Yesterday's Morning Edition took up the question of how "Bribery Accusations Hurt Wal-Mart's Stock Price". The segment takes the form of a conversation between NPR's Chris Arnold and Charles Elson, director of the Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, in which a metaphorically sticky wicket plays an important role. Like many Americans who use that phrase, Chris Arnold re-interprets the metaphor in a way that makes sense to those who are innocent of cricket:
ARNOLD: It's, of course, too early to say what will happen at Wal-Mart. There many of the payments appear to have been aimed at getting building permits more quickly. And actually there is a grey area there in U.S. law. Companies are permitted to make what are called facilitating payments, quote-unquote, to avoid getting something like a building permit stuck on a minor bureaucrat's desk. But Charles Elson says that can be a sticky wicket to try to go through.
ELSON: When you cross the line from the payment which is acceptable, to a bribe, that's where you have your problems.
ARNOLD: What is the difference, though, between a facilitating payment and a bribe? I mean a bribe is a payment that uh facilitates something, right?
ELSON: Well, that's- that's why ((as I said)) - that's why it's such a sticky wicket.
ARNOLD: Legal experts say lately the Justice Department has been making that wicket even stickier. That is, it's been showing less tolerance for companies to make under the table payments of any kind.
The OED explains that in the game of cricket, a wicket is
A set of three sticks called stumps, fixed upright in the ground, and surmounted by two small pieces of wood called bails, forming the structure (27 × 8 in.) at which the bowler aims the ball, and at which (in front and a little to one side of it) the batsman stands to defend it with the bat. (The wicket formerly consisted of two stumps and one long bail, forming a structure one foot high by two feet wide.)
And by metonymy, a wicket can also be
The ground between and about the wickets, esp. in respect of its condition; the pitch.
Which gives rise to the figurative phrases
to be on a good wicket, to be in an advantageous or favourable position; to bat (or be) on a sticky wicket
The entry for sticky explains further:
Horse Racing and Cricket. Of a course, a wicket: Having a yielding surface owing to wet. Also fig., esp. in phr. to bat (or be) on a sticky wicket: to contend with great difficulties (colloq.).
But in the context of that metaphor, it makes little sense to talk about some legal clause being "a sticky wicket to try to go through". I suspect that Arnold and Elson are thinking of the OED's sense 4 of wicket, glossed as "U.S. Croquet. A hoop." That's a kind of wicket that you literally do "go through"; and a croquet hoop might be figuratively sticky by virtue of being at an awkward angle, or literally (if implausibly) sticky by being coated with some adhesive substance.
William Safire retracted a similar usage in "Gotcha!", 1/13/2002:
On the stickiness of wickets: I wrote about Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, "maneuvering his way through the sticky wicket of the Middle East."
One neither navigates nor maneuvers through such a soggy metaphor. The wicket, as I am informed gleefully by Lee Child, Jack Kenny and Ben Werschkul, is the ground on which the baseball-like game of cricket is played. When it is sticky, not in the sense of "tacky" but in the sense of "wet, slippery," the ball bounces on the ground in front of the batsman in unpredictable ways. This metaphor has been extended to a general meaning of "awkward, embarrassing, difficult," but as Mr. Child notes, "the key point is that the batsman is on a sticky wicket; he is perforce immobile in front of it; the bowler, himself knowing that the wicket is sticky, will be bearing down on the batsman with a wolfish grin." Therefore, it's on, not through, the sticky wicket.
Other Americans try to recycle this phrase by picturing a "sticky wicket" as something like a patch of quicksand:
Without realizing the quicksand, the U.N. finds itself caught in the sticky wicket of battling Islamic extremism. ["U.N. Sends Truce Monitors into Syria", LA Examiner 4/22/2012]
Or something like a troublesome object traveling through the air:
“We didn’t think it would be that way. Loeb, in that instance, he wanted to duck the hard call,” Donelson said at a book signing at Rhodes College, his alma mater. “Even today when a sticky wicket comes up, the mayor usually ducks it and it’s the council.” ["A Different View", Memphis Daily News 4/4/2012]
On balance, it's probably better to leave this one to the cricket-playing regions of the Anglosphere.
[Hat tip to Eli Lansey]