The inventors of English football faced a dilemma when they were devising the rules. Although they envisaged a game in which the players would catch the ball in high-leaping 'marks' - as in Australian-rules football - they were dismayed to find that few players were able to catch a ball in flight. In desperation, they experimented with larger and larger balls, which became increasingly difficult to kick. But even these enlarged balls were slipping through the players' hands, and bouncing off their heads. Finally, they decreed that only one player from each team should be allowed to catch or touch the ball. Even so, many of the fathers of football expresed grave doubts that even one player from a team could be found with the ability to catch a ball.
Evidence of this inability persists right up to the present day, in the form of the England Cricket Team. Many of them can't catch a ball properly, either. And even the inventors of cricket had their problems. Bright young things, the ink still wet on their Diplomas in Workstudy, argued that it was inefficient to have the non-facing batsman unoccupied. He should also be facing deliveries, they maintained. That there should always be two bowlers simultaneously in action - one from each end. This would mean one less man in the field, but they reasoned that the loss was worth it in the interests of efficiency. And they received enthusiastic support from the Umpires Union, who could see definite employment prospects in the increased need for their members.
But the Laws of Probability were to be the downfall of those advocating efficiency. In a famous paper which was almost delivered to a meeting of the Royal Statistical Society, the obscure mathematician Eza W. Anker (no relation of the newsreader William Anker) demonstrated a finite probability that the two cricket balls, approaching from opposite directions, would collide. He even insisted on demonstrating his theory within the confines of the lecture theatre. That was a mistake. Avoiding ricochetting balls, and unable to agree on how colliding deliveries might be adjudicated, the audience decided that efficiency had no place in cricket.
So today, when you see the non-facing batsman standing around picking his nose, adjusting his wedding-tackle, or chatting-up the crowd, spare a thought for those early architects of cricket. The game may well have been quite different.
Eric Carwardine, in Perth, Western Australia