“On the back foot”

Reader Richard Raiswell, of Prince Edward Island, Canada, writes:

You don’t seem to have done “on the back foot”. This (I think) comes from cricket and refers to a defensive shot which also has some attacking merit. I have heard it creeping into use in US English recently.

Well, yes. You need only look at today’s Chicago Tribune to find it in a baseball article: “In Oakland, starter Travis Blackley tossed six solid innings while his offense scratched out enough runs to seize their fifth straight win and put the Rangers (93-68) on the back foot.”

Then there’s this, from an early September post on NewsBusters, a blog dedicated to “exposing & combating liberal media bias”: “New York Times campaign reporter Ashley Parker tried to put Mitt Romney on the back foot from the opening sentence of her article on his speech to the National Guard convention in Reno.”

But in the Times itself, you have to go back to March 2011 to find a non-sporting, non-direct-quote back foot: “Activist investors generally prefer to be on the attack. So it’s odd to see them on the back foot, fighting to preserve an important arrow in their quiver.”

Interesting that these uses don’t appear to conform with Richard’s notion that the phrase suggests a ploy that “has some attacking merit.” I am sure that readers will weigh in with their thoughts on this matter. As for NOOB status, it appears that on the back foot is only on the radar at this point. Time will tell if it has (sorry) legs.

19 thoughts on ““On the back foot”

  1. My understanding of “on the back foot” is that it connotes a position of weakness, as in a person that has been forced back but is trying to defend themselves. To get someone on the back foot is to get an advantage against them.

      1. Whilst not a positive connotation I wonder if the confusion comes from it sometimes being used prior to a comeback, like “He fought like a man possessed after being forced on to the back foot”.

  2. I’ve never really understood why this cricketing term should come to mean “defensive”. In cricket, it simply denotes a particular type of scoring (that is, attacking) shot. Front foot or back foot is all to do with the way a batsman transfers his weight at the moment of playing the shot, and this in turn has a lot to do with whether the delivery is full length or short (how far down the wicket it pitches). A fullish length delivery is likely to see the batsman coming forward (transferring weight onto the front foot), and therefore playing a front foot shot. A shorter length delivery will tend to make the batsman move onto the back foot. It is in no sense defensive; take a look at footage of the great Viv Richards if you don’t believe me.

  3. It’s definitely a cricket expression, but I wonder if there’s a boxing – or even fencing – derivation as well?

  4. As a first time Brit commenter (and a recent and delighted discoverer of this blog), I agree that “on the back foot” has no positive connotation in ordinary speech, even if that is not the case in its cricketing origin. As Chris Walsh says, front and back foot simply refer to where the batsman’s weight is and there are attacking and defensive front and back foot shots. I think the metaphorical idea is that the batsman would like to play on the front foot and the bowler has forced him onto the back foot, but that’s not necessarily true.

  5. I’d always taken this to mean being forced off balance.
    Figuratively meaning you’re responding to circumstance rather than dictating it, which diesn’t quite overlap with the defensive offensive idea.
    Chris Walsh is right that the reality of the game doesn’t neatly fit the expression either, but then Viv Richards isn’t a good example for the normal run of play for he was not a mere mortal but a sporting God!!

  6. Definitely no connection to fencing (speaking as a former, somewhat competitive fencer). Every fencing move begins off the back foot, so that phrase never actually comes up in fencing. (For the same reason, I would expect that any phrase based on the fencing usage would have a positive connotation.)

  7. I’m sure you’re correct about fencing – and come to think of it, the boxing expression is “on the ropes” (of course). Re cricket, for those who know the game, think of a situation where a fast bowler is bowling “short” at 90 mph. If you’re not on the “back foot” you’ll be in danger of losing your front teeth!

    1. In my view, Bill, you are spot-on with your interpretation. Of course the great players can play attacking shots from the back foot, but to the tactic of putting a batsman on the back foot means that the bowler is trying to force him to defend or suffer a very painful injury as the ball bounces at pace at chest or head height.

  8. There is an American usage of the term “back foot” referring, usually, to a quarterback in American football not stepping forward when he attempts to throw a pass. It’s considered poor technique unless the quarterback is under pressure, since it frequently results in a weakly thrown, often under-thrown pass that can be batted down or intercepted. Not sure if this is related, since it is a literal use rather than any kind of figurative one, but the term is not entirely unknown in North America.

  9. While a batsman can score runs from front and back foot strokes, the metaphor works because a front foot stroke is attacking and proactive: the batsman is going out of his way to attack the bowler. In a back foot stroke the player is much more reactive, falling back on his heels to leverage the attacker’s aggression.

  10. There is a difference in cricket between playing ‘off’ the back foot, which can result in a stylish, premeditated attacking shot, and being forced ‘onto’ the back foot, which implies a hurried retreat into a defensive pose. Being ‘on the back foot’ implies the latter.

  11. In tennis too, being on the back foot is a defensive or weak position, one aims to strike the ball stepping forward on to the front foot.

  12. The negative connotation of being on the back foot has some merit even within cricket logic. The primary job of the batsman is to protect his wickets. The type of delivery which presents the greatest danger (in cricket terms) to a batsman is a delivery pitched up and threatening the stumps. In order to minimise deviations (both in the air and off the pitch), a batsman is better off meeting the ball as far forward as possible, hence on the front foot. Now a batsman could easily “camp” on the front foot and keep everything out — if you are hit on the pads in line with the stumps (necessary condition for a successful LBW) and are sufficiently far down the wicket, chances are it will miss the stumps. Also, due to the greater distance the ball has to cover, the umpire is more doubtful as to whether the ball would hit the stumps, since he has a longer trajectory to predict. The strategy used by a fast bowler in such a situation is rather simple: Bowl fast and target the upper body of the batsman. There is no immediate threat to the wickets, but at a sufficient pace, it will HURT if you are hit there. The batsman is forced to duck and weave to avoid the ball, and move back in his crease in order to get more time (the path of a short-pitched delivery is harder to predict due to many reasons, one such being the following: Batsmen tend to watch the ball leave the bowler’s hand and then predict the spot where it will land. A bouncer necessarily forces the batsman to change focus from the spot where it landed to the location of the ball when it reaches him, i.e. around chest/neck height). Having thus been forced onto the back foot, the batsman is vulnerable to a ball pitched up and zoning in on his wicket. Hence, the back foot position is in some sense a disadvantageous one. Many (I think the majority nowadays) tend to press forward in their trigger movement and rock back on to the back foot if the need arises.

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