Off his own bat
Writing this post in early January the opportunity to hear the sound of leather striking willow seems a distant prospect. The game of cricket is a wonderful sport and the elongated form – I have no truck for the modern variant of T20 – is a perfect way to while away a day, in convivial company with a glass of something in your hand. You may even be lucky to have the sun shining.
For those living in countries which were unfortunate enough not to experience the (ahem) civilising influences of the British Empire, cricket can seem a bit of a mystery. It has a set of rules which can seem arcane – leg before wicket is a form of dismissal which provokes controversy amongst even the most seasoned practitioners – and a bizarre glossary of terms.
Fielding positions include mid on which is an abbreviation of middle wicket on, silly mid on where silly has the archaic definition of defenceless – it is a dangerous position – slips who wait for a slip from the bat and a third man, so called because when over arm bowling was introduced the position supplemented the existing positions of slip and point. The position of gully is so named because it fills in the gap between slip and point. A bowler achieves a maiden over when they have sent down six balls which have not been scored from and so from the batting side’s perspective is unproductive as, perhaps, maidens were seen in days of yore.
In essence, the principal objective of the team fielding is to dismiss ten of the opposition’s eleven batsmen as quickly as possible and of the team batting to score as many runs as they can before the fielding team achieve their goal. There are a number of ways in which the batting team can score runs, through a variety of extras such as byes and leg byes, wides and no balls, but the majority of the runs are compiled by the batsmen standing at the crease – so called because in the early days of the game a furrow or crease was cut into the ground to show him where to stand – and hitting the ball with their bat.
Our phrase today is used figuratively to convey the sense that someone has done something through their own efforts. It owes its origins, though, to the noble game of cricket and was used to refer to runs, or notches as they were quaintly termed in the 18th century, accumulated through the batsman’s own endeavours. The first citation is to be found in Henry Waghorn’s Cricket Scores of 1742, “the bets on the Slendon man’s head that he got 40 notches off his own bat were lost”. No match fixing there, then. It was not used figuratively until 1845 when the Reverend Sydney Smith wrote in Fragments on Irish Affairs, “but [I] suppose he had no revenues but what he got off his own bat”.
One of the mysteries of cricket is how it was invented in a country where the weather can be so variable. In the old days when pitches were uncovered and ground maintenance had not reached today’s peak, a prolonged bout of rain could make the pitch very treacherous for batting. The term used to describe such a pitch was a sticky wicket which was used in July 1882 in Bell’s Life In London to describe the Australian tourists’ predicament. “the ground.. was suffering from the effects of recent rain, and once more the Australians found themselves on a sticky wicket.” The phrase is now used figuratively to describe any sort of difficult predicament.
Summer won’t be too far away.