Batsmen, Batters And Heffers

Simon Heffer’s column in the The Telegraph should be put in a museum. Rarely has there been a statement of conservative dogma so unadorned. This is conservatism stripped to its bare essentials. Heffer demonstrates the classic style of the well-trained high-school essayist, by offering up his thesis up front. “No part of the history of the great game of cricket” Heffer writes, “is any longer sacrosanct”. In both substance and form, this is conservatism at its most plebeian.

At its best, conservatism is a useful temperament. It introduces a healthy dose of skepticism into any discourse flush with liberal enthusiasm for progress. “Wait a minute”, the conservative cautions, “have you considered all the consequences?”. Its usually a good question.

Alas, conservatism is not just a temperament. It is also a powerful constituency manned (I think Heffer would approve) for the most part by conservative men of means who do not wish to lose those means and their concomitant social rank and position, and who would like to keep society’s capacity to enable others to join their ranks (means-wise) to a minimum. Like all such constituencies, it is preoccupied with reinforcing its own power and like all constituencies, it tends not to be mindful of its own teachings when it does so.

And so, we get Heffer’s huff with its jejune points (see, I can do it too) about how “batter” refers to the thing used to fry fish in, or worse, as he puts it “that the verb has associations with horrible people who beat their wives and children, driving them to refuges for their own protection.”. As Heffer must know, given his undoubtedly posh education, batter and bat come from the same old french word battre, which means “to strike”. Perhaps Heffer is making a subversive point here, being the closet feminist that he must be, that the possessive, positional term “batsman” ought to be preserved if only to leave no doubt about the relationship between the implement of battery and the gender of its owner. But then again, Heffer is also noticeably coy in his reference to the “horrible people” who “beat their wives and children”. Does Heffer think only men are people? Or is Heffer also secretly infected with the dreaded plague called wokeness? Or… I give up. Perhaps its best to back away slowly, avoiding any sudden moves.

It is worth reflecting though, on the possesive, positional term batsman. Its gendered nature is surely a reflection of the era in which it originated. It is also reflective of the class system of its time. Cricket in Victorian England, historians tell us, was an instrument of social harmony in a desperately unequal society in which a person’s prospects in life were determined largely by the accident of their birth and sex. The rich landowners batted, the poor bowled and fielded, the women cheered, or made tea. At this point, I should just point readers to Downton Abbey. Let’s face it, few of you are going to read some long tome about the social history of Cricket in Victorian England, which is hard to find, and expensive to acquire.

Consider the ways in which batsmen and bowlers are described to this day. Fast bowlers are agents of violence and brutality. Spinners are sly schemers. Batsmen, however, have techniques and temperaments. They have the maturity and the fortitude to withstand all the violence and subterfuge that the bowlers hurl at them. The batsman has a position to defend. Or so one picture of the game goes.

This is not a Victorian picture. This picture of the game is found even in contemporary India. The pinnacle of the Indian game in my lifetime, and certainly in my parents lifetimes, has been the great batsman. Batsmen provide respectability. As long as my team scores 350 with one batsman scoring 150, it doesn’t matter than they also conceded 550 and lost on the 5th day. I have that 150 to remember. If it was scored by a nice well-born young man with good manners, all the better.

The genius of the game of cricket is, that at the highest level, it is the bowlers who rule. As a human endeavor, few things can equal the combination of power, endurance, precision and intelligence found in the elite fast bowler. To watch Malcolm Marshall or Wasim Akram or Dale Steyn or Pat Cummins or Jasprit Bumrah is to watch genius in action - the sort of genius who could command armies and plot complicated campaigns. If Machiavelli had watched Warne or Ashwin, he’d have called his political tome The Spinner, instead of The Prince.

Calling the batsman the batter is not merely an acknowledgement that women play cricket. Reducing the batsman to batter also recognizes the truth that cricket is not a batsman’s game. It puts the batsman in his place. In cricket, that is a reactive place. Only the bowler starts the play in cricket. The batter can only do what he is allowed to. Only the bowler can make unanswerable points in cricket.

Or perhaps we ought to refer to batters as heffers…