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Tuesday, September 23, 2003
 
On the back foot

I was reading a Grauniad article by Michael White and Sarah Hall a few days ago when I came across this:
It puts Mr Blair back where he hoped not to be when he rises to address Labour conference activists with a "no retreat" message in less than two weeks time, on the back foot and under pressure to embrace a more traditional Labour philosophy.
Michael and Sarah should know better: 'on the back foot' is ambiguous if not redundant. A quick search of the paper's archives for September revealed further examples of the expression 'on the back foot'. It appeared that they were all used in a similar way: as a synonym for 'on the defensive'. The term seems to be pervading our language indiscriminately. Presuming that it derives from the game of cricket (and if it doesn't, what's the point?), I have some important news for casual users.

And in case you're totally nonplussed by the 'foot' expressions, 'on the front foot' means that the stroke is played with the weight on the front foot. Similarly, 'on the back foot' means that the stroke is played with the weight on the back foot. This, of course, excludes the many strokes involving weight transfer.

In cricket, defensive strokes are actually played on either foot. One defends on the front foot to balls that are well pitched up, i.e. that strike the ground close to the batsman. One usually plays on the back foot to short-pitched balls. The ideal ball, from the bowler's point of view, leaves the batsman not knowing whether to play forward or back. I'm glad we've got that straight.

Just to give you a flavour of the attacking strokes played off the back foot, here are a few from memory: the glance, the square cut, the late cut, the fine cut (nothing to do with marmalade) and leg glances of all descriptions (except those applying to well-turned ankles). Even if we concede that there are relatively few attacking back foot shots, such as there are demolish the notion of 'on the back foot' meaning defensively. At the very best, the expression should mean 'having reduced options' but I see little sign in the many examples I looked at.

So, as my good friend Stephen (or was it Ezra?) Pound (MP for Ealing North) said of writing: 'Make it new.' He did not say 'Make it incomprehensible' (although, according to many people of my acquaintance, he may have said that of cricket itself). Let's have no more of this 'on the back foot' nonsense.


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