“Whether it was or was not used to describe a “wrong ’un” remains debatable. What we do know, however, is that the word has been in use since at least 1885 – almost two decades before the usual claim of 1903”
What is a googly? “An off break bowled with an apparent leg-break action,” says the Oxford Dictionary. Its Cambridge counterpart agrees: “A way of bowling (= throwing) the ball in cricket so that it spins in the opposite way to what the batsman is likely to expect.”
Bernard Bosanquet is unanimously credited as the first to use the googly in serious cricket, back in 1900, to Leicestershire’s Samuel Coe. He had a brief but outstanding Test career spread across the two Ashes series of 1903-04 and 1905 – when England regained and retained the urn.
His Middlesex colleague Reggie Schwarz took the googly to South Africa, where their army of practitioners felled the Englishmen in 1905-06.
That much we know and have discussed in detail on these pages. But why is it called “the googly”?
Before venturing into history, let me point out that Oxford has another entry corresponding to the word: “(of the eyes) unfocused or rolling”. Oxford has suggested (but not confirmed) an early 20th-century origin, adding that it is “possibly related to goggle”. In fact, this is possibly the origin of googly eyes (another name for jiggly eyes).
But let us get back to Bosanquet’s innovation, one that he had picked up accidentally in 1897 and improved upon.
How did this word originate? This excerpt from Justin Parkinson’s The Strange Death of English Leg Spin: How Cricket’s Finest Art Was Given Away is worth reproduction: “Why was the word ‘googly’ used? The origin is unclear, but the explanation most often accepted is that it was a combination of the words ‘goo’ and ‘guile’. This merged the innocent noise made by a baby with a word denoting cunning.
“Alternately, the word might have come from the expression ‘googler’, meaning a high-flighted, teasing delivery.”
Gavin Mortimer more or less agreed in A History of Cricket in 100 Objects: “… googly is a mishmash of ‘goo’ – as in baby noises – and ‘guile’. That sounds suitably confusing: let’s leave it at that.”
But how old is the word?
Plum Warner – Bosanquet’s captain at Middlesex as well as during the 1903-04 Ashes – wrote about “googly” being mentioned by Lyttleton Times (of Canterbury, New Zealand) when Bosanquet bowled in the country.
This may be because some theories suggest that the origin of “googly” lies in the Maori language, as both Parkinson and Mortimer concur.
The lead was picked up by Lynn McConnell, who found nothing despite detailed investigations. “A quick look at microfilmed, and poorly lit, copies of the said newspaper revealed no mention of the word ‘googly’ in the match coverage of either the game against Canterbury or the ‘Test’ match against New Zealand, played three weeks later,” he wrote in ESPNCricinfo.
In a letter to Daily Express in 1903, CB Fry used the word “googly”. Parkinson suggested that this only confirmed the Maori origin theory as the letter was written between “Bosanquet’s tour to New Zealand and Australia with Lord Hawke’s XI and the following winter’s Ashes.”
Letters to The Times
On October 14, 1936, two days after Bosanquet passed away The Times published a letter from his brother Nicholas. He spelt the word “googlie”.
This prompted a response from one DR Dangar three days later, which I am producing in verbatim here. “Sir, in the account of a cricket tour in which I participated in 1899 or 1899 occurs the following sentence: X was then tried with his lobs. All that can be said of them is that the best of them was far worse than the worst of Y’s ‘googlers’. Is this the first mention of the word, allowance being made for the slight difference in spelling? I may say that the ‘X’ mentioned here is now one of his Majesty’s justices.”
While Dangar’s letter provides insights, we have already seen that “googler” was already in existence.
Later, on May 10, 1963, The Times published another letter on the same subject, from one Dr DW Cockshut: “The word ‘googly’ was first used in a newspaper article in New Zealand in 1903 to describe Bosanquet’s new ball. The word means uncanny, ghostly, and is supposed to be of Maori origin … A more apt word to describe a leg-break from the off could not be imagined, and we remain indebted to an unknown New Zealand journalist.”
A response came from Captain TG Usher two weeks later: “Dr Cockshut (10 May) may well be right in claiming that the word ‘googly’ first appeared in a New Zealand newspaper in 1903; but he is certainly wrong in suggesting that it is of Maori origin. The Maori tongue has neither ‘G’ nor ‘L’.
“Hasty telephonic research in communication with the office of the Australian High Commissioner here reveals that ‘Yooguli!’ is Australian aboriginal language for ‘I rejoice!’ Could Bosanquet have been as multilingual as all that?”
While Dr Cockshut and Captain Usher both seem to have read Warner’s accounts, their inputs make interesting reading.
The nineteenth century
But was “googly” mentioned before 1898 or 1899 (these are the dates mentioned by Dangar)?
Let me quote from a report of the third day’s play from the second Test of the 1891-92 Ashes, as published on The Australian Star (Sydney) of February 1, 1892: “[Alec] Bannerman was playing with unusual freedom, but for a while the scoring was slow, [Johnny] Briggs keeping the batsmen quiet with his googly ones.”
Now Briggs was a left-arm finger-spinner. If he made the ball go the other way it would not have been the same as a googly. What was the “googly” mentioned here, one cannot help but wonder.
Was this the same as “googler”, as referred to by Parkinson in his book? That is unlikely, as later in the same report, one comes across “[WG] Grace took the ball at the southern end, and sent Alec a mysterious googler…”
It is unlikely that the words “googly” and “googler” will be used in the same report for different kinds of bowlers. WG was, in fact, a famous exponent of the “googler” (the “high-flighted, teasing delivery”). Briggs, a wonderful bowler that he was, relied on uncanny variations of pace – though that might have involved the occasional “googler”.
On a side note, Briggs took the third Test hat-trick in history in the same innings. Perhaps he was bowling the “googly”.
But was 1892 the first instance? Let us go a bit further back, to December 19, 1885, when Leader (Melbourne) ran a report of a local match, by “Mid On”. The report includes the following excerpt: “… and the retirement was the beginning of the end, Herring’s ‘googly ones’ capturing two more wickets…”
What kind of a bowler was this Herring? “To watch Herring in the act of delivery one would expect to see a leg break a la Cooper and Wingrove, but the effect is disappointing, as the ball hardly turn from its course.”
Here we are, then, a leg-break bowler bowling “googly ones”. One wonders what kind of delivery this was.
The term, then, was in use at least in 1885. But while that is true, it is possible that the word was used to refer to some other kind of delivery (“googler”, anyone?).
Whether it was or was not used to describe a “wrong ’un” remains debatable. What we do know, however, is that the word has been in use since at least 1885 – almost two decades before the usual claim of 1903.