Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Weaning the Yanks off their crazy sports

(And why South Africa's cricket and soccer sides should be called Springboks)

You really have to pity the Americans.

Yes I know everyone is desperate to obtain a Green Card to enable them to live and work there. It is, no doubt, still the land of opportunity.

But why I pity them is because of the types of sport they mainly tend to get excited about.

Okay, they are the world’s great golfing superpower although, despite their wealth of talent, they have failed, by and large, in the post-Tiger-at-his-best period, to win many majors.

But golf isn’t one of those sports that reflects a nation’s soul. It is too exclusive.

The same applies to tennis. The US has bred its fair share of world-beaters - like the Williams sisters, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. But tennis, too, is essentially a sport on the periphery of a nation’s soul. Apart from the odd event like the Ryder Cup in golf and Davis Cup in tennis, these sports are essentially about the individual, who just happens to also have a nationality. So of course when Tiger Woods was pre-eminent, Americans proved their non-racial credentials and followed him Pied Piper-like as he notched up victory upon victory.

But golf and tennis are not what gets middle America excited.

No, for some reason the sports that pack massive stadiums are all tedious, mundane affairs, considerably inferior to what the bulk of the rest of the planet enjoys.

The number one sport in the world is soccer (or football, as it is more correctly called). But, while the US does passably well (considering its size) in qualifying for the odd World Cup, this sport is very much an imported thing in the States, especially for men. Women and children tend to play soccer (or “saarker”, as they call it), but it is not a game for real, red-blooded American men.

In recent years, thanks to satellite TV, I have tried to discover what makes US men tick sports-wise. You always come across them on sitcoms making any excuse to take in “the game”, and that game is either American Football (or gridiron) in winter, or baseball in summer. Basketball is in there somewhere as well – a chance for the giant African Americans to assert some ascendancy over their pale compatriots. Oh, and of course there is also ice hockey (or “haarkie”, as they call it). You know the game where they fly around on skates chasing a tiny black puck which, for the most part, is barely visible to the naked eye of the most perceptive spectator. (It’s almost as spectator-unfriendly as our field hockey.)

Clearly ice hockey takes immense skill and guts, but it is hardly great viewing, except if you happen to enjoy seeing high-speed collisions between men dressed in so much protective gear, including helmets, that apart from their numbers, it is almost impossible to tell them apart.

Yeah, Yanks get churned up about haarkie, but it is football that really seems to do it for them. How odd that they usurped the name, football, from its English origins, and gave it to a sport that has greater affinities with rugby union than with soccer.

But the NFL, National Football League, has bred a monster. It is an abomination of a sport, a bit like Aussie Rules down under. As with ice hockey, in the US game you have supposedly macho men dressed up in masses of protective clothing and crash helmets!

Look the scrum in rugby union has also become a bit of a farce. Gone are the days when two packs simply engaged, the ball had to be fed in straight, both sides shoved and the hooker hooked it back. Now, after various changes to the rules, at least 80% of scrums have to be reset, wasting valuable playing time. Eventually the IRB will, we hope, return to the simplicity of the scrum as it used to be.

The lineout, however, has become a spectacular affair as giant men are lifted even higher. In my schoolboy rugby days in the 1970s, lifting was banned. Then they decided players would always try to cheat so the rules were changed to make lifting the catcher a key component of this set piece.

In North American Football, however, there is just too little diversity of action. Based on watching a few games and really trying to understand it, it seems to boil down to two lines of forwards facing off, with the middle man (rugby’s equivalent of a hooker, or perhaps even a scrumhalf) of the team on the offensive flicking the ball back between his legs to the only oke most people might have heard of: the quarterback. This is the glamour boy of gridiron – and from what I’ve seen he is almost always a honky, a tall white man. There are similarities to our rugby in that the fastest guys are among the four or five backs who then make a run for it towards the opposition’s tryline (for want of the official name). The job of those bulky forwards, with all that padding, is to hold off their opposite numbers while our quarterback checks out the action and then unleashes a spiral pass towards him in the hope that he will catch it cleanly in the field of play. Wherever he is tackled or goes out into touch, play resumes with a similar move. In this way the team on attack can move, yard by yard (each yard is marked, hence the gridiron term), towards the touchdown zone (where, paradoxically, they don’t actually have to touch the ball down). Bizarrely, the quarterback may only make one pass and the receiver cannot pass the ball on to another player. So it is an incredibly stop-start affair. Sometimes the ball is not caught (knocked on in rugby parlance) and you have a turnover. But not just a handing over of possession to the other team – there is a complete replacement of each side, because a team on the offensive has to bring its attacking players out and the team on the defensive has to bring on its best defenders. At least that seems to be how it works. So at any given time you’ve got about 50 giant men in space suits milling around, either on or off the pitch.

But let’s not forget the officials in their black-and-white striped shirts, who stop every so often to have a discussion, before the main referee will announce to the crowd over the public address system, while standing virtually to attention, what the decision is. To those of us ignorant of the niceties of the game, that announcement is usually pretty unintelligible, but it usually amounts to a turn-over or perhaps a penalty kick. And this kick is always taken from in front of the posts, with a special kicker coming on to do the honours. (Our own Naas Botha played a season or two in this “position”, where of course he wouldn’t have to tackle a soul, which would have suited him just fine.) So here the ball is flung back from that line of forwards and, as the opposition comes bearing down on him, a receiver places the ball for the kicker to kick it over the poles. They rarely miss.

Compare this to rugby union where the kick is taken either in line with where the try was scored (a conversion) or where the penalisable offence occurred. So you could have someone (like Frans Steyn) trying to kick the ball over from the touchline and on the halfway line – a huge kick. Or if the penalty is near touch but on the 22m line, Morne Steyn or Pat Lambie will try to thread it through the uprights which, due to the angle, are now a considerably narrower target. Or the captain can opt to kick for the corner flag and set up a lineout 5m from the goal line – almost the ultimate attacking position.

But in gridiron there is none of this versatility. Everything occurs within a very rigid set of rules, with the only real variation coming from the sort of attacking movement devised, of which there are, like chess, an almost infinite number of options. Either there is a little sleight of hand behind the line of forwards and someone tries to plough up the middle, or else there is a flurry of activity as attackers try to evade defenders while all the time the quarterback is under siege, with his “guards” doing their best to hold off the attackers before he hurls that spiral pass. If he is caught in possession, there seems to be a turnover.

Look, superficially, it is a spectacle. There is lots of razzmatazz, with the commentators getting quite worked up. I even heard one guy ask his colleague how to pronounce the word “buoyed”. I think the Yanks have a hang-up about the fact that the thing that floats in the sea, a buoy, which we pronounce “boy”, they call something like a “boowie”. However, that’s by the by. What is not trivial is the essence of the game, and it is here that I believe American football falls flat on its face. There is no real sense of drama. It is not edge-of-the-seat stuff. Any rugby union lover will tell you that when the Boks are playing and, as so often happens, they are under siege metres from their line, you, as a spectator, literally lean your body away from our tryline in an effort to will the attackers back. The feeling of relief when the enemy is repulsed is immense, especially if the match is tight, as all good Test matches are. I use the capital T deliberately, because there has been a tendency of late to call them “test” matches, which is an insult to one of the oldest international sporting confrontations in the world. The Springboks versus the All Blacks, or the Wallabies, or England, Wales, Ireland, or the British and Irish Lions, even Argentina, Scotland and Italy: these are occasions which your American population can only ever dream of experiencing.

I mean, they don’t even have international gridiron games, that I’m aware of. And even if they could find another country which plays this absurd game, the inherent flaws in its design would render the match at best interesting, at worst the normal boring “style trumps substance” scenario. Because there can be no comparison between the sort of courage required to play union and gridiron. In the latter, you are covered in padding and wear a crash helmet. In union you go out in shorts, jersey, socks and boots, with a gumguard to protect your teeth (not available in my school days) and perhaps a scrumcap, which backline players also sometimes wear. But most guys don’t bother, such as Captain Courageous Jean de Villiers. He is the epitome of rugby bravery. His knees strapped against no doubt numerous ongoing knee niggles, he is still, at the age of 32, able to power his way through a host of tackles, having taken the final pass (in the recent Test against Wales) from that other tower of strength, the aptly named Bismarck du Plessis virtually behind his back, to score. Each time a defender in rugby union makes a tackle, he puts his life on the line. Of course today the guys are so well-muscled, so well conditioned, that it becomes possible for the likes of a small oke like Pat Lambie to bring down a hulking brute like All Black captain Ritchie McCaw with relative ease. And that’s another thing about union: while generally sides are getting bigger (a scrum of eight men usually comes close to weighing a tonne, 1000kg, given that each forward is usually well over 100kg), there is still space for short, nuggety, super-quick players like Lambie or the much under-rated Brent Russell of a few years back. Think too of the Stormers’ Gio Aplon and Cheslin Kolbe.

And because each guy isn’t wearing a crash helmet, their personalities are there for all to see. As the camera focuses on a rampaging Eben Etsebeth or Duane Vermeulen, it is an instantly recognisable individual putting his life on the line, often stopped in his tracks by an equally robust individual from the opposition – or a pair of them! You identify with each player. If he’s under pressure, it shows on his face. The mistakes creep in. The attacking side capitalises and so the game ebbs and flows, with each side probing for chinks in the flesh, blood and cerebral armour of their opponents.

Because the game is also highly tactical: whether to let the scrumhalf dictate matters from behind the scrum (like Fourie du Preez did so effectively against Wales on Saturday with his pinpoint box kicks), or to unleash a full backline move, with perhaps a switch in direction from a centre to the fullback coming in at an angle. So long as the basic laws of the game – no forward passing or obstruction – are abided by, the variations are endless. There is the legendary up-and-under (or garyowen) where a flyhalf or other backline player puts the ball high behind the opposition’s backline, timing it to be caught by the opposition fullback just as his teammates, having set off from behind the kicker, arrive to plough him into the dirt, with a view to effecting a turnover. Consider the courage it takes for a small guy like Lambie, playing at fullback, to take a high ball like that as a hoard of huge, menacing men bear down on him. Yet he does it with aplomb, as do so many other great backline players. People sometimes ridicule Naas Botha, but many was the time he took it upon himself to field those high kicks. Then he’d jink to left or right to avoid a few tackles before either finding a pinpoint touch, or perhaps feed a Bok backline which boasted the likes of one Danie Gerber, arguably the most penetrative and elusive centre ever to grace a rugby field.

So for rugby union the bywords for success are character and skill. While SA may breed players of immense character, which enables them to score some breathtaking tries, it is the All Blacks who have honed the game to a fine art, with their tactical nous and handling skills admired by friend and foe alike. The game is a religion in New Zealand. It seems to flow through their blood. But because they’re so good, a Test match between them and the Boks is a thing to be savoured. The final match of the recent Rugby Championship at Ellis Park on October 5 is a case in point. It was arguably the greatest Test match of all time, and I say that even though the Boks lost 38-27.

Again, the Americans don’t know what such international competition is all about. I mean what do they call the pinnacle of their baseball competition? The World Series. But it involves the leaders of two North American Major League Baseball leagues, the National League and the American League. So it has nothing to do with the rest of the world. Politically, American has always enjoyed what one president called its “splendid isolation”. They were reluctant (but very welcome) entrants in both world wars, coming as they did to the rescue of the western democracies of Europe, especially Britain. But in sport this isolationist stance counts against them.

I have tried to watch American baseball, and frankly, despite seeing it lionised in numerous American movies, it leaves me stone cold. As an outside observer, what I see is a batter coming in, taking his stance and then a pitcher throwing the ball at him. If he misses three times and the balls were pitched in the right area, he’s out. Sometimes he hits it, but if it goes outside the ninety degree angle field in front of him it doesn’t count. So all he can do is hit it somewhere in front of him and hope it doesn’t get caught. He then runs to the first base, unless he’s made good contact and hit it out of the ground, then apparently it is an instant home run, which he still has to perform. And for some reason, US films and sitcoms tell me, if you happen to catch the ball when it is hit out the park, you get to hang onto it. But really, again, like gridiron, the basic premise of the sport – while it may have myriad minor technical niceties of strategy and plenty of historical hype – is flawed. Again there is little scope for the sort of drama attendant on a game of cricket, for instance.

Here, as with rugby, it is all about skill, courage and character. And before the advent of helmets, which occurred in about the 1980s, it was even more about courage, as batsmen faced six-and-a-half-foot-tall West Indies bowlers sending the ball down at them from about 20 yards away at speeds in excess of 150km/h. I’m no mathematician, but do know that in a smidgen of a second, the batsman not only has to ascertain where the ball will pitch and what it will do off the surface (if, for instance it hits the seam) or in the air, but what sort of stroke or evasive action he has to take. Because the difference between a perfect-length yorker (which bounces just there, next to your feet) and a half-volley which can, with a well-timed drive, be sent racing to the boundary for four), is pretty slender.

Back in the 1960s SA boasted arguably the greatest team in the world, with the likes of the Pollock brothers Peter and Graeme, Eddie Barlow, Trevor Goddard, Dennis Lindsay, Tiger Lance, Mike Proctor, Barry Richards and several others. Sadly, due to apartheid, the talented “coloured” player, Basil D’Oliveira, was forced to ply his trade in the UK, eventually becoming a key member of the MCC side. He would not have been out of place in the SA side. The major sadness is that our isolation truncated the international careers of two of the world’s greatest batsmen in Graeme Pollock and Barry Richards. And it did not allow SA to play against the West Indies, the Indians and the Pakistanis. What a tragedy. It was only in the late 1980s, when PW Botha’s regime was feeling the pinch, that they finally allowed “rebel” sides from the West Indies to tour. Finally we got a taste of Caribbean flair and pace, but it was artificial stuff. Only after 1992, as we were firmly on the path to democracy, did we get to experience the real thing. It was like heaven. We were back in international cricket, and we were playing “black” sides as well. But we had missed out on seeing that other brilliant Richards, Viv, of the West Indies, as well as the likes of Gary Sobers and fast bowlers Michael Holding and Joel Garner. We also did not see our side pit its skills against the great Australian pace attack combination nicknamed “Lilian Thomson”: Dennis Lillee and Jeff “Thommo” Thomson. Like the Windies pacemen, these two were terrors, capable of inflicting mental and physical pain on the most courageous of opening batsmen. Or, if you happened to be a fast bowler yourself and you come in after the 80th over, you could well get a dose of aggro with the new ball from the most feared opening pair at the time in world cricket.

Courage and talent. Because, fast as these men were, as full of guile as the best spin bowlers are, there is always a batsman around who is just so damned good he can pull the most brilliant attacking force to pieces. The likes of India’s Sachin Tendulkar, for instance. Or, in his prime, our own Jacques Kallis. Or the Windies’  Brian Lara. The key is that in cricket it is about talent and character. It is about BMT. Imagine the pressure an opening batsman feels going in to bat against the best bowlers around and he has perhaps failed to score in his previous two Tests. Suddenly he is super vulnerable. But he has to first see off the shine on the new ball. Play himself in, before hopefully gaining the ascendancy and upping the scoring rate. SA have proved themselves to be the best in the world at doing this. We are the Test champions. But in the shorter versions of the game we seem to lack the sort of attacking flair among our batsmen which teams like India and Australia have; men like Shane Watson and Rohit Sharma, who recently hammered a double century against Australia.

One change I think SA could make to bring the steel back to all formats of our game is to change our name back from the Proteas to the Springboks. Calling them after a flower, pretty as it is, was never going to work in this country. The Springbok may have had negative connotations under apartheid, but it is not as though the players had anything to do with imposing segregation. Remember the Springbok cricketers’ walk-off protest in 1971 at Newlands, led by Barry Richards, if my memory serves me well? Why, Richards and Proctor even went to the UK as young men just out of school – to learn from and carry the bags of their West Indies heroes.

No, racism was not the invention or intention of those talented young men who just wanted to play against the best in the world. It was the National Party government which screwed up our race relations. But I believe the time is ripe for our national cricket side to take back the legendary Springbok moniker. It is synonymous with the best that SA sport has to offer. Indeed, it might even help our soccer side move from mediocrity if they dropped the rather insulting Bafana Bafana title. This means “the boys”, and under apartheid adult black men were insultingly called “boys” by some racist whites. Yet we perpetuate that insult with the word Bafana. Perhaps they too would enjoy becoming Springboks. This is an emblem our rugby players literally put their lives on the line for week after week, to the point where we are deemed one of the greatest rugby-playing nations in the world.

I’d like the see our Springbok cricket and soccer teams up there with them.

And imagine if the US could ditch the silliness of gridiron and baseball and introduce rugby union and cricket in their place? Imagine if they upgraded soccer to a national sport, so they could really take on the best in the world in the world’s best sports?

Imagine if they downgraded the ridiculous motor racing events, where they drive high-powered, high-speed saloon or even Formula 1-equivalent cars around a sloped oval track – one long, boring procession where the only real interest is in whether a car will hit the side wall and flip, ploughing into a bunch of others. As with the above-mentioned sports, US motor racing lost its way.  Formula 1 is all about finesse, about driving a super-fast, super-light car on tracks that simulate normal roads. Why, some races are even held on normal roads, such as at Monaco. But for me those don’t work as well as races on dedicated circuits, where the tarmac is wider, enabling more overtaking. The sport has become a bit too technical, but retains the sort of drama which first got me addicted to it as a young boy when I watched some of the first Formula 1 races to be held in SA – at the famous West Bank Grand Prix circuit in East London in the early 1960s.

The US needs to break out of its isolation. If it joined the rest of the world – and I know they are soccer World Cup regulars, but it’s not their passion – perhaps their people would be less arrogant. Imagine a rugby Test between the US and China, were they to also take up the game seriously? Imagine if the Indians started playing some other sports apart from cricket? With such huge populations, the Springboks would really have to up their game to stay on top. But as long as the US believes its excuses for sport are the real thing, they’ll remain in the rut of self-imposed sporting isolation, blissfully unaware of what they are missing out on.

I challenge Barack Obama, when his term of office ends, to explore ways of breaking his nation out of its isolation. He’s a guy who grew up bodysurfing in Hawaii. He must be less narrow-minded than those poor sports fans locked into the mainland, who can pretend that a game played with a small, ugly brown rugby ball, which probably looks much the same as it did 50 years ago, and can hardly even be seen when the game is under way, is something worth watching. Or who think a sport where a batsman walks in, hits a ball once, runs around four bases, and then sits down in the dugout again, is worth watching.

America, your brave armed forces twice saved the word from tyranny, especially in World War 2. While often misguided due to poor political leadership, they also bravely held back and eventually crushed the threat of communism.

Now, in the words of the late Jim Morrison of the Doors, it is time to “break on through to the other side”. It is time to take your place among the great sporting nations of the world, by embracing the sports which really count, which really have one sitting on the edge of one’s seat.

No comments:

Post a Comment