Brits at their Best.com: British History, Culture & Sports, History of Freedom, Heroes, Inventors

SPORTS & STYLE

Rugby player leaps to catch ball

Rugby's resulting scrum is a weird name, but “Assault and Battery” was already taken.  (PG Wodehouse)

Image: Graeme Purdy

SPORTS WRAP-UP

Soccer, football, golf, fly-fishing, cricket, lawn tennis, rugby - there is a reason that Brits established so many sports now played around the world. It reflected a particular cast of mind.

Smiling woman with tennis racquet

Striking the best pose against greensward (dressed in white), Brits created the laws of cricket. Rolling with the punches, so to speak, they established boxing's Queensberry Rules. Inspired by the possibilities of slicing a ball across a net, they devised the modern, outdoor game of tennis. (Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, who combined a methodical mind with a highly commendable determination to amuse his guests, inaugurated the modern rules of lawn tennis in 1873. In less than a decade, men in white flannels, rapidly followed by women, were crying 'Ready?' 'Play' in Britain, America, and Europe.)

Indoors, it was the same song sung in a different key. According to Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, the game beloved of so many Chinese - ping pong - "was invented on the dining tables of England". As Johnson notes, "There you have, I think, the essential difference between us and the rest of the world. Other nations such as the French looked at the dining table and saw the opportunity to have dinner. We looked at the dining table and saw an opportunity to play whiff whaff."

Mimicking the game of tennis in an indoor environment, everyday objects were enlisted as equipment. A line of books might be the net, a rounded top of a champagne cork or knot of string as the ball, and a cigar box lid as the racket

Around the same time, Brits started to play badminton, and named it for the country estate of the English Duke of Beaufort, where they first lofted shuttlecocks - those handy corks again, this time embellished with feathers - over a net using lightweight racquets. They had an approach to play which has been adopted around the world.

Golfers consider shot

Golf is less dirty than rugby, drier (usually) than fly-fishing, slower (at times) than cricket, and capable of delivering mouth-dry suspense.

By then Brits were playing the links, and had given golf its definitive form by using a number of different clubs, including a driver and a putter, to hit a ball into each hole on a course in the lowest possible number of strokes. When the first tournament was held in 1745, in Edinburgh, they naturally did one of the things they liked to do - they produced a set of fair and crystal-clear rules.

This was their unique contribution - rules that made games enjoyable and fair play possible. After throwing and kicking balls and fighting with bare knuckles, Brits drafted rules so chaos could be organised and the enjoyable and passionate business of the game could proceed. And, when intense disagreements arose about what the rules of a game should be, Brits allowed one sport to divide into two. Witness the birth of football (also called soccer) and rugby.

We can never do these sports justice, but we humbly offer a wrap-up of rugby, football (soccer), boxing, cricket, fly-fishing, hunting, racing and hockey which you may find amusing.

RUGBY

As early as 1175 Brits played a riotous game in which as many as a hundred men on a team would try to kick, carry, and blast a ball past their opponents. The authorities took a dim view of these pastimes, and a number of kings prohibited games of “foote balle”. Naturally the Brits kept playing the game whenever and wherever they could. Eventually they channelled some of their energies into football (known outside Britain as soccer). Rugby is named after the school where, according to legend, young William Webb Ellis “with fine disregard for the rules of football as played in his time, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus originating the distinctive feature of the Rugby game.”

The year was 1843, and retribution, no doubt, was swift, but Ellis had expressed a desire for higher things that was shared by others. Freeing a player’s feet from the tyranny of the ball and letting him run with it in his arms while he attempted to escape the heavy onslaught of his opponents was a satisfactory experience. For opponents the satisfaction lay in squelching the runner's programme, and preventing him from depositing the ball over the line.

Grinning rugby player

Image: Mark Kolbe

For some time it was difficult to say whether football (soccer) or rugby was being played, but eventually Brits sorted it out. Reducing the sides from several hundred to 15, they agreed in 1871 to laws that formalised Rugby’s turbulent game of catching, running, shouldering, passing, kicking, tackling, falling, scrummage and ruck. The upshot is a sport so popular that the 2003 Rugby World Cup pulled 2 million to the stands, and broadcast to 205 countries and an estimated billion viewers. American and Canadian football are direct descendants of the game, and played with passion at high school, college, and professional levels. For more, check out planet rugby or rugby union.

FOOTBALL (SOCCER)

Young muddy soccer goalie in rain

Football “isn’t a matter of life and death. It’s more important than that” (Bill Shankley, manager, Liverpool Football Club).

It is doubtful the Brits were the first people to inflate a pig’s bladder and kick it around. Propelling some sort of ball toward an opponent’s goal occurred over long centuries in China and ancient Greece. But Brits can claim to have established the rules of the game they call football and many others call soccer.

Football was a wild, spontaneous game for its first 500 years, frequently suppressed, but always breaking free. Public schools made the first attempts to formalise its rules in the not entirely fantastic belief that the sport promoted strength, health, loyalty, selflessness, cooperation, and team spirit. In 1848, graduates at Cambridge University, idealists ever, made an attempt to settle matters definitively. They proclaimed that shin-kicking was out and so was carrying the ball.

Moving with unusual alacrity where matters of sporting rules are concerned, football clubs adopted Cambridge rules fifteen years later in 1863 when the Football Association codified the Laws of the Game. The elegantly simple rules call for two teams of eleven players who play on a rectangular grass field with a goal at each end toward which they attempt to maneuver the ball. Goalkeepers excepted, players may not use their hands or arms to propel the ball in general play. Players who enjoyed carrying the ball shook the dust of the football field from their shoes and returned to the relaxations of rugby, but you already knew that.

X-ray showing foot resting on soccer ball

To really have fun you need more than a foot and a ball.

Photo: askhamdesign@istockphoto.com

Rules, rules, what is it about Brits and rules? How did they grasp the paradox that applying the right rules fairly and consistently will expand freedom and intensify pleasure? You may find it a question worth pondering.

British sailors, soldiers, engineers and entrepreneurs transported the rules of football around the world. The game seized the imagination of South Americans and Europeans in the 19th century, and never released its grip. Seven countries established the Federation Internationale de Football Associations (FIFA) in 1904, and continue to host World Cups for men and women. It is estimated that almost 300 million people around the world are playing football today. Espn has the details.

BOXING

"Magnanimity, my dear Tom, and bravery, should be inseparable" (William Hazlitt, "The Fight").

Boxing may be the oldest sport, but age did not lend it delicacy. Kicking, gouging, biting and hitting a man while down were an unfortunate part of boxing until, in 1743, Brits laid down modern boxing’s first set of rules. Further developments occurred, most spectacularly in 1867, when the Amateur Athletic Club published the famous Queensberry rules, named after the 9th Marquess who was a club patron.

Boxing requires courage, determination, skill, and a stomach for sheer pain as two boxers or fighters of similiar weight attack each other with their fists in a series of intervals called "rounds". The Queensberry rules provided for padded gloves, 3-minute rounds with rests, and the 10-second knockout rule. Most importantly it prevented blows being rained on a man who was down, on one knee, or hanging on the ropes. Points were awarded only for clean blows to the head and torso.

The boxing match has impacted the English language with phrases like "throwing in the towel", "hitting below the belt" and "punching above one's weight". The sport has also inspired a number of British writers, including George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Conan Doyle. (One sportswriter, knocked out by his own metaphors, described an unfortunate British heavyweight as the owner of "a glass jaw" who “fell in a straight, pure Doric line, like a tree crashing in the forest”.) It's an exciting sport, but not for everybody.

And that's part of the genius of British sports - its games appeal to quite different players and spectators. Inventiveness really is "the name of the game".

Cricket in Vancouver, BC

Cricket in Vancouver, BC, as a ship cruises by.

CRICKET

I don’t know what these fellows are doing, but whatever they are doing, they sure are doing it well. ( American Pete Sampras while watching a game of cricket.)

In 1751, a cricket match was played on a New York green between Londoners and New Yorkers. The game, which featured bats, a ball, and wickets and two teams of the customary 11 players, proceeded according to London rules, there being, as usual, more than one set of rules from which to choose. The New World tumbled the Old by 87 runs. Nevertheless, despite the frisson produced by firing a ball at ferocious speeds, the Americans were never bowled over by cricket. Perhaps it was the distraction of a revolution. Perhaps a game with maidens, bails, and a famous crease lacked the hard hitting appeal of baseball. Whatever the reason, byes and leg byes had Americans saying bye-bye to cricket's grassy green oval and its beguiling evocation of an English summer afternoon.

American indifference notwithstanding, hundreds of millions of Australians, New Zealanders, Africans, West Indians, Pakistanis, and Indians call cricket their game. India has been described as coming to a standstill when an important cricket match is being played, but this portrait of a paralyzed subcontinent barely describes the passions unloosed by the sport.

The hard ground of drier climes makes for very fast bowling as the overarm bowler flings himself and the ball toward the batsman. He, in turn, tries to defend his wicket while bashing the missile with his skinny-handled, oblong-shaped bat. Success is counted in runs, in matches that can go on for days. There is no sweeter sound to cricket followers (so long as their team is on the pitch) than the thwack of leather on willow.

Founded in 1787, Marylebone Cricket Club remains the headquarters of world cricket. The International Cricket Council does the game’s heavy lifting, organising matches, tours, and world competitions. For its followers, cricket has come to mean good sportsmanship, personal grace, the triumph and collapse of favourite teams, and something Lord Mancroft – not entirely positively – describes this way: “Cricket is a game which the English, not being a spiritual people, have invented to give themselves some conception of eternity.”

Fly-fishing at evening on the Itchen

Fly-fishing on the Itchen

Photo: © 2007 David Abbott

FLY-FISHING

As inward love breeds outward talk,
The Hound some praise, and some the Hawk:
Some better pleased with private sport,
Use Tennis, some a Mistress court:
But these delights I neither wish,
Nor envy while I freely fish. . .
(Izaak Walton, The Compleat Angler)

For those who love fly-fishing, cricket has nothing on eternity; boxing has no hold on great literature; and rugby opponents will never prove more wily than an old trout. A seemingly lonely occupation, fly-fishing is often conducted with friends who rise before dawn, and meet after dark to drink whisky and share a repast while reliving their pursuit of the crafty denizens of a clear chalk stream.

The sport advanced in Britain due to the publication of an early fishing manual (by an Englishwoman), technological innovations, and a positive liking for weather, no matter how cold or wet. Dame Juliana Berners (or Barnes) is believed to be the author of the 'Treatyse of fysshynge wyth an angle', published as part of the Boke of St. Albans in 1496. Dame Juliana was up-to-date on artificial flies (six of those she mentioned are still in use), but her fishing rod was a simple stick.

A major break-through to rod design came in the middle of the 17th century, when Izaak Walton, who loved to fish the Itchen, was writing The Compleat Angler. An unremembered someone attached a wire loop to the end of his rod, allowing a much longer cast with a running line, and greater efficiency at playing a fish. Not long after the need for a fishing reel to prevent the line from tangling became obvious.

About the same time, in 1655, Charles Kirby invented the Kirby bend, a distinctively shaped hook with offset bend that is still used. A few years later he and fellow tackle and needle makers fled London Bridge in the Great Fire, and settled in Redditch. Their descendants made significant contributions to fishing tackle, and lacemakers in Nottingham contributed a free-running reel based on the wooden lace bobbin.

Fly-fisherman in Metolius River

Fly-fishing along the Metolius River, Oregon

Photo: David Abbott

Research published in 2006 contends that fish have personalities and that their memories extend up to three years. This information has been known for centuries to anglers. They also know that trout can see, hear, and smell us (Compleat Angler, Chapter V) and that to take a great old Trout, it is best to try him at night, "for then he is bold and lies near the top of the water, watching the motion of a Frog or Water-Rat or Mouse that swims betwixt him and the sky; these he hunts after, if he sees the water but wrinkle, or move in one of these dead holes, where these great old Trouts usually lie near to their holds. . ."

Izaak Walton's great friend, John Donne, doubtless inspired by these angling adventures, casts an opening line in literary waters:

Come live with me, and be my love,
And we will some new pleasures prove
Of golden sands, and crystal brooks,
With silken lines, and silver hooks.

There will the river whispering run
Warmed by thy eyes, more than the sun.
And there the 'enamoured fish will stay,
Begging themselves they may betray.

When thou wilt swim in that live bath,
Each fish, which every channel hath,
Will amorously to thee swim,
Gladder to catch thee, than thou him. . .

Horses, riders and hounds gather before hunt

A hunt gathers at Biddesden.

Image: English Country by Caroline Seebohm and Christopher Simon Sykes

RIDING AND RACING

Riding is an active and sometimes dangerous sport, requiring a predilection for throwing oneself on a horse and galloping over fences and walls. It has unwritten rules, and requires ability, practice and courage. It is not only for the wealthy. Farm families are often on horseback, and spectators - "hunt followers" are always on the roads and in the fields. As enjoyed in Britain, it is part of country traditions.

Riders around the world who compete "ride English". Dressage competitions, however, go back to Xenophon, and were developed by French and Germans as well as the British.

Horses and riders flying over fences at Cheltenham

Cheltenham, one of the world's great jump race meetings

Image: Cheltenham

Flat and jump race meetings are popular in Britain. Steeplechasing (a horse race with a church steeple used to mark the finish line) was an Irish relation taken up with gusto in Britain in the 18th century. Early steeplechases required horse and rider to negotiate fences and ponds and rough terrain. Races today are two to four miles. The jumps are under five feet, and each jockey weighs at least 140 pounds. Author Dick Francis was once one of them and he recreates their passionate world in his mysteries.

We haven't mentioned the Brits who race on their own two feet, but we make a start here.

ICE HOCKEY

There is much that could be said about ice hockey. The first game was played by British soldiers in Canada in the 1850s. In 1875, James Creighton drew up the rules and hosted the first indoor ice hockey match. It's believed that the game was based on the English game of field hockey, the Irish game of hurling, the Scottish game of shinty and the Native American game of lacrosse.

In 1885 the oldest hockey rivalry in history began with the varsity match between Oxford and Cambridge at St Moritz. In 1892, Lord Stanley of Preston, Governor General of Canada, inaugurated the Stanley Cup, which he called the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, at a dinner of the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Association. In 1893 the first hockey puck was swept across the ice in the US.

The silver challenge cup that Lord Stanley presented is held for a year by the winning American or Canadian team. Now mounted on a silver edifice with the homely shape of a milk can, the cup tours the world, often attending charity events, and always guarded by hockey players.

Two players with the Stanley Cup in North Carolina

The Stanley Cup in North Carolina,
courtesy the Locker Room of the John Locke Foundation.

There is much to celebrate – the games, the players, the fans. There is wonderful stuff to be written, and we would be glad to catch it, credit it, and link any copy you send us. Email us.

 

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass