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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.