How Did Positions on the Cricket Field Get Their Names?
The words ‘on’ and ‘off’ originate from the offside and near side of a horse or carriage, the ‘offside’ being the opposite side, which a driver walks or rider mounts. The origin of the word ‘slips’ is hinted at in an early description of the long stop, who “is required to cover many slips from the bat”.
Early cricket writers identify two slip positions – ‘short-slip’, which was equivalent to modern-day first or second ‘slip’ position. The other position was ‘long-slip’, equivalent to the modern day ‘short third man’ or ‘fly-slip’ position. By the turn of the century, an attacking field would usually have two ‘slips’ — ‘first slip’ and ‘cover-slip’ or extra-slip.
The name gully apparently derives from the more general meaning of a narrow channel or gorge between ‘point’ and slips. It became a position in its own right, following the development of off-theory attack towards the end of the 19th century. The origin of the term ‘point’ stems from early cricket when the position was called ‘point of the bat’ and the fieldsman would field no more than three and half yards from the batsman. ‘New fieldsman’ was the third man up.
For ardent cricket followers over the years, the term ‘point’ can easily be associated with the man stationed for the cut shot, or in simpler words, the cult figure of Jonty Rhodes refusing to allow anything within touching distance of him to go through. Similarly, the word ‘slip’ instantly leads to the mind imagining Shane Warne or Mark Waugh wearing their round hats, waiting to gobble up anything that Glenn McGrath or Brett Lee manage to get an edge off.
But have you ever wondered why the ‘slip’ is called a slip? Or why the ‘covers’ are named so (what do they cover anyway)? One of many interesting names is the ‘third man’ (wait, where the first and second men are?). Or the Indian favourite ‘gully’ (not to be construed to have any relation to ‘gully cricket’).
Let us try to see the origins of some of these apparently funny names of cricket fielding positions. Or should we use the term ‘silly’ names?
The ‘on’ and ‘off’ side of fielding
Not to be confused with a switch and not applicable in case of a switch hit either. This is the gospel on which further discussions will be based. The etymology of the off side and on side in cricket predates to the 19th century, when transport was done via carriages and not motor vehicles. This was bought into the cricket field, for reasons not entirely clear.
It actually began as ‘off-side’ and ‘near-side’, rather than the more popular term ‘leg-side’ that is in use today. The ‘off-side’ was the opposite side of where the rider would walk or mount, the leg-side or ‘near-side’ being the other end. This way, the field got divided into two halves – when you play away from your legs, it is the ‘off-side’, and if it is nearer to the legs, the ‘leg-side’.
Before we move further, let us see a diagrammatic representation of the field placements. Starting with the slips, we will go clockwise from one position to another.
Slips – One of the more logical names on the cricket field. This probably began when the captains started asking their fielders to stand next to the keeper to take advantage of any ‘slip’ (read ‘mistake’) from the batsman. In due course, the term was coined on the basis of its literal meaning.
Point – The term ‘point’ was coined from the phrase “near the point (direction of the face) of the bat”. This is a clear indicator of the fact that the ‘point’ in early days was a more close-in position than the one we are used to seeing today, at the edge of the circle.
Gully – This stems from the literal meaning of the word ‘gully’, which is ‘a narrow channel’. The slips and the point were close catching positions but soon the captains realised that the ball often passed through the gap between these fieldsmen. To plug this ‘gap’ or ‘gully’, they employed another fieldsman in that area.
Third man – It is important to understand here that the ‘gully’ and ‘third man’ are contemporary positions; each came about with no knowledge of the other existing. With the slip and point patrolling the offside behind the square, for the same reason as mentioned above, i.e. to stem the gap between them, a ‘third’ fielder was employed (traditionally closer than what we have come to terms with). This fielder soon came to be known as the ‘third man’.
Covers – There are two theories to this position; the first claims that the fielder is stationed where traditionally the pitch covers were kept post-play, when not in use. So the captain instructed his fielders to stand near the ‘covers’, leading to its modern nomenclature.
The other theory, in line with the earlier origins, claims that the ‘covers’ was a fieldsman who covered the ‘point’ and ‘middle wicket’.
Before we go to the other field placements, let us take a detour and define a few rather well-known words.
Long/Deep-X – Farther away from the batsman
Short-X – Near (short distance from) the batsman
Silly-X – So close to the batsman, it is ‘silly’ or ‘imprudent’ to be standing there
Mid-on and Mid-off – There is general misconception that these terms refer to the ‘middle-ness’ of the position, i.e. they are not too far away from the batsman, nor too close. However, this is far from the truth. The terms ‘mid-on‘ and ‘mid-off‘ stem from the terms ‘middle wicket off’ and ‘middle wicket on’ used earlier.
The ‘middle wicket’ was a player stationed on the off-side between extra cover and the bowler. Soon, the occasional need for the same fielder on the leg side came up, and to differentiate between the terms, they were suffixed with ‘on and off’.
The terms ‘long-on’ and ‘long-off’ were analogous to mid-on and mid-off, but farther away from the batsman and nearer to the boundary.
Mid-wicket – This term has a peculiar history. Though a traditionally used term, it received its current meaning somewhere in the 1930s. Prior to that, it was simply another name for ‘middle-wicket off’, the more commonly used field position of the two.
Fine-leg and Square-leg: The term ‘fine’ means ‘straight’ i.e. nearer to the line that can be drawn between the stumps of the strikers’ and non-strikers’ end. The term ‘square’ means nearer to the line of the batting crease. In simple terms, if a player is standing near the ‘square-leg umpire’ he is in a ‘square’ position and if he moves towards ‘fine-leg’, he is getting ‘finer’.
The terms fine-leg and square-leg are now easy to understand; if a batsman hit the ball bowled nearer to his leg ‘square’ on the on-side, it would be fielded by the ‘square-leg’ position and if his hit is finer, it would go towards the direction of ‘fine-leg.’
So there you have it; this is how the most commonly used fielding positions received their names. The others, such as deep-square leg or forward-short-leg, stem from the direction, distance and orientation of the position; for example, forward denotes the fielder ahead of the batsman (as opposed to backward), ‘short’ indicates the proximity of the player near the bat and ‘leg’ denotes that the fielder is stationed on the ‘leg side.