Lawrence Booth called it “the world's most exasperating game” in the title of his guide for “addicts”; former Australian Prime Minister John Howard proclaimed to the world that he is a “tragic”, right before accusing a major Sri Lankan bowler of cheating; former British Prime Minister John Major is known to have spent many an afternoon at the Oval and these are just three of the millions of people world wide, myself included, who love the game of cricket.
But I wonder if any of the above could tell me where the names of the fielding positions originated. Where on Earth did they get such stupid names? Why is there a third man but no first or second man? Why is a point so silly and what the hell is a gully anyway? I can tell you this much: the late Bob Woolmer wrote an inches thick guide to the “art and science of cricket”, but nowhere in it does he explain where those odd names came from.
So I did some research. I looked into a shed load of books, both children's and adults (the children's, strangely enough, proved more helpful than their adult counterparts); I emailed various organisations, including sporting libraries and cricket governing bodies and – I admit it – I googled.
It's not been easy. Everyone knows the names, some of us know the field places backwards (a few of us even use them) but so few people know for sure where the names came from. And I'm not here to change that, because everything I have is the result of speculation.
Firstly, if wikipedia is to be believed, the names of the basic positions correspond roughly to a system of polar co-ordinates. Now, if Scott went to the Antarctic armed only with co-ordinates like “silly point” and “backward short leg”, I think I may have hit upon the true reason he never made it back.
Forget wikipedia, then. From the other pieces of information I've found or been given, I've managed to come up with the following:
The central, one word field placings – such as leg, point and cover – each represent an area relating to the batsman. The name “point” comes from “the point of the bat” and is the area directly in front of the batsman. “Leg” is the opposite and is behind the batsman. It supposedly is called as such because he is the fielder so placed to stop a ball hit to leg. As in the hitting to the leg is by far the most effective (Wykhamist, “Practical Hints for Cricket” 1837). Where the term “to be hit to leg” originated, I had no luck in finding out. “Cover” is placed between mid-off and point and is expected to cover every ball that is hit between those two.
The placing currently known as mid-wicket only acquired the name relatively recently, possibly in the late 19th century or even early 20th century. Middle wicket was originally a position placed behind the bowler and toward cover. Often, a fielder would also be used on the opposite side and the two became known as “middle wicket on” and “middle wicket off”. The current terms mid-on and mid-off are contractions of these. Why they are called “middle wicket” I can only assume is because the fielder stands right in the middle of things. “Long on” and “Long off” are corresponding placings but further back and closer to the field, intercepting a long ball heading for the boundary.
Beyond these you have terms that specify a position within the basic areas listed above, such as silly, deep and extra. “Deep” is very deep in the field away from the batsman, in most cases near to the boundary. “Short” is a shorter distance from the batsmen and “silly” is so close to the batsman you are in danger of being hit – thus, rather silly. A Sports Encyclopaedia from 1897 describes “silly” as being Applied to point, mid-on and mid-off, when they stand dangerously near the striker.
“Square” is anywhere along the popping crease, thus square to the batsman. Where “fine” and “wide” came from, I was unable to ascertain. Anything “forward” is forward of the popping crease and “backward” is behind it. Sometimes more than one the above terms are used together, such as in “backward square leg” where the fielder is slightly behind the line of the popping crease on the leg side.
In addition to these, there is the “gully” and the “slips”. “Gully” is defined by the Oxford English dictionary as a channel or ravine worn in the earth by the action of water. “The English Language in Australia and New Zealand” (Turner, 1966) claims that the word “valley” has been largely replaced by “gully” in Australia. Transfer this to cricket and it still makes a certain sense: the gully is the narrow valley or channel between the point and the slips. “The Young Cricketer's Tutor” (Nyren, 1833) states the long stop is required to cover many slips from the bat, both to the leg and the off-side, hence the “slips”.
And that “third man”? Originally, there was only one slip used. So the wicket keeper was first man in line to catch the ball, the slip was second man and the guy behind the slip was the third man. Once it became the tradition to use more than one slip, the third man got pushed further back but by then the name had stuck.
So that's what happened to the first and second men.
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