Still don’t know what the Brexit backstop is? We explain it through cricket

Once a key run-saving player, the cricket backstop has become obsolete

The term 'backstop' is derived from a cricket fielding position, does this position bring clarity to what the backstop will do? Video: Enda O'Dowd

Brexit, to many, is just not cricket but the backstop certainly is.

The old cricket term, a fielding position, has taken on a new association in the ructions over the United Kingdom's troubled exit from the European Union.

In the political world, it is the term for the insurance policy in the proposed EU-UK divorce deal. It is intended to guarantee no return of a hard border on the island of Ireland if all else fails in talks on a future relationship.

The backstop has featured in Brexit politics since it first surfaced out of backroom negotiations in early December 2017, shortly before the British agreed to including the guarantee in the divorce deal.


Since then, it is the thorny word on which Brexit has become snagged. The terms of the backstop have proven unacceptable to a majority of British parliamentarians and not open for renegotiation to the EU.

The sporting and political contexts are different, but the meaning of the backstop in Brexit and cricket is the same.

"It is something that is trying to prevent the bad outcome," says Ireland cricket international George Dockrell, standing on the crease at North County's frost-covered cricket grounds near Balbriggan, Co Dublin this week.

Dockrell says the backstop is a “worst-case scenario” position to “stop the worst outcome.” It’s the player who stands behind the wicket-keeper, should they miss the catch, to prevent the ball reaching the boundary and the batting team scoring.

The backstop is there “to make sure that if all else fails there is something in place to stop the ball going over the boundary,” says Dockrell (26), who has been an Ireland international for almost a decade.

The position has disappeared from the modern game but is still used in underage and youth cricket.

Brexiteers, who believe border technology exists to make the backstop redundant, will take pleasure from the fact that cricket skills has become so developed that there is no need for a backstop anymore.

“To have a fielder backing up another one of your fielders doesn’t make much sense,” says Dockrell.

“Cricket has moved forward, the game has developed and batters are so good now that other times it is not behind the batter that you need to worry about; it is where they are hitting the ball.”

Once, however, the backstop had an important role.

“The back-stop - now an obsolete position except in the lowest reaches of the game - was at one time an almost indispensable run-saving fielder,” reads the entry in the Wisden Dictionary of Cricket.

The reference book even quotes a newspaper clipping, the Sydney Mail of April 6th, 1910, referring to the existence of a "second back-stop" who failed to stop a ball in a game involving New South Wales.

The dictionary also refers to the “backstop” position as the “long stop.”

Given the amount of time the backstop has bedevilled Brexit politics, this is arguably now a more appropriate term to use.