The naming game

Cricket is the most wordy of sports. I managed without Sky until recently. Nevertheless, I could feel drenched in cricket, even in winter when I had neither seen a match in person, nor watched a live broadcast since the late summer. Cricket came to me in match reports, blog articles, pod casts, books, phone calls and tweets. Deprived of the image, the precision and familiarity of the language of cricket continued to keep me close to the game.

The etymology of a lot of cricket’s verbiage is murky. But some influences are clear. Metaphor plays a part: sweep, hook, cutter, feathered, long hop, swing. Provenenance is acknowledged: Bosie, Dilshan, Duckworth-Lewis. Marketing has one triumphant creation: Twenty20. The really sticky terms have probably emerged, once as contenders, but through adoption and usage have become universal: duck, Ashes, pair, follow-on, maiden.

However, familiarity with the language of cricket does disguise some imprecision. As examples: reverse swing, stepping inside the line, strangled down the leg-side. All are terms that I decode and visualise without difficulty. Yet none is an expression that withstands scrutiny as they are either inconsistent with other cricket expressions in use or suggest something that they are not.

Another category of cricket terms jars like the ball struck with the toe of the bat: nicked off, power-play, Border-Gavaskar Trophy. Brash or clunky, they are at odds with sounds around them.

Several years ago, on the annual Old Boys’ tour, I experienced sharp professional envy. Our bilingual opening bowler related that he had been made Chair of the Nomenclature Committee at his Swiss employer (cricket analogy: Zimbabwean coach to the England Test team). I understood this to be a periodic inter-departmental gathering to debate and settle on the use and meaning of words. The sophistication of his workplace stung me. The contrast to my employer at that time was acute. Where I worked, the room next to the conference room was known, without irony, as the anti-room. My jokes about things disappearing there fell flat.

Cricket terms gain acceptance over time, with some ebb and flow in usage. Terms such as: sitting on the splice and telegraph (bellowed by umpire to scorer to prompt the scoreboard to be brought up to date) have had their day. Some authorities can impose changes to the language of the game: the Laws. Outside of those forces, the language of the game develops organically.

Just imagine, though, if there was a Nomenclature Committee for Cricket. As a committee member, what would be the words, terms and usages that you would enforce? And which terms would you outlaw?

For an international game, played on six continents, its canonical terminology is overwhelmingly English. What are the words from other languages that should have official recognition?

I list below the terms that I think serve the game poorly. What could they be replaced by? Which words and phrases would you like to see chewed over by the Nomenclature Committee?

    ICC Champions Trophy

– not a contest of champions

    Two Test Series

oxymoronic, although Rick Eyre may already have found the best alternative in ‘two-off tests’

    Reverse swing

– implies it works the other way to new ball swing, when in fact it is swing achieved by a different method

    Strangled down the leg-side

– can make sense when a batsman is cramped playing down the legside, but is used now for any dismissal to a catch taken by the keeper down the legside

    Pinch-hitter

– imported from baseball where it means a batter introduced at a key moment during a match, but has come to mean an attacking batsman opening the innings

    Power-play

– imported from ice-hockey where it means the period when one side is playing a man down, but is used in limited overs cricket for the overs when the fielding restrictions are particularly restrictive.

    Border-Gavaskar Trophy

– great players, memorable contests but instead of hearing a pure ring of a silver trophy, I hear ‘clunk, clunk, clunk’.

    Arm-ball

– description of the finger spinner’s delivery that doesn’t turn and possibly moves off the seam in the opposite direction. I don’t feel it explains what the bowler applied to the ball and often suspect is was simply a stock delivery that didn’t turn.

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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

18 responses to “The naming game”

  1. Aotearoaxi says :

    Great piece. To be outlawed – DLF maximum – its a six! Personally, I detest the use of spirit of cricket – commentators and players use it simply to suit an argument, not actually discuss what the spirit is and isn’t. Spirit of cricket is different to everyone, not a generic term to use when something goes against you…

    • chrisps says :

      Welcome to the Committee, Mr Cricketing Buddha.

      The Spirit of Cricket is formally defined in the preamble to the Laws. But it’s not a comprehensive definition, leaving scope for debate and, as you point out, self-serving usage by anyone aggrieved. It’s too imprecise for this Committee: reform, or be gone.

      I guess DLF Maximum comes from the IPL. T20 is an important source of innovation for the game – how it’s played and probably how it’s described. But DLF Max is redundancy and hyperbole: banish it!

      I hope you have a long and fulfilling tenure on the Committee.

  2. Rick Eyre says :

    I agree with outlawing “maximum” with or without the sponsor’s prefix. 6 is not a maximum so long as batsmen can claim 4 overthrows after running 3 (or even 4).

    “Bilateral” is another term I hate that has crept in over recent years to describe series between two countries as apart from a triseries or larger tournament. But really, all games of cricket (and most sports) are bilateral, ie, one side versus another.

    But if anyone has a few weekends to spare, may I suggest getting a transcript of a typical Danny Morrison IPL commentary and breaking it down phrase by phrase…

    • chrisps says :

      ‘Maximum’ really seems to touch a nerve. ‘Bilateral’ would never have occurred to me, but I fear it will have me cringing at every broadcast now you’ve raised my awareness of it. Both terms over-complicate something simple – a symptom of poor command of the language. Thanks, Rick.

  3. Ged says :

    ‘Nicked off’ terrible. Why are “knocks” now “hits”. “Back of a length” “buffet bowling’ should not be followed with ‘ help yourself’ for who watching does not know. In fact extend that to anything and everything uttered by botham. ‘sitting in’ ‘maximum’

    • chrisps says :

      A batsman’s innings called a ‘hit’ (fairly accurate for me this season): agreed it’s casual, almost disrespectful. Maybe ‘knock’ was thought of in the same way a generation or two ago?
      ‘Back of a length’ – that’s taken hold like a weed. I’d love to see where 10 cricket commentators would place a ball where each considers a ‘back of a length’ delivery pitches. I’m not expecting a tight collection.
      What’s ‘sitting in’ when it’s not, y’know, seated? Definitely not a position from which one can take advantage of ‘buffet bowling’.

  4. The Cricket Nerd says :

    The arm-ball is called that because the commentators often describe it as the one that goes on with the arm, thus not mentioning the bowler’s effort to disguise it.

  5. Brian Carpenter says :

    Excellent post, Chris. I’ve learnt something – the origin of Powerplay and what Pinch Hitter really means (American sports never were my thing) – but the bit I enjoyed most was the reference to umpires shouting ‘telegraph’.

    I haven’t heard that for years but it takes me right back to scoring for my elder brother’s team as a ten year-old (c.1976).

    Mind you, even knowing about that marks you down as someone in cricketing middle age!

    • chrisps says :

      Brian, ‘telegraph’ sounded outdated when I heard it hollered, but yes, cricketing middle-age sums it up.

      Will you be drawn on the cricket terms you would like to see outlawed?

  6. Stu says :

    One that has really jacked me off lately is the use of ‘shape’ rather than swing. When did that become the norm? i.e. “Great shape there from Anderson” when he gets the swing away and leave the batsman.

    • chrisps says :

      Stu, ‘shape’ seems like an example of a vague, rather plain word that gets invested with supposed meaning when used by an expert – perhaps like ‘hit’ in Ged’s comment. I agree that, when used as you described, it needs rooting out. I’ll start with myself as I’m conscious I use it when talking to junior cricketers about their bowling. Many thanks for the contribution.

  7. Brian Carpenter says :

    I think a distinction can be made between long-standing cricket terms and recently-adopted commentary clichés. Most of the former don’t really grate – even if they don’t seem appropriate any more – whereas the latter often do.

    ‘Back of a length’ is certainly one (is that any different from ‘short of a length’?), another is the current vogue (heard on a few cricket commentaries recently, especially from Michael Vaughan, and frequently during the European Football Championships) for describing things (players, mainly) as ‘proper’.

    As in ‘he’s a proper player’. As far as I can tell it just means that someone is a ‘good player’.

    And then you have the way in which anything and everything to be described as ‘iconic’, although that’s something that tends to affect the wider media rather than people who cover cricket, although they’re more than happy to wade in when they get the chance.

    BTW, I’m not totally sure that ‘shape’ as it’s used, is completely interchangeable with swing. My impresson was that it meant something a bit more subtle, like the tendency for the ball to wobble at the start of a spell, perhaps as a prelude to outright swing. But perhaps I’m wrong, or splitting hairs (possibly both).

    • chrisps says :

      Brian, the game keeps changing and is so much talked about that its language mutates, too.

      Players, as backwatersman points out, may be instrumental in this process, as they create a language a little out of kilter from the one of the fan. And, as a few of them introduce innovations to the game, they get to name them. Saeed Ajmal toyed with this, before toying with the English batsmen, earlier in the year.

      I agree there is a distinction to be drawn between commentator cliche/hyperbole (‘proper’, ‘iconic’) and something, but that something isn’t just long-established cricket terms. The game changes too much for that. ‘Doosra’, ‘Dill-scoop’, ‘Power-play’ describe recently introduced elements of the game that need a name. These terms are more contentious than the established terms, I think, because they are new and also because there may be alternatives in use.

  8. backwatersman says :

    I find M. Vaughan on TMS is one of the worst offenders. ‘120 clicks’ for bowling at 90 mph, ‘Michelle’ for fivefor (which is bad enough in itself), ‘lid’ for helmet … I get the impression the other commentators don’t know what he’s talking about half the time, and I certainly don’t. To be fair (which is another one) I suppose pro cricketers have always used jargon which is designed to be incomprehensible to outsiders, and the equivalents of yesteryear – ‘track’, ‘knock’, ‘castled’ were probably just as irritating in their time.

    There was a promising new entry from young F. Cowdrey in last week’s Cricket Paper – talking about coach Arthur ‘having his game face on’. Where does that come from – or do I not want to know?

  9. backwatersman says :

    Actually – while I think of it – I wouldn’t miss ‘get the nod’, ‘good shout’ or ‘on the bounce’ either. ‘Cricket shot’ (meaning any stroke played in a one day match that isn’t a wild heave to cow corner) is beginning to outstay its welcome as well.

    • chrisps says :

      I see what you mean about the exclusive language of the professional player leaking out into the wider cricket culture. I wonder how long it takes a term to make that shift from insider language to media usage and the club game? A season or two? I suspect some of these terms are used initially by club players self-consciously, jokingly, but then take hold and become the norm. ‘Good areas’ may be making that transition.

      Many thanks for your comments.

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