In the piece by David Bell elsewhere in this issue, a number of lines from an 18th-century French poem are quoted fearlessly in the original. At one time, the question of whether or not to translate them would never have arisen, the editors of a paper like this assuming that a sufficiently high proportion of its readers were comfortable with French for a translation to be both patronising and redundant. That’s no longer automatically the case: the question tends now at least to get raised. It’s a pity it should be so, but assumptions in respect of knowledge of other languages are a lot less confident than they used to be, certainly when it comes to how much knowledge even of French there might be among younger readers. The A-level figures that were published last month showed what we’ve come to expect: that the numbers of schoolchildren doing languages is dropping year by year. The sum of those who try for a grade in French has gone down from more than 21,000 in 1999 to just under 18,000 this year, and the figures for other languages are dismal in total and also in decline. This evidence that the future’s here, the future’s monoglot, coincided neatly with increasingly serious suggestions that those waiting to be treated by the NHS should speed things up by going abroad to the European countries which have hospital beds to spare. Which is one way the numbers of young people doing French or German might be bumped up, by promising them that they’ll be right glad of their language A-level when they see a voluble, monoglot French or German doctor coming down the ward. Perhaps that’s why the Government claims to be encouraging more children to take languages as far as GCSE: it’s cheaper than training doctors.
The statistics that get screened in the course of television Test Matches grow more arcane by the summer, thanks to the ease with which computers can recast them. During the recent game at Headingley, we were given the mathematical proof that some batsmen – in this case Mark Ramprakash – have a batting average for their first innings in Tests that is almost double that for the second, not that anyone tried to explain this discrepancy. One statistic that didn’t seem to be immediately available, on the other hand, was the number of times in England-Australia games a captain has declared the innings closed and then lost. Is it possible that this was the first time it had ever happened? The game in question of course became an item of cricket folklore the instant it was over, and should, with a bit of luck, if not displace then at least be an alternative to the Headingley Test of 1981. That was a remarkable turnaround indeed, a match England won when they should have lost, but invoked ever since, with the help of patriotic clips showing Botham launching the ball out of the ground, to try and take our minds off the fact that England have now lost to Australia in seven Ashes series on the trot. During future unsuccessful series, the producers will at least have Butcher’s innings to go with Botham’s. One very pleasant feature of it was what looked like the old-fashioned friendliness of the fielding side as they congratulated him. Can these be the same Australians who were for a long time so taken up with ‘sledging’, with swearing or whatever it was at the batsmen in the hope of making them forget what they were there for? Glenn McGrath, their formidable opening bowler, was reputed to go to unprecedented lengths in that direction, to the point where his docile nature off the field had to become equally legendary. Not that those lengths ever became quite common knowledge, even in the days when there were microphones out on the wicket, hidden in the stumps – or was it the keeper’s box? In a book to be published later this year, It’s Not Cricket (Faber, £14.99), enticingly subtitled ‘Skulduggery, Sharp Practice and Downright Cheating in the Noble Game’, Simon Rae has a chapter on sledging, tracing it back well beyond recent Australian teams to the sorts of thing W.G. Grace was famous for saying to cowed batsmen. A batsman known to Short Cuts decades ago was sledged one day in the Parks at Oxford, by Fred Trueman no less, as he went out to bat wearing a Harlequin cap: ‘Another jazz ‘at,’ swore the Fiery one, ‘Ahm going to plaster thee to the effing sightscreen.’