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Of chanceless innings and textbook shots: the language of cricket and what it says about the game

Wickets and dropped catches

Cricket absolutely confounds my wife; she simply can’t get to grips with it. I’ve tried my best to explain it to her but I stumble the moment terms like wicket and over get mentioned. Coming home on Sunday evenings and telling her how I’ve played is at best a comedy show and at worst an argument about semantics.

Here’s an example:

Me: I took a wicket today!

Her: Wait… hang on, what’s that again?

Me: It means I got a batsman out.

Her: Why didn’t you just say that, then?

Me: Because that’s what it’s called. When you get a batsman out it’s called a wicket.

Her: But it doesn’t make any sense.

Me: That doesn’t matter, that’s what it’s called!

Her: Well it’s stupid.

Me: Anyway. (pause) I took a wicket.

I think it’s fantastic that cricket has a term for the act of dismissing a batsman – it is, after all, a key event. Imagine football without the term goal. It’d get pretty tiresome constantly referring to a ball having gone into a net.

What makes wicket even better is that it has more than one meaning! The primary meaning was in use in the eighteenth century and refers to the three stumps, surmounted by two bails, which the batsman defends from the bowler:

1733 in Waghorn Cricket Scores (1899) 6 The wickets are to be pitched by twelve o’clock

 The stumps used to be just two, surmounted by one long bail, which gave the impression of a gate, which is what the term wicket originally meant. And then, of course, a wicket can also refer to the pitch, from which we receive the evocative expression of a sticky wicket.

Of all the terms that my wife takes issue with, one of her more curious objections is to that of “taking a catch” – her argument being that “you don’t take a catch, you catch a ball”. This usually leads to the usual conversation about the “ball” in question being a very specific ball, and one that a batsman has hit into the air (and that hasn’t subsequently bounced) – none of this is implied if you say “I caught a ball”. “Dropping” a catch I think annoys her even more: “how can you drop a catch? You either catch the ball or you don’t” – at which point I recall the “take a catch” conversation, and leave it at that.

Safety, textbooks, and agriculture?

Adjectives can tell you a lot about a game. In football you’ll often hear skilful, poor, beautiful, powerful, and weak. There are also a few adjectives which are more-or-less exclusive to football, like off-the-ball and bookable. All of these terms together give the impression of a robust game that requires a certain degree of skill.

General adjectives like skilful, powerful, and poor naturally also apply to cricket; what’s interesting is thinking about those that are more exclusive to the game. A good innings by a batsman can often be described as chanceless, which is quite telling as it speaks of an innings played with great discipline, control, and a huge amount of patience. Such are the high standards of the game, however, that chanceless doesn’t necessarily equate to perfect:

1903 Daily Chron. 27 May 5/4 A result made probable by the century of McGahey, a chanceless but hardly faultless innings.

Safe evokes similar associations. The term is so often used to describe a stroke that I think many of us who follow the game can become word-blind to it – it is a concept that is a big part of the game: to accumulate runs with as little risk as possible. At the opposite end of safe is slashed, which should describe a romantic and swashbuckling stroke, but instead is often used to describe a shot that is played without control, often resulting in a wicket. And that says everything about the game. Looking at it from the outside, safe and chanceless, for those unfamiliar with cricket, probably embody that which is most boring about the game, and it’s curious that a sport has endured into the modern age where circumspection and caution is so rewarded.

Closely related to the idea of playing safe shots is the concept of a textbook shot, and its opposite, the agricultural shot. These are probably two of my favourite descriptions of cricket strokes. Just the idea that there can be a textbook for a game amazes me, as well as the possibility that someone can execute a shot that can be described in this way – is this a game or is it a military operation?

And yet textbook shots, being executed with technical perfection, are all about style and are actually beautiful to behold. As exhilarating as a full-blooded pull off a fast bowler can be, a textbook cover drive (preferably played by Jacques Kallis, but then I am biased), displays such poise, such sublime balance and timing, that it can evoke the grace of ballet.

The complete antithesis is called an agricultural shot, and it makes total sense that a game that prizes technique and orthodoxy, should come up with a slang term for unorthodoxy. But it’s the audaciousness of it – the dismissiveness of the term – that I find hilarious, the way it implicitly criticizes the batsman for his lack of skill, or eschewing of skill. First used during the Victorian era with its rigid class structure, players called an unlearned, ignorant approach to cricket agricultural, in contrast with the more scholarly-sounding textbook.

The undeniable impression these adjectives create is that of a game where control and discipline are paramount, and where a good technique will be rewarded. That’s what the adjectives say, although if you ask my wife, her summary of the last game she watched would be “Nothing happened. It was boring.”

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The Very Short Introductions team has collaborated with the Guardian newspaper to launch a large national competition aimed at students. The ‘Very Short Film’ competition challenges students to produce one-minute videos about a subject close to their hearts. The first prize of £9000 will pay the winning student’s tuition fees for a year. Here, Jean Pierre explains the cricketing term ‘power play’:

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