December 9, 2015

Whatever happened to the clever nickname?

Cricket is particularly short of them these days. A look at what we've been missing

Freeze, mister: Chris "Chilly" Old is congratulated by Goochy, Beefy and er, Mike Hendrick* for a wicket © PA Photos

This column begs forgiveness if it causes any unintended offence to the esteemed members of the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations, but if there's one characteristic of today's flannelled fools that gnaws most insistently at its near-infinite patience, raises its dander and gets its goat, it is their utter and inexplicable inability to pass muster in one all-important art: public nicknaming.

Don't scoff. Ask Ian Chappell. "If you don't have at least one nickname," he once reasoned, "you'd feel out of it." If team-mates called him Ian, "I'd wonder what I'd done to upset them".

In 1997, this column wrote a somewhat self-indulgent Ashes diary (occasionally interrupted by the insights of a combatant from each side, Robert Croft and Matthew Elliott). It can only proffer the arguably flimsy alibi that the six Tests spanned one of the most unforgettable summers of its fairly extensive lifetime.

One cause was a veritable BLT of a series - two English wins sandwiching three Australian triumphs. Ricky Ponting and Jason Gillespie came of age, Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Steve Waugh burnished their uniqueness, and Mark Taylor showed precisely why Warne will tell you he was the best captain ever to do his bidding. Beyond the boundary came a near strike by the tourists over pay, the birth of the ECB, and the first official proposal for a 20-over competition, never mind the advent of the first Labour government in two decades, Tony Blair's election as PM, the still-mysterious death of Princess Diana, and an even more baffling eruption of public weeping that, according to some observers, redefined the way we Poms saw ourselves, and even the way others saw us. A four-letter response seems in order, one containing an "s", an "h" and a "t": tosh.

"Tosh" also sums up the response of the current editor of Wisden, Lawrence Booth, to this column's decision, in preparing said self-indulgent diary, to refer to the Baggy Green Cappers exclusively by their nicknames. The sole excuse is that spending so much time with the tourists and attendant press corps, especially while impolite faxes were flying back and forth between the Australian cricket board, union reps and management, engendered an infectious familiarity. Win some, lose some.

The cast was listed in near random batting order at the start of the book - and what a feast for connoisseurs of the soubriquet that was. Apart from the author's strictly scurrilous mentions of The Right-On Tim (aka the Right Hon Timothy Lamb, the ECB's inaugural chief executive), the Poms were an omnishambles, almost certainly unmatched for sheer indolence and dereliction of civic duty: "Crofty" Croft, "Goughy" Gough, "Gus" Fraser, "Caddy" Caddick, "Dev" Malcolm, "Thorpey" Thorpe, "Nass" Hussain, "Ramps" Ramprakash, and "Butch" Butcher (never mind "Stewie" Stewart and "Athers" Atherton).

Sure, the visitors' ranks included Heals, Gilly, Warney, Blewie and Kasper (Michael Kasprowicz, whose surname few were certain whether to pronounce as Kasprovitch, Kasprowitch or Kasprowits). Nor were there any X-rated exhibits remotely comparable to "FOT", the pet name bestowed on Dennis Lillee by Tony Lock during a poor early spell for Western Australia, the only repeatable elements of which were "Old" and "Tart" (and don't get us started on the filthy origins of Kim Hughes' alter-ego, Clag).

Fortunately these betrayals of this noblest of community arts were comfortably outnumbered by such monumental monuments to in-house humour, deft wordplay and cultured nod-winks as Punter (Ponting), Pigeon (McGrath), Tubs (Taylor), Dizzy (Gillespie), Pistol (Reiffel), Tugga (Steve Waugh) and Junior (Mark Waugh). In fairness, purists much preferred the latter's previous billing as "Afghan", but subsequent events in Afghanistan would rob "the forgotten Waugh" of its resonance. The author's undying regret is that he never heard Andy "Bick" Bichel referred to as Travis until after publication.

Who reminisces about VS Merchant as "Seaman" or even "Banker", Intikhab Alam as "Burglar", or Basil Butcher as "Kosher"/"Halal"? Even Navjot "Road Rage" Sidhu has never dared tickle us with Rahul "Dravid-and-Goliath" or Rohit "Sharma-Sharma-Sharma-Sharma-Sharma Chameleon"

Now consider the horrifying wave we're surfing now, particularly here in Pomland. Look at that interminable conveyor belt of Cookys and Stokesys and Woodys and Bellys. How sad, moreover, that the one recent dose of creativity, namely alternative nom de guerre of that last, "The Duke (of Bellington)", has probably entered the public domain too late in the Warwickshire artist's career to gain traction.

Truth be told, British traditions for cricketing nomenclature have never been terribly impressive, notwithstanding spasmodic hints of invention such as "Kipper" Cowdrey, "Noddy" Pullar, "Chilly" Old (C. Old, geddit?) and "Iron Bottom" - and we have the Indians to thank for that last all-time great.

Blame for such underachievement lies unequivocally with the English fondness for deference, one that persisted right up to the 1960s. For all the early magnificence of JWHT "Johnny Won't Hit Today" Douglas, it was never SF "Sci-Fi" Barnes or Alec "Ready for" Bedser, much less Jack "The Knob" Hobbs. Amazingly, for all that the world-famous hymn was written fully a century before his Test debut, nobody ever promoted the planet's first sporting superstar as WG "Amazing" Grace. With the cruel exception of those who saw fit to demean the nation's finest batsman of the 20th century as "Wally" Hammond - widely considered fair game on account of his social climbing and rumoured origins - irreverent nicknaming was a form of blasphemy.

Troublingly, not even the game's reinvention as tabloid and prime-time TV fodder brought improvement. How nobody ever came up with anything sparkier than Allan "Lamby" Lamb is clearly beyond belief. Admittedly, given his irrepressible lust for life, it was doubtless a cover for something rip-roaringly rude - which may well explain the blandness of so many public nicknames. But even if his colleagues had confined themselves to the most inoffensive of culinary references, "Roast", "Saddle of" and "Rack of" would at least have had the merit of bring part of everyday speech.

As it was, along with "Goochie", "Hicky" and the not-half-bad "Picca" Dilley, the repugnant effball-inspired trend originally set by "Illy", "Knotty" and "Snowy" during the 1970-71 Ashes gained shamefully fresh impetus. Given the options, "Straussy" ("The Waltzer"? "Johann"? "Richard"? "Dick"?) and "Swanny" ("Lake"? "Ducky"?) were nothing short of a national disgrace. Still, there is one minor consolation: but for The Flintstones, we'd almost certainly have been forced to stomach the achingly awful "Flintoffy".

Then again, it's not as if we Poms are alone in our crass ineptitude. Who reminisces about VS Merchant as "Seaman" or even "Banker", Intikhab Alam as "Burglar", or Basil Butcher as "Kosher"/"Halal"? To this column's near-certain knowledge, even that nerveless punster Navjot "Road Rage" Sidhu has never dared tickle us with Rahul "Dravid-and-Goliath" or Rohit "Sharma-Sharma-Sharma-Sharma-Sharma Chameleon".

Vinoo Mankad: unfortunately not nicknamed "Giant Leap", but he did lend his name to leaping out of the crease to be run out © PA Photos

Nor, lamentably, has anyone got retrospectively cute with the likes of George "Willie" Lohmann, Keith "Give Me Arthur" Miller, or Everton "Nine-and-a-half" Weekes. Or clever-clever with Vinoo "One giant leap for" Mankad, Hedley "George" Verity, or even George "Hedley" Headley. And only British sub-editors stoop to Anil "Apple" Kumble (granted, "Kumble" doesn't actually rhyme with "crumble", but they always made such a terrific team in a tabloid headline).

Maybe, at bottom, all this playfulness is just too silly, too "not cricket". Yet even if that's your view, does it not seem a mite negligent that Matt "Big Cheese" Prior spent an entire career without being universally known as "Convictions"?

And the antidote to this apparently unending pandemic? Nothing less, quite frankly, than ceaseless creativity and dogged impudence. Inspiration can spring from many quarters, so why not Chris Berman, the veteran ESPN sportscaster widely beloved for fusing baseball and NFL names with everyday phrases and popular songs? Bleacher Report's "20 Best Chris Berman Nicknames of All-Time" include Mike "Pepperoni" Piazza, Joseph "Live and Let" Addai, Sammy "Say It Ain't" Sosa, Todd "Highway to" Helton, Miguel "Tejada (pronounced Tay-harder) They Come, Tejada They Fall" (a nod to reggae maestro Jimmy Cliff), and Albert "Winnie the" Pujols (pronounced Pooh-holes). And even those luminaries whimper in the distance behind the runaway No. 1, Scott "Supercalifragilisticexpiali" Brosius.

Duly stirred, this column hereby proposes the following rebrands. Let's start with the easily accessible: "Ready Steady" Cook, "Hans Christian" Anderson, Gary "Credit" Ballance, Jos "Jeeves" (or even "Stick") Buttler. Now let's shift up a sociocultural gear: "Root 66", "Marie" Stokes, "Tin Pan" Ali, Adil "Be The Day" Rashid, "Sonny Boy" Williamson, Yasir "That's My Baby" Shah.

As for the Bossies, they're especially ripe for Bermanising, though the raw material is highly unpromising: what on earth can you do with a Siddle or a Voges? Then there's the nicknamist's worst nightmare: a Smith. "Graeme" would be a wheeze, but eminent sportsfolk don't really "do" sardonic. "Hammer"? Too West Londonish. As for the most obvious alternative, "Blacksmith", that would surely incite a Twitterstorm of biblical proportions from the more politically correct corners of the planet, and maybe even a writ for slander. Still, how about "Nevill Chamberlain", "Starc Raving", "Lyon Sleeps Tonight" and "Do-ya-do-ya-do-ya-do-ya Warner dance"? Or even, for fans of Nancy Sinatra's occasional singing partner, "Lee" Hazlewood?

Innovators, however, should beware: you'll have to go some to surpass Alan Gibson, coiner of the greatest cricketing aka of all, a gem both profound and funny enough to edge out Grahame "Subtle (as a sledgehammer)" Corling, the alternate moniker bestowed on the fast bowler hailed as the father of sledging. Writing for the Times in the 1960s, Gibson rebranded the New Zealand seamer Bob Cunis, immortally, as "neither one thing nor the other".

Naturally, it is entirely a matter of taste whether you deem it a minor tragedy or a major boon that Gibson died before he could apply his creative juices to Quinton de Kock.

03:23:30 GMT, December 11, 2015: The spelling of Mike Hendrick's surname was corrected in the first picture caption

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now

Comments