cricket language

44’s Nick Robbins unpicks two unnecessarily controversial cricket language debates that have sparked up in recent weeks…

There’s a storm a-brewing in the world of cricket – and it’s got nothing to do with events on the pitch. In fact, it’s all about language.

A couple of minor tweaks to a website’s style guide and to the planned coverage of a new tournament have got the cricket Twitterati abuzz – and opened up a debate around two interesting linguistic points.

Firstly, should we simplify esoteric language for the sake of accessibility for newcomers? And secondly, should we adopt gender-neutral language as standard?

Rooted in tradition

Let’s set some context here before diving into the debates. Cricket is a sport rooted in tradition. Yes, we’ve moved passed the days of gentlemen and amateurs competing against each other, but let’s not forget that it’s a sport that has laws rather than rules and is guided by an uncodified and vague ‘spirit of cricket’.

Break that spirit – as England supposedly did during the infamous Bodyline series – and not only is it an affront to the sport, but a potential international incident. Let’s not even get into the furore that a few prominent commentators provoked when First Class cricket introduced names and numbers on the back of their white shirts – that was, for some, just not cricket.

Simplifying cricket language for newcomers

For the sake of brevity, I’ll look at just two examples of the language changes that have raised a reaction within the game and from those who watch it. Firstly, let’s turn to the new tournament to be held this summer: The Hundred.

It’s designed to be accessible to a new generation of cricket fans and will pit the best players against the best in a franchise system featuring shorter games (yes, cricket was ahead of the curve when it comes to European Super League-style events). The tournament has fundamentally rewritten the laws of the game, but gained some negative press recently when it announced it was considering changing the use of the word ‘wickets’ to ‘outs’. So a bowler will not have taken five wickets, but have got five outs.

Why consider making the change? Cynics see it as moving cricket more in line with baseball, which already uses outs to denote a dismissed batter. A spokesperson for the tournament organisers said: “The Hundred is designed to make cricket accessible to everyone, and research shows that the language of the game can sometimes be a barrier.”

Venerable cricket outlet Wisden has since reported the tournament has backed down on making the change. However, as someone who adores the game and has spent far too many Saturdays (and Sundays, and Wednesdays and the odd Thursday too) batting eight and not bowling, I can safely say that it’s less a barrier and more an impenetrable wall. Whether or not it’s wickets or outs, there are certainly cricket language changes we can make to help improve the ease at which newcomers could understand what on earth is going on if they switch on a game (on terrestrial TV this summer, no less).

You’d certainly get a good game of Balderdash trying to get non-cricket fans to come up with definitions for any of the following: silly mid-off, green top, googly, flipper, zooter and shooter.

It’s no doubt part of the game’s charm – and language can work as a nudge and wink to fellow cricket tragics to say: ‘I’m part of the club too’, if you can use them correctly in context. But like with any clique, what unites one group can alienate another. And, in the case of a sport that is less popular than it wants to be in the UK, it can ill afford to alienate too many generations away from the game.

I’m not saying that we should go around renaming terms for the sake of it, but as internal comms professionals, we all know that our job is to simplify often complex ideas and concepts to a digestible format for a mass audience. Isn’t that precisely what the organisers of this new tournament are trying to do?

Making cricket language gender neutral

Another change implemented by The Hundred, and since picked up by top website ESPN Cricinfo, is to avoid the use of the word ‘batsman’ in favour of the gender-neutral alternative ‘batter’, and ‘man of the match’ in favour of ‘player of the match’. (Interestingly, reports suggest The Hundred is ditching ‘man of the match’ in favour of ‘match hero’.)

Arguments that this just isn’t cricket, or that tradition dictates it should remain the same, don’t seem to carry much water in the light of the simple truth that the language was inherently exclusionary to females. Plus the fact that all other discipline-specific terms: fielder, bowler and wicket-keeper are already gender-neutral.

Indeed, while batter was already standard parlance in women’s cricket and accepted as a gender-neutral alternative, the use of batsman was still so prevalent, the neutral term had become inherently associated only with women’s cricket.

Leading England batter Tammy Beaumont, speaking about the change, said: “Changes to language can seem small, and sometimes you can accept outdated language without even really realising it needs to be challenged, but they can make such a big difference. If you think of that little girl watching her first-ever match, and maybe thinking she wants to hit some sixes as well one day, then our game is in a much better place if the language she hears is gender-neutral.”

So batter it will be – for one tournament and one, admittedly large, website. It’s a simple change – one that costs no money and takes almost no effort – and could positively impact a generation of women and girls to take up a sport they could, through the exclusionary force of language, have thought wasn’t for them.

You don’t have to search hard to find criticism of ESPN Cricinfo’s decision – there have already been plenty of opinion pieces decrying the fouling of cricket’s traditions: with former Test Match Special commentator Henry Blofeld calling the changes ‘insulting and pointless’ in his Daily Mail column. To whom, I would ask.

Would you make a similar change if you knew that the language you were using in your comms was putting off 50% of your audience?

With internal comms, our aim is to engage as many of your audience as possible – and we think carefully about the language we use when we do. If you’d like to have a conversation about how you can speak directly to more of your colleagues, reach out to us using the contact form on this website.