start of play

Be it cricket, football, golf, tennis, rugby union, or rugby league - no one seems to be too sure about how they started. This just adds to the fun and the intrigue that comes with trying to tell the story.

My friend, Jonathan (Robinson) gave me a copy of Jonathan (Rice's) Start of Play (Prion, 1998). An easy airplane read... As always seems to be the case, it is the sub-title that says it all: "The Curious Origins of Our Favourite Sports".

Here are a few stories which I don't want to forget:

[olympic games]
Did you know that early in the modern Olympic Games movement (1902), one leader argued that 'Women have but one task, that of crowning the winner with garlands' (37).

Did you know that, in 1876, WG Grace ('unquestionably the greatest British sportsman of his century', 89) 'made 839 runs in eight days' (90)? And that in 1880, his two younger brothers joined him in the first Test match ever played in England ... 'but Fred scored 0 in both innings, caught a cold at the end of the match and died within a fortnight' (92)?

Did you know that 'of the ninety-two clubs in the Premier League and the Football League in 1998, perhaps eighteen can trace their origins clearly to the church, and another dozen or so were formed by old boys of schools with strong religious connections' (109)?  That includes QPR, Barnsley, Bolton, Wolverhampton, Southhampton and Aston Villa.

[rugby union]
Did you know that the William Webb Ellis story is fiction? In 1823, at the age he supposedly picked the ball up and ran with it, 'there were no accepted rules of football, so it would have been difficult for him to show a fine disregard for them' (132). But one fact that can be believed about William Webb Ellis is that 'he took part in the first-ever Oxford v Cambridge cricket match. He made 12 batting at number three...' (136). Ahh, out of (rugby) darkness and into the (cricketing) light ... and then even more light. He went on to become a country priest in Essex.

Did you know that there is 'no logical reason why the scoring in tennis is the way it is'? (180). 'The reasoning seems to be derived from French currency of the Middle Ages, which in turn derived from the ancient Babylonian obsession with the mystical significance of the number sixty. The 60 sous coin was the unit most commonly used for gambling ... and the winner of the game would win the coin. There being four points to be won in each game, the players would shout that they had won 15, then 30 then 45 sous, before taking the game and the coin. The forty-five was shortened to forty because it was easier to say...' (180).

Did you know that Tom Morris Jr was the first winner of the claret jug in 1872? He is still the youngest ever winner of The Open - at 17 years of age in 1868. He was set to become the WG Grace of golf. In 1875 he and his Dad (seen together in the photo) were challenging the Park brothers at the North Berwick course. 'On the final hole, young Tom putted successfully for victory, but then was handed a telegram telling him that his wife was seriously ill after giving birth to their first child. They set out immediately for St Andrews ... . But they were too late, and by the time they arrived home, both mother and baby were dead. Young Tom never got over the loss and lapsed into a deep melancholy ... [three months later] he was found dead at his home.' (221-223).

In the wider socio-historical setting, Rice slips in some fascinating observations. The introduction of the railways not only ensured that 'feudality is gone forever' (42), but it was 'one of the fairy godmothers to the birth of national sports' (42) - enabling greater ease of travel to seek competition. [Much like how, through airplanes, the birth of international sports has been made more possible]. The legal changes enabling a 'free Saturday afternoon' (55) were huge. 'The growth of industry had shown the virtues of a competitive economy' (57) and as these industries became 'new sporting benefactors' (57), they brought this competition with them. Also the expansion of the British Empire meant the need for young administrators everywhere and with them went this new-found love of games. And so cricket is played in India - oh yes, it is.

But why was America so resistant?
Only golf, which was reintroduced in the 19th century, and the post-revolutionary sport of lawn tennis ever really took root in America from Britain. Both are intrinsically individual sports rather than team sports. Does the post-revolutionary American psyche prefer self-reliance to depending on others? Did the wide open spaces of the American plains breed a man who has gotta do what a man's gotta do, rather than a man who's gotta do what his team-mates want him to do? (50)
Possibly ... I wonder if it also has something to do with the timing? The colonising of America was so much earlier, before many of these other sports had much momentum in their development.

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