily. They were there called “googlies.”’ His friend afterwards went with a cricket team to England and, Ford says, ‘it certainly seems to me that it was after 1907 that Bosanquet distinguished himself with the googly’.[5]


(Bernard Bosanquet: Photograph by George Beldam, 1905)

Well now. Philadelphia certainly did have a good cricket team, which declined as baseball became the country’s dominant sport. Ford was indeed in Philadelphia in 1906 and a team from there did visit England: the third and final tour was in 1908. Bernard Bosanquet actually captained a team that visited Philadelphia in 1901 and it was during the previous English season that he first used the googly in a first-class match. Around 1903, the delivery he’s now famous for became more widely known as ‘a googly’. So Ford’s chronology is a little out while his statement that cricket was dying in England at the time is puzzling. Hayward, Hirst, Hobbs, Woolley: the period up to the First World War is sometime termed the golden age of cricket. And in 1906, when Ford was in the United States, his beloved Kent had actually just won the county championship for the first time.

In ‘Jane Austen Bowls a Googly: The Juvenilia’, the eminent Ford Madox Ford critic, Joseph Wiesenfarth, whose other areas of expertise include the nineteenth-century novel, particularly the work of George Eliot and Jane Austen, begins: ‘To “bowl a googly” is a term from cricket that means to catch a batsman off guard by throwing a very tricky pitch. Idiomatically and figuratively, it means to catch someone unawares with something unexpected.’


Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) by Isobel McArthur (after Jane Austen)

A fine essay, well worth seeking out – still, I pause briefly over that strikingly American construction, ‘throwing a very tricky pitch’: even my minimal knowledge of baseball is enough to locate such terms in that lexicon, rather than a cricketing one. Cricket has bowlers rather than pitchers; and in a cricketing context, the word ‘throwing’ is treated with great wariness, having been central to several long running ‘chucking’ controversies in the past (Griffin, Meckiff, Griffith, Muralitharan). More to the point—and this applies to Ford as well—a googly is not just ‘tricky’. It’s a trickster, an illusion, a feint, a sleight-of-hand. It has had, for most of its life, a very specific meaning: a ball delivered with an apparent leg-break action but behaving as an off-break when it touches the ground, that is, it spins in one direction while the manner of its delivery had led the batsman to believe that it will spin in precisely the opposite direction.

Wiesenfarth cites Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader—in which the British monarch has gone off-piste to the extent of reading novels and wanting to discuss them with other people—before moving on to Austen: ‘When the author of six classic novels of manners takes to getting some people drunk and throwing others out of windows, we could say that Jane Austen bowls us a googly.’[6] We could. And yes, in that sense, we might well make a case for Ford bowling his readers a googly in the process of telling us the story of the googly’s invention, his sprightly version of the googly origin myth.




[1] Henry Green, Party Going (1939), in Loving, Living, Party Going (London: Vintage, 2005), 401.

[2] Lawrence Durrell, ‘Old Mathieu’, in Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings, edited by Alan G. Thomas (1969; London : Faber and Faber, 1988), 365-368.

[3] First published in Bibliotheque universelle et revue suisse, 85 (January 1917), 117-126: Max Saunders, ‘Ford Madox Ford: Further Bibliographies’, English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, 43:2 (2000), 155.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Ancient Lights and Certain New Reflections (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911), 110.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Great Trade Route (London: Allen & Unwin, 1937), 246-249.

[6] Joseph Wiesenfarth, ‘Jane Austen Bowls a Googly: The Juvenilia’, Style, 51,1 (2017), 1-16 (quotations from first couple of pages).