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Soup of This Day #146: There’s A Smile On My Face For The Whole Human Race

February 29, 2012

Netball at the Bournville Club, 1910
Netball being played at the Bournville Club in 1910. Those women in long dresses aren’t spectators – They’re the players. They look very statuesque – Photo: Unknown, 1910. Image cropped by Longworth72.

When I was a young tacker at the District High School (Years 1 to 10) at Beverley I was introduced to a new sport. It was seemingly invented by 1 of our teachers, an Englishman whose name was I think, Mr Mildenhall. I can’t be sure of his name but I can remember what we called the game – It was called Mildyball (Pronounced mill-dee-ball) and despite not having played it for over 20 years I can still recall the rules and general thrust of the game.

Which isn’t saying much to be fair.

The game involved a football (Any type will do), 4 markers for goals (2 at either end of a pitch of variable size) and some basic division. Essentially the 200 or so school kids of all ages were split into 2 vaguely even teams and lined up at opposite ends of the playing area. To start the game the ball was kicked by Mr Mildenhall roughly halfway between each set of kids, whose sole objective then was to propel the ball through the goal at the other end via any means available. The rules were correspondingly simple:

1. The only rule is that there are no rules. This rule was oft-quoted as we were quite proud of it.

2. Girls can only be tackled by girls whereas boys can be tackled by boys and kicked in the nether regions by unfeeling girls. Given Rule 1 this 2nd rule was just a little bit ironic and inconvenient. Therefore it tended to be muttered discretely after Rule 1 had been loudly stated.

3. Well before Brad Pitt uttered any such thing it was generally accepted by all that it wasn’t wise to discuss Mildyball with your parents.
This rule didn’t violate Rule 1 as it was more of a guideline.

This may sound like a bit of a Lord of the Flies type approach to sport and as it turned out it was pretty close to that – It was a rolling maul of crazed kids who generally had forgotten the score by the 10 minute mark. By the 15 minute mark the game usually had escalated into a running war of revenge, with long forgotten grievances dragged into the contest as opportunities for retribution handily presented themselves.

‘Yes, I kicked him in the head but I was going for the ball and it doesn’t violate the rule(s)’, was an oft-heard theme.

In spite of the chaos the game became something of a local institution, probably because it absolutely knackered the students on a Friday afternoon, thereby allowing the majority of the teaching fraternity to have a nice cool iced tea in the staff room. This location being at the other end of the campus meant that the enraged screams of an 8 year old who was exacting revenge for the theft of his marbles were muted.

Apart from the part where I’m wondering if there are any legal ramifications to what happened back then, Mildyball has got me thinking about how sports get started.

Take basketball for instance – The practice of taking a round ball and shooting through a goal with a net attached seems pretty intuitive. You have to wonder though at the genius that insisted on bouncing the ball while moving with it. How would you sell that to everyone else?

‘You have to bounce it every step,’ you would instruct.

‘Why?’ they would surely be asked.

‘Because it’s challenging and therefore better that way,’ you could patiently explain.

‘Okaaaaaay.’

And it is better and so it’s as much a part of basketball now as is the shooting of the ball through the net.

Then, there’s netball.

Netball involves much of the same ethos as basketball – There’s a largish round ball and the goals are hoops set up high with a net. There’s no backboard so you need to be a little more accurate but that’s ok because netball differs from basketball in 1 really key aspect:

As soon as you get the ball you stop moving.

That’s right. Catch the ball and you have to stay where you are – You can only move it on via throwing it and thus you can only shoot for goal from where you caught the ball. This general stationary-ness means that a backboard is less of a necessity. It’s also bloody counter-intuitive – Sport generally takes it’s ethos from life and in life if you get something desirable it hasn’t usually been the best tactic to just stand still and wait for someone else to help you out.

In netball it’s not so much about the person with the ball, it’s the movement off the ball that is key. Which makes it very strategic and difficult to get into. Imagine trying to explain that at the point of invention:

‘You can’t move once you have the ball,’ you’d say.

‘Why?’ they’d patiently ask.

‘Because it’s about thinking about the move ahead,’ you’d extol.

Audible sigh and then a long pause.

‘Hey, weren’t you the guy that told me that bouncing it made it better?’

In reality none of my scenarios would have come to pass. Basketball was invented around 1891 by Dr James Naismith at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. His intent was similar to Mr Mildenhall’s – Tire the little buggers out. Bouncing the ball while moving, more commonly known as dribbling, didn’t come into vogue until the 1950’s – Mostly because manufacturers had a hard time maintaining symmetry in the balls to this point and bouncing an asymmetrical ball was a little too tiring, even for Jimmy Naismith’s lads.

Netball grew out of women’s basketball around the late 1890’s. Martina Bergman-Österberg is credited with the 1st version in 1893 at the Physical Training College in Hampstead, London. From there the game evolved and the rules were initially codified in 1901. Because it was essentially an English version of basketball it spread predominantly throughout the Commonwealth. As a consequence the sport’s powerhouses today are Australia and New Zealand – At the World Championship level Australia has won 10 of the titles since the 1st event in 1963. New Zealand has won 4 and only Trindad and Tobago can muster another and even that 1979 triumph was shared with, you guessed it, Australia and New Zealand.

Sports you see, are rarely just invented fresh out of the box – They evolve, adding and subtracting over time. And this is where we get to why I like baseball, even if I live in Western Australia, a long way from the regular MLB market.

Baseball can trace it’s lineage back a long way – Hitting an object with a stick is a pretty fundamental skill and it would be nigh on impossible to work out who did what 1st. In spite of that long period of evolution the basic tenets of the game remain wonderfully simple. So simple that you can grab a bat and anything ball shaped and play in your backyard with not that great a distance between what you’re doing and what the pros are setting about in the Majors.

Peter Abraham is the Red Sox beat writer for the Boston Globe. For the recent Super Bowl XLVI in Indiana he got to step into another sporting world and see how that operates. At 1 point in the week-long Super Bowl festivities he wrote:

‘But when you’re around the Super Bowl for one day, you realize the power of the NFL.

The game is not until Sunday. But there were more media people here today than I’ve ever seen at any World Series game. The press work room at the J.W. Marriott is enormous and the league literally has a fleet of buses to bring reporters from place to place.

Baseball suddenly feels sort of quaint. Bud Selig is running the corner market and Roger Godell has the Super Wal-Mart.’

That right there is why I love baseball. I like the corner market – You can keep your Super Wal-Marts.

Back to Mildyball and I don’t know that it is still played to any degree. I think the Occupational, Health & Safety folk might have put a stop to it. With good reason too – 1 time I decided to tackle a kid from the year above me who was charging the length of the field towards goal with the ball tucked under 1 arm. He was a stereo-typical jock who had trouble spelling his own name but man was he big and could he motor. On this day I was lucky, I just bounced off him with only a few bruises to show for my kamikaze effort. The guy on the goal line who stupidly chose to stick out a foot in an attempt to trip the charging bullock was not so fortunate – He wasn’t trying to prevent the goal, just to inflict some humiliation on the inevitable scorer so maybe it was karma but all he achieved was to break his own ankle.

Evolution is sometimes referred to as the survival of the fittest. I guess that covers being smart too.

There’s A Smile On My Face For The Whole Human Race

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