Cricket 101: What on earth are they talking about?

Can you tell a fine leg from a silly mid-off? Maybe BC Pires can help. Or maybe not

A triumphant Curtly Ambrose holds the wickets aloft after a winning match. Photograph courtesy  Trinidad ExpressClive Lloyd. Photograph courtesy Trinidad ExpressIllustration by Wendy NananIllustration by Wendy NananIllustration by Wendy Nanan

In most team sports, the field positions sound like what they are. In soccer, you have defending, mid-field and attacking players called backs, links and forwards. (Even their flashy appellations, such as strikers, wings and sweepers, sound a lot like what they do.) American football features tackles, running backs and wide receivers. Baseball has four bases (three of them called “one”, “two” and “three”), an infield and an outfield, basemen, a batter, a catcher and a pitcher, and everyone and everything else is either in the outfield or out of bounds. In rugby, you can guess a player’s function from the name of his position. A tackle tackles; a prop props; even the hooker hooks the ball.

If cricket followed this eminently sensible example, you would find one player pointing backwards, another just pointing, and several with square legs. Without someone to explain it to you, could you ever figure out what a “backward short leg” is supposed to do? It sounds as if the poor man is nearly as handicapped as someone trying to follow the radio commentary on a Test Match for the first time.

Indeed, cricket’s field placings are so esoteric, one might be forgiven for thinking English gentlemen invented them for the same reason they mispronounce the River Thames and Cambridge’s Magdalene College: just one more trick to separate the upper crust from the rest of the loaf.

For those of us who never went to Eton then (but more out of affectionate humour than egalitarianism), here is an explanation of cricket’s basic field positions. Let us begin with an easy one, so we don’t give ourselves brain damage, as we surely would, if we plunged head first into a deep gully.

 

Wicket-keeper

The simplest position in all of cricket, including those on the batting team, which includes the pair of openers, the strike and non-strike batsman, the tail-enders and even a possible runner for an injured batsman. Batsmen nowadays are also called batters. The wicket-keeper is only ever the wicket-keeper, or, to his close friends and colleagues in the slips, the keeper.

Slips

The position that sounds next most like what it is, except it is not the fielder who slips, but the batter, whose technique may let him down (though it may be to a very good ball) and cause him to edge a catch. There may be any number of slips, so much so that there is no singular of the position. If there is only one slip fielder, the position is still called “the slips”. If there are more than one, they are called “first slip”, “second slip”, “third slip” and so on. The greater number of close fielders, the more attacking the field is considered. With the current West Indies batting side, it is not inconceivable that the other team’s bowling field might consist of a bowler, a wicket-keeper and first to ninth slips.

Gully

Theoretically, when the slip fielders are too numerous, even for Australia bowling to the Zimbabwe number ten and 11, the number six slip (or so) will himself slip off the edge of slips and tumble into the gully. Sounds as reasonable as anything you might read in Wisden.

Point

Now this could be easily explained, but what would be the point? This position came into existence because it was the one right next to gully, close enough for the captain setting his field to say, “No, not there! There! There! There!” And then he would — wait for it — point.

Backward point

This would be a fielder who is not very clever generally and out-and-out bad in the point position, but who has to be picked because it’s his gear and he brings the beer for after the game. No, seriously — or as serious as this guide will get, anyway — the position of backward point evolved because some BBC commentator once, live on-air, forgot the name for square leg and had to think fast.

Silly point

All the positions prefixed with “silly”, such as silly point, are the most accurately named in cricket, not because it is silly strategically to place someone there, like punting on first down or playing defensively when the other team is three goals up, but because you would have to be silly in the head to stand there for a moment, far less bend over facing the end of the bat with your hands anywhere other than wrapped protectively around your head.

Cover point

This position, a little farther away from the batting crease, was the closest the first insurance salesmen would come to sell funeral coverage policies to a man fielding at silly point.

Cover

This was where the insurance policies would be signed, between overs.

Extra-cover

This position, as the name implies, was where insurance salesmen would explain additional insurance benefits, such as full permanent disability, to fielders. It developed in the 1980s when Clive Lloyd’s West Indian team with its fearsome four-pronged pace attack dominated the cricket world.

Mid-on

Actually, this is a fairly straightforward one, by cricket’s very confusing standards. The leg side is called the on-side, apparently because you always get on a horse from its own left side and the nobility, who first played cricket, because they had the time, because they didn’t have to dig their children out of collapsed mine shafts, looked at the wicket the way they looked at a horse. Or something. Anyway, mid-on is not in the middle of the on-side between wicket and wicket, as you might think. It’s not in the middle of the field, either. It’s just in the mid.

Silly mid-on

See silly point.

Mid-off

The off-side, of course, is the side that is not the on-side. It’s actually not as straightforward as it seemed a mere two paragraphs ago, though, because horses don’t bat or write letters or sign autographs or do anything with their hands. A horse’s on-side is therefore always its left side. A right-handed batsman will have his on- or leg-side on his left side; a left-handed batsman, however, batting the other way, will have his on-side on his right side. And if you have a right-handed batter and a left-handed one batting together (which is to say, at opposite ends of the wicket), the on- and off- sides are reversed every time they score a single, causing the field to be laterally inverted for potentially every other ball. This is the only time fielding at silly point becomes an advantage: it is a shorter walk. Pity the guy at deep mid-wicket; he is better off letting the ball run for four.

Silly mid-off

A marginally safer fielding position than silly mid-on in the Caribbean, if only because it is a natural West Indian tendency to play across the line — we used to do it well once, though our current struggles to play the line itself belies that — and a feisty Jamaican crossbat would open the skull of silly mid-on faster than a hatchet-wielding orc in Lord of the Rings.

Mid-wicket

Perhaps the only sensibly named position after wicket-keeper. This fielder stands roughly in the middle of the wicket, on the on- or leg-side.

Short leg

Cricket, though considered elitist, has always made space for the handicapable.

Forward short leg

Even the impolite ones.

Backward short leg

The more handicapped you are, the greater your options, like in the good old days of socialist governments.

Square leg

Again, this position was once literally and accurately called “peg leg”, but an early politically correct movement softened offence by sharpening the corners. Okay, okay, this position is at right angles, or square, to the batsman’s legs. It is usually occupied by the second umpire who is called the square leg umpire, except in Australia, where what he is called after giving an Aussie batter out cannot be printed in a family journal.

Leg slip, leg gully

These are mirror reflections of their off-side originals; they might just as easily have been called on slip and on gully; but they weren’t.

Fine leg

That a fielding position in an all-male game could end up with a name like this, proves cricket evolved in English boarding schools. No, all right, the “fine” here does not reflect an appreciation of a player’s well-built thigh. “Fine” refers to the delicacy of the glance the batsman would have to make for the ball to run to the boundary at such an acute angle to the wicket.

Long leg

This is called long leg because it is a long way from the wicket and the player fielding here needs long arms to throw it back, but even Victorian cricketers accepted that they couldn’t make the field even more confusing by bringing in a long arm, which would have led naturally to a short arm, forward short arm and deep backward square cover arm. No, okay, it’s a boundary or long position on the leg side.

Deep square leg

It’s nice to think there is something philosophical going on here, but there isn’t. The only thing deep about deep square leg is the daydream the fielder can fall into, so far away from the rest of the game. Yes, it is another boundary position, the farthest the captain can send a useless fielder square of the batting crease.

Deep mid-on

Same as deep square leg, except the fielder doesn’t quite get to the boundary. This is to ensure he can run backwards with his eye on a lofted ball, for a distance long enough for him to fall over and give the crowd a bit of a laugh.

Long-on

Even by cricket’s non-existing standards, mid-on and long-on were misnamed. Everything else on the leg side is named by reference to the leg, not the on-side. Strictly speaking, long-on should have been long leg, but that was already taken by long arm, so they decided to do something that would appear simple if you didn’t think about it too long, and just have long-on next door to long-off, its mirror reflection.

Deep extra cover, deep backward point, deep gully

Just like extra cover, backward point and gully, except not as dangerous and, therefore the players who field there are, relatively speaking, less shallow.

Long-off

Following the example of cover, extra cover and deep extra cover, and point, backward point and deep backward point, this position really ought to have been called deep extra bowler.

Third man

Another position that evolved because the captain kept shouting at the fine leg and deep backward point, the two guys covering nine o’clock to midnight on the clock face of the cricket ground, “No, no, not there! There! There! There!” And then he would get fed-up and send out — wait for it — a third man to show them where to stand.

So there you have it: most of what you need to know to find your way around a cricket pitch. Small wonder the batting side is restricted to two openers and batsmen number three through 11. In any case, experienced weekend players will tell you the best position to occupy for all five days of a Test Match is first served, the first stool at the pavilion bar.

The West Indian Dream Team

To name the perfect West Indian Dream Team, Caribbean Beat spoke to several internationally respected cricket commentators. Most moaned over having to name just 16 from a line-up that, until fairly recently, was the best in the world for a long, long time. Matthew Engel, the London Guardian’s specialist cricket writer, observed his side would be a “dream team to watch, nightmare to play against”.

We asked our selectors to name a captain but did not insist on two wicket-keepers, as is standard tour practice. Several took advantage of this escape route, and can you blame them for avoiding saying whether Gary Sobers or Rohan Kanhai had to go to make room for Jackie Hendriks, who would undoubtedly make a real ideal team, if such a thing were possible, as extra ‘keeper’? (The leading Caribbean cricket writer, Tony Cozier, managed to include Hendriks without leaving out any batsman with his name right next to the number or any of the bowlers in the list below.)

Sifting the selections as best as we can, Caribbean Beat makes so bold as to name the West Indian Dream Team most likely to win universal approval, or at least the one least likely to annoy everyone. We gave ourselves permission to name two extra players, rather than face the justifiable wrath we would have incurred for not including Conrad Hunte, Roy Fredericks or Curtly Ambrose. With the exception of Orin Davidson, the Guyana Stabroek News sports editor, who opted for Clive Lloyd, Sir Frank Worrell was everyone’s choice for captain.

The All-time West Indian Dream Team, then, in batting order, would be:

1. Gordon Greenidge
2. Conrad Hunte/Roy Fredericks
3. Viv Richards/Everton Weekes
4. Brian Lara/George Headley
5. Frank Worrell (Captain)/ Clive Lloyd (alternative captain, vice-captain when playing with Worrell)
6. Gary Sobers/Rohan Kanhai
7. Clyde Walcott (wicket-keeper)
8. Malcolm Marshall
9. Michael Holding
10. Wes Hall/Andy Roberts
11. Curtly Ambrose/Lance Gibbs (spinner)

The reserves, most cut from the pack by a hair’s breadth, would be Desmond Haynes, Jackie Hendriks, Colin Croft, Courtney Walsh and Joel Garner.