“Come into the ring,” I shouted to the fielder at deep cover.
“Come into the ring.”
“What ring? Where? There isn’t a ring.” Irritation overcoming his initial confusion.
I looked around the in-field, peopled by colleagues in a variety of sporting gear and realised: i) he was right, there wasn’t a one-saving ring recongisable to a cricketer; and ii) even if there had been, he, playing his first ever game of cricket, wouldn’t necessarily have perceived it as ‘a ring’.
“Come closer, closer. That’s it. Stand there.” The annual company cricket match re-started, with my team’s fielders more-or-less occupying the stations to which I had directed them.
I was reminded of this incident reading Matt Becker’s recent post on ‘Limited Overs’ about favourite cricket terms. Matt enthuses about the language of cricket and has enjoyed deciphering it since he started following it from America’s midwest a decade or so ago. For those without an upbringing steeped in the sport, or Matt’s curiosity, the language can be a barrier to engaging with cricket. Fielding positions are particularly arcane.
Not only are the positions colourfully or obscurely named, but their relationship to a spot on the field is imprecise. There is of course a structure to the arrangement of fielders in cricket, but it is looser than, say, in baseball. There are perhaps 20 different fielding position names to describe the placement of fielders spread across up to, in the case of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, 20,000m2. That leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
At the highest level of the game, you will see a fielder receive an instruction from the captain, run to take up a new position, be waved at by the skipper to shift to where the fielder was intended to be stationed and then have their position adjusted again by the bowler. There is a dynamic negotiation over their meaning, ball-by-ball, according to the bowler’s type and intent; the batsman’s orientation, strengths, weaknesses; state of the match and game-specific restrictions.
We also need to take into account differences in grounds, which vary in dimension and may have slopes and hollows, all of which contribute to positions being contingent rather than fixed. It comes, then, with the territory – literally and figuratively. Fielding positions have names, but at least as many understandings of what they mean as there are players on the field.
Here are some of the fielding directions or misdirections that have caught my eye and ear – starting with the misdirections.
Lost in action
At the end of an over, the bowler will, as often as not, head back past the start of their run-up, all the way to the boundary. Their destination, in the game I grew up playing, was long-leg. If the bowler at the other end was particularly swift, or the keeper’s glove-work unreliable, they might be moved closer to the line of the pitch, still on the boundary, to fine leg. Or, if it were a slow-bowler they may be moved in the other direction, to deep backward square (leg).
Somehow, the days of long leg are long gone. The position still exists, but it’s now part of the sweep of boundary occupied by an often not particularly fine fine leg. Cricket seems to have smudged a distinction – between fine and long leg – opting for the former name. No damage done; one fewer comical name for a fielding position.
A significant absence
Third man is probably Test cricket’s most contested over position, despite like Graham Greene’s character of the same name, being largely absent. With fast and medium pace bowlers focusing on the off-stump and outside, it’s a very fruitful scoring zone. Deliveries cut, guided, sliced or edged past slips and gulley fielders will usually run away to the boundary, unless there is a third man in place. For long periods of most innings, there isn’t a third man and runs accumulate and onlookers get bothered. ‘Giving away boundaries,’ is the charge.
Deliberately leaving a gap in the field to tempt a shot is an established tactic. Away-swing bowlers often leave a large gap in the covers to encourage a drive that might end with an edge to slip. Leg-break bowlers may leave mid-wicket unattended to prompt the batter to push in that direction, playing against the spin. I don’t sense this is happening with the absent third man.
It appears to be a signal from the fielding captain of the state of the game. No third-man: we’re OK, don’t mind you having a few boundaries. Third-man in place: time to re-trench. This is logical – the fielder to stand at third-man has to come from somewhere and the move is likely to be defensive.
Depends who’s batting
Deep mid-wicket is a position of distinction. Off-spinners plunder wickets there, defeating quality batters with dip and spin as balls are lofted to the outfield.
Cow corner – although usually just called ‘Cow’ on the field fo play – is where the slogger hits. Captains send a fielder to cow, with resignation, maybe reluctance. The opposition is uncultured, relying on strength not skill.
The role and position are the same. The difference that justifies the alternative names is the perceived technical ability of the batter.
Recreational v professional
By tradition and necessity, the most athletic fielders will tend to field in the covers. It’s a compliment to be asked to field in the covers and a privilege as the ball travels towards you across the square, where the field is most even and reliable.
One of England’s finest cover fielders was Derek Randall, who pursued the ball in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the abandon of a dog chasing a stick in the park . It wasn’t until I went to a Test match and saw that Randall, with Willis or Botham bowling with a new ball, didn’t occupy the covers – that area in front of square on the off-side. He lurked at point, or even backward point, where the hard new ball would more likely be guided. He was always referred to as a cover fielder, even though for that to always be true, it would mean stretching it off the square.
If you position yourself square of the wicket in the opening overs of a professional or good level club game, and focus your eye on the close catchers, first slip will be crouched furthest from the wicket, second slip and keeper will probably be in line with each other. Taking the same position as a spectator at a recreational match, the keeper and the slips will stand in line on a shallow arc. It’s about the speed the ball passes the bat and often the role of the first slip: in recreational cricket an avuncular presence to chivvy and encourage a young ‘keeper, at their shoulder, not from two yards behind them.
Cricket has coped with the imprecision of fielding positions, the need for ball-by-ball negotiation, by developing a language of adjustment. Waving arms and shouts of ‘left, right, back, foward’ could do the job, but there’s a more elegant solution. It is one of my favourite aspects of the language of cricket. It has rules of usage that make it particularly satisfying to employ.
The easiest aspect, although not without its oddity, is the description of how to move a fielder closer or further away from the pitch. ‘Deeper’ contrasts not with ‘shallower’, but with the opposite of longer: ‘shorter’.
Moving fielders laterally (left to right, and vice versa) is really specialised, depending on the fielding position relative to the batter. The principle is of a dial, or clock, and movement around that circle using fixed lines as reference points.
Fielders behind the stumps (e.g. fine leg, third-man) are oriented relative to the line of the pitch, with ‘finer’ used to move them closer to the line of the pitch and ‘wider’ to move in the other direction.
At the opposite end of the field (e.g. mid-on, long-off), the line of the pitch again provides the reference point. In these cases, though, ‘straighter’ denotes a move closer to the line of the pitch, with ‘wider’ again meaning the opposite.
Fielding positions to the side of the pitch use the batting crease as the reference point. To move closer to the imaginary line continuing from the crease, the fielder is instructed to be ‘squarer’. Movement in the other direction depends on the starting point of the fielder. If behind square, ‘finer’; if in front, ‘straighter’.
None of this is essential and much as I savour the particularity of the language, I fully understand that captains are as likely to use cues from the environment to communicate with their fielders: ‘in front of the beer advertisement’; ‘second flag from the scorer’; ‘next to the patch of clover’. Or simply relative to their team-mates: ‘half-way between Ed and Ned’. Finally, there’s always the invitation to the fielder near the bat: ‘as close as you dare.’
Yesterday’s net had the feel and the taste of an ending. As we stepped onto the outfield and across the newly painted white goal line, no.1 son purred about the conditions for playing football. He shaped to curl a pass that would drop into the path of a team mate.
The wind tugged at both boys’ lockdown locks as we crossed the field to the nets. But the pleasure no.1 son had taken in the feel of the grass under foot disappeared when he knelt to feel the net surface. The gusts had done little to lift from the astro the moisture from the overnight rain. We dug deep into our bags for old balls, but these were so distended by earlier wet practices, we settled on a couple of pinks, seams raised and colour flaking.
We batted in turn, each soon swiping and thrashing, eschewing the seriousness and urge to improve. Even no.2 son, as angry as a wasp under a glass, when bottled behind helmet and grill at the far end of a net lane, was relaxed.
Barring us, the nets, the field and the clubhouse were empty. Low grey clouds hastened the evening light. In a day or so, no.1 son returns to university. One of his first tasks is to greet the freshers as college cricket captain – skipper of a side he has never played for, its season never having troubled the groundsman, let alone the scorers.
Our protective family bubble has already burst with the return to school of the 1&onlyD and no.2 son. For the male triumvirate, though, this is another cleaving. From mid-March, we have played, laughed and worked out the frustrations of living together with bat and ball. It began with garden cricket, intense and, fierce. In late May, with the back lawn and neighbours’ patience with returning tennis balls, pushed to their limits, there came the blessed relief of nets reopening. On-line booking, hand sanitiser, limits and rules on participants’ relationships, key codes. The very good people of my club doubled down and gifted us, its members, this precious freedom.
Twice weekly, the three of us have netted. The hours of my pre-pandemic commute, recycled into cricket practice. We have contrived matches, set challenges, used video to work on technical details and drifted back to free-form. In forty years of playing, I have never practiced so much.
I must remind myself of the intrinsic value of this experience, because there’s very little to show in terms of improvement. Second ball, yesterday, no.1 son yorked me. Minutes later, I leaped at a half-volley and placed just the finest outside edge on the ball. My younger son later pinned back my off stump, with a ball that (I hope) held its line. No.1 son feels the same about his bowling and his brother’s batting still vacillates. As one shot comes, another goes. It’s some weeks since we last spotted his square cut.
We are fortunate that cricket has been such an active presence this summer. But its absence in other ways still jars. No.1 son, 19, has over-hauled me in his passion for the game, and hasn’t played a single match for college or club. No.2 son was drawn back into cricket’s orbit by the World Cup Final and played at the tail-end of last season. He trained through the winter, netting with the seniors, calculating his chances of a regular fourth team spot and what his playing role might be, eager to make up for his lost season in 2019. Instead, he has two lost seasons, managing just one match last month, when his exposure to school made avoiding cricket matches unnecessary. I don’t have the records to prove it, but I may have broken a streak of 29 seasons, by not taking the field at all this year.
The other absence playing on my mind is no.2 son’s first visit to Lord’s, planned for the Saturday of the Pakistan Test. Our – his, his Grandad and my – intention that this can be rectified in 2021 feels very much in the balance.
That Test was played ten minutes up the road from us, not 200 miles to the south, but would not have been easier to attend if played in Pakistan.
Six Tests in seven weeks might have felt like a feast after the famine of the early summer’s absence of cricket to follow. I really did enjoy both Test series and the white ball stuff that followed it. What puzzled me at the time and still does, is that through May, June and the first week of July, I felt no longing for cricket to view and follow. Like everyone else, I’ve rarely needed the escapism of my favourite sport more, but I adjusted to its absence in the way an addict is not supposed to be capable of doing. I did watch the replays of last year’s World Cup Final and Headingley Test which the broadcasters used to fill hours empty of live action, and experienced again the thrill, but not the frustration of the wider narrative of the game being stalled. When the cricket did return, my old enthusiasm, perhaps buoyed by the presence of both sons, was quickly stoked. The summer with and without cricket has clarified something about my relationship to the game. I feel less dependent, but no less capable of finding profound enjoyment there – Woakes and Buttler, Anderson and Broad, the astonishing Zak Crawley.
In one respect, this summer has done damage to my engagement with the game. I am fortunate to have been able to work from home, maintaining our family’s protective bubble. The keyboard and screen that are my connection to my professional duties are the same that I use to drum out this blog. Returning to the desk at which I have sat all day has had little appeal and so Declaration Game has drifted. I am grateful that it is the only casualty here in this summer with and without cricket.