Playing with a straight bat: the language of cricket
With its long history and central place in English sporting culture, it is hardly surprising that cricketing idioms have been widely adopted into colloquial speech. The traditional association of cricket with fair play and good sportsmanship has given rise to expressions such as play with a straight bat, meaning to behave honestly and decently, and it’s just not cricket, to refer to any behaviour that flouts common standards of decency and fairness.
Having a good innings
The origins of other commonly-used cricketing idioms are less widely recognized. Someone who has lived to a ripe old age is frequently said to have enjoyed a good innings, a phrase which compares long life to a successful period spent batting in a cricket match. To do something off your own bat, or on your own initiative, can also be traced to the cricket pitch. Since this is often mistakenly corrupted to off your own back, the phrase’s cricketing connections are evidently not widely known.
In cricket a ball is bowled, a word which recalls the original practice of rolling the ball along the ground, as with carpet bowls. This form of underarm bowling was replaced by the technique of round-arm or round-hand delivery; this subsequently developed into the over-hand or over-arm style of bowling used today. The rich variety of bowling styles has produced a collection of exotic terms. The gentlest deliveries are the full-toss (which travels to the batsman without bouncing), donkey drop (describing its high, looping arc), grubber (which travels along the ground, like a grub), and daisy-cutter (another term for a ball that skims the ground, beheading daisies along the way). Considerably more taxing for the batsman are the flipper, slider, googly, chinaman, yorker, and doosra. The origins of these terms are a testimony to the game’s global popularity, especially in Britain and its former colonies; yorker is named after the city of York, doosra is derived from the Hindi word dūsrā ‘second, other’ (coined by Pakistani wicketkeeper Moin Khan when he encouraged bowler Saqlain Mushtaq to ‘bowl the other one’), while chinaman is named after Ellis Achong, a West-Indian bowler of Chinese descent.
Batting terms are more plainly descriptive, e.g. cut, cover drive, sweep, hook, although less regulation shots tend to attract more unusual names, such as the cow-shot (in which the ball is pulled towards cow-corner), and the agricultural shot (using a scything motion which uproots a generous quantity of turf). Hitting the ball over the boundary earns the batsman four runs; if the ball crosses the boundary without bouncing six runs are awarded. This is the origin of the expression hit for six, describing a feeling of overwhelming surprise. A batsman who fails to score is said to have received a duck, an abbreviation of duck’s egg. This is a reference to the resemblance of the number 0 to a duck’s egg; the same link has been proposed for the use of love to refer to a score of zero in tennis. According to this theory love is a corruption of the French word for egg, l’oeuf; more likely is a connection with the phrase playing for love, rather than for money. Failure to score any runs in a period of six balls, known as an over, is termed a maiden, drawing on an archaic use of the word to mean ‘virgin’ (as in maidenhood).
There are many ways for a batsman to be dismissed, out, or lose his wicket: caught, bowled, leg-before-wicket, hit-wicket, run-out, and stumped – the last of these is now widely used to describe facing any impasse, or problem, for which no solution presents itself. Another cricketing term referring to a tricky situation is sticky wicket, used of a wet pitch which has not fully dried and consequently prone to unpredictable bounces. The end of the game is marked by the drawing of stumps, indicating close of play, another cricketing idiom that has been drawn into general use, especially to refer to the end of the working day.