What is the term “Jaffa” in cricket

If contestants on one of those television quiz shows had to determine the true definition of the word “jaffa” they could have problems. They could be offered: “Jaffa; a port city in the Middle East”: “jaffa; a sweet variety of orange”: or “jaffa; a particularly good ball bowled in cricket”. All are true, and all are related. Jaffa oranges originate from the area around Jaffa, while a ball that the bowler considers to be sweet and juicy is worthy of carrying the name.

Quite when the term was first used in cricket is lost in time, but it is one of those that, once coined, has assumed an enduring place in the game’s lexicon. It is evocative enough to be used by cricketers in that particular way of theirs when they cannot bring themselves to use plain language to describe something out of the ordinary. To be fair, there are occasions when the delivery might not merit the description, but it is still employed. However, there are other times when a particular ball is of such perfection that it can only merit one description. It was an absolute jaffa!

One such came at Old Trafford in 1993. There could be no doubt that it was a jaffa, because it was labelled the “ball of the century” and few could name other contenders. It was Shane Warne’s first ball in Ashes cricket, bowled to Mike Gatting, and since described by the bowler as “a complete fluke”. In case a reminder is needed, it turned from outside Gatting’s legs with enough vigour to leave the England captain not just out but utterly nonplussed, bowled off-stump. “The first couple of balls you bowl are just warm-ups, and you just hope to get them somewhere near the right spot,” said Warne. “To bowl the perfect leg-break first up – I think it was just meant to be”.

The thing about the Warne ball was that it occupied a place of such significance, not only in the innings and the match, but also in the series as a whole. Gatting was known to be a good player of spin and had the experience to counter Warne. At the same time, Warne had not established himself as the complete leg-spinner in English conditions before the Test began. One ball into his first spell, and Warne had become a legend.

It was at Lord’s in 1999 that Chris Read, playing in only his second Test, was the victim of another genuine jaffa. It might well have done for many a batsman of greater accomplishment than Read, which was perhaps unfortunate for the bowler, Chris Cairns of New Zealand, for it was perfectly delivered and had exactly the effect that he was seeking.

Cairns, a genuine all-rounder, could bowl at a very acceptable pace when at his fittest and he was enjoying the conditions in England, where the ball was responding when he tried to move it either in the air or off the pitch. In this instance, he did not try to do either, but bowled a huge, looping slower ball coming out the back of his hand.

Batsmen get into a pattern of watching the ball from the hand and expecting it to go along roughly the same trajectory. This one was on a different plane and at a different pace, causing Read to lose sight of it completely. Instinctively, he ducked down, only to find that the ball floated on a gentle parabola to bowl him. Cairns was justifiably jubilant while Read trudged back to the pavilion having been made to look rather foolish.

It is one thing to produce a magic ball like a conjurer, but quite another to bowl a succession of them. A bunch of jaffas tends to take the spotlight off a particular ball, but if a bowler can string together a succession of them, he is marked out as one of the game’s greats. That label could certainly be applied to West Indian fast bowler Michael Holding.

Known as “whispering death” for his ability to glide over the turf in his run up before delivering a ball with deadly intent, Holding has to his credit one of the most memorable overs bowled in Test cricket. Everyone remembers it with awe, none more so than England batsman Geoff Boycott who had the misfortune to be on the receiving end.

It was in 1981 at the Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados, that Holding summoned up such pace and perfect accuracy that even as good and experienced batsman as Boycott had no answer to it. Holding responded to the atmosphere to bowl five balls of such fearsome intent that the batsman did well to survive. The sixth was the sweetest of jaffas, uprooting Boycott’s off stump. Furthermore, Holding repeated the trick when Ian Botham threatened to claw back the initiative later in England’s innings. Clive Lloyd called up him up again and he mustered equal fury to have Botham caught behind.

At the Oval in 1976, the pitch had been specially prepared to draw Holding’s fire, and that of his fellow fast bowlers. The ploy worked to an extent. The other members of the West Indian pace quartet were relatively ineffective. Holding was inspired. Eight for claiming the wicket of one of England’s great Test batsmen, David Gower. The prospect of a visit to Wantage Road to play Northamptonshire should not have struck fear into the heart of a batsman of Gower’s class, but time and time again he fell to one of the opening pair, and usually Lamb. In recognition of the fact, and taking account of the expression “he could roll him over with an orange”: Gower paused in the middle while coming in to bat for Leicestershire, looked around to see Lamb fielding at fine leg, and promptly rolled an orange along the ground towards him, calling: “Get me out with that then!”

There was another occasion when an unnamed bowler was playing in an early-season televised match in the John Player League. The umpire called play and, as the cameras closed in on the bowler running in to bowl the first ball of the new season, he released not the ball but an orange. It was of a full length, enticing the batsman to drive, which he did with the expected messy and explosive result. It might have been the start of the expression “bowling a jaffa”. Or could it simply have been a case of the bowler taking the pith?