Game’s up for the soapbox

Politics is riddled with sporting clichés. Yet often the metaphors they use are tired, unimaginative

For such a sedentary activity, politics is surprisingly fixated by the vigorous language of sport. Rhetoric from MPs and ministers is filled with excitable talk about opponents being "on the ropes" or "hit for six" or "bottom of the league". Eager to parade their commitment to fairness, our politicians demand "a level playing field"; and when they are in patriotic mode, they stress that Britain "punches above her weight". References from American sport litter public debate, whether it be "stepping up to the plate" or coming "out of left field".

Many of these phrases are so overused as to be close to meaningless. In his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language", George Orwell warned there is a "dump of worn-out meta­phors which have lost all evocative power because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves".

Though football is now by far the most popular of British sports, it is cricket that has given our language the most phrases, partly because the game is so complex, partly because it has long been seen as representative of our national - or certainly English - spirit. "Sticky wicket", "played a straight bat" and "had a good innings" are just a few of the idioms commonly used in political discussion. It is telling that during the final crisis of Margaret Thatcher's premiership in 1990, the language of cricket was at the forefront of the drama. "I am still at the crease, though the bowling has been pretty hostile of late," she said at the Guildhall on 12 November. "Can I assure you that there will be no ducking the bouncers, no stonewalling, no playing for time."

The next day, in his celebrated resignation speech to the House of Commons, Geoffrey Howe used cricket metaphor when condemning Thatcher's leadership style and position on Europe. "It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain." Those words eventually finished off the prime minister.

Howe's attack may have been striking, but other cricket phrases are much more banal. By far the most common is the phrase "on the back foot", which suffers the twin vices of being profoundly unoriginal and wrong-headed. No other sporting cliché is uttered with such mindless frequency. A Google search for "on the back foot" brings up no fewer than 5.25 million hits. In recent days alone, I have read that sterling, the Miliband brothers, the Cattle Council of Australia, students in Zimbabwe, the Indian Communist Party, the British judicial system and David Cameron are all on the back foot.

The Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, said recently that Colonel Gaddafi is on the back foot, hardly an impressive outcome for two months of air strikes on Libya.

What makes this cliché grate for anyone who understands cricket is that it is so nonsensical. The implication is that being on the back foot represents vulnerability, defensiveness, trouble, whereas someone who gets on the front foot can go on the attack. But this is a travesty of what happens. A player who shifts his weight on to his back foot or takes a stride backwards

as the bowler delivers has more time to see the ball and therefore can hit the ball through a far wider arc. Most of cricket's most thunderous batting strokes are made on the back foot, such as the cut, the pull and the hook. In contrast, a batsman's range of stroke-play is much more limited when on the front foot, and he is in greater danger because he has less time to react.

Thunderous strokes

The absurdity of the cliché was brought home to me forcibly when recently I was researching a biography of the great England cricketer Jack Hobbs, who scored more first-class runs and centuries than anyone else in the history of the game. Sir Jack's method, honed before the First World War and hugely productive during the 1920s, was based largely on the strength of his back-foot play. As he said in a BBC interview: "I think I'm right in saying that you should always play back if you can because you can watch the ball right on to the bat. When you play forward there must be a split second when you lose sight of the ball. If I was in trouble I had a tendency to play back."

One of his England batting partners, the Yorkshire all-rounder Wilfred Rhodes, said that Hobbs's eagerness to "position himself on the back foot" was the great secret of his success.

The ill-conceived cliché owes its origins to the classical method of the late-Victorian era, when cricket first became a truly national sport. Because pitches were uneven, most batsmen played forward to cover the excessive deviation of the ball. But all that had changed by the time Hobbs became a professional player in 1905, as better-quality pitches allowed batsmen to go on the back foot with far greater confidence. "I would rather have a man play all back than all forward and I don't mind how many coaches of the old school shake their heads at that remark," Hobbs wrote in 1912, indicating the change in batting style.

All the great batsmen who followed Hobbs, from Don Bradman to the superlative Indian of today, Sachin Tendulkar, have been dominant off the back foot. More than 80 years after Sir Jack played his last Test, this misleading phrase should have no place in our political discourse.

Leo McKinstry is the author of "Jack Hobbs: England's Greatest Cricketer", newly published by Yellow Jersey Press (£20)