Sport Changing Over Time II

I’d like to promote two comments by Matthew Turner to this post:

In cricket, I was unaware of the type of bowler known as the ‘lob’ bowler. Wisden’s dictionary of cricket says that this was not a specialist skill until the mid-19th century, when other forms of underarm bowling were obscolete (and since 2000, against the rules unless agreed in advance). “The baffling flight of a well bowled lob could pose serious problems of timing for the batsmen, and even if he managed to make contact with the ball he was still not out of danger, for the lob-bowlers great aim was to bowl balls that were difficult to score off unless hit in the air”. “Lobsters” survived 50 years longer than other underarm bowlers, with George Simpsom-Heyward taking 23 wickets for the MCC (ie England) against South Africa in 1910-1911. However by the 1910s they were dying out as batsmen found the best way to cope with them was to smack it around, and they proved too expensive, with the last first-class lobster Trever Maloney in 1921.

Likewise roundarm bowling, which I referred to in the previous post.

Matthew also links to his graphical demonstration of changing average scores in darts. Ah! Darts!

Darts, you see, used to be “my” sport. It began in WHSmiths in Bedford at the turn of the 1980s, when I spent part of a book voucher on John Lowe’s autobiography-cum-coaching-manual. Lowe was the best darts player in the world at that time, ignoring the fact there that darts wasn’t and isn’t played in enough countries to fully justify that use of “world”. It was the immediately pre-Bristow period. Lowe – clever, polite, dedicated – was an easy man to admire, and his enthusiasm for darts rubbed off on me in a big way. I pestered my parents for a board, put it up in the garage at regulation height, and began to put Lowe’s advice into action. Lowe saw three demands in darts: correct posture (to provide a consistent launching pad for the dart); correct grip and release (you need a smooth action and follow-through) and concentration, especially when surrounded by the drunken, baying crowds usual at competitions. Lowe was sufficiently confident in his advice – or seemed to be, to a early teenaged boy – to list and describe his rivals on the basis that, now, “these are your rivals, too.”

For the next few years, I played darts almost all of the time. Luckily, one or two of my friends shared my interest, and the summer sunshine went around our empty lawns and playing fields whilst from our shadowed garages came the thump of dart into board, hour after hour. Endless games of 501 or 1001, “clock” games to improve our performances on the doubles, plus the occasional game of “killer”, where you stood at opposite ends of the garage and attempted to hit your opponent with any of your three darts.

Inevitably, we “got good”. How good didn’t really register with me. Then, one evening on holiday in Devon, when I was aged 15, my father took me down to a local pub. It was early evening, and the dartboard wasn’t in use, so we borrowed the arrows from behind the bar and began chucking. I wasn’t on home ground, and didn’t like competing with my old man, so wasn’t putting much into it. Some interested locals gathered round, and, after making encouraging comments to me, and sarcastic ones to my father, challenged us to a game. My father must have sensed something undesirable in the wind, and demurred, but being young and foolish, I said yes, I’ll play you. And I put my darts hat back on.

Suffice to say that they didn’t detain me long. I finished my first leg treble 18, bull, double-top, won the next leg, and then found my hand being shaken.

The funny thing was that the experience of easy victory over my cocky elders sated me. Now, I wonder what could have been had I persisted. I have a board now, but my eyesight has deteriorated and the old skill has gone. How would darts have coped with me? Would I have had to don a persona (it would have been Bertie Wooster, more than likely) or take to drink? What did I miss? Was it this?

Back to changing sport, however. One thing that strikes me about Matthew’s discussion of lob bowlers is this: just because a game is governed by rules does not mean that every means of playing within those rules has been investigated. There’s always the unexpected. One example of the unexpected, Shane Warne, has just retired from test cricket. Before Warne, the top rank bowlers were almost all quickies, and had been for years. When you consider that the inventor of the googly died in 1936, the sheer surprise that was Warne comes into context.

It’s more often that rule changes generate changes in play that the change in the rule itself did not anticipate. In 1925, the increasing domination of football by defenders led to an untightening of the offside law, which, as planned, led to a glut of goals. No coincidence that George Camsell’s 59 league goals in a season for Middlesbrough and Dixie Dean’s 60 the following year for Everton (100 in all competitions including internationals) came immediately subsequent to the law change. But what also came after the law change – the Buchan/Chapman “W-M” formation, with a “stopper” centre-half, and, according to witnesses, the swinging of the whole game in the favour of large, physically imposing players over clever, skilful ones – was not expected.

Or, changes in technology bring about change. Men’s tennis, I feel, went through an unwatchable period following the replacement of wooden racquets with aluminium and composite ones. Too much depended on serve, all of a sudden, and the long, rally-filled Wimbledon afternoons typical of the Borg-McEnroe rivalry went away.

But – as Matthew said in his comment about darts to the previous post – it’s also the case that an individual can pull a game up all on his own. This isn’t necessarily always to the British taste. The height of snooker’s popularity came just before Stephen Hendry’s long period of dominance, something I put down to 1970s/80s snooker being populated by a supremely various set of characters and its potential for upset at that time, allowing the British taste for soap to take hold of it. (When I say that the British want “soap” more than success, by the way, I’m NOT referrring to “celebrity culture.” It’s more the longing for what e.g. Coronation Street was before the BBC coarsened soap with the parodic “Eastenders”: entertaining interplay of characters you could identify with in some way. The kind of thing “Footballers’ Wives” is about is different altogether – all to do with nausea, disgust and contempt, and “cultured” middle-class attempts to buy into, and cash in on, something unshared and misunderstood.

One thing that change in sport does seem apt to remove is the chance of upset and surprise. Noone expects giant-killing in the County Championship, or in the Olympic 100 metres final. I don’t know if I count Argentina’s victory at Twickenham as such, either, given the rapid growth and development of the game in Italy and South America while we determinedly dustbin our own recent growth and improvement. Very occasionally, and not for some years now, an underdog British tennis player (NOT Henman/Rudeski/Murray, who are/were very good players on a world scale and able to compete) will pull off the unexpected in an early round of Wimbledon. But really, giant-killing is left to football, and there seems something unique and wonderful about the continuing unexpectedness of the game in that respect. The German phrase, “Der Ball Ist Rund” remains valid.

Also unique to football is changes within, and interest in changes within, the audience. Athletics crowds are there to clap a rhythm for jumpers and pole vaulters; rugby crowds drink from the open backs of their cars and know one song per country; ice hockey crowds keep as far back from the rink as they can, if they are wise, and as for basketball.. football is different. You’ll love this:

And this – although I don’t agree with the football stadium/place of worship comparison entirely. (Note that, with standing at Premiership grounds prohibited, that we now go to pubs to stand, watch football, shout and jump around. When England v Argentina in 1998 crashed to a finish, I found myself hiding under the table with my hands over my ears, and didn’t watch England “live” again for almost two years).

And of course, this:

All of this is staringly obvious, of course. But it’s Sunday, and I really just wanted to talk about darts. After suffering through both Match of the Day Live (Liverpool and Arsenal kicking each other up into the air) and Match of the Day Dead (I switched off after watching what happened to Macclesfield. What is it about FA Cup mismatches and sending off goalkeepers?) I wonder if there’s ever any point, either in interviewing players and managers (they always say the same thing, and you always know what they’re going to say) or in having studio guests, who – for all the criticism they come in for – have the impossible job of coming up with something that will be as or more interesting as just slinging the next match tape on. Football tells its own stories best, without the aid of half-time comments. A good COMMENTATOR, on the other hand, can make sense out of chaos and genuinely add to the atmosphere, which is why so many fans who are actually at matches have Radio 5 on via headphones to hear about what’s passing before their eyes.

But even here the British suffer. Contrast any British commentator you can name with these urbane, informed, intelligent and insightful European commentators witnessing the greatest Champions League Final goal ever. It’s Zidane’s: an artist’s goal, watched by men not ashamed of intelligence or of art. You would, ideally, have Spanish to follow the discussion. But if you’re British, you almost certainly don’t. Listen, though, and learn. It’s no wonder Michael Robinson never came home:

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3 responses to “Sport Changing Over Time II

  1. I’m still not entirely sure what ‘lob’ is though. Just what it sounds like? And did the batsman try to time his stroke, or use the bat as a helmet?

    Race you to find a clip on YouTube!

    On darts, I had a John Lowe dart board. This was a normal dartboard, but on the reverse it had just the scores needed to get a 9 dart checkout (this was just after he had achieved it for the first time (presumably first time on TV). How easy it looked, and how hard it proved.

    I wasn’t a bad player though, as you say practice really helps. I was given a £50 John Lewis voucher a few years back and bought a dartboard, and discovered what people mean when they say ‘never go back’.

  2. God I love the internet (and am glad it wasn’t around when I was a child, or I would have done nothing else).

    Scyld Berry, the sort of new Editor of Wisden, on lob-bowling. Quote: “For too long now lob bowling has been associated with effeminacy and sharp practice.”

    http://content-usa.cricinfo.com/wisdencricketer/content/story/138294.html

  3. That must have been a pukka dartboard – mine cost £4.99 from JB Sports in Sutton. Mind you, it’s lost most of its colour, and it could never hold a dart..
    Anyway, I’ve given of my best and I can’t find lob bowling on Youtube. I can’t find it now.. everything is going to be on there in a year or two. I might post my roundarm chap tomorrow, though.