In decoding the language of cricket, a look into the game's culture, gendered outlook and current lingual challenges


Cricket has generated much purple prose. Writings on the game could fill more than a fair-sized bookshop. And then there is cricket broadcasting wherein commentators hold forth on the game. The language of cricket owes much to these two well-established forms of cricket expression. But this article isn’t about that sort of cricket expression. It is about cricket’s other more mundane connections with language – the ‘sundries’– the Aussie word for cricket ‘extras’.

The nature and number of extras on a cricket scorecard could provide a clue to the bowling, the wicket-keeping and indirectly, even the captaincy. Similarly, the language of cricket beyond descriptions of the game could provide a glimpse into cricket’s social aspects, its gendered worldview and its zeitgeist.

‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Players’

The conduct of organised cricket in the Victorian era when the game gained popularity is best understood through two words – ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Players’.

William Clarke's All-England Eleven, established in 1846. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Gentlemen’ were amateurs, usually well-heeled folks from the landed gentry and besides being fine sportspeople were also devoted to the finer aspects of cricket—its spirit, rules of fair play…or so went the theory. The ‘Esq’ (Esquire, a title of respect accorded to men of higher social rank, particularly members of the landed gentry above the rank of gentleman and below the rank of knight) at the end of their names indicated their social position. The ‘Players’ were professionals, from more ‘common’ stock and cared little for the niceties of cricket spirit or so the theory went. They were not even accorded the privilege of their full name and their surnames were deemed enough for a scorecard.

Also, ‘Gentlemen’ were never addressed by their nicknames (or even first names) by teammates who hailed from players’ stock. Larwood, for instance, addressed his captain, Douglas Jardine, as Mr Jardine. This attitude of ‘othering’ carried well into the mid-twentieth century for it was not until the 1950s that a ‘Player’ was allowed to captain England (Len Hutton in 1952).

This sort of deferential attitude was also cultivated in the subcontinent where being accorded ‘respect’ was a must. Everywhere senior cricketers and officials demanded that they be put up on a pedestal. In Pakistan, it was reported that its first Test captain, Abdul Hafeez Kardar (who also played three Tests for India before 1947) resented being addressed as ‘Hafeez’ by his team-mate, the flamboyant Faiz Mahmood, arguably the better cricketer and bigger star. He let it be known that he preferred Mr Kardar or Kardar Sahib. Mahmood did not oblige.

As far as India was concerned, nothing illustrates this hunger for respect more than what transpired on India’s tour of England in 1932, when the nation played its first–ever Test match. For that tour, the Maharaja of Patiala was originally appointed captain. Prince Gyanashayamsinhji was appointed vice-captain and the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram was given the unique distinction of being ‘deputy vice-captain’. In the event, none of these princely personages actually took the field for the first Test and a ‘commoner’, CK Nayudu captained the team. But still as positions go, ‘deputy vice-captain’ is as novel as things can get in this eternal rat-race for power, position and ‘respect’.

So ingrained and long-lasting was this attitude that even a teenage Tendulkar, who arguably came of age in more democratic times once identified ‘Mr Gavaskar’ and ‘Mr Richards’ as his role-models in a press interview.

But this attitude of deference seems to have bypassed the West Indians. The feared West Indian pace quartet of the 1970s and 80s upped their game in response to England captain Tony Greig threat – of making them ‘grovel’ in the 1976 series. Now Greig was of South African origin and ‘grovel’ had more than a touch of the old ‘white man’ attitude. During that series, retribution came like a ‘tracer bullet’ (recognise this?) and decimated the Englishmen.

The ‘Imperial’ Manner

Post World War II, even as cricket attempted to shed its Victorian baggage of class-distinctions, a different attitude persisted in world cricket. The era from then on until the early ’90s can be best understood by considering the ramifications of the word ‘Imperial’. Today, international cricket is administered by the ICC (now known as the International Cricket Council) which until 1965 was the ‘Imperial’ Cricket Conference dominated by England and Australia who had a veto power that allowed them to dominate decision-making. One instance of imperialism in cricket was when in 1974, in order to handicap India’s famed spin quartet, the English team used its clout to drive through a rule that resulted in fielding restrictions that reduced the efficacy of the spinners. A deferential Indian board with its colonial hangover was all too happy to oblige. So much for the spirit of fair play. The veto was done away with in 1989 and soon, India came to dominate world cricket administration on the strength of its financial muscle and demographic dividend.

 Gentlemen XI for the fixture vs Players at Lord's Cricket Ground, London, 1899. Source: Wikimedia Commons

English to Indian to English

This movement of power away from the white world took place in other interesting ways as well. Given cricket’s origins as an English game played largely in the former colonies of the British Empire, the language of cricket was by default English. But Sujit Mukherjee writes in his essay, Cricket in the Mother Tongue (1969) of how Marathi had developed a cricket vocabulary as had Bengali and Hindi. In Mihir Bose’s History of Indian Cricket, he writes of how his aunts began to listen to cricket broadcasts in the late ‘60s largely on account of the mellifluous Bangla commentary on offer on AIR. In 2003, it was reported that a Sanskrit scholar from Vadodara had spent seven years developing a Sanskrit vocabulary for cricket – pashya pashya chowka was ‘another glorious shot for four’ and a batsman was ‘bat-dhar’.

Still, despite these attempts at linguistic democracy, cricket as a route to learning English has still not completely disappeared. While listening to Test Match Special on the BBC to improve one’s English is no longer de riguer, a 2000 news report talks of a Kolkata schoolteacher who had invented a game called Reading Cricket wherein students read passages, scored runs by reading smoothly and boundaries by pronouncing foreign words correctly. The sun has set on the Empire, but not yet on its lingo.

Another colonial hangover is the fascination with MCC (originally, Marylebone Cricket Club), perhaps the most popular cricket abbreviation. Many claimants to the hallowed short-form existed—Madras Cricket Club, ML Jaisimha’s Marredpally Cricket Club and Swami’s Malgudi Cricket Club in Swami and Friends were a few of them.

‘Gully’, ‘Tape Ball’ and ‘Jugaad’

Mihir Bose in A Maidan View gives us a lyrical rendition of cricket in the narrow streets of south Mumbai in the late ‘50s. Mukul Kesavan in Men in White does so likewise though he writes of the late ‘60s and he was a Delhi boy who had access to a small park in front of his home. The spirit that informs both writings is similar. The popularity of cricket in the subcontinent and the fact that most urban spaces in this part of the world were cramped meant cricket was played in a variety of locations with rules suitably modified to suit the space. And it is in this context that the term ‘gully cricket’ was coined. Many-a-player has sung its praises and how it influenced his shot-making or bowling (the physical aspect) as well as his attitude to the game (the mental aspect). Tape-ball cricket, perhaps the most interesting of gully cricket’s variations, is a Pakistani version of the game played with a tennis ball covered with electrical tape. Gully cricket can be understood better if one sees it as an instance of ‘jugaad’, that uniquely subcontinental approach to problem-solving.

The Final Frontier?

With women’s cricket now firmly entrenched in the calendar and our minds and hearts, cricket’s greatest linguistic challenge has now come to the fore. The terms ‘batsman’ and ‘man of the match/series’ are now of a piece with terms like chairman, businessman and so on – gendered oddities that need a quick fix. ‘Batter’ from baseball might just have to be pressed into active service even as fuddy-duddies shake their heads in annoyance. ‘Player’ might have to return as well in a breezy new neutral avatar and not its Victorian one.

And that will not be all – the challenge of renaming ‘Third Man’ looms ahead – the final frontier?


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