It’s just not cricket!

Count Smorltalk on another sticky wicket

Just the other day on the radio they were talking about cricket, which, as you will know if you have ever lived in England, constitutes a very high proportion of total broadcast output of the BBC and is deemed a perfectly normal and acceptable thing to discuss at very considerable length on the radio. But one moment they were talking about cricket and the next they were talking about sledging. I quickly found myself sliding down a slippery slope into incomprehension. How on earth had we got from a summer sport to a winter sport without me noticing?

The answer, I discovered, was simple. This was not snow sledging but cricket sledging. No, it’s not another of those incomprehensible cricketing terms devised deliberately to make foreigners feel foreign, like “dilscoop”, “gully” or “silly mid-on”. Rather it’s a word, unfamiliar even to many Brits, which has evolved to describe the practice whereby some players insult or verbally intimidate opposing players in order to gain advantage. And although sledging is “just not cricket”, sledging is actually “just cricket” as it happens, since it is only in cricket that the term is used to describe this form of provocation.

There is some confusion about the origins of the expression, but the story I like best is that it started life back in the mid-sixties. Whenever the Australian cricketer Grahame Corling came into bat, the fielding team would start singing “When a man loves a woman” by Percy Sledge by way of an allusion to the rumour that his wife was having an affair with another team-mate and in an attempt to put him off his batting. Thus was sledging born.

Perhaps every sport has its own word for sledging, I don’t know. But outside of sport there are quite a few curious expressions that could be deployed. Having started to ponder sledging, I got to thinking about some of these other terms.

Instead of sledging your opponent, why not mock them. In my extensive research for this piece I was pleased to discover that the verb to mock may haves quite vulgar origins, in as much as it may be from Vulgar Latin “muccare”, which means to “blow the nose”. So next time you mock someone, remember that you are expelling mucus in their general direction.

You might simply take the Mickey and assume that it’s a harmless bit of mockery, but whilst you are getting rid of your own phlegm in their general direction do bear in mind that you will be taking back another bodily fluid. It seems that the Mickey you are taking is a certain Mickey Bliss, and what does Mickey Bliss rhyme with? You got it. Piss. Cockney rhyming slang strikes again. Lose some snot and get some piss. Lovely.

Why not blow them a raspberry just as they are going to strike the ball? What could be more delicious than a raspberry with your cricket? Strawberries and cream anyone? Except, oh dear, oh dear, our Cockney friends are responsible for this one too. It’s not just the one raspberry but a whole tart of them you are blowing. Raspberry tart. Rhymes with fart. How puerile. Thus, a raspberry is a farty noise made signifying derision. If you’re not partial to raspberries, just razz them. It’s shorthand for raspberry.

If you baulk at using mucus or urine or flatus in your sledging, you could set the dogs on them. Try harassing your opponent instead. If you did, you’d be hounding them. It seems that harass is related to the Old French “harer”, which meant “to set a dog on”. So harass them or hound them as you like. If you’re not a dog person, try a cat call instead. I dare say that wolf whistles would work too. Make them ironic or not, as you wish.

Surely a heckle would work. If that’s a bit strong, try a tease perhaps. If you heckle someone, you interrupt them with derisive comments or abuse, whereas if you tease them you make fun of them in a playful sort of way. Both expressions have their roots in the textile industry so why not heckle the batsman about his flannels, or tease him about his cricket whites. The meaning of heckle is to comb flax or hemp fibres for spinning, and the meaning of tease is to comb wool into strands. Heckle him about his linen trousers and tease him about his sweater if you’re worried about etymological accuracy. If you heckle the batsman you might get his hackles up. You know, the hairs on the back of his neck. When “up” they look like a heckling comb, and thus are called hackles.

Of course to a real Englishman cricket is not a matter of life and death. IT’S MUCH MORE IMPORTANT THAN THAT! Just how important cricket is in English culture is revealed by the cricketing expressions, which are used to describe everyday life.

If someone has lived a long and fulfilling life, they have “had a good innings”.

If you are doing your fair share of the work, you are “keeping your end up”.

If you are at a disadvantage, you are “on the back foot”.

If you are lost for an answer, you are “stumped”.

If you give a noncommittal answer to a question, you “play with a straight bat”.

If you are in a tricky situation, you are “on a sticky wicket”.

If you ask catch someone unawares, you “bowl them a googly”.

And if you think something is unfair, you say “It’s just not cricket”.

As I write this England has been busy losing the 2nd Test to Australia by 405 runs. Now that really isn’t cricket. Anyone for tennis?


Image credits: Nathan Rupert / Flickr


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Count Smorltalk

is an English booth interpreter. He wishes to remain anonymous.

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