Ask Language Log: "England's death bowling superhero"?

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RW writes "I'm English and have some understanding of cricket, but this one has got me beaten!"

He's referring to a Halloween-y headline: Barney Ronay, "Tymal Mills answers bat signal to be England's death bowling superhero",  The Guardian 10/27/2021.

The syntax of that headline is fairly straightforward. And presumably RW can decode the literary reference involved in answering a bat signal, despite the referential overlap between willow-wood blades and mammals of the order Chiroptera. So the puzzle is, what's "death bowling"?

The Guardian article itself is not very helpful — its  five internal instances of "death" are at least equally puzzling:

[I]n his last three overs Mills took three for 16 as he ran right up and down the scales of his death-bowling skills, from the weird, dipping yorker, to back-of-the hand slower ball of death, to the throat-singeing bouncer.

Mills was a late addition for England, a death specialist at a tournament where those skills are clearly going to be vital.

The first ball of that three-over death spell was a beauty.

A little later in the day David Wiese could be seen running through his own variations as Namibia restricted Scotland to 109, and death bowling is likely to become one of the key arts of this World Cup.

Searching Google News for "death bowling" turns up a large number of  similarly less-than-transparent examples, e.g. "Bravo back to his best, bowling at death outstanding, says CSK coach Fleming"

But Wikipedia's Glossary of Cricket Terms comes to the rescue:

Death overs (also slog overs): the final few overs of a teams' innings in a limited overs match, in which a batting side with wickets in hand will often attempt to bat very aggressively, and in which bowlers are, usually, hit for many runs.

Death Bowler: term given to a bowler who regularly bowls during the death overs of a limited overs match and has become skilled at limiting the amount of runs conceded at that time. Bowlers are also described as "bowling at the death". The practice or skill of "death bowling" is used to refer to deliveries in these overs that are particularly difficult to score quickly from, such as Yorkers (See Yorker), and bowlers who are particularly adept at bowling them.

That's the start of the story, at least. Subtle strategic complexities are apparently involved — from the Guardian article:

Cricket has always been a cruel sport. In the shortest form that cruelty becomes a relentless thing, meted out in the brightest of lights. Plenty of cricketers around the world have been a little chewed up by this during the past 18 months on the franchise treadmill. Bowlers, in particular, need the skin of a rhino, the mind of a chess master, the long‑suffering spirit of a heavyweight sparring partner. Sometimes you just have to laugh, too.

Tymal Mills came on to bowl the 10th over of the Bangladesh innings in Abu Dhabi. The score was 49 for three, the game already being reeled in by England’s powerplay bowlers. The start from Mills wasn’t great. He bowled a little too short to batters who love to swish away, sat right back on their stumps. The over went for 11. Mills shrugged, grinned at a comment from Eoin Morgan, and set that razor sharp strategist’s brain whirring, calibrating his adjustments.

The obligatory screenshot:



  1. charled antaki said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 7:37 am

    He's not, of course, responsible for the headline, but Guardian regular Barney Ronay is well-known for his smart-baroque style of reportage. That, combined with the insider jargon that inevitably goes along with reporting cricket, means that the story becomes more and more opaque the less one is familiar with either the game or Ronay's take on it. But Guardian readers (mostly) love his stuff, in smallish doses.

  2. languagehat said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 7:40 am

    Sounds like the closest baseball equivalent to "death bowler" would be "closer" (the pitcher who works the last inning or two when the lead is small and is supposed to shut down the opposing batters and close out the game).

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 8:30 am

    There's an interesting asymmetry here, because the analogy to baseball "closer" that hat notes is pretty strong, and you don't need to know that much about cricket to know that it might make good sense to have a bowler who specializes in that role, and then once you know what the role being referred to is, the "death" metaphor in the name makes perfect sense. But perhaps because there are a wide range of different metaphors that could plausibly apply to the role, it's much harder to guess the referent from the name than to see why the name fits once you understand what the referent is.

  4. cameron said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 9:27 am

    I've always thought "death overs" and "bowling at the death" to be related to the more general (i.e. not cricket-specific) expression "in at the death". And I've further assumed the latter was an expression from fox hunting, where the death in question is starkly literal.

  5. Robert Coren said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 9:30 am

    Knowing very little about cricket, my mind insisted on going to Dorothy Sayers' Death Must Advertise, in which Lord Peter Wimsey joins an advertising firm using the pseudonym "Death Bredon" (which is in fact part of his real name), and which also features a cricket match at a critical point. (Note: Wimsey says that "Death" in his name is pronounced /diθ/.)

  6. Chris Stokes said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 10:26 am

    I'm wondering how old this usage is. Drew a blank in the OED so searched a few online newspaper archives. The earliest I found was in a 1999 piece by Ravi Shastri that appeared in The Times of India. The next earliest, I think, was in another Times of India article, this one, with no byline, from 2001. Bound to ask if this sense of 'death' was born in India. Curiously, Sri Lanka played in the games covered in each of the articles, and they lost both.

  7. owen said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 11:05 am

    'slower ball of death' is just part of the intentionally, humourously over-dramatic tone of the whole piece (which is how Barney Ronay often writes). it doesnt really relate to 'death bowling' in the sense of the final, high pressure deliveries

  8. Daniel Barkalow said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 11:11 am

    It seems to me that this is similar to "sudden death overtime", except that it's not sudden.

  9. maidhc said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 1:46 pm

    I thought that Lord Peter Wimsey's middle name was an old Norman name De Ath, like the columnist in The Oldie.

  10. Owen said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 2:24 pm


    Oh that's interesting (and gross), I'd never heard that link. Brewer's has an entry for 'In at the death' and says this comes from fox hunting

  11. DMcCunney said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 4:39 pm

    Many years ago, British musicians Simon Nicol and Dave Swarbrick, known to folk music fans from their efforts as part of electric folk band Fairport Convention, did some club dates in the US as a duo. I attended a show in NYC and got to hang out with them between sets. Simon was mentioning not having seen the Test Match scores. Knowing nothing about Cricket, I asked "I don't know Cricket. How do you *win* a Cricket match?" He had to stop and think about it. I got the impression that winning and losing were details – what was important was that you were out there playing Cricket.

    I flashed back to Sayer' "Death Must Advertise", and Peter Wimsey's turn as batsman in a friendly and traditional game between Wimsey's firm and one of their big clients. Wimsey got a clonk on the head and forgot he was supposed to be undercover. He came up as batsman and started hitting bowls out of the park. One of the client;'s older employees was a major Cricket fan, had apparently seen every important match for years, and had a card file in his head of players. Wimsey at university had once put up a double century for Oxford against rival Cambridge. The old fellow was watching Wimsey and saying "Well played, sir! Well played!", and thinking he recognized Wimsey as the chap who beat Cambridge. One of the advertising agency's staff said "Why are you applauding? Your team is going to lose!" The old fellows response was essentially "So what? I'm here to see good Cricket, and that man is *playing* good Cricket! Well played, sir!"

    I got the meaning of "death bowler" out of context, and agree – the job is like that of baseball's closer – either retain a lead, or keep more damage from occurring till his team is at bat and might tie or win the game.

    But I don't think the issue is unique to Cricket. Any sport will have references to things incomprehensible if you don't understand the game. I see that a lot in NFL Football from folks who aren't football fans and stare in blank incomprehension at what they see going on on the field.

    On a higher level, it applies to any specialized body of knowledge you must have a basic understanding of the field the knowledge is in to make sense of it.

    (And I am somewhat grimly amused that Pakistan just beat India in a match. There is much joy in Islamabad, and much sorrow in Mumbai. Given relations between India and Pakistan, and the possibility an all out war between them might occur, dragging the rest of the world into it, I'll happily settle for defeats on the sporting field. And I suspect that while India and Pakistan might hate each other as nations, the respective players do not hate each other as individuals. They are all fellow Cricket players, and that might just transcend national rivalries. At least, I hope so.)


  12. Marinus Ferreira said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 5:50 pm

    I will just not that "death bowling" is a relatively recent alternative to the more established phrase "bowling at the death", which as mentioned by Cameron above is a use of a more general English phrase. I learnt the phrase "at the death" first, before I learnt it's application in cricket, and I hear it to refer to the coding stages of matches in other sports as well.

    Developments in cricket in the past 20 years or so (the ever increasing prominence of ever-shorter versions of the game) has made the ability to not concede too many runs in the last few overs more important. This is because a short-form cricket innings can end in one of two ways: your batsmen all get out (10 or of your 11 batters, since batters work in pairs) or you run out of your allotment of deliveries to face. The fewer deliveries remain the less threatening the loss of batters is, and runs are the only thing that determines the winner, so in the closing stages of a limited-overs cricket match high-risk high-reward batting is incentivised (whereas normally your first priority as a batter is to not get out). Cricket being a high-scoring game anyway, dizzying amounts of runs can be achieved in the last few overs (sets of deliveries) of a match.

  13. Moonfriend said,

    October 28, 2021 @ 6:43 pm

    Compare nightwatchman

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    October 29, 2021 @ 5:20 am

    To this Briton, who has been known to watch cricket at Lords, as well as on various village greens, the phrase "death bowling" was both unknown and completely opaque / impenetrable. As a result of this thread, he is, of course, considerably more enlightened, but nonetheless highly unlikely to adopt the phrase into his idiolect.

  15. Stephen said,

    October 30, 2021 @ 12:11 pm


    I can't say that I had consciously noticed "death bowling" but "bowling at the death" has been in common use for long enough for it to *feel* like forever, in part because, as you say "in at the death" is used more widely. At least in BrE.

    @Daniel Barkalow

    Re: 'this is similar to "sudden death overtime"'. I don't think so. That sounds like a tied score at the end of full time (maybe at the end of normal overtime as well), so the two teams will play until one scores, whereupon the game immediately ends.

    @DMcCunney said,

    Re: 'I got the impression that winning and losing were details – what was important was that you were out there playing Cricket'

    There is quite a lot of truth in that. I read a book about cricket by an American living in the UK, and he said that two things really struck him. Both teams had the same (all white) kit on. And that people would applaud good play from either side, irrespective of which side they were supporting.

    Hence the comment 'I'm here to see good Cricket, and that man is *playing* good Cricket!'.

    In principle, how you win a game of cricket is simple. Side A bats until 10 men are out, then side B bats until 10 men are out, and whoever has more runs wins.

    However there are a huge number of complications and I suspect Nicol was thinking of some (many?) of these while trying to answer your question.

    For example, in the longer form of the game it is not A then B, but ABAB. Except under some circumstances it is ABBA or ABB.

    @Marinus Ferreira

    Please! There are no 'batters', each side has 11 batsmen.

  16. Robert Coren said,

    October 31, 2021 @ 10:08 am

    Does "in at the death" have its origin in fox-hunting?

  17. chris said,

    October 31, 2021 @ 3:54 pm

    I don't see why it should be specific to *fox* hunting; whether your quarry is fox, hare, stag, or boar, if you intend it to die at the conclusion of the hunt, then "in at the death" would mean the same thing for all of them.

  18. Chris Stokes said,

    October 31, 2021 @ 6:02 pm

    From my quick reading of reports I searched for in the Burney archive (17th- & 18th-century newspapers and pamphlets), the earliest users of 'in at the death' told of the king at stag hunt kills. This was c. 1735. The earliest in the OED, tho, is from Smollett's 'The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle', first published on 1751, where the beast done in is a 'deer'.

  19. David Morris said,

    November 3, 2021 @ 6:39 am

    The International Cricket Council announced last month that it would replace references to 'batsmen' with 'batters'.

    In a story about about cricket, I would immediately take 'bat' to mean the cricket implement, not 'bat signal' as a phrase. I would tend to say/write 'answers the call'.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    November 3, 2021 @ 7:00 am

    "The International Cricket Council announced last month that it would replace references to 'batsmen' with 'batters'" — Cricket started to go downhill when players ceased wearing whites; changing the designation of "batsmen" to "batters" suggests that it is now going through its final death-throes. W G Grace's opinion of both changes (or even Geoffrey Boycott's) would be a joy to hear.

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