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Essays

Last man in?

Cricket and language - another view

Alex Massie
"Batsmen" are out, "batters" are in  •  Andrew Miller

"Batsmen" are out, "batters" are in  •  Andrew Miller

Just as good ideas may have unwelcome consequences, so it should be allowed that disagreeable innovations can spawn cheerful developments. Even critics of The Hundred must concede it did wonders for the status and profile of women's cricket. That this might have been achieved by other means matters less than it has been achieved at all. From there, other things follow.
On the previous occasion cricket contemplated what is now known as "gendered language" - a review conducted as long ago as 2017 - MCC concluded there was nothing worth seeing here, and certainly nothing which needed changing. Times move on. And so "batsmen" are out, "batters" are in. "Third man" is quietly transitioning to "third", and "Man of the Match" awards have ceased to be, since these baubles are now handed to the "Player of the Match".
Wokeism, it seems, has conquered cricket. In truth, most of these are changes of no great import. The game has always evolved, and cricket's genius lies in its adaptability. There is nothing sacrosanct about the six-ball over; nothing which says the sport's only proper form is played in white clothing, with a red ball. Even so, "batter" is an ugly replacement for "batsman". For some of us, anyway, batsman encompasses greater possibilities - a measure of artistry, perhaps, or certainly of craftsmanship, now reduced to the simplicity of brute force and slugging. If batsman had to go, bat might have been better.
Mystery is a part of the game too, and for that reason the death of "Chinaman" as an acceptable term for left-arm wrist-spin is also worth a small tear. Cricket has no shortage of racial baggage - and class baggage, for that matter - but few in 2022 can think Chinaman a term freighted with racial, or orientalist, connotations. It is merely one example of cricket's arcane lingo. (One assumes Australians will still be allowed to refer to the "wrong'un"?)
De-gendering the game's language is not really the point, either. Whatever MCC recommend, many people will continue to refer to batsmen; at least in Test cricket, that out-of-fashion station will remain third man. These linguistic changes may allow cricket to argue it is marching in step with the times, but no great claims should be made for them. The things which limit cricket's appeal are the things which make cricket, well, cricket.
It is a complex game demanding time and attention. In its purest - which is to say its least contrived - form, it is a sporting equivalent of the "Slow Food" movement. Test cricket is valued because the drama unfolds over 30 hours of play, not in spite of doing so. On one level this makes it inaccessible, but that is the point. It is not feasible to render it accessible without destroying the very thing the game's authorities must nourish and protect. And this, not cricket's language, is where the true fault line between modernist and traditionalist lies.
At root, it is a division between those who think cricket must always be thrusting forward, seeking new worlds to conquer, and those for whom bigger and faster does not inherently mean better; the difference between those who think a "maximum" the most exciting thing, and those who would never refer that way to a six. Perhaps most of all, it is a division between those thoroughly focused on the game's future and those worried this risks losing sight of both the present and the qualities which make cricket worth protecting in the first place.
Inclusivity is, for sure, welcome, but the ECB - in common with other custodial bodies - sometimes give the impression they think people who do not like cricket are more important than those who do. The customer you don't have may be more appealing to marketing folk than the loyal supporters you do, but cricket's authorities might reflect that the latter are the base from which you build, not an obstacle blocking the road to a glitzier future.
Cricket can be many things, and accepting that is its greatest diversity. There is a place for the contrivances of the shorter forms of the game, but not - at least, we must hope, not yet - at the expense of its subtler treats. It is hard to banish the suspicion that red-ball cricket is increasingly seen as a hindrance, getting in the way of making cricket a vastly more profitable business. Life would be simpler without it. Doubtless it would be, but much would be lost on this march to modernity.
Until now, the game has balanced change with continuity: unlike other sports, such as football or rugby, it has changed utterly, while remaining recognisably the same. This is both unusual and precious, for it fashions a kind of golden thread by which Joe Root is connected to W. G. Grace, and back, way back, even before Grace, to the pioneers gambolling in the field at Broadhalfpenny Down. For those who appreciate such things, this matters.
Change is not so much necessary as unavoidable, but the happier forms of change are incremental, not revolutionary. Few reasonable people can really believe "batter" is a reform worth going to the stake for, but there remains something mildly absurd about ECB press releases updating us with the latest developments at "The Men's Ashes". It is possible to see, and even accept, their intentions, while still thinking them faddish. Of course language matters. It is a form of signifying, after all. But it matters a little less than the bigger struggle which, all too often, takes the form of protecting cricket from those who are themselves charged with protecting cricket. That is a task for batsmen and batters alike.
Alex Massie writes about politics for The Times and The Sunday Times