With its own laws, history and language, cricket is another country, a strange and fantastical land that might have been imagined by Borges. During those days when the rain sifts down, soft but unceasing, on the test pitch, the radio commentators so adored by our Prime Minister can readily fill hour after hour exploring arcane recesses of the game. From why the ball always tends to "swing" at Headingley to recalling the peculiarities of the "Timeless Test" in 1938, from the infinite superiority of yesteryear's bowlers (a speciality of F Trueman) to the size of stitching on the seams of cricket balls, it seems they can blather on indefinitely.
In an effort to decode their mysterious lingo, prior to England's first one-day brush with India at the Oval next Thursday, I've been thumbing through The Dictionary of Cricket by Michael Rundell, published by Oxford University Press. Ranging from "agricultural" ("adj denotes a robust and unsophisticated batting stroke") to "zooter" ("n a mysterious ball bowled with a wrist-spin action"), it explains that the term "out for a duck" derives from a supposed resemblance between a duck's egg and the figure "0", and elucidates the etymology of the deceptive ball known as a "chinaman" ("from politically incorrect connotations of inscrutability").
Yet when it comes to explaining "Nelson", the book finds itself on a sticky wicket. This expression applies to a score of 111, made by either a team or an individual, which is traditionally regarded as extremely unlucky. One of the joys of the cricket season is observing test umpire David Shepherd, a man of generous proportions, attempting to keep at least one leg off the ground while the game is stuck on this score, in order to alleviate its malign effect. Anyway, it appears that The Dictionary of Cricket is incorrect in asserting that the term "Nelson" originates "in the erroneous notion that Admiral Nelson had one eye, one arm and one leg". This view was contradicted by a round robin of my cricketing cronies, which produced the unanimous view that "Nelson" came into being because the great man was believed to possess only one eye, one arm and one ball.
Of course, both explanations are fallacious, since the Admiral was quite intact from the waist down. The ignorance of the cricketing fraternity on any topic unrelated to their beloved pastime will come as little surprise to anyone who has spent much time listening to the persiflage of the radio commentary team. With the exception of Christopher Martin-Jenkins (and, before him, the great Arlott), they are all as innocent about non-cricketing matters as babes in arms. For their benefit, the facts concerning the permanent injuries of Britain's greatest naval commander are that he lost the sight of his right eye during the siege of Calvi, Corsica, in 1793 and had his right arm amputated during an expedition to Santa Cruz, Spain, in 1797, before being declared "all out" at Trafalgar in 1805.
Though few of us possess the Chelsea tea service or William & Mary dresser which guarantees a spot on the Antiques Roadshow, virtually every house in Britain contains one or two old dolls - and we all know how much they're going for. "One day," we murmur to ourselves, "it's off to Sotheby's."
Don't count your chickens. According to a report in last week's New Scientist, "a deadly plague is sweeping through collections of antique plastic dolls dating from the Forties and Fifties." Apparently, the disease is highly contagious - symptoms include brown tears and misshapen heads - and the best treatment is a good wash with soapy water - but for many toys it's already too late.
All very sad - but at least it may curtail the cooing ("Oh, isn't she adorable?") of the Antiques Roadshow's expert in this field, one Bunny Campione. On the other hand, this dolly disaster may have the unfortunate consequence of provoking Hugh Scully, the show's oyster-eyed compere, into imitating his counterpart on The Food and Drink Programme - the well- fed Chris Kelly - by introducing each edition with a scare-of-the-week item, adopting a serious voice and deeply concerned expression specially for the purpose. After deadly dollies, there could be contagious chiffoniers, noxious netsuke, infectious sconces...
The wise opinion of Bingo Little, expressed in Jeeves and the Old School Chum (1930) remains as true as ever: "This business of schoolgirl friendships beats me. Hypnotic is the only word. I can't understand it. Men aren't like that." Mrs W maintains strong ties with one or two specimens of the genre, bosom buddies since the days when they had no bosoms. Usually located in distant spots such as Aberystwyth or Penzance, they occasionally descend on Weasel Villas for a sherry-drenched reunion. Dressed in shapeless woollen garments and sensible sandals, they drone on interminably about the joys and anxieties of motherhood, breaking off occasionally to draw Mrs W's attention to various shortcomings in the appearance and behaviour of their reluctant host.
A story I heard recently underlined the power of this lifelong cement between females, and how early it can set. Some acquaintances of mine have just returned from a month-long foreign holiday, where they were accompanied by their son and daughter. In fact, it was the daughter who initiated this excursion. Following the departure of her best schoolfriend when this pal's family moved abroad, she retained the bond via a series of lengthy phone calls. Eventually, an invitation for an extended Easter vacation arrived. The destination? Abu Dhabi. And the age of the young ladies who were thereby reunited? Four.
Cynical hacks made much of the news that Teresa Gorman, MP, mistaking a bowl of temptingly-wrapped prophylactics for sweets at her local hairdressers in Billericay, spent a while unhappily masticating a rubber sheath before realising her error. Yet a sojourn in a Greenwich pub made me realise that such a misapprehension might be quite easy to make. Required to make a call to the gents, I found a machine dispensing these intimate items in an enticing range of flavours.
Mainly they were imbued with the traditional mainstays of British confectionery - banana, rhubarb & custard, chocolate, ice-cream (presumably vanilla), pineapple & peach, liquorice, mint and coconut. There was also a selection of alcoholic beverages - lager & lime, champagne and whisky - along with a single savoury, in the form of curry. Not that you could choose which flavours you preferred. On payment of pounds 1, the machine delivered a random miscellany of two flavours. Or, at least, it was supposed to. A friend of mine (who displayed a somewhat unwholesome interest in my discovery) inserted his coin as directed and received, in the time-honoured fashion of vending machines, precisely nothing. Quizzed following her visit to the distaff loo, Mrs W revealed that the prophylactic machine in there sold only sensible, flavour-free Mates, in contrast to the tangy versions purchased by optimistic males.
Come to think of it, flavoured condoms seem unexpected articles to find lying around in bowls in a ladies' hair salon. Certainly, Mrs W says she has never encountered them during her regular visits to the crimpers of south London. Without wanting to hint at the slightest tinge of vulgarity in the womenfolk of Essex, could it be that the peroxide parlour patronised by Mrs Gorman is not quite out of the top drawer?
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