Understanding Cricket Commentaries

As I tried to explain in my first article in this series, cricket itself isn’t that complicated a game. What is hard is that, just like baseball, it is steeped in jargon. If you were listening to baseball on the radio, and had never seen the game, would you know what a curveball or a knuckleball were? Would you know what a 6-4-3 double play meant? The same holds true for cricket. It would be so much easier to understand if only people know what the heck the commentators were talking about. With that in mind, here is a brief guide to some of the jargon.

Fielding positions

Baseball fielding positions are fairly standard. There are precisely eight of them, one for each player other than the pitcher. The outfield players might move in and out a little, infield players might shift left or right, but essentially the players keep to their positions throughout the game. This is not so in cricket. Because the action takes place in the centre of the field, and all directions are live, there is vastly more territory for the fielders to cover. Also fielding positions can vary wildly depending on whether the fielding side is attacking (i.e. trying to get the batsman out) or defending (trying to stop him from scoring runs). As a result, names for the various fielding positions are essential.

The first thing you need to be aware of is that the field is divided into two halves. Imagine a line drawn between the two sets of stumps and continuing to the boundary at either end. The batsman, in his normal stance, will be stood on one side of that line (just like the batting box is to one side of the plate). That side of the field is called the on side (because the batsman) is standing on it, or the leg side, because that’s where his legs are. It would be silly to call the other side of the field the “no leg” side, so it is called the off side (because off is the opposite of on).

Why is this important? Well, baseball field placings are generally very symmetrical (except when Barry is at the plate), but in cricket field positions depend very much on their relation to the batsman. It is therefore no help to talk about the right or left side of the field, you must talk about field positions in relation to whether the batsman is right- or left-handed. The on side is always the on side, regardless of which way around the batsman stands.

A further line can be drawn perpendicular to the first and through the batsman. This line is said to be square to the batsman because it makes a right-angle to the first. Anywhere on the field behind this line is said to be behind square, and anywhere in front of it is in front of square. There is even a fielding position called square leg, which is on this line on the leg side. This is an important position because one of the two umpires will generally stand here (the other stands behind the stumps at the bowler’s end).

Beyond that, different areas of the field have names, most of them pretty daft. All I can say to that is that they are traditional and they make about as much sense as having a position called “short stop” that is actually deeper than many of the infield players. Positions can vary in depth, being described as deep or long if the fielder is particularly far away, short if he is particularly close in, or silly if he is taking his life in his hands by standing there. I’ll talk in more detail about specific fielding tactics later, but that won’t make sense until I have talked about tactics in batting and bowling. In the meantime, you can see a nice chart of the various fielding positions here.

Bowling Tactics

I explained in the previous article that there are different types of bowlers: fast, swing and spin. But bowlers can also vary their tactics in terms of the length and line of the delivery.

Length refers to the place where the ball pitches. A short pitched delivery can bounce anything up to half-way down the pitch. This tactic is mainly used by fast bowlers looking to get the ball to bounce up around the batsman’s chin to frighten him. It is of less use to slower bowlers because it gives the batsman more time to see the ball. The act of bouncing takes pace off the ball, and an early bounce gives the batsman more time to adjust to any deviation off the pitch. Spin bowlers who pitch short tend to get hit out of the ground.
Bowling a full length is another tactic of faster bowlers. The flight of the ball is hardest for the batsman to follow if it is moving perpendicular to his line of sight. A ball that zeroes in on the batsman’s toes is thus quite difficult to hit. This type of ball is called a Yorker because it was invented by players from Yorkshire. It is a favorite means of disposing of less-competent batsmen (i.e. the other side’s bowlers). However, trying to bowl Yorkers means risking bowling a full toss (i.e. a ball which doesn’t bounce, which is legal as long as it is not above waist high), which is much easier to hit and also tends to end up being whacked to the boundary.

Slower bowlers tend to concentrate on bowling what is called a good length. This means pitching the ball in such a way as it will reach the batsman on the half-volley. However, note that the batsman has a say in proceedings too. He can reduce the length of a ball by playing back (i.e. stepping back as far as he dare without risking treading on his stumps) and he can increase the length by playing forward (i.e. striding forward out of his crease, though if he misses the ball he risks being stumped).

The line of the ball refers to whether it is aimed directly at the stumps, or wide on the on or off side. Generally, of course, the bowler wants to hit the stumps. However, if the ball is moving a lot, either in the air or off the pitch, it may be necessary to aim to pitch the ball wide of the wicket and have it move back in. Bowling wide of the leg stump is generally only used as a defensive tactic (unless you are Shane Warne and can turn the ball so much you can pitch the ball behind a batsman’s legs and have it cut back and hit the stumps). Indeed, in the shorter forms of cricket, where aggressive play is encouraged, any ball wide of the batsman’s legs is liable to be penalized as too wide.

Balls pitched outside of the off stump are generally regarded as easier to hit as the batsman doesn’t have to worry about defending his stumps or his body. He also has more room to swing the bat. However, a bowler may deliberately pitch well outside of the off stump in order to tempt a batsman into a rash attacking shot before he has got his eye in because if he miss-hits the ball he may be caught.

For a swing bowler the very best line of attack is just outside the off stump. The batsman can then never be quite sure if the ball is going to swing in, in which case he has to defend his stumps, or swing out, in which case the ball may catch the edge of the bat and be caught, or just carry straight on. This region is sometimes known as the corridor of uncertainty.

Finally with respect to line, note that a bowler cannot bowl absolutely straight because there is a set of stumps at his end of the pitch too (not to mention an umpire) and he has to run around them when delivering the ball. He has a choice whether to run to the right or the left of the stumps. Again this depends on whether he is right- or left-handed, so the official terms are hand-neutral. The bowler is said to be bowling over the wicket if his bowling arm is adjacent to the stumps (for a right-handed bowler, he is passing to the left of the stumps) and around the wicket is his bowling arm is on the far side of his body from the stumps. Note that a delivery bowled around the wicket will necessarily be more slanted diagonally across the pitch than one bowled over the wicket.

The bowler can also vary the angle of his line by choosing to bowl from close in to the stumps or from wider out. However, if he chooses to bowl from close in he must be careful where he treads after delivering the ball. It would be very advantageous to the bowling side to create scuff marks on the pitch on a good length (i.e. where the ball is likely to pitch). If a bowler treads in this area he may be warned by the umpire for running on the pitch. If he persists in offending he can be banned from bowling for the rest of the innings.

Batting Tactics

As I have already noted, a batsman has the option of playing forward or playing back. Before the ball is delivered he will generally be stood side-on with his weight evenly distributed between both feet. As soon as he takes a stride, he will be moving the majority of his weight onto either his front or back foot. In is important that in doing so he remains balanced, because if he is off-balance he will probably play a poor shot.

The basic choice a batsman has is to play a straight or cross-batted shot. Playing straight means that he holds the bat vertical and plays through the line of the ball. Such a short can either be defensive, aiming to take the pace of the ball and drop it at the batsman’s feet, or attacking (a drive) aiming to score runs. Playing straight is a good tactic if you are not sure how high the ball will bounce (or of its length, which amounts to the same thing), because you have the whole length of the bat with which to hit it. Playing forward and straight is also the most powerful shot in the batsman’s armory because you can get your entire body weight behind it. However, if you do play straight you risk mis-judging the line of the ball and either getting an outside edge, or a painful blow in the ribs.

Cross-batted (horizontal bat) shots are more like baseball shots, but they have different names depending on the line of the ball and how it is hit. They are generally only played off the back foot to short-pitched bowling where the batsman has plenty of time to judge the height of the ball. A ball short and wide outside the off stump can be cut, a slashing stroke into the off side reminiscent of trying to decapitate someone with a two-handed sword. If the line of the ball is more on the stumps or body it can be pulled (if it is below the shoulders) or hooked (if it is above the shoulders). Both of these shots direct the ball to the leg side. A good length ball on leg stump is vulnerable to a cross-batted shot called a sweep. This involves playing forward, going down on one knee, and paddling the ball around to leg. It is generally only played against slower deliveries because if you get the shot wrong you risk getting a mouth full of ball. Cross-batted shots are almost always attacking shots; it is hard to defend with a horizontal bat. Cricketers do not bunt.

Batsmen don’t need to swing hard at a ball in order to score, particularly against a fast bowler. Often all that is necessary is simply to angle the bat in such a way as to divert the ball behind square, using the pace of the delivery to keep it moving. This is known as nudging or nurdling the ball.

One thing a batsman always has to be aware of is where his stumps are relative to his body. There is nothing more embarrassing than raising your bat to let a ball pass on the assumption that it is well wide of your stumps and hearing the death rattle of those stumps being scattered on the ground behind you. A batsman will make his choice as to exactly where to stand based on personal preference (often whether he is better at playing on side shots or leg side shots) and perhaps on the angle of the bowler’s delivery. You may see or hear of a batsman making a mark in his crease in line with one of the three stumps so that he knows where the stumps are without having to look behind him. This is known as taking guard.

Just like a baseball player might take a pitch or two before attempting to make a scoring play, cricket batsmen may take a while to get their eye in before trying to score heavily. Indeed, because they will get only one or two innings, it is much more important that they do so. Typically they will either leave the ball (if it is wide) or play a defensive shot (if the line is on the stumps). As they get more of a sense of the pace and bounce of the pitch, and any tricks the bowlers may be pulling, they will start to play more aggressive shots. Batsmen who have such a good eye that they can come out and play aggressively from the start, such as Adam Gilchrist of Australia, or Sanath Jayasuriya of Sri Lanka, are highly valued in shorter forms of cricket. Likewise batsmen who are masters of defensive play, such as the legendary Geoffrey Boycott who seemed happy to stay at the crease all day without scoring and saved England from many an embarrassing defeat, can be of great use to a team trying to salvage a draw.

Fielding Tactics

Having now seen what the batsman and bowler are up to, we can start to consider fielding tactics. Field positions are set by the fielding team’s captain, generally in consultation with whoever is bowling at the time. In theory the coach is not supposed to direct operations in the field, although if things are going badly you’ll probably see the fielding captain get taken short and have to rush off for a restroom break.

Fielding teams generally begin an innings by attacking, if only because they have two new batsmen at the wicket who will be vulnerable until they get their eyes in. Typically they will begin with fast bowlers. You’ll see an array of fielders behind square on the off side ranged in an arc outwards from the wicket keeper. These positions are called the slips and gully and they are there in anticipation of the ball finding the edge of the bat and going for a catch. Later in the innings these fielders will disappear, although one of them will probably drop back to third man so that, if the ball does catch the edge and pass through the vacant slip area, it won’t get to the boundary.

As mentioned earlier a favorite tactic of faster bowlers is to pitch the ball short so that it bounces up around head height (a bouncer). Some batsmen love to fight back with pull and hook shots. This is great if it works, but if a batsman has a reputation for over-eager hooking you’ll see the fielding captain station a man or two on the boundary in the region of square leg waiting for a catch.

The thing batsmen really hate is if the pitch is so unpredictable that a ball can rise steeply off a good length. This generally has them swaying onto the back foot and fending the ball away from the ribs and face. Under these conditions, a man may be stationed at short leg (the short version of square leg) or leg slip (a slip-like position on the leg side) to catch a ball that hits the inside edge or shoulder of the bat. Short leg is probably the most dangerous position on the field. A successful pull shot is likely to do considerable damage to a short leg fielder if he can’t get out of the way in time. The job of fielding there is generally given to the youngest player on the team.

As the innings wears on and batsmen become more dominant, fielders will tend to be placed more in front of square. If the batsmen are really dominant then they will be placed around the boundary to prevent fours and sixes. If the bowlers are on top then they’ll be closer in looking to prevent singles and frustrate the batsmen into making rash shots. Sometimes a fielding captain will get very defensive and move almost all of his players onto one side of the field. He is expecting his bowler to bowl wide on that side of the pitch so that the batsman can’t hit into the undefended side. In response the batsman may change his guard, and take to moving across his stumps as the ball is bowled. Of course if the bowler gets the line wrong then the batsman is gifted runs, and if he bowls too wide he will be penalized.

When one day cricket was first introduced captains tended to play very defensively, figuring that if they just prevented batsmen from scoring they could win the game. Therefore the rules were changed to force fielding sides to have a certain number of infield fielders early in the inning. A ring is painted on the field to define that infield area. The number of fielders that must be inside the ring, and the number of overs for which the restriction is in place, depends on the exact format of the game.

Field placings for spin bowlers are very different to those for faster bowlers. Because the ball travels more slowly, the catchers need to be closer in. The wicket keeper will stand immediately behind the stumps rather than well back. The slips and gully will move up with him. Fielders will be stationed at leg slip, short leg, and two new positions in front of square called silly mid on and silly mid off. The batsmen, of course, will play aggressive shots hoping to drive the close fielders away. If they succeed, silly mid on and silly mid off will drop right back to their equivalent deep positions in the hope of catching a lofted drive.
In baseball the glamour position on the field is short stop. The cricket equivalent is point, a position that is square on the off side. A fielder at point feels a bit like a goalkeeper in soccer. Batsmen making cut shots will fire balls at him at great speed at all heights and to his left and right. He has to stop them all, preferably by making a spectacular diving catch.

In general, fielding has been an ignored art in cricket for far too long. Particularly in the longer form of the game, it has been possible for teams to get away with sloppy fielding. The introduction of one-day and Twenty20 cricket has sharpened up fielding skills no end, but most cricket players, even at international level, are well behind MLB stars in their ability to field the ball, set and throw with pin-point accuracy.

On the other hand, fielding without gloves adds a lot of drama to the game. Without gloves, catches are not a certainty.

The Umpires

Unlike in baseball, cricket umpires are an undemonstrative lot. They don’t shout, they don’t make an exhibition of giving a batsman out, and they don’t feel the need to thrust their beer guts in the faces of players and coaches. A player who argues with an umpire is liable to get a heavy fine. An umpire who lost his temper in response could lose his job.

However, you will hear commentators talking about what umpires are doing. Mostly they will complain about decisions — chiefly LBWs, which are the hardest decisions for umpires to make, although thin edges that cause very little deviation in the flight of the ball are also quite hard. These days TV commentators have access to a lot of sophisticated technology that is not available to the umpires (in particular the Hawkeye system that has been trialed so successfully in tennis). TV replays are now allowed for adjudication of run-outs, catches close to the ground, and checking that a fielder did not go out of play while fielding the ball. It seems inevitable that they will come in for LBW and thin edge decisions as well. And because radio commentators now generally have a TV in their commentary box, they join in the debate.

Umpires may caution players for unsportsmanlike behavior: typically trying to rough up the pitch, or overly aggressive bowling. Players do like to needle each other during the game (this is called sledging), but if it starts to get too aggressive, with players starting to get in each others’ faces, then the umpires will intervene and calm them down. If cricket players indulged in the sort of free-for-all that results from a baseball batter charging the mound they’d probably get lengthy bans. Besides, hitting the batsman with the ball is part of the game. A batsman who reacted angrily to such treatment would be viewed as a sissy and laughed at by his fellow professionals.

Another important duty of the umpires is ensuring that conditions are safe. If it begins to rain, or the light gets bad, then the risk of injuries increases and play may have to be suspended. In the case of bad light the umpires will generally consult the batsmen because they may be prepared to take the risk and stay out there rather than suffer a break in their concentration and/or waste valuable batting time. Sometimes negotiation takes place, in that the fielding captain offers to use only his slower bowlers if the batsmen and umpires will agree to keep playing.

Commentator Eccentricities

Commentating on cricket is a difficult job (I know, I’ve done it). Not only do you have to concentrate for long periods, but the periods of intense action merely punctuate longer periods of inaction or dull play. Because the games are so long the broadcasters tend to employ a team of commentators whom they rotate in 20-minute or half-hour shifts. But even so thinking of something interesting to say can be very hard. Consequently commentators develop idiosyncrasies and become personalities in their own right.

The late and much-loved John Arlott, for example, was known for the elegance and poetry of his match descriptions. He also sounded drunk much of the time, and quite likely was. When not commentating on cricket, Arlott had a successful career as a wine critic.

In contrast the late Brian Johnston seemed to spend most of his time either playing practical jokes on his fellow commentators, or in urging his legion of housewife fans to send him chocolate cakes. ‘Johnners’ was responsible for many of cricket commentaries most hilarious out-takes.
The BBC’s latest favorite eccentric is Henry Blofeld, an excitable fellow who, when the game is slow, seems to be more interested in the antics of pigeons and seagulls, and in any examples of public transport he can spot passing the ground, than in the actual game.

If your tastes run to more robust commentary you might prefer Australia’s Kerry O’Keefe who seems incapable of conducting any commentary session without producing some outrageous insult to some segment of the world’s population. O’Keefe seems to have a particular disdain for women, but other than that he is an equal opportunities insulter, pouring scorn on anyone and everyone.

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5 thoughts on “Understanding Cricket Commentaries

  1. hello sir…

    I’ve gone through your article its really nice, you have drafted each and every point in an understandable format…

    i’ve a query regarding batsmen or the bowler changing the guard.

    can a bats man bat right handed for few overs and change to left if he wishes, in his innings ???(what do ICC rules say for this)

    in the same ways can a bowler bowl his 1st spell with right hand and then change to left hand when he comes for second spell??

    any examples for the above asked queries in past??? and any rules for these by ICC

    i would be very glad if i get reply for this….

  2. A batsman may take guard in which ever way he sees fit. Indeed, as evidenced by Kevin Pietersen’s recent “switch hit”, a batsman can even change from right hand to left hand stance (or vice versa) while the bowler is delivering the ball.

    Bowlers may also choose which had they intend to use, but they must inform the umpire in advance if they wish to change hands.

  3. Greetings, Could you please tell me how far away from the wicket the square leg umpire should stand?

  4. Roofsnow:

    As far as I can see, there is no hard and fast rule. Law 3.10 Position of Umpires simple says:

    The umpires shall stand where they can best see any act upon which their decision may be required.

    Square leg can, if he wishes, move to the off side. That’s explicitly allowed in the rules. Other than that, he has to be close enough to see what is going on, but far enough away not to interfere with the fielders.

    Further advice may be available in a specialist book on umpiring such as this one by Tom Smith.

  5. hi Cheryl….

    Thanks for your reply for my previous post….

    what actually is level one or level two offense? in case a batsmen reacts to a harsh reaction of the bowler, then can he be convicted ?? what about the bowlers act??

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