The Etymology of Cricket

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Phillip Hill of looks at the language of origins of all things cricket.

In my other life I am a dentist. Patients often come into my surgery wanting some information, rather than having something that they know will need some treatment. Their son, wife or friend may be seeing a dental specialist or another dentist and they have a few questions about what is going on. They ask a simple question and expect a simple answer.

This article is titled “I don’t know the difference between ROM and RAm” I don’t know the difference between a joist and a bearer either. The point is that all occupations have their own jargon or language. Most people who do not have a medically based tertiary degree won’t know the difference between inflammation and infection. Those of you, who do know the difference between inflammation and infection, unless you are a dentist or dental technician, will not know what the words “mesial” or “distal” mean.

It is often very difficult to know what question the patient is asking. Once you have figured that out, to phrase your answer, so the patient will understand the salient points in your answer requires you to know, what your patient knows. Have you ever heard of the term “ferrule”?  It is an important engineering term in dentistry and I use it all the time. I have a very simple way of explaining it, which I won’t bore you with here, but have you ever thought about cricket terminology? How would you explain, to a non- cricket person, what a “chinaman” means? Where did all the wonderful terms we use in cricket come from?

Let’s start with “cricket” This is a controversial topic and the answer is now lost in the mists of time. From Old French, there is the word “criquet.” From Dutch or Flemish we have “cricke”. This word means stick. The French word “croquet” comes from the Dutch word “crick stool”. This is a low stool you kneel on to pray in church. The early cricket wicket was a long low one. I like the possibility that cricket arose out of a church. Let’s face it. Cricket is a religion. I am sure you can think of some analogies. Priests often wear white. We have a complex theology. We have the high priests (the MCC Law’s Committee). We condemn people (give them out) but they can be redeemed (think referral system).

I would not like the word cricket to come from the French. The European agricultural subsidies (largely a French sponsored thing) have kept Australian farmers poor for 50 years. A lot of Aussies died for France and now they spit in out face. I don’t buy French wines but I don’t mind if other people bring one. I haven’t paid for it and, if it is awful, I can bag the French again. If it is OK, I’ve had a good drop. The way I play it, I cannot lose.

What about the word “wicket”? Probably from wicket gates, since the word “wicket” means a small gate. Interestingly (of course, all things cricket are of interest) the stumps were probably a later addition. Initially the batsman defended a hole that the ball would be aimed at. The stumps evolved later to make the hole more obvious. This sounds a bit like golf. If you reckon I hate the French don’t start me on golf. I plan to declare war on golf one day. For a start all golf balls will be made bigger than the holes that they have to get into. Everyone at my cricket club who played golf and cricket had been divorced at least once. They don’t mix. Golf is an awful sport and a waste of a good walk

What about the length of the pitch: 22 yards or 20.1 OOPS nearly let one of those French metriccy things into the One Hand One Bounce site. Originally the pitch was 23 yards long but it became 22 yards or one chain. Do you remember rods, poles and perches? A rod is 5 and a half feet long.

My family back in the 1890’s was involved in the sheep trade. They would buy sheep in Queensland and drove them, over several months, down to Victoria, along the sheep routes; “the long paddock”. The sheep routes were “three-chain-roads”. Different laws governed them, as travelling stock had right of way. I wonder if this is still so today? They are easy to identify when you are travelling around country Victoria. Banjo Paterson wrote a few poems about Saltbush Bill whom was a drover with travelling sheep. These were always my favorites as Dad would read one of the Saltbush poems and then relate some droving stories his father and uncles had told him. Look them up. They are much better yarns than that ponderous ‘Man from the Snowy River’. The point of all this is that 22 yards was a common measurement and so was used for a cricket pitch.

I’ll give you one more: the Meriller shot where you flick the ball over the wicket keeper’s head. Douglas Meriller was the first person to play this shot. Some people call it the Dillscoop as Dilshan plays quite a bit. The Sri Lankans reckon it should be called the Starfish, as a starfish does not have a brain. I love the look on the bowler’s face when this shot comes off. If you hit a six with the Meriller I would give you eight rather than six. This shot is a cracker and needs to be encouraged. I like that analogy. It is a cracker, a penny-bunger.

Now what terms have died out? The first one is “bumpers”. Most people say bouncers but not me. Gideon Haigh is about the only other bloke who uses “bumpers”. This alone is a reason to buy his books. Have you heard about the draw shot? It is basically a glance where the ball goes between the legs usually much squarer than the glance today. The advent of pads saw the end of the draw shot as the pads got in the way. Apparently Victor Trumper was an exponent of the draw shot. The phrase and shot exist no more.

On a different tangent did you know that Gideon calls his cat Trumper? Makes it hard to kick your cat when you name it after Australia’s most loved cricketer.

One term, which has died out, is batsman. It has been nearly completely replaced by “batter”, which is an American phrase. Short, vulgar and grammatically incorrect. Ditto “power play”. These could only have come from the US of A.  Neville Cardus once said that the English have given two great gifts to the world: the English language and the game of cricket. They go hand in hand. Where you find one, you find the other and this is the real reason the Yanks don’t play cricket. Many people who love Test cricket think that all one-day stuff is an abomination but I think the Americanization of cricket is far more distasteful. Look at the advertising, ground announcements and activities on the grounds during the lunch break. Get rid of them. What’s wrong with listening to your own thoughts at the intervals?  What about some old fashioned silence?

Protect cricket from bouncers, batters and foot races during lunch.  The Government spends money protecting aboriginal languages.  It’s up to us to keep cricket a game apart.  Now don’t get the wrong idea.  I am not one of those tiresome, reflex anti-Americans.  I support our alliance with the States and acknowledge the wonderful battle they fought against socialism and now totalitarian in Islamic guise but we don’t have to copy everything they do.

The word “doosera” comes from a Hindi word meaning second or other.  A doosera may be a delivery that can only be delivered illegally but I don’t care.  It’s given us another term that the Americans won’t understand and helps keep cricket a game apart and I think that matters.

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  1. Raja says

    Nice article, agree with you on most stuff apart from the last bit, just because no one can bowl a doosra legally these days does not make the delivery itself illegal.

    saqlain mushtaq bowled it for nearly 7 or 8 years in international cricket and took nearly 500 international wicket without ever being called or reported by anyone, this was before the changes to the rules that allowed spinners to bend their arm more.

    however i must admit that currently no bowler is bowling it legally (within the limits of the rules when saqi played).

    just felt the need to defend saqlain because i feel modern day bowlers are ruining his legacy.

    p.s. i also hate power play, fielding restrictions is good enough.

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