This summer promises to be a momentous one for English cricket. The 50-over World Cup will take place across England, followed in very quick succession by The Ashes. England are currently favourites to win both events, and with no headline-grabbing football tournament in sight for at least a year, cricket could well be what everyone is talking about in those post-Brexit bread queues after March. So why not swat up on your cricketing terminology in preparation for what looks set to be a golden summer for the sport?
At the latest count, there are approximately 392 words and phrases used in cricket in a way that is entirely peculiar to the game. To put this in context, Taki Taki, an English-based Creole language spoken in Suriname has only 340 words. Cricket is as linguistically complex as some entire civilisations.
Cricket or “crecket”
Let’s start with cricket itself. The first definite reference to cricket (or “creckett” as it was then) occurs in a court case in 1598. Opinion is unsurprisingly divided as to the word’s derivation but among the more popular theories are that it comes from: a) the Middle English word cricc or cryce meaning a crutch or stick, b) the French word criquet which denoted a wooden post (though this must instantly be discarded as the very thought of cricket being derived from a French word is entirely unacceptable) and finally c) the Middle Dutch phrase for Hockey “met de (krik ket)sen” which literally means “with the stick chase”. Given cricket’s roots in the South East of England, which itself had regular trading relationships with Flanders, this is many scholars’ preferred explanation.
(derived from the Proto-Indo-European word “gwere” meaning “swallow”) is in the narrow channel between the last slip and the deeper fielders on the “off-side”.
The off-side is the space to the right-hander’s right. The on-side (also, less confusingly called the “leg-side”) is to the right-hander’s left. These terms derive from the sides of a horse-drawn carriage on which you might have found yourself in the mid-19th century. The off-side of a carriage was that furthest from the kerb. On-side simply got its name by being the opposite of off-side. Of course, you must reverse the sides for a left-handed batsman, just as you would when driving on the continent. Armed with this knowledge you may deduce that mid-off is halfway back on the off-side (though you don’t know in what line from the batsman. Tough luck. Look it up on Google).
Long-off is a long way back, and long-on similarly so but on the other side. But the one you really want to know about is…
Why is it silly? Because the fielder is positioned suicidally close to the batsman and is therefore, in the old sense of the word silly, defenceless. Silly is then used as an adjective to describe other points on the fielding compass close to the batsman such as silly mid-on or silly-point (most people’s favourite punning position when looking to criticise a radio commentator).
The most famous ball in cricket is probably the “googly”, so-called because it makes you go “google-eyed” in the old sense of discombobulated, not the modern sense of relying on Internet search engines for all your facts. Originally called a “Bosie” after its inventor Bernard Bosanquet, the father of former ITV newsreader Reginald, the googly is a ball that looks like it will break from the leg-side to the off-side for a right handed batsman (a leg-spinner) but fiendishly does the opposite. The Australians, who know a thing or two about caddish behaviour, christened it “the wrong ‘un”. This in turn led to the naming of its off-spinning cousin “the doosra” which is a Hindi and Urdu word literally translated as “the other one”. Unfortunately for the doosra, it is widely believed to be impossible to bowl without “throwing” it, which transgresses the sacred Laws of Cricket.
The most controversial term in bowling is the “Chinaman”, which is the left-arm bowler’s version of the googly. So named, it is believed, after batsman Walter Robbins was dismissed by Ellis “Puss” Achong, the first test cricketer of Chinese descent, in a match in 1933 between England and the West Indies. Robbins is said to have muttered to the umpire “fancy being done by a bloody Chinaman”. However, Wisden, the Bible of Cricket, discontinued its use in 2018 after Australian journalist Andrew Wu complained that it was racist and derogatory. Chinaman has therefore been replaced with the rather more prosaic “left-arm unorthodox” pending someone coming up with a word we can all agree on.
A word of warning – do not get drawn into Australian terminology as this is a cardinal sin in the eyes of any fan of English cricket. Of late, excitable Aussie commentators have taken to referring to a pristine cricket ball as “the new cherry”. In addition they may describe a brilliantly delivered ball as a great “nut” or “seed” or worst of all “pill”. These terms are despicable and must be avoided at all costs. As is the phrase “gun batsman” to describe a highly competent player.
Finally, should you ask a fellow spectator at the ground about the rules, expect a torrent of tutting more cacophonous than might accompany an American evangelical tourist, striding round Westminster Abbey during Evensong, loudly demanding to know “where, in The Abbey, Adam and Eve are buried”. Cricket does not have rules; it has Laws. And above all else, that is the one rule you need to know.