Cricket is both cosy and cruel. On the surface it can appear all polite applause (“clap the new batsman in, chaps”) and taking tea in flannel whites – but it has failure running through its bucolic green pastures like a diseased river. In almost every game from village green to Test arena there will come a moment when a player desires nothing more than for the ground to open up beneath them.
You might know the feeling. Maybe you’ve run out a teammate with some calamitous calling or bowled a series of extravagant wides. Lobbed a mortifying and potentially lethal beamer at a child’s head or overstepped to deliver a no ball at a crucial moment. It is often said that dropping a catch is the worst feeling to have on a cricket field, the ache of letting down your teammates married with the shame of spurning a hard-earned opportunity.
Well, yes, but dropped catches don’t go in the scorebook, chalked up for eternity, a circular stain right there next to your name, unblinking and immovable: Nought. Nada. Nowt. Zilch. A blob. A big fat zero. Yep, you’ve bagged a duck.
Getting out without scoring any runs is an occupational hazard for a batter, particularly an opener, and a further slice of ignominy for a bowler not known for their skill wielding the willow. But what’s this got to do with our billed and feathered friend? Qu’est-ce que le canard?!
Fifteen minutes of googling and hours of research tells me that the term arises from the number 0 bearing a resemblance to a duck’s egg. As far back as 1866, 11 years before the first Test match, the term was used by a Daily Times London correspondent in a report appearing in New Zealand’s Otago Witness.
The short excerpt describes the cricketing exploits of the Prince of Wales (latterly Edward VII) playing for “the Zingari” against “the Gentlemen of Norfolk”. The brief match report suggests HRH’s teammates might have been slightly treasonous towards their new signing, explaining he “had the honour of performing at short-leg before handling the bat”. The Prince was persuaded to field in the least regal of all positions. Fair to say old Bertie wouldn’t have had anything substantial to protect his other crown jewels from the meaty slogs of Norfolk’s finest. When it came to batting, the future King effed it up. Expectant eyes were fixed on Britain’s heir at the wicket. It was piteous to behold his signal failure, he was bowled … and retired to the royal pavilion on a “duck’s egg”. Plenty have since followed in his webbed footsteps.
There was a duck in the very first Test, Australia’s Ned Gregory becoming the first man to secure a sorry cypher at Melbourne in 1877. Since then there have been famous ducks (Bradman bowled Hollies, 0), long ducks (Geoff Allott laboured for 77 balls and 101 minutes for his 0 against South Africa in 1999), and funny(ish) ducks (after a string of seven ducks in the 1981-82 season that earned him the nickname Chappell0, a mischievous fan released a live duck on to the field at the MCG when Greg Chappell strode out to bat). There have been poignant ducks – Alan Wells trudging off and mouthing “sorry” down the camera lens to his family after Curtly Ambrose dismissed him without scoring in what was his only Test. A tally of three in the second innings probably didn’t take the edge off.
For some players the spectre of a duck doesn’t seem to bother them – see Cheteshwar Pujara positively luxuriating while he languishes on nought. While others look like they can’t bear to be among the binary for any time at all, Kevin Pietersen’s litany of risky first runs belied a man who would rather sell his sister than score nothing.
Flap forward to 2021 and England’s Test lineup are quacking as much as creaking. Between them they have 39 ducks in 10 matches with six more Tests to come this year, three each against the predatory bowling lineups of India and Australia. The current side must be odds on to “beat” their record-breaking “year of the duck” in 1998 where they racked up 54 plumy noughts in 16 Tests.
The ducks of ’98 might make for ugly reading on first glance but this was pre-central contracts England, a far cry from the professionalism of today. Nearly every Test-playing country in that era could also boast a world-class bowler or two. England faced up to West Indies, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Australia that year with the likes of Mullally, Tufnell, Peter Such and Dean Headley. A tail whose returns were both paltry and poultry, contributing to the spike in the ducks column.
Contrast this with Joe Root’s side where you need look no further than the l’orange hue of the top order to catch the culprits. Haseeb Hameed’s golden duck in the first innings at Lord’s was the 14th nought by one of England’s top three in 2021, a number that ticked them over into the most ducks registered ever by a Test top three in a calendar year. Quack! In the second innings Burns and Sibley bolstered this particular duck tally to 16 and in the process became the first England opening pair to both notch nowt in (531) home Tests. Quack! For good measure, later in the innings Sam Curran became the first man to score a king pair (two first-ball noughts) at Lord’s in Test history. Quack! Quack!
In a case of Boggis, Bunce and Burns, the Surrey shuffler has scored five ducks in 12 Test innings. Despite this he is still England’s second-best batter this year, 914 runs behind the remarkable Root. Sibley has four ducks, so too Dan Lawrence and Jimmy Anderson. Bairstow, Broad and Curran have three apiece. The England captain’s runs are providing the only jelly to keep his terrine team standing.
Root’s men might find some solace in the words of the late, great cricket writer RC Robertson-Glasgow who was an appreciator of all things nought. He describes scouring the pages of Wisden for them: “They [ducks] have to be picked out, like a few pearls from legions of oysters.” he wrote.
“There are those who fancy that it is something to have scored 1 or 2 or some other disreputable and insignificant digit. They are wrong; it is nothing, or, rather, worse than 0. They have but enjoyed a span too short to show a profit, long enough to show their ineptitude. They have but puttered and poked and snicked in wretched incompleteness. No; give me the man who makes 0 and doesn’t care. As numbers go, he has achieved nothing; but equally, because he was never started, he has left 0 unfinished.”
At least that is one man who would be very satisfied with England’s batting this year. Quack!