The lovely language of cricket

by Andrew Pelechaty

Cricket is a funny game: so steeped in tradition, yet constantly evolving.

Test cricket dominated for its first century, following the first ‘test match’ in 1877, then Kerry Packer helped to make one-day cricket sexy in the late 1970s with World Series Cricket, including day/night games, coloured uniforms and a guaranteed result in six hours. That game evolved as typical scores climbed from 200–250 to 300–400, and Shane Warne showed that spinners could be used as both defensive and attacking weapons.

Thirty years later, Twenty20 (T20) arrived: it was seen as a hit-and-giggle novelty, but gradually became a legitimate form of the game, with many cricketers (including former Test players) becoming T20 freelancers and travelling the world . Ten10 cricket has also taken off in some parts of the world.

There’s also Last Man Stands, a modified version of T20 and one of the biggest amateur formats, and indoor cricket, which can be played socially or professionally.

Despite all this flexibility, The Hundred, the new competition, has been a bridge too far for many fans. By trying to appeal to non-cricket fans, it has committed a metaphorical crime by trying to ‘Americanise’ the game. They made it worse by toying with the lovely language of cricket.

Their decision to refer to wickets as outs met a swift backlash from armchair fans to former players1. Fortunately, the people behind The Hundred got the message and reverted to wickets, which ensures consistency between formats.

They slipped in another change, with match hero becoming the new term for the player of the match. I’m sure most cricket fans are fine with match hero, especially as it is gender-neutral since The Hundred features men’s and women’s teams.

So, why the anger over changing wickets to appeal to new fans and simplify cricket’s at-times-confusing language?

Yes, cricket jargon can be dense and confusing — wickets, stumps and pitch all have multiple meanings — but that’s the appeal of it.

The fielding terms are mind-boggling for newcomers but make more sense when you know the difference between the off-side (the left-hand side of the batter) and the leg-side (the right-hand side of the batter), and the subtle differences between a fielder being square or fine.

Cricket’s language has evolved with the more progressive times: batsman is gradually being replaced by batter as the women’s game becomes more popular. And chinaman, the old term for a left-arm wrist spinner, is almost obsolete. Though maiden over, the traditional term for an over with no runs scored, is still around.

Cricket linguistics can be an ego trip too: there’s a difference between a fast-medium bowler and a medium-fast bowler, and a spinner (who tries to spin the ball) and a slow bowler (who just lobs it up and uses slower flight), or a dart bowler (a spinner who bowls flat and into the pitch — a popular tactic with spinners in T20). The term tailender (a batter or group of batters — usually bowlers — who are either limited or incompetent with the bat) has subsets like rabbit, bunny or ferret, depending how bad they are.

Bowlers now have their own piece of rhyming slang, with a five-wicket haul, long referred to as a five-for, with Pfeiffer, named after the famous actor Michelle Pfeiffer.

Indoor cricket has terms like jackpot ball (the first or last ball, which is worth double the runs — both positive and negative — if a wicket falls), skins (where the higher of the two batting partnerships across both innings wins the skin) and third ball (if no runs or extras are scored off two consecutive balls, the batters must score off the third ball or risking losing a wicket and losing runs).

The cricket-comedy team The Grade Cricketer has taken cricket language to strange new levels. Through their books and podcast, they’ve ‘cricket-ised’ terms like salad, alpha/beta, champ, rig/rig-based selection, chop king and rare unit.

So you might find yourself on a sticky wicket if you toy with the rich history of cricket linguistics.

Andrew Pelechaty is an EdVic member.

1Newman, Paul. 2021. ‘Cricket’s controversial format set wickets outs.’ Daily Mail