My top ten favorite cricket terms

There are few people reading this who don’t enjoy the cadence, poetry and beauty of cricket’s unique language. Yeah, some terms are overused and have become meaningless cliches, but in the right hands the commentary and phrases become part of the game’s flow, and help define its intricacies, amplifying the specifics that make each match special.

13 years and change after starting to follow the game, I am still learning the ins and outs of cricket terms. I still hear new ones now and again that I have to look up, an activity I don’t not enjoy. The game is in so many ways like learning a foreign language, from the scoreboards to the way people talk about it, and there is always joy in looking up and realizing you are following along with something that a year ago made little to no sense. I am of the belief that it’s okay for leisure activities to require something of their users, it’s okay for books, sports, movies to be challenging. That’s how it should be. Sure, sometimes it’s nice to turn one’s brain off and take in, say, an IPL match, but most of the time the joy in leisure time comes from the challenge, and the overcoming of that challenge. I would take Terrence Malick over Christopher Nolan any ol’ day of the week.

And so in that spirt, and for a little bit of fun, here are my top 10 favorite cricket terms, ranked.

10. Not out

I work in tech, but not in a tech department. Rather I am embedded with the Marketing team. I am in a lot of meetings where they are discussing what to all something. New podcasts, new newsletter, new programs. etc. My contribution is always the same: “What is it? Okay, call it that.” I abhor names for things that make zero sense to a user. Cricket, despite lots of evidence to the contrary, is quite good at calling something what it is. This is the first of a few of these on this list. “Is he out?” No. “Then what is he?” Not out. I think this simple use of language is where cricket really shines. I am a fan of economy, and cricket does not disappoint in this particular case.

9. Corridor of uncertainty

I like this one as it is equal parts ominous and cheesy. It’s like something out of a Final Fantasy video game. “We must pass through the Corridor of Uncertainty before we are able to reach the Calm Lands for the Final Summoning.” It’s also one that can be a little hard to explain to a non-Cricket person, which is fun.

8. Duck

Normally I am not a big fan of terms that feel a little shaming, but this one is too good. “Oh, you got no runs? You’re a duck, you duck.” Of course, the origins are similar to “goose-egg” in American English, as zeroes tend to look like water fowl eggs (apparently) but I loved how it was shortened and became common place. “Out for a duck,” is just a perfect sentence.

7. Offer the light

This one has become obsolete, at least at the levels I watch. Nowadays the umpires just call bad light and that’s that, instead of offering it to the batsmen. But I love the poetry of this. “Offer the light.” It flows like other, non-cricket phrases like “cellar door” do. There is also a mystical, magical realism quality to it. I can easily picture a character in 100 Years of Solitude saying something like “May I offer the light?”

6. Mankad

I avoided all the cricket terms that to Americans would sound like nonsense baby talk. Googly, doosra, etc. Mankad, to the initiated, sounds like one of those terms, but those in the know, know better. Just a simple word, describing something so terribly fraught with controversy. One mention of it sends Twitter into hysterics. All for a word that to the outsider sounds like nothing at all. Two syllables that don’t belong together. There’s something about that I like. 2 billion people on earth are in on the joke. The rest aren’t.

5. Belter

There is an almost an onomatopoeia quality to this word, which is why I chose it. If a track is ripe for good batting, then it’s a belter, which sounds exactly like what the batsmen might be about to do. Plus it’s fun to say. Belter. Belter, belter, belter.

4. Sticky wicket

I chose this one because it was something my mother used to say when I was growing up. For some reason it is the rare cricket term that made it into the American lexicon. “That’s a sticky wicket,” mom would say over a particularly troubling conundrum, like my math homework or which social obligation I should turn down if i was double booked. When I started following the game in 2007 this was the phrase that stuck out, because I had heard it before. I have always wondered why, of all the words used in cricket’s language, this one made it over here to America. And not just to the big coastal elite cities, but to my mother, who grew up in Appalachia, just across the Ohio river from the West Virginian coal mines. Language is funny, in how it travels. Decades before the internet, phrases made it across oceans, across time, across whole continents. There is something I find comforting about that.

Also she might have learned it from watching Upstairs, Downstairs.

3. Cow corner

This one is not really an odds on favorite, language wise, but I included it in this list because it’s a new phrase for me. For some reason, maybe because it has fallen out of use, or maybe because I wasn’t paying attention, it failed to hit my radar until just this past year or so. Another reminder that no matter how well versed we are in cricket’s language, there is always more learning to do. The game is over 150 years old and is played on every continent on earth. So not only is there history to learn, but that history is also always changing, always evolving, asking us to keep up, but we never can.

The most recent addition to my cricketing vocabulary was ‘the double teapot.’ Despite its newborn stature, I chose not to include it here, though I am doubting myself now, because upon re-reading its definition I realized that I really quite like it. It is very evocative, it paints a solid picture, one which we can all visualize in our heads quite easily, that of the annoyed cricketer, the frustrated cricketer, watching the game crumble around him. Plus, I like how it is reserved for the grumpy fast bowler, one of cricket’s best personalities. But I am not going to rewrite the list, so let’s give it honorable mention and move on.

2. Shepherd the strike

In a discussion about Radiohead a while back, someone mentioned that Kid A was their favorite Radiohead record. I said that that simply can’t be true, in a world here OK Computer exists. Someone replied that would be the case only in a world where Radiohead didn’t exist.

Shepherd the strike is my favorite by a country mile, if we live in a world where number one does not exist.

The phrase describes one of my favorite parts of the game, when a middle or top order batsman is doing his gosh darn best to pull his team over the line, and all he has left to work with at the other end is an off spinner who would rather be anywhere else on earth. Of course, most of the time, it doesn’t work out, but when it does it’s just brilliant. The recent partnership of Stokes and Leach is the prime example of late. But the term also almost perfectly describes what that top or middle order batsman is doing: shepherding. Managing, guiding, watching, keeping things ticking over until everyone is home and safe and dry. It’s also a reminder of cricket’s pastoral past, just like Cow Corner and others are.

Shepherds have been around for thousands of years. We hear the word and we not only picture an idealized vision of a shepherd — high on a green hill in the sun — but we also understand — again, ideally — what a shepherd does, what they do. And the word is noun and verb simultaneously. I am a shepherd, I shepherd.

Shepherd the strike, get us home, get us dry. The wolves are near.

1. Nightwatchman

This is the word that started it all. I first heard it in I am guessing 2008 or so. Maybe a little earlier. And I like to think that it solidified my love for the game, though that probably isn’t entirely true, but it’s a part of my cricket origin story I have chosen to hang onto, even if it is folklore. When I heard it mentioned it sounded so fantastical, it gave Test cricket this mystical, almost sinister atmosphere. Night is falling fast, we are troubled, the enemy is near, go set a watchman. Like earlier words in this list, it is poetic simply in how its letters and syllables and sounds play off each other, and it is — again, like others on this list — so evocative. We hear nightwatchman, we picture nightwatchman: a lone figure with a lantern and a rifle, a low fire behind him, a camp in the distance.

As you may have noticed over the years, I rather like it when cricket takes itself too seriously. And nightwatchman feels like another instance of that. The game is darkness and danger. It’s also poetry and language and light. And a time gone by. And a metaphor for all of the above and everything else. And nightwatchman in my opinion sums up all what cricket is in one single word.

It also, of course, evokes the changing nature of the game. Nightwatchmen are no longer in vogue. Like so many other things not just in cricket but in life, they are seen as obsolete, a part of the game no longer needed, a hold over from a time long since passed. The world has moved on, and cricket has moved on, and it no longer needs nightwatchmen. But we still talk about them. They are still used, now and again. Cricket tries mightily to separate itself from its past, but no matter how hard it tries, it can’t get away completely. And while some might see both the attempt and the failing at escaping its history as problematic, I see it as indicative of cricket’s uncanny ability to keep one foot firmly in the past, while still managing to move forward in fits and starts. Once the watchman is set, he doesn’t rest, even as the camp stirs behind him.

I hear the word, and all of that floods in, and that is why I love it.

Walk me out into the rain and snow

The Minnesota Twins lost on Wednesday to the Houston Astros, ending their post-season almost before it even began.

The loss had me feeling deflated, disappointed, disheartened. Far more so than in previous years (we have gotten pretty used to the Twins losing in the playings around here), partly because it really seemed that they were set up for a run deep in October, but also mostly because 2020 is different.

Lots of us are staring down a long, hard, lonely, desolate winter. But the Twins were going to be a bright spot. Something fun to distract us, something fun to talk about, just something to make us feel good about anything. But it was stripped of us and yesterday afternoon when I turned off the game after the final out was recorded I felt an almost unbearable sense of melancholy. From hope to absolute nothingness in just 24 hours. And I thought of my poor old mother, a diehard Twins fan, who has so little right now already. The loss felt real. I don’t mean the Twins loss, but the loss of hope, even if that hope took the form of 24 guys who probably couldn’t find Minnesota on a map five years ago.

That’s the power of sports, of course. The power to make us believe that we are a part of something greater than ourselves, and while nothing is working out for us, maybe this will work out, will bring us some little sparks of joy, even if we well know that that joy is fleeting. Even if the Twins would had won everything, we still would have turned the tv off after the final out, and faced down a long winter. But it would have been a fun month, and there were would have been some great memories to savor.

Alas, not this year. Maybe next.

Yesterday after the loss I did that one thing that all of us do when we ache in ways we can’t control, I went outside. I am not sure why we all do this. Or why we think it will make us feel better. But we all do it. I went out onto the porch and sighed and stared off into the distance, the brown and yellow leaves and the low sun and the early rush hour traffic.

I thought about other Twins’ playoff exits, of course, because that’s what I always do this time of year. Baseball is funny in that way: it’s always fall when the season ends. Even this year, this year that was so different in so many ways. And I thought about how my relationship with those memories has changed over the years. In 2003 — and I know I have written about this far too many times and I apologize — the Twins lost to the Yankees on a Sunday afternoon to end their season. It was a real drubbing, the game wasn’t in doubt after the fourth or fifth inning. Earlier that fall — maybe even just a month earlier — my wife and I had closed on our first home. We turned the game off midway through and took a walk through our new neighborhood to the lake four blocks away. It was warm, but fall was coming. It was melancholy and sad and sweet and new. My memories of that walk are of course now tainted by time, loss, distance. I like to think I know what I was feeling that afternoon. But I was also very young, and maybe even a little tipsy. I really don’t know. But over the years it has solidified into my memory, a fixed point in time, in a time, of a time: when I was a newlywed and the world was opening up and my marriage was, for a brief moment or two, a happy one.

Later the hard years would come. And after that the really hard years. That walk took place in 2003, a month after we had sat and drank beers while sitting on the washer and dryer in our new house in the basement, after a dinner of fast food on the dining room floor because we didn’t have any furniture. It was my wife’s first house ever. She had grown up in apartments above pharmacies in small towns. The happiness was real. I might have idealized it before my divorce, just as I do now, after it, but I don’t think that matters. I remember being happy, and so I was happy.

We signed our divorce papers 15 years later on a gray June day in a government building. We both said goodbye to our home separately on a gray April day two years later. And as I was biking away for the last time, the memories were so thick I had to brush them away from my face. And I remembered the last time I had biked away, when I was leaving, when it was over, when she was begging me to stay even though she knew I was already gone, and I looked back and I saw our old dog in the front window, staring at me as I rode off down the road. And that was that.

I think about the years she spent in that house alone after I left but before we sold it. With our dog and our things. Alone. The thought sometimes overwhelms me with sadness. A sadness that used to steal entire days, but now always makes off with just an hour or two before it drifts away. Then our old dog died and she was in the home alone surrounded by all that was lost, and cannot be brought back.

The memories change. They drift in the wind and come back to us different. But they are still memories, so they are still real, cutting through our lives. The memories we have chosen to hold onto are the ones that changed us forever. They are the ones that we carry along, they are the salt into the wounds that just won’t heal. I will never forget that walk on that day the Twins lost now 17 years ago, and therefore I will never forget the pain that followed.

This is what I thought about on Wednesday. Standing on the porch. The apartment silent after the noise of the game.

And I am not alone. I know this. I might feel things deeper than some, but I know I was not the only one last week who thought of dead dogs, dead brothers, old moms, as the last strike was called in the bottom the ninth. We mourn collectively not merely a team and a dream of a championship, but also times gone by, and we wonder where we will be when we are here again. That’s the power of sports. And the power of baseball in particular. Thanks to the harshness of its loss: leaving you empty, naked, facing a long winter.

Cricket is the same, of course. In England the last gasps of summer see also the last gasps of cricket until the cold rains come. I think back to just a few weeks ago as Somerset fell just short. This is an old club, nearly 150 years old. And they have their fan base just as any other team does. And Somerset cricket is surely hardcoded into some DNAs, a generational support. They also have never won a County Championship. The years keep slipping by. Fans grow old. Fans die. And then they were so close, and then it was gone, and then came winter.

Not every Somerset fan of course walked outside and tripped and fell down a chasm of memory and time, but many did, surely. When our teams lose and the leaves turn brown, it’s an almost perfect recipe for memory, melancholy, and the oppressive but very real thought that it is all just passing us by, that all that existed before is gone, and all that exists ahead is more loss.

For Cricinfo, Paul Edwards wrote a few days ago that “(m)any people who love cricket hope to see something in the season’s final match that they can take with them into winter.” He writes of perfect cover drives, flashes of brilliance, a final afternoon in the sun. Most autumns, I would agree with him: sometimes there is just enough cricket, enough baseball, to sustain us through the winter. Sometimes there isn’t.

We all — every single one of us — are processing loss, all the time. It is the very nature of being human. But then on days like this past Wednesday, we are reminded once more that we are doing so. Processing, but also losing. Losing time, losing memory, losing what’s left. Years collapse into sand. Strike three is called. Winter arrives. With nothing to sustain us. A memory is sparked, of an afternoon when you were young and the sun was out and the shadows long, and the trees green and brown and tired, and you wonder where that’s all gone, before you remember that it never left. It’s always been there. It’s a part of you. It’s your structure. It’s what you build your days around. Days that form a house that now stands empty.

In spring hope will return. And together, god willing, we will do it all again, as the memories of loss and sadness and autumn afternoons disappear for a time, maybe, but only to deepen their imprints, reinforce their infrastructure, before reminding us once again — thanks to a called strike in an empty stadium on a September day — that they are with us forever. That they are us. That we are them. We have built a house for them inside, and we cannot leave. And all that we can hope is that a late innings rally keeps those wolves at the door a day or two longer. But no matter what sooner or later they will smash in the door, rip into our frail skin, and remind us again the strength of their jaws.

This is the power of sport. To pick us up and place us down somewhere else. There are days when I think of it as a gift. And there are days when I do not. But it brings memories like cannon fire, because those losses are always in the fall, when all we know is loss and decay, when we cannot see the green that will come, cannot even imagine it. We grieve collectively, always, all the time. And then we move on. We look out the window, and wait for spring.