Outs not wickets? Linguistic leg-spin won’t make people fall in love with cricket | Daniel Harris
All sports develop idiosyncratic lexicons, word games that allow us to understand their peculiarities and particularities. But there is more to it than that: once we understand the various terms, we join a global community and eternal continuum which makes us feel spoken to and seen. Joining such fellowship is one of the great, nourishing moments of childhood, and passing it on one of the great, nourishing moments of adulthood, the real-life equivalent of “seeing it big”.
In this aspect, no sport is as arcane as cricket, its vernacular describing not just a fun pastime but a moral project. The game has long been equated with honesty and rectitude – consider the phrase “it’s just not cricket” – in which spirit its relationship to colonialism and classism cannot be ignored. The game has long been used to exemplify the civilised fair play which Britain’s ruling class obliviously ascribed to itself, so this dimension was baked into its laws like conventions in an unwritten constitution; kerfuffles over “walking” and “mankading” exist solely because the drafting permits them to, and have since evolved into sneering portrayals of incompetence – “filth” – and innovation – “proper cricket shot”.
As such, it is no great surprise to see an outcry when news broke that the brains behind the Hundred, as far as we can tell, feel that interest in cricket has declined, not just because the game has been sequestered on pay-TV while playing fields have become blocks of flats and faces are permanently “stuck on” phones, but because its terminology is too complex for the dunderheaded public to fathom. Consequently, “wickets” may become “outs”, negating at a stroke the march of technology and decades of governmental policy. What a “jaffa”!
Of course, the game evolves and its language evolves alongside it. When colonisers introduced cricket to the Caribbean, locals were allowed to bowl but not bat because expending energy and getting sweaty – “bending your back” – were deemed ignoble relative to upper-class strokemakers showing off their flourishes. For similar reasons, fielding and fitness have been taken seriously only in the modern era, the lingo now featuring terms like “relay-throw”, “catch-assist” and “boundary rider”.
Organisers should not assume its audience are ‘village’, wanting to gorge on ‘buffet bowling’ without any ‘hard yakka’
This is a good thing: life should be a “green-top” not a “shirtfront”, the “moving ball” keeping the game fresh and us young. So just as the term “chinaman” needed phasing out, the mooted change from “batsmen” to “batters” is an important one, a gender-neutral and gender-inclusive term reminding people that cricket is for everyone.
On the other hand, changing “wickets” to “outs” reeks of glib desperation – try explaining the latter without reference to the former – an “effort ball” when a “stock ball” is required. This is to the dilution of both essence and substance, the precise aspects the game should be evangelising.
Over the last two decades, cricket has been revolutionised by Twenty20, which worked not because it invented jargon but because it simplified the length of matches and left everything else alone. The new format asked new questions of players and coaches, their resounding answers deepening our understanding of the game and recasting our conception of what is possible in all forms of it. As a result, its argot has expanded organically to include new terms such as “bowling into the pitch”, “hitting 360” and “slower-ball bouncer”.
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All of which is to say that organisers of the Hundred should not assume that its audience are “village”, wanting to gorge on “buffet bowling” without putting in any “hard yakka”. Rather, they must retain their confidence in the game’s magnificence but alter the method in which this has been traditionally imposed, talking up to their audience, not down. People will fall in love with cricket not because they were bamboozled by linguistic leg-spin which duped them into thinking it is something different to what it is, but because cricket is profoundly and uniquely loveable. The most compelling thing about cricket is … cricket.