“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.’
Earlier in the summer, watching the 1st Test between West Indies and Australia, I was excited to see Devendra Bishoo tease the Australian middle-order. I wrote about how he turned the ball sharply to get Steven Smith stumped and to bowl Brad Haddin. At first, I typed the words ‘prodigious turn’ to describe the delivery that had defeated Haddin. The phrase emerged easily onto the screen, but snagged my eye as I re-read the finished sentence. With a little thought, a bit more effort, I altered the description to something that didn’t cause discomfort when re-reading it.
I had avoided ‘prodigious turn’ and had identified a foe, a representative of a class of expression that I wanted to sidestep. With the ‘quick singles and short pitches’ initiative, I committed to writing more regularly. The faster pace of composition would mean less opportunity to reflect on my writing and the greater temptation to lean on familiar formulations in the rush to press the ‘publish’ button.
The particular class of expression I have wanted to evade is not the sport’s slang (e.g. ‘good areas’), nor is it cliche (e.g. ‘catches win matches’) because I would expect to steer clear of both. It’s a budding cliche; something that when it was first coined was probably fresh and distinctive. It involves the use of adjectives or verbs that are unusual and might give the writer a sense of erudition. But the sense is false, because the words are a formula.
I can think of two situations in which these expressions are used. The first is when a cricketer is spending her first days in the commentary box and there isn’t time to measure every word. The familiar but more sophisticated sounding formulations give more weight to utterances, so it seems. The second situation is in recreational cricket where the terms are used archly as players act out a pretence of playing the same game, requiring the same level of description, as their international heroes.
You may have started to identify phrases that fit these criteria. I think of the following as being on a par with ‘prodigious turn’:
‘inserting the opposition’ and its synonym, ‘electing to field’
‘extracting movement from the pitch’
‘bisecting the field’
None of these is poor English. Originality cannot and probably should not always be sought by those writing about the game. These expressions, though, have become familiar and in their regular usage, some of their meaning is being lost. Language, of course, is not stable and I am also very aware that there is also personal taste at work. At the moment, I am reading a collection of John Arlott’s articles on cricket. In a piece written in 1983 about Derek Randall, he wrote this:
One would have expected one of his bubbling enthusiasm to bowl furiously fast; or very slow with prodigious spin.
The DLF Maximum has gone the way of Cornhill Tests, Coopers&Lybrand ratings, Pura Cup and the Fosters Oval. A glossy superficial thing – in this case the sponsorship of sixes hit in the IPL – has evaporated, leaving the cricket element naked of commercial message for a briefest moment before a new cloak, differently coloured and with a new typeface, is worn.
When I asked readers which cricket terms they would most like to be rid of, the DLF Maximum was nominated most urgently. It seemed to encapsulate the commercialism and hyperbole that repels some cricket fans from the IPL and makes other watch with nose pinched.
I’m sure the IPL has made other arrangements and not left the hit for six nameless but for the runs it scores. I do have a suggestion, perhaps not for this year’s tournament, but maybe 2014. This idea won’t generate a lot of cash, but could add to the theatre of the Indian Premier League.
A little background: it was the early 1990s and Ged, my erstwhile college opening partner, was doing something in the Army in the south west of England. His girlfriend ran a stable and her brother captained a village cricket side in Somerset. Ged was playing a lot of cricket for his regiment, but clearly wasn’t doing a lot of whatever had officially taken him with the Army to the south-west because, when not learning to ride, he found time to accept an invitation to play for the village side.
Ged was asked to open the batting. As he was about to trot to the middle, the captain had a word with him about a club tradition. Ged was in good nick and soon played a lofted drive that enabled him to envoke that tradition. He hesitated, was this a prank to make the army officer look a fool? But, with his batting partner nodding encouragement, while the umpire raised both hands above his head, Ged took the locals at their word:
Hey! Ho! Over she goes!
And from the boundary a chorus from his teammates, now on their feet:
More commercially minded folk than I will determine if this practice has sponsorship potential, but it trumps spectators waving cardboard 9’s when the boundary is cleared.
Cricketers’ compulsion to name and rename elements of their game requires no financial imperative. In the endless discussion of the game, there are new coinings, some of which, even if just in the local economy, become currency.
The Sunday village team I played for as a teenager welcomed back Johnny late in the month of May. Johnny was the local amateur football team’s star striker. He brought to the cricket club charisma, effortless athleticism – but more importantly – girls as spectators. I don’t remember him being an especially fine cricketer. He had a swift run-up, bowled off the wrong foot, with a fast arm, but no body in his action. But he was the star-turn and we liked the burnish he brought to our otherwise scruffy mob.
And he had authority in the matter of lingo. I was never sure if he abused that authority, but like Ged, I soon forgot that he may be teasing the rest of us. So, boundaries were ‘fish’. ‘Four fish’ we’d comment casually as one of our team belted a half-tracker to the fence. ‘Four fish’. Basic alliteration, but it stuck with me and was fostered, if never fully adopted, by my college team. It even made appearances on our old boys tours. ‘Six fish’ had an assonant quality, but never became the DLF Max of the Chilterns.
In my twenties I played cricket in South-East London. At my club, poor bowling belonged and would be hit “in de weeds”. The source of this expression was Dougie, an elegant, cigar-smoking Jamaican, who always seemed to me to be charming and of good mien. My teammates warned me, though, that Dougie had a terrible temper.
Knowing the originator of this term, I imagined balls being spanked into the tropical undergrowth surrounding a baked Caribbean cricket ground. Retrieving the ball would involve pulling aside twisted stems of thorns, leaves with stings and risk disturbing creatures that would bite with venom. On the grounds we played, hitting the ball “in de weeds” would mean damp nettles and bramble.
Dougie was in his 50s and was still playing regularly. He had the knack of slowing the game to his own tempo, without looking ponderous. I batted with him only two or three times and he was very encouraging – one of the few batting partners with anything worthwhile to say between overs. During one of these partnerships, I flicked a full-toss through the in-field. I turned for two, hesitated, miscommunicated, gained my ground and left Dougie stranded.
While I batted on, Dougie circled the ground, smoking his thin cigars. I had been warned of his temper and knew I was going to be subject to it. Once dismissed, I thought it better to apologise to him straightaway. I said my piece, very briefly. Dougie responded, “‘Man, you shoulda hit it in de weeds.”
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
– 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
– 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
– 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.
– great players, memorable contests but instead of hearing a pure ring of a silver trophy, I hear ‘clunk, clunk, clunk’.
– 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.