On being on the back foot

I occasionally hear reporters and commentators (usually in politics) in the US speak of someone being “on the back foot” by which they mean on the defensive. This always takes me by surprise since, although it is an idiom that I am familiar with, it comes from cricket, a game that few Americans have even the faintest idea about.

Its origins lie in the fact that a cricket batter who steps forward to meet the oncoming ball (i.e., plays it “on the front foot”) is seen as being aggressive, advancing to meet the attacker (the bowler) and taking greater risks since they are reducing the time available to decide how to play the shot. Here is Joe Root, the cricket captain for England, demonstrating one front foot shot.

Those who draw back after the ball is delivered (i.e., play it “on the back foot”) are seen as being on the defensive, as demonstrated below.

It is not a perfect metaphor since after moving forward, the batter might decide to play a defensive stroke and just stop the ball. Conversely, after drawing back, a batter might hit the ball aggressively and hard in an attempt to score runs. Here is an example of the latter.

There is a bit of linguistic subtlety here to distinguish between a defensive back foot shot and an aggressive one. If the player hits an aggressive shot while drawing back, he is said to have hit it “off the back foot” and not “on the back foot”.

If you thought the game of cricket was complicated, the vocabulary and language used to describe it it is even more bizarre.

I looked up the idiom to see if there is something in American life that might have generated it but it appears not. It has been imported from cricket, though I am not sure how many of the people who use it are aware of its origins. Somehow, it got unmoored from its source and sailed freely across the ocean to take up a new home in American English.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Cricket used to be a major sport in North America, until the early 20th century.

    But more to the point, I think the phrase is readily transferable to most sports, as describing a defensive response.

  2. DonDueed says

    There are plenty of idioms that have survived long after their source is no longer relevant. How many times have you heard about somebody “taking the reins” of some organization? Or “taking a new tack”? But we no longer use horses or sailing ships (by and large).

  3. rojmiller says

    In football (the North American kind) a quarterback who throws off the back foot is usually making an awkward throw, which often does not go to the intended target…

  4. larpar says

    @#3 rojmiller
    Throwing off the front foot can also lead to an off target pass. The back foot needs to be firmly planted and the front foot striding toward the target. Of course, Patrick Mahomes might disagree. : )

  5. keystothesea says

    I always thought which foot a batsman played off depended on the pitch of the ball and either could be attacking or defensive. Pitched up, or ‘full’ balls, would be played off the front foot and short balls off the back foot. Best duck for a beamer and yorkers, of course, have to be dug out.
    (Being on the back foot was always a boxing term for me.)

  6. Numenaster, whose eyes are up here says

    I have a t-shirt which reads “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down alleys, knocks them down and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”

    The same process happens with idioms. I would bet most American have at some point uttered a “Yeehaw!” without knowing that it derives from mule-driving. And that’s an idiom that is home-grown for us, AFAIK.

  7. Mano Singham says

    keystothesea @#6,

    You are right that whether one plays on the front or back foot is sometimes determined by where the ball pitches but only in the more extreme cases. For example, if the ball is very short pitched, then you would definitely play on the back foot whereas if it is definitely over-pitched or a yorker, then you would play on the front foot.

    But there is a range of values around a good length delivery where the batter has a choice and it is those choices that give rise to the offense and defense metaphors.

  8. sonofrojblake says

    One of my stepfather’s favourite trivia questions is :between which two countries was the first international cricket match played?
    Guesses rarely hit upon either of the two correct answers.

  9. billseymour says

    Mano, thanks for your cricket posts. I’m a baseball fan (Go, Cards!), but I’m a geek and love words, so I’m amazed by the terminology of cricket. Please keep the posts coming.

    keystothesea @5: OK, I have to ask: what are beamers and yorkers?

    Also, I’ve always seen bowlers bounce the balls. Is it legal for a ball to hit the wicket without first hitting the ground?

  10. keystothesea says

    bill Seymour #9
    Hi, a Beamer is a ball that is bowled without bouncing above the batter’s waist, though I think of them as head height. They can be dangerous so the bowler is warned. They aren’t usually intentional. A yorker is a ball that bounces close to the batter’s feet near the crease (where the batter stands). A good yorker is difficult to defend against and the batter needs to get their feet out of the way to avoid LBW while jamming the bat down quickly to avoid being bowled. A bowler usually bounces the ball on the wicket, but to confuse things further, a ‘bouncer’ is a fast ball that bounces high into the batter’s body or head. Bowlers can be warned against these but they rattle batters so can be effective.
    Mano, thanks for keeping me straight on the choices a batter can make.

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