Recycling "sticky wicket" for the uncricketed

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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:

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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]


  1. John said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 7:02 am

    I suspect that Arnold and Elson aren't thinking at all. :-)

    That is, the metaphor is entirely opaque to them, and simply means "a difficult situation."

    Consider how badly the fairly obvious phrase "tough row to hoe" gets mangled. (I'm sure there's a trove of LL postings on mangled metaphors.)

  2. richard howland-bolton said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 7:18 am

    Boy that must have bowled them a googly!
    It's just not cricket.

  3. Glenn Bingham said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 7:21 am

    Americans usually strike out when it comes to foreign sports metaphors.

  4. Ian Preston said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 7:22 am

    I don't think Safire is right to suggest that "sticky" means "slippery." As I understand it, the unpredictability of the bounce arises because the sticky wicket is drying out so that the playing surface is dry on top but still soft beneath. You don't tend to get sticky wickets in professional cricket any more because wickets have been covered since the 1960s.

  5. Electric Dragon said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 7:23 am

    The reason that a "sticky wicket" is difficult also needs a bit of explanation. Before the 1960s, the pitch (ie. "The ground between and about the wickets") was usually left uncovered at all times. This meant that the pitch could be wet or muddy (hence "sticky") by the time of a match, and thus the bounce of the cricket ball would be very erratic, making life very difficult for the batsman.

    By the end of the 60s, pitches were always covered whenever there was no actual play in progress. So pitches became a lot more predictable, allowing batsmen to play with more confidence and make bigger scores, and allowing matches to last longer. The only unhappy people were the bowlers, especially spin bowlers, who benefitted most from slow, erratic pitches.


  6. Kenny said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 7:27 am

    "the baseball-like game of cricket" in Safire's retraction seems like a much bigger howler.

  7. Mark Etherton said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 7:58 am

    Isn't it more likely that Arnold and Elson were thinking of the OED's sense 1a of 'wicket': "A small door or gate made in, or placed beside, a large one, for ingress and egress when the large one is closed; also, any small gate for foot-passengers, as at the entrance of a field or other enclosure" rather than sense 4? This would also make the adjective 'sticky' a fairly natural one.

    Or are there no wicket-gates in the US?

  8. ajay said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 8:23 am

    I suspect that Arnold and Elson aren't thinking at all.

    They were completely stumped.

  9. Glenn Bingham said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 8:23 am

    @Mark Etherton

    "Or are there no wicket-gates in the US?"

    My grandmother (b1904) called a parallel check-out counter at the market a "wicket," but I have never heard the term used by anyone since her demise. Indeed, I don't recall anyone else ever using the term, so it was probably anachronistic even for her.

    If you asked US youth what a wicket was, I would predict that 15% would say it had something to do with cricket, 20% would describe "widget," and the rest would be clueless. "Wicket-gate" would likely be met with a blank stare.

  10. Rod Johnson said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 8:26 am

    It was explained to me that a wicket was sticky when a bowler would manage to hit the stumps without dislodging the bails, as if they were stuck to it. Have I been lied to all these years (i.e., once in about 1979)?

    [(myl) Apparently so.]

  11. Chris said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 8:41 am

    Rod: dittos. I always thought it was that as well, since about that time too. That's it I'm editing Wikipedia to make it so

  12. Ellen K. said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 8:43 am

    @Mark Etherton and Glenn Bingham

    I really don't find the idea of Americans thinking of a croquet wicket (hoop) when they hear the word "wicket" so impossible as you two do. Frankly, that's the only meaning of wicket that I've encountered in my ordinary life. Yes, "sticky wicket" doesn't make much sense, but then, there's many idioms that don't make sense but we use them anyway, so that's really not a problem.

  13. Luke said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 8:53 am

    Americans bowl us some great googlies. As an ex-rugby player, I was blindsided by blindside (v tr) and if you hear about the donut effect in cities, remember their donuts have empty space in the middle, not jam.

  14. Carl said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 8:58 am


    As an American, my thought when I hear the word "wicket" is the wire loop gates from croquet. I assume that's what A & E were thinking of as well.

  15. Leslie Katz said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 9:01 am

    It might be helpful to add that, in cricket, the bowler (like a pitcher in baseball, but keeping his elbow straight) is supposed to hit the pitch (playing surface) with the ball when he bowls (pitches) it. It's then supposed to bounce off the pitch, at which time the batsman (batter) may try to play at it. Sometimes the bowler bowls errantly and the ball travels all the way to the batsman in the air. That's a "full toss", but it's not supposed to happen.

  16. Glenn Bingham said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 9:10 am

    @Ellen K.

    Most of US youth have no appreciation for croquet–a reviewer of Wii croquet was astonished that it was available since few people are enamored with croquet in the US (so it might be aimed at other world markets). I played croquet because I am old, and it was a passing fancy when introduced to my kids. And we didn't call the hoops wickets. Grandmom might have. I imagine that is a regional preference. The Wii reviewer called the hoops gates.

    I agree that "sticky wicket" in the US characteristically conjures up no images of cricket since bails and stumps and pitches and fake bats (paddles) are not imprinted on the US mind. The words together form an idiom meaning something like "a difficult situation," nothing more. "A stickier wicket" is a nice play on words.

  17. DHMCarver said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 9:16 am

    THANK YOU for this. The misapplication of the "sticky wicket" on yesterday's Morning Edition stuck in my craw. And pace Ellen K., I know of no speakers of US English who use the expression "sticky wicket" in reference to croquet — this coming from a US native son who is familiar with cricket and croquet.

    Additionally, I had also heard Rod Johnson's explanation for the origin of the metaphor from the time I was a child — from my father, who spent many years in Oxford. And when I was living in Ireland (where I lived for many years), politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea would use the expression "sticky wicket" in a manner that comports with that understanding of the metaphor.

  18. Doreen said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 9:37 am

    Similarly, I'm not convinced that the contestants on the UK version of The Apprentice who talk about "stepping up to the plate" are all avid baseball fans.

  19. Steve F said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 9:44 am

    Another piece of cricket-related terminology – or at least it appears to be so to those of us who live in the cricket-playing part of the Anglosphere – is 'to be on the back foot', meaning to be defensive. For me, and most other Englishmen (not Brits – cricket is an English, not a British game), the phrase evokes an image of a batsman transfering his weight to his rear foot (that would be his right foot, for a right-handed batsman) in order to give himself an extra split-second of time to adjust to the spin, swing or irregular bounce that the bowler has managed to extract from the wicket (sticky or otherwise) the better to defend his stumps. However, I assume that for non-cricket-playing nations the phrase is equally comprehensible, and simply evokes the different but parallel image of a boxer rocking backwards to avoid a punch. And I have no idea whether cricket or boxing was the origin of the metaphor. Possibly there are other sports where transferring the weight backwards is also an effective defensive manouvre, that could also be the origin.

    There are plenty of other cricket-related metaphors that must be even more opaque to non-cricket-playing nations; Richard Howland-Bolton mentions 'bowl someone a googly' (present someone with a difficult problem – a 'googly' is a ball bowled out of the back of the hand which bounces the opposite way to what you would expect), and 'it's not cricket' (it's not fair or honourable). but there is also 'keep a straight bat' (which means keep your bat vertical, in other words act in an honest, straightforward way), 'have a good innings' (live a long and productive life), 'get hit for six' (receive a powerful blow – physical or emotional – that causes disorientation: a six is the cricketing equivalent of a home run in baseball) and probably others that I can't think of at the moment. Though I'm not sure about 'being stumped' as used by ajay above, meaning 'to be nonplussed'. A batsman is 'stumped' when he misses the ball and the wicket-keeper catches it and breaks the wicket with it before the batsman can return to his 'ground' (place his bat or his foot behind a line about three yards in front of the stumps), and I can't see any connection between that and the 'nonplussed' meaning, but perhaps i'm missing something.

    Baseball terminology should be equally opaque to non-American speakers of English, but on the whole I think most Brits know what 'to step up to the plate', 'strike out', or 'three strikes and you're out' mean. Even 'taking a rain check' is generally understood as meaning to postpone something , though the exact derivation of the phrase may not be understood: I was once challenged to explain it, and guessed that it must relate to a rained off baseball game, but the meaning is made more opaque for speakers of British English because 'check' – even if spelt 'cheque' – has a different meaning over here.

  20. Rod Johnson said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 10:08 am

    Well, n the subject of cricket as metaphor, I think this is a useful compendium.

    And, @Kenny, far above: is cricket not "baseball-like"? I think it is.

  21. Frank said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 10:39 am

    I really struck out from half court with this 7-10 split of a sports metaphor. Check mate.

  22. Morten Jonsson said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 10:44 am

    Cricket is indeed baseball-like. To UK readers that may seem putting it backwards, since there's a common idea that baseball derives from cricket. It doesn't; the rules of cricket were codified much earlier, but the games are cousins that diverged from common roots hundreds of years ago.

  23. Rod Johnson said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 10:58 am

    Agreed. Tangentially, does saying "A is like B" presuppose that B logically or chronologically precedes A? I guess there is a subtle (but defeasible) implication at work there, much like there is in "he washed and dried the dishes" vs. ??"he dried and washed the dishes."

  24. Eric P Smith said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 11:08 am

    @Steve F

    Thanks for a good compendium. I speak as a Scot with experience of umpiring the English game.

    Of course in cricket "being on the back foot" is not necessarily defensive. It is simply a manoeuvre (the British spelling is essential here!) to give the batsman an extra 0.05 seconds or so to see and hit a short-pitched delivery. Hitting a six off the back foot is not particularly uncommon. (And here, "off" is not the opposite of "on". To hit a six off the back foot is to hit a six while being on the back foot. I am beginning to see why cricket terminology is so confusing for our American brethren.) Conversely, if a batsman is being defensive (especially against a slow bowler) he will be on the front foot nine times out of ten.

  25. Ellen K. said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 11:15 am

    @Steve F.

    "rain check" is just as opaque in America. It doesn't relate in any obvious way to any of the other common uses of "check". Probably relates I supposed to check was what the waitress brings you when you are ready to pay. But not at all an obvious connection.

  26. Fritz said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    @Ellen K

    The 'check' in 'rain check' is the sense of 'check' meaning something like 'coupon for an entitlement'. Cf. 'coat/hat check', 'claim check', etc. Tickets to baseball games had (still have?) a detachable 'check' that one could present for rescheduling if one's game were rained out after it started.

  27. Mark Etherton said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 11:44 am

    @ Ellen K

    I didn't intend to suggest that the croquet meaning was 'impossible' – indeed the OED marks it as 'US', and I have never heard it in the UK for what I know as a hoop – simply that there was a, to me, more immediate non-cricketing meaning.

  28. Dan T. said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 11:50 am

    "Check" is one of those words that has an enormous variety of meanings, and derives ultimately from the one in chess, making it yet another "sports/games metaphor".

  29. richard howland-bolton said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 11:56 am

    Cricket is (I think) more popular in the US than might appear at first glance. I remember (years ago) when there was a baseball strike and a local paper had a big article on cricket as an alternative for the baseball-starved. It included a surprisingly long list of matches in the Bay area.
    And it seems to be played a lot around here in DFW, mainly by sub-continentals, but still played.
    And I think John Arlott will confirm that this is the first time there's been so much excitement in a first-class LL post since a pleonasm ran onto the pitch at Lords in 1952. …

  30. Steve F said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

    @Eric P Smith:

    You are of course absolutely correct that attacking shots are often played off the back-foot and that the 'forward defensive prod' is a common defense against slow bowling. I was trying to simplify for the sake of our American friends, and perhaps simplified too much. But I don't think you will disagree that in the more 'classical' style of batting (in which keeping a 'straight bat' – i.e. making a stroke that moves through a vertical rather than a horizontal axis – is paramount,) the more attacking 'drive' shots are played on the front foot. Attacking shots on the back foot tend to be 'cross bat shots' (such as the hook, pull, cut and late-cut,) in which the bat is horizontal, and, while they are often spectacular and highly productive of runs, they are sometimes characterised by some purists (not me) as 'slogging' that lacks the 'poetry in motion' of, say, a classic David Gower cover drive. I assume that the 'defensive' connotation of 'on the back foot' derives from the more 'classical' style of batting – if indeed it derives from cricket at all, and not boxing or some other sport.

    And my apologies to all the American readers for the even more opaque references to cricketing jargon, but if I explained it all, (even assuming that you're interested) it would take this comment even further off-topic.

  31. Rod Johnson said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 1:11 pm

    @Dan T.: that's fascinating, and completely unexpected.

  32. Glenn Bingham said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

    @Morten Jonsson

    "…but the games are cousins that diverged from common roots hundreds of years ago…"

    So humans did not evolve from monkeys, huh?

  33. Mark F. said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 1:27 pm

    "Out of left field" is another bit of baseball terminology that seems to have made it over there.

    In general, all sports terminology is gibberish to outsiders. Steve F's comment left me feeling like the famous dog in the Far Side cartoon that only hears "Blah blah blah Rover blah blah…" when chastised by his owner.

  34. Mr Punch said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 1:39 pm

    Cricket was played at fancy US colleges pre-WWII, then disappeared, is now fairly widely played by immigrants — but most Americans don't know it except by reputation. Croquet isn't exactly common, but a lot of Americans have some experience of it; those wire things are called wickets (always in my experience). Wicket for gate seems to me a Briticism.

  35. Glenn Bingham said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 1:51 pm

    @Rod Johnson

    Washing and drying is a similar effect, but diverges since the act of washing would come before the act of drying. But B being like A is a state that would hold concurrently with A being like B. But I agree with your intuition that there is a subtle separation from mathematical reciprocity.

    When we say that Bill and his lawyer conferred, then we mean that the lawyer conferred with Bill and that Bill conferred with the lawyer. They talked together. However, if we start with 'Bill conferred with his lawyer,' the inference is that the lawyer had some legal insight that Bill needed to gain, so they talked. If we start with 'the lawyer conferred with Bill,' then the inference is that Bill had some data about the case that the lawyer needed to understand in order to direct the case, so they talked. However, 'Bill and his lawyer conferred' can also describe the neutral situation when they both (or neither) had some ideas about where to buy cricket bats, so they put their heads together to compare notes.

    The same process works with 'agree.'

    So in some cases, it is fair to say that there is not necessarily a reciprocal relationship between 'A is like B' and 'B is like A.' In some cases, there is a certain (logically prior) standard established in either A or B that is used as a point of comparison with the other.

    To quote a great mind, "Life is like a box of chocolates." But it is not as obvious that a box of chocolates is like life. There are too many potential points of comparison.

  36. Morten Jonsson said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 2:23 pm

    @Glenn Bingham

    I think the question is really whether the monkeys we evolved from played cricket.

  37. Xmun said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

    @Mark Etherton: Or are there no wicket-gates in the US?

    Possibly not, but there must be plenty of copies of "The Pilgrim's Progress", in the beginning of which a wicket gate is mentioned. (See the main text adjacent to the fifth marginal note.)

  38. Ellen K. said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

    @Fritz: "Coupon for entitlement" is a new meaning for me of "check" for me, and not covered in the dictionary I looked up the word in. (I did look up the word before posting.) "Claim check" is not a familiar term for me. And "coat check" or "hat check" I don't think I've ever heard in the sense you give, though I'm familiar with "coat check" as a place where you check your coat. (And the thing you get so you can get your coat back is a token or ticket.) I would regard that usage of "check" as "coupon for entitlement" as not a common usage.

  39. David L said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 4:56 pm

    Some time ago I was looking up 1876 copies of the Philadelphia Inquirer to read about the Centennial Exposition, and was surprised to come across local cricket scores in the sports section. I suppose cricket died out as baseball prospered, since they compete in the same ecological niche. Merion Cricket Club still exists, and is known, I believe, for tennis, squash, and golf. Very Old Line.

    I played croquet occasionally at college in England many years ago. What we used to call those hoop-like wire constructions that one tries to propel the ball through was 'hoops.'

  40. Belial said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 5:08 pm

    For Glenn Bingham, whose grandmother referred to a checkout counter as a "wicket" – I'd guess this is related to the sense of "wicket" that means the window that a bank teller stands behind. Nowadays the tellers all stand at long counters but older banks used to have barred windows in a long wall, and I learned "wicket" with that meaning (in addition to the ∩-shaped croquet piece).

  41. Nicholas Waller said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

    A baseball term like "step up to the plate" can make it into the mouths of senior cricketers without anyone, I think, batting an eyelid.

    "[Sri Lanka s]kipper Mahela Jayawardene, who ended with 354 runs in four innings at an average of 88.50 with two hundreds and a half-century, was declared the man of the series.
    "'We knew England would come hard at us because good players and good teams always step up to the plate,' Jayawardene said."

    (Originally I made an "a href" link for the "Jayawardene said" element, but it didn't show up in preview owing to the number at the end of the URL. Someone commented in a previous thread that the link would probably show in the real comment even if not in the preview, but I haven't experimented this time.)

  42. Fritz said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

    @ Ellen K

    Here a definition of 'claim check' from

    Numbered receipt or part of a ticket given to a passenger for claiming his or her baggage at the destination.

    I'm not sure what else it might be called. Baggage (claim) ticket/receipt?

  43. Rod Johnson said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 9:08 pm

    "Claim check" seems very ordinary to me. I've gotten actual physical rain checks before too. But I just asked my family and they drew a blank.

  44. Ellen K. said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 9:23 pm

    Fritz, I know how to use a dictionary. Recall, I was responding to Steve F.'s post that included the comment that the exact derivation of "taking a rain check" is more opaque to British English speakers than to American English speakers because of the difference in meaning in the word "check"; I was saying that it will be obscure to Americans as well. I'll modify that now to a lot of Americans.

  45. Ø said,

    April 25, 2012 @ 10:22 pm

    whether the monkeys we evolved from played cricket

    Or croquet. It's fundamentally the same word. But games can evolve almost beyond recognition. I believe that the English lay out their croquet-grounds differently from what I am used to in the US, and also that they use hedgehogs for balls and flamingos for mallets.

  46. rwmg said,

    April 26, 2012 @ 1:52 am

    If cricket and baseball derive from a common ancestor, where does rounders fit in? Having given up sports at the earliest possible moment, I have always been under the impression that baseball was the
    American form of rounders and basketball the American form of netball.

  47. U said,

    April 26, 2012 @ 2:43 am

    rwmg: my understanding of rounders vs. baseball is that they diverged more recently than from cricket, but are essentially two different codifications of a previously uncodified regionally-varying game (indeed, Wikipedia says that the first reference to the game of rounders was in an English book, where it was called "base-ball"). In linguistic terms, baseball-rounders is a pluricentric language :).

    Basketball was invented in America; netball was developed in England as a form of women's basketball.

  48. Andrew (yet another one) said,

    April 26, 2012 @ 7:38 am

    @Steve F (from an otherwise admirable run-down):
    "A batsman is 'stumped' when he misses the ball and the wicket-keeper catches it and breaks the wicket with it before the batsman can return to his 'ground' (place his bat or his foot behind a line about three yards in front of the stumps)"

    I'd never have been stumped all those times if the crease (oops, there's another one … the line defining my ground) had been three yards out from the stumps.

  49. chris y said,

    April 26, 2012 @ 8:34 am

    And it seems to be played a lot around here in DFW, mainly by sub-continentals, but still played.

    As Ashis Nandy has taught us, "Cricket is an Indian game, accidentally discovered by the English." So this comes as no surprise.

  50. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 26, 2012 @ 9:14 am

    @Steve F.: I'm going to pick a nit in your later explanation of "straight bat". As far as I can tell, it means that the stroke moves through a vertical plane, or moves around a horizontal axis, rather than moving "through a vertical… axis" as you put it.

    However, you were right to have doubts about "stumped" meaning "nonplussed". The OED says, "14. a. (orig. U.S.) To cause to be at a loss; to confront with an insuperable difficulty; to nonplus. The primary reference was prob. to the obstruction caused by stumps in ploughing imperfectly cleared land."

  51. richard howland-bolton said,

    April 26, 2012 @ 10:05 am

    chris y
    "Cricket is an Indian game, accidentally discovered by the English."
    Isn't that true of most organized sport :-)

  52. David said,

    April 26, 2012 @ 6:33 pm

    It could also be a confusion with "thicket", which is indeed something one might go through, and if thorny might contain "stickers".

  53. Joyce Melton said,

    April 27, 2012 @ 1:46 am

    I knew the word wicket as the sort of decorative gate that might be made of wire or lattice work, especially into an area like a garden, long before I had heard of cricket. It was also the common word for the hoops in croquet. I grew up in California in the fifties. Also the decorative faux-gate that a bride stood under was called a wicket.

  54. ajay said,

    April 27, 2012 @ 3:22 am

    "Cricket is an Indian game, accidentally discovered by the English."

    Isn't that true of most organized sport :-)

    It's true of most _things_. There was a British-Indian sketch show on TV a few years back which had a running joke of an Indian father explaining how something stereotypically non-Indian was, in fact, Indian.

    Superman? He's Indian. Has two jobs? Indian! Terrible suit? Indian! Terrible glasses? Indian! Runs faster than a speeding train? Only one country in the world where you can run faster than the trains…

    Royal Family? Indian! Whole family lives together in one house – Indian! Grandmother in charge – Indian! Must have sons, daughters are no good – Indian! Sons have to take over the family business – Indian! They're all Indian! Except Prince Charles. He's African. If he was Indian he would have smaller ears.

  55. Richard Hershberger said,

    April 27, 2012 @ 9:45 am

    The aspect of the sticky wicket that long befuddled me (American, baseball fan with an interest in cricket, and in the history of both games) was that this condition is clearly favorable, if you are the bowler. (Consider "throwing a curve" in American idiom: undesirable if the curve is being thrown at you, but desirable if you are the one throwing). As I read abut the social history of cricket it became clear. Back in the day, cricket clubs had a strict system of division between the dues-paying club members (the "gentlemen") and hired professionals, typically from the working class (the "players"). The gentlemen and the players played on the same sides, but had separate dressing rooms and entrances and the like. The gentlemen tended to concentrate on batting, while the players tended to be bowlers. This seems to have been, at least originally, mostly because batting is more fun. Essentially the players were hired to bowl batting practice, and were used in matches as well. The metaphor of a sticky wicket is from the batsman's perspective because that is also the gentleman's.

    (As an aside, the system was very hypocritical. W. G. Grace, the greatest cricketer of the 19th century, was a "gentleman" but made more money from cricket than did any "player". This was done through various fictions. It was acceptable for a gentleman to make money as an organizer, but not as a player. So Grace would be payed to organize a touring team, in which he also played. Then there is the matter of "expenses", with endless potential for shenanigans.)

    Regarding baseball and rounders, "U" has it right. The term "baseball" (with minor orthographic variations) is first attested in mid-18th century England. Recall that Jane Austen's heroine Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey played baseball as a girl. The game was brought to America in the colonial era as part of folk culture. The term "rounders" is first attested in the 1820s and over the course of a half century or so replaced the older term, but this should be understood as a linguistic shift, not a sporting matter. By the time American baseball was introduced (with tours in 1874 and 1889) the old English use of the term "baseball" was largely forgotten and the American game was correctly identified as a codified form of rounders. Rounders was played by boys and (far worse!) girls. The only adults who played it were strictly working class. So naturally the identification of baseball with rounders annoyed the Americans tremendously, and an ideology arose rejecting any English origin of baseball as unpatriotic. Enter Abner Doubleday…

    As for cricket in America, there was a push for it in the 1840s and '50s, but it lost out to baseball, which really took off as an organized sport in the late 1850s and especially after the Civil War. The main bastion of cricket in America was Philadelphia, where the city social elite adopted the game. It was played competitively into about 1920 or so. Several of the old main line country clubs started out as cricket clubs.

    There is quite a lot of cricket played in America today, but you have to look pretty hard to find native-born citizens of European ancestry playing it. The DC area is pretty cosmopolitan, so you can find the Indian clubs, the Pakistani clubs, even the occasional West Indies club. There may be an Australian club, but I haven't come across it. Some years ago I saw a list of cricket clubs. The largest concentration was in Redmond, Washington. With the gradual decline of Microsoft I don't know if this is still the case.

  56. Unwisdom said,

    April 27, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

    My understanding is that for professional cricket at least, sticky wickets are an anachronism. When it rains nowadays, covers are put in place so that the wicket does not get wet.

    Also, and I may be wrong about this, I think that a sticky wicket was not one that was wet, per se, but one which was drying out. Listen to Geoffrey Boycott talk about the spin bowler Derek Underwood for more details:

  57. Chris Black said,

    April 27, 2012 @ 3:16 pm

    Has anyone mentioned already that the first ever international cricket match took place between the United States and Canada – in 1844 !

  58. Ken Brown said,

    April 27, 2012 @ 5:00 pm

    Yes, baseball an rounders are both different codifications of a popular kind of rural game played in the south-east corner of England in early modern times. There are, or were, others, such as stoolball – which we played at school in the 1960s – and Bat and Trap, now almost extinct. Cricket come from the same family tree, but diverged longer ago. They are all native to Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Hampshire.

  59. Brian said,

    April 27, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

    Forget the stickiness; I'm more concerned about the OED's definition of 'wicket'. Doesn't this strike anyone else as odd, if not ungrammatical:

    "forming the structure (27 × 8 in.) at which … the batsman stands to defend it with the bat"?

    'It' seems to have the same referent as 'which'. Should I be bothered by that?

  60. Spike said,

    April 27, 2012 @ 6:43 pm

    I always thought it had to do with the propensity of the "bail" to fall off the "stumps". A sticky wicket meant that they did not easily fall when grazed by the ball, which made the batsman's job of defending the wicket easier, and conversely the bowler's job harder. A "sticky wicket" would thus be a difficult situation.

  61. Matt McIrvin said,

    April 27, 2012 @ 7:46 pm

    @Luke: Donuts with some kind of filling in the middle are certainly common enough in the US, but they're called "jelly donuts" or "creme-filled donuts", and "donut" without qualification would indeed be assumed to be toroidal.

    As for "sticky wicket", I always assumed it was a cricket metaphor (and it never crossed my mind that it might be about croquet, even though I've used the term "wicket" in that context). But I was unclear on precisely what it referred to. I suppose I might have guessed it involved the bails sticking to the stumps, as others have said in this thread.

  62. Eric P Smith said,

    April 27, 2012 @ 8:36 pm

    @Brian: No, I don't think you should be bothered by that. The batsman stands at it to defend it.

    But we're not concerned with that 'wicket' (vertical, wooden, 27 inches by 8 inches). We're concerned with what is popularly called the 'wicket' but properly called the 'pitch' (horizontal, grassy, 66 feet by 10 feet).

  63. John said,

    April 27, 2012 @ 9:35 pm

    Steve F. mentions "plenty of other cricket-related metaphors," but I have to confess to never having heard most of them, and even the few that I have, only very rarely.

    As a 46-yr-old who can remember that old ticket stubs could be used to enter the stadium for the re-plays of rained out pro-baseball games, the idea of a "rain check" is completely familiar. "I'll take a rain check" also indicates pretty clearly that you're to get something (fictional) in lieu of some other thing you're not taking at the present time. This does not of course mean that the majority of people recognize that.

  64. boynamedsue said,

    April 28, 2012 @ 5:05 am

    When I was a kid, somebody used the expression 'a curveball'. They'd bowled me a googly, good and proper. I was stumped.

  65. Chris Brew said,

    April 28, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    Come on Mark, you can't just leave it to the rest of the Anglosphere. You have a responsibility here: anyone with an adequate knowledge of Philadelphia sports history will surely know about J.B. King, titan of nineteenth century cricket, and inventor of modern swing bowling (5-78 in an 1893 match in which the Gentleman of Philadelphia comfortably defeated Jack Blackham's Australians).

    If the University of Pennsylvania had linguists in 1893, THEY will have known what a sticky wicket was.

  66. un malpaso said,

    April 28, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

    Just as another micro-piece of useless data… I am an American; have heard the phrase used often (well, seen it more often than heard it, seeing as how it's not part of everyday jargon in the USA) and I never knew, nor even tried to guess at, its literal meaning. I always just figured, "ah, it's something about cricket I don't know about, like mostly everything about cricket."

    I suppose there might have been some residual sense that the "wicket" was akin to a croquet wicket, but that never really made it into full consciousness. (As a 40-year-old, I can remember playing croquet dimly from my childhood, but I haven't seen it in a long time.)

  67. un malpaso said,

    April 28, 2012 @ 12:58 pm

    P.S. My experience with specifically British idioms comes mainly from reading the Economist for about 20 years.
    I often enjoy the turns of phrase that I run across in writing from the UK. My favorite is "not before time," as opposed to our "About time." The Economist (with its dry super-ironic style) is very fond of this one.

  68. Simontm said,

    April 28, 2012 @ 7:52 pm

    Cricket: As explained to a foreigner…
    You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that's in the side that's in goes out, and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out. When they are all out, the side that's out comes in and the side that's been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out.
    When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out.
    When both sides have been in and all the men have been out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game.

  69. meesher said,

    April 29, 2012 @ 10:27 am

    @Richard Hershberger,
    Going back the other way, the American version of baseball (not rounders) was fairly popular in the UK before WWII. Britain even won the amateur Baseball World Cup in 1938.

  70. David Bird said,

    April 29, 2012 @ 12:52 pm

    Google's ngram viewer shows multiple hits for 'ticket wicket' in American books, going back a century, with a big peak in the Twenties, followed by a levelling off at a lower level but no sign of decline over the past 70 years. The viewer's British English corpus shows no hits at all.

  71. Matt McIrvin said,

    April 29, 2012 @ 6:26 pm

    The idea that the pitch could itself be called "the wicket" is indeed the key insight I was lacking. I'd never seen that mentioned explicitly until this discussion.

  72. Keith M Ellis said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 2:31 am

    "Basketball was invented in America; netball was developed in England as a form of women's basketball."

    I thought that basketball was "invented" in Canada — I'm not looking it up at the moment, that would be cheating. But I vaguely recall that none of the big four team sports in the US are originally and uniquely American, contrary to popular opinion (concerning at least two of them).

  73. Rod Johnson said,

    April 30, 2012 @ 7:09 am

    Basketball was invented in Springfield, Massachussetts—but the inventor, James Naismith, was from what is now Ontario.

  74. Mom, Apple Pie, and Cricket said,

    May 7, 2012 @ 11:09 am

    […] recent Language Log comment thread is also relevant to American cricket, as well as, my other love, baseball: Rounders was played by boys and (far worse!) girls. The only adults who played it were strictly […]

  75. Eric Vinyl said,

    May 8, 2012 @ 6:44 am

    I know I’m sort of going way off linguistic topic by resurrecting this semi-moribund thread, but it seems like this stuff would be of interest if you’ve read this far down the comments.

    What really killed cricket in the States was the exclusion of non-English in Philadelphia and elsewhere. Many clubs initially played both baseball and cricket. There may have only been room for one bat-and-ball game in the country anyway, but elitism certainly hastened its demise.

    You can see some bits of yet another British game related to modern rounders and the sport descended from the Knickerbocker rules, codified under the name “baseball,” not rounders (rules here). This is the game as played in Merseyside and southeast Wales, which comes off like an alternate history novel about baseball in the UK.

    As meesher mentions, the New York game has a long history in England as well. Baseball was seen as a way for football clubs to keep in shape (or “fit”) in the summers – Arsenal and Aston Villa each had a baseball side at the turn of the century, and Spurs won the Championship in 1906 and 1908.

    I’m surprised no one’s yet posted this for any still-curious yanks: (quite enlightening for baseball fans)

    Btw there are at least two codifications of rounders – the Gaelic Athletic Association’s and the English association’s.

    To keep this vaguely linguistic, I’ve never heard someone proudly state they threw someone a curveball (batting is always more fun. ;)

    I also like that the English/Welsh baseball catcher is called the “backstop,” which sounds vaguely dehumanizing to my American ears.

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