Saturday, September 6, 2008

Why We Shout - Mac Millings

Some Mouthy bloke recently posted the following on a popular sportblog comment thread: “If they get the ticketing right (and they probably won't) I expect the London crowds to be very non-jingoistic….It would be awful if the Games’ crowds were versions of Wimbledon's and not versions of a London primary school's parents' evening.”

It was the Wimbledon part that struck me. Similar sentiments had been expressed during The Championships; for while some revelled in the screaming support for Andy Murray, most expressed dismay that this wasn’t what Wimbledon was about, and that the antics of “the Surrey Set” made a nation cringe. But why, I wondered, is deafeningly enthusiastic fan fervour at a football match the least you would expect, but the same on Centre Court is faintly embarrassing? What accounts for the differences in appropriate fan reaction at football and tennis, or, for that matter, any (top level – and I emphasise that I’m considering only the top level of the sports I mention) popular modern sport? In short, why do we shout more at some types of sporting event than others?

Let’s start with the contention that the character of the Wimbledon Centre Court crowd is a function of the class of its constituent members.

"They don't sit on their hands, they actually use them to clap." So said Martina Navratilova about the famous Sunday Centre Court crowd of 1991. We (yes, I was among them), the ordinary folk, had been let in for a tenner, and we were a little rowdier than the regular patrons of the place. This, it is supposed, led to the increasingly vocal, almost football crowd-like behaviour of today’s Wimbledon ticket buyers.

But is that really what’s happening? Nationality is the key here. The crowd only truly goes crazy for Murray, as it did for Henman before him, and I suspect Roger Taylor used to get something similar. If there’s no Brit on court (although a particular crowd favourite, like Agassi, can stir almost as strong a response) even in these modern times, the crowd reverts to the norm – silent before points, applause after. And, more or less, that’s how we behaved on that Sunday long ago. A little louder, to be sure (especially for Connors), but still respectful of the etiquette of the tennis crowd – which is not based on class, but on the fact that the game of tennis requires such etiquette. That’s what you do as a spectator of a sport whose participants take turns.

The crowd at a game of snooker is about as far removed, class-wise, as you can get from that watching a Centre Court match, and yet their behaviour is remarkably similar; generally speaking; silence before a shot, applause after a successful one. Rowdier cheering is reserved for crowd favourites (and of course, at crucial junctures of a match, which is common behaviour throughout the quieter sports).

National bias, which inspires much of the loudest crowd noise in tennis, is, of course, less apparent in snooker because of the paucity of foreigner players. However, both national bias and player favouritism are merely modifiers – they increase the noise levels when they are present, but aren’t the dominant factors regarding crowd etiquette. And as for the type of people who watch – well, why we’re sometimes quiet at sporting events has little to do with class, and much to do with the type of sport we’re watching. In snooker, the players take turns, and we who watch are quiet. In tennis, we are quiet, too – but slightly less so, because the turns are taken more quickly.

Well, you might say, a tennis serve is a shot, like a snooker or a golf shot, that requires concentration, and so quiet is necessary to allow the player to focus. But does a penalty-taking footballer, or a player taking a free throw in basketball, not need to concentrate on his big moment? He doesn’t get to, though, especially not in an away game.

I think what you have here is the modus operandi of a crowd, whose sport usually demands noise, overwhelming what are essentially individual sporting moments. For we are not quiet based on the difficulty of the game. The penalty takers and free throw shooters, whose shots aren’t significantly (if at all) less difficult than those of golfers and snooker players, suffer simply from being participators in two of the noisy sports.

There are, in terms of crowd noise, essentially three kinds of sport. There are the shouting, singing, constant noise (unless the home side aren't doing so well) sports - football, rugby chief among them. Stateside (which, as I'm here, I sort of follow, but sort of don't really understand), the major equivalents are the other football and basketball, which maintain the noise levels, and lack only the singing.

Then you have the constant chatter sports; cricket (with chants - if not outright singing - emerging in recent years. I speak here of English cricket grounds, as that is my where my personal experience lies) and baseball. The latter, I feel, is a little more raucous. For example, fans will boo certain players they don't like, or even throw objects onto the field of play - this all seems to me to be closer to the shouty sports than the chatty ones. Further, baseball being more stylised than cricket, there are certain, set moments - for example, when the home side is potentially one pitch away from wrapping up the game - that lend themselves to jeering and cheering more than any in cricket (although the cheering and clapping of a player as he is on the threshold of a 100 in cricket is a parallel). On the whole, though, baseball approximates cricket in the way that the spectators treat it as much as a social, chatting-and-drinking-with-your-friends day out.

Then there are the silent ones, the reverential sports – among them tennis, golf and snooker.

There is, it seems to me, a clear correlation between the nature of the games in question, and the reactions they elicit from their spectators. It’s all about how each sport combines team play, possession of the ball (because we are mostly talking about ball sports), and player interaction.

In the shouty sports, when the ball is in play, the teams are at each other all the time – from passes, shots, tackles and saves, to off-the-ball pushing and shoving, it’s constant interaction.

In the chatty sports (cricket and baseball), there is only one team on the field, and they all interact with just one or two of the opposition, in very short bursts – balls/overs and pitches/innings. The passion of the crowd’s reaction varies, dependent almost entirely on the importance of the result of the burst of action; in cricket, applause for a good shot (which is of limited importance for most of the length of the match), but cheering for a wicket (which is generally more important). In baseball, some cheering for an out (of which there are plenty - usually 51 to 54 in a game – so their value is relatively small), but more for a hit (of which there are almost always far fewer), and even more for a home run (rare, relative to a regular hit).

In quiet sports such as tennis and snooker, it’s one-on-one – the protagonists take turns. The audience applauds, and sometimes cheers, a good shot, but generally tries not to do so to the disadvantage of the player on the receiving end. The applause and cheering are generally rowdier and more interruptive in tennis than snooker – this is mainly because in snooker, one player takes (or, at least, can take) several shots in a row, whereas in tennis, the shots are alternating. This means, in snooker, less of an opportunity to interrupt the other player, while tennis provides a shorter time between shots to applaud a good one (resulting in a greater likelihood of noise during the opposing player’s shot), and, more importantly, more immediate excitement, as players try to outmanoeuvre/overpower each other in a short space of time (the duration of each point).

Golf, on the other hand, is the player alone. We wait; he (or she) hits the ball; finally, we applaud, or cringe, or not much of either. These reactions are based on the golfer’s skill alone - other than in end-of-tournament pressure situations, where the scope for din and excitement is greater. An appreciation of skill alone doesn’t evoke much passion – hence golf spectators are amongst the quietest, on the whole. Only in matchplay do we find a person against person format, and it is no surprise that the time when a golf-watching crowd becomes the rowdiest, the most football crowd-like, is during the Ryder Cup, when matchplay format meets team play and national/regional pride.

One last thing. Boxing, and it’s instructive. One of the world’s oldest sports, it’s perhaps the ultimate test of an athletic individual (yes, there’s room for argument there, as there is with everything about boxing, but it is a test, you’ll grant me that). It could never be a team sport - a dozen people in the ring at one time? Where would you look? – And therefore doesn’t have the natural advantages, in terms of crowd noise, that football enjoys.

Yet, at the highest level, it can inspire passion, shouting, chanting and singing – more, maybe, than any other sport of the individual, because it’s the most interactive of all sports; it’s me or him, and either way, it’s going to hurt. In rugby you tackle, and even occasionally punch, but in boxing it is (homoeroticism alert!) the continuous mutual pursuit of two men. When there are lulls in the crowd, it’s because the fighters aren’t hitting each other; when there’s passion among the spectators, it’s because the fighters are hitting each other a lot.

But imagine. Imagine if boxing wasn’t three essentially pauseless minutes of scrapping, followed by three more, and three more, and so on. Imagine if you tossed a coin, and the winner got to punch first. Just once. Then it’s the other guy’s turn, and they keep on like that until someone falls down and can’t get up. We wouldn’t be yelling and cheering in a wall of noise. We’d wait and watch, and then our reaction would be a cheer, or a grimace, or not much, depending on the punch. Then we wait and watch again. And react. Watch and react. And it wouldn’t be boxing any more. It would be tennis. With punching.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Show Me The Money: why Sky spells doom for English cricket - mountainstriker

Confession time. I’m old now. I can remember Botham bouncing in, Gower with the golden hair and being puzzled by the way Bob Willis seemed to fight himself along every step of his long, strangely curving run up - a speeding supertanker with its rudder stuck. I’m dreadfully old fashioned too. Much as I love it, I believe that the football season begins in mid September and ends in mid May. The time in between belongs to cricket and, for as long as I can remember, following cricket on the telly and radio, has been an integral part of my summer.

There is a tendency now to view the BBC’s coverage, both radio and television, fondly. In retrospect it wasn’t a patch on today. Only one camera meant that 50% of the match was spent contemplating which of England’s batsman had the largest backside - Markus Berkman in Rain Men makes the case for Gooch, Botham and Lamb eloquently – no hawk-eye, stump cameras or split screens. Overseas tours were limited to 30 minutes of highlights on BBC2 broadcast around midnight (after Newsnight, before the Sky at Night). The commentary team, Peter West, Tony Lewis, Jim Laker, and Ray Illingworth were bland, curmudgeonly and, the odd twinkle from Richie (Doyen©) Benaud aside, not remotely interested in informing the uninitiated. Frankly, you were expected to know the difference between a fine leg glance, and glance through fine leg. If you didn’t - tough.

Radio was even worse. Like the Smashie and Nicey brigade on Radio 1 around the same time, the TMS team was 20, no, let’s say 30, years past its sell-by, the land of the dinosaurs. Arlott had gone by then, leaving the field for Johnson and Blofeld to prattle endlessly about cake, buses and butterflies. Worse were the experts – especially Fred ‘I have no idea what’s going on out there’ Truman - forever lamenting the demise of technique, sniping at the rise of the one day game, and dismissive of anything that did not have its origins in the sepia world of hard graft, hearty back slaps and firm handshakes.

Collectively, BBC TV and radio coverage did considerable damage to cricket in this country. Rendering it inaccessible to the uninitiated, over-intellectual, over-romanticised and aimed at an aging audience that chiefly comprised characters from an Agatha Christie novel. Not only did it seem to disapprove of the modern game, it virtually ignored cricket’s more primeval (but equally attractive) elements: the desire of a fast bowler to stick one in the batsman’s teeth, the dread of a fielder as a skier heads his way, the sledging, and the sheer joy of just slogging one out of the screws over cow corner. Tut, played across the line... Much is made of the loss of school playing fields in the 80s and 90s, but the fact is that even if they had been retained, few would have wanted to play cricket on them. Cricket was mortally uncool.

Two things happened in the 90s. First the BBC employed Johnathan Agnew. Initially just another member of Johnson’s giggling claque (‘Botham… just couldn’t get his leg over….ffnnnnarr….snnnnrk. Oh Aggers…’) his coming of age was daring to call for Atherton’s resignation over the dirt in the pocket affair in1994. The rights and wrongs were irrelevant, what was revolutionary was his rather bald statement that the England Captain, a Manchester Grammar boy and Cambridge Blue no less, was a ball tampering cheat. Indeed, he was no better than those nasty Pakistanis who did despicable things to the ball against us in 1992.

This was the point when it became acceptable to state that one of the fundamental problems with England and English cricket was the MCC, the County system, coaching standards, the facilities - in short the whole Establishment of English cricket. At that moment, BBC coverage took on a harder edge - more critical, less cosy, ultimately, less part of this same Establishment. In time, this led to the reports, shake ups, foreign coaches, central contracts and an acceptance that harking back to the 1950s all the time was never going to regain the Ashes.

It’s ironic then that one of the casualties of this harder edge was the BBC’s TV coverage. Lord knows the BBC tried to change - hiring Gower as a commentator and allowing him to muse that a reverse sweep was ‘as cheeky as the snap of a suspender belt’, ‘What?!!’ spluttered the Doyen© - but it was too little too late.

Channel 4’s coverage was everything the BBC’s was not. Initially derided as a bunch of cricket philistines, C4’s innovations – hawk-eye, slow motion analysis and the incredibly simple expedient of marking a line between the stumps to assist in the judgement of lbw - have all become standard. Better, Channel 4 actually seemed to like cricket, was prepared to explain its intricacies and didn’t regard anyone under the age of 30 as a potential ASBO. Despite the slightly awkward presence of Mark Nicholas (with his shiny shoes and nicely creased trousers he always reminded me of a Dad trying get down with the kids at the school disco - I’m convinced he and David Cameron were separated at birth) Channel 4 had something for everyone: Boycott’s ill considered (but often accurate) polemics, Simon Hughes’ equally inflammatory disco shirts, acute slow motion analysis and technical exposition and, of course, the Doyen© was there just to reassure everyone that, though some things change, Channel 4 did have standards.

By 2005 something had happened that I thought would never occur in my lifetime. Cricket was cool. It helped that the England team was actually quite good and locked in the most incredible Test Series since 1981. What was striking however was the extent to which it became common currency. Everyone was talking cricket, what a genius that Warne is (fat though) Ponting – he’s lost it, Fred, Harmy, Trescothick and all the rest. Even better, it suddenly became noticeable amongst village cricketers that our opponents were getting younger -all intensity, verbals, 4 an over and aggression. Some didn’t like it, (especially when they were bounced out for the first time in 40 years) but personally I was pleased that cricket, at last, seemed to have a future.

And then the ECB sold its soul exclusively to Sky. Faced with the loss of an integral part of my summers, I too paid the Murdoch shilling. I had held out resolutely until then – there’s plenty of good live football on terrestrial and Freeview and besides, the Premiership ain’t all that – but I comforted myself that, if I did succumb, at least my cash would contribute to the unprecedented millions that would at last be available to cricket in this country.

Sky’s cricket coverage is fantastic, everything good about Channel 4 and more. The team is wonderfully balanced. Bumble’s love of the game doesn’t hide his knowledge and experience as an international player, umpire and coach, Atherton is dry and insightful, Hussain is incendiary and insightful, Gower twinkles like the Doyen© he was born to be, Holding is coolness personified while Botham tends to his increasing girth in the hope that he will one day fill Truman’s curmudgeonly old trousers. Hot spot, hi-definition, stats, highlights, press the red button…it really is the cricket telly watchers’ nirvana.

But, where’s all the cash that so comforted me three years ago gone? Say what you like about the FA and Sky (and we do) but the cash is there for all to see at the grassroots level. My grassroots football club has received funding for both new goal posts and Under 14s kit in the last two years - over £2,000 for a relatively small operation. Our cricket club on the other hand is just as strapped as it was 20 years ago. Ask the ECB or your local County Cricket Association for cash to improve your pitch, purchase some ground equipment, sight screens, nets or changing facilities. No chance. What about expert coaching or specialist training equipment? Sorry, can’t afford it, why don’t you approach some local businesses for sponsorship?

This absence of funding for grass roots cricket is critical because now there is nothing to compensate for the absence of cricket on free to air TV. Sky dishes and subscriptions are the preserve of the adult employed and unless kids can see Fred and KP regularly how can they be inspired to emulate them? To this day, my (increasingly slow) run up is modelled on Botham’s bounce to the wicket circa 1980, but how can you want to play a flamingo pull or a switch hit unless you’ve actually seen them?

For all its faults, the BBC’s cricket coverage was accessible. Cricket needs a shop window. It may be a rather drab one like the old BBC, or it may be a shiny Sky or Channel 4 version but without it, and particularly in the absence of real grassroots funding, the Sky deal will ultimately do more damage than dear old Johnners and his cakes ever could.

The Olympic aftermath in Scandinavia - Allout

Anyone following the Olympics through the British media will no doubt have picked up on the triumphant mood in the country, with Great Britain (or is that team GB nowadays) taking home a medal haul unmatched in a century.

However, not every nation has exceeded their expectations at the Olympics and in Sweden the mood at SVT (the national broadcaster) has been almost funereal, following the country’s haul of just six medals, with not even one of them being gold (which compares to four golds – most of them in the high-profile athletics competition – in Athens). To make matters worse, Sweden’s smaller Nordic rivals Norway, Finland and Denmark have all won gold medals, and the regional humiliation really would have been absolute had tiny Iceland been able to beat France in the men’s handball final. When SVT repeatedly showed coverage of Susanna Kallur falling, almost literally, flat on her face at the first high hurdle, it was difficult not to view this as a metaphor for the country’s performance as a whole.

So what lies behind the country’s poor performance? A quick look at where the gold medals were won last time in athletics shows that the talent pool was fairly small in this discipline and always potentially susceptible to injuries and bad luck. The triple jumper Christian Olsson has been plagued by injury ever since winning gold in Athens at the age of 24 and he didn’t compete in Beijing – depressingly there has been talk of him retiring. Meanwhile, high jumper Stefan Holm (another winner in Athens) had a disappointing Olympics finishing just out of the medals in fourth place.

But the biggest loss of all has nothing to do with injury. Had Carolina Klüft competed in the heptathlon (where she has dominated for over five years) it would be reasonable to expect that Sweden would have won at least one gold medal. Klüft though made a surprise announcement earlier this year that she would not to compete in this event and planned to focus on the long jump instead where, in the end, she finished well out of the medal hunt. When asked about the decision after the event Klüft was unrepentant saying that she felt it was impossible to compete in the heptathlon, having run out of desire after years at the top.

Whilst those who toil and sweat for years to get to the top may find Klüft’s decision to turn down an almost certain gold medal unfathomable, I would applaud it. A top athlete’s motivation comes as much from within as from our external surroundings and, if Klüft felt that she had none, it was appropriate to make an unconventional decision. In a way one could say it was Sweden’s bad luck that Klüft was so dominant – had she been a marginally less able all-round athlete she might have found the heptathlon challenging enough whilst still being good enough to ensure a gold medal.

Elsewhere, Sweden’s lack of a gold medal can be due to missing the crucial last bit of skill or luck as five silvers could testify. A medal in sailing where Sweden were ahead of Britain going into the last day only to be pipped at the end seems to neatly summarise the different experience of the two countries.

Over the Øresund, the mood in Denmark is also philosophical but for a different reason. Team Denmark had set a target of seven medals and this was met precisely (with two of them being gold). However, whilst it was no great surprise that the men’s lightweight fours (rowing) and the men’s cycling pursuit team won medals, the identity of most of the other medalists raised eyebrows. Denmark won first medals for decades in swimming and dressage, and whilst a medal in sailing was not unusual, the fact that it was gold for the 49er boat was as surprising as the last day of that competition was tense.

On the other hand, some high-profile entrants failed with the men’s handball team (European Champions in January) finishing a disappointing seventh; no medal being won in badminton for the first time in four Olympics; Joachim B. Olsen, a shot putter, not reaching the final; and Michael Maze, a table tennis player, being knocked out in the first round. Both Olsen and Maze had won medals in Athens and neither is especially old, although Olsen’s poor performance can be partly explained by recent injury problems.

This has led a lot of journalists to comment that those athletes receiving the most support from the public purse have performed poorly whilst many of the medal winners receive little or no support. Sports psychologists have followed this up by suggesting that generous public funding may have led to some athletes being in the comfort zone and not having sufficient motivation (an argument which will no doubt be familiar to followers of English cricket). Kai Holm, Denmark’s IOC member, suggested that instead of funding handball (where there is only one medal available) Denmark should consider funding sports where there are numerous medals up for grabs. Brian Mikkelsen, the Culture Minister, went even further when he mentioned how his British counterpart had explained to him over breakfast how Britain had consciously targeted “soft medals” with particular reference to the track cycling team and Mikkelsen suggested that Denmark could do likewise.

Overall the first issue coming out were the overall funding of elite sport, where Team Denmark were quick to point out that successful countries like Australia, Great Britain/UK and the Netherlands had increased funding significantly. It was further noted that the budget of the British sailing team was bigger than that of the whole of the Danish Olympic team.

To balance the picture of elite funding it is worth mentioning that public money is spent on grass-roots sports in Denmark where even the smallest village seems to have a multi-purpose sports hall and well-kept municipal grass pitches. I would argue that the emphasis here on increasing participation, giving a sense of belonging to a local community, and encouraging people to participate in sports themselves rather than simply spectating, with the knock-on benefits for the health of the country is a whole, is the correct one.

The second issue was whether the correct sports are being funded although, I believe, this matter is not as simple as it would first seem. Whilst the badminton team did not bring home a medal it was difficult to say the performed poorly against a strong field of ultra-motivated Asians. In the men’s singles Peter Gade performed creditably enough when bowing out to the eventual tournament winner and the men’s doubles team came within inches of a medal, even having a bronze medal point.

The handball team never came close to reaching the heights that they did in the European Championships but in many ways this simply shows that there are five or six nations in Europe of very similar ability and the eventual winner of the tournament depends on the teams’ form in the precise two weeks of the tournament and injuries to key players. And medals are not necessarily equal. Whilst Denmark’s bronze in dressage counted on the medal table the event attracted only a fraction of the interest that the handball matches did. Plus, on top of that, in supporting the handball team you are not just supporting them for the Olympics but for the biennial World Cup and European Championships as well, with Denmark’s victory in January prompting a massive reception in Copenhagen’s Town Hall Square reminiscent of the scenes following Denmark’s victory in the football European Championships in 1992.

Overall, the debate about which sportspeople to fund and how much to use in this area will continue for some time in Denmark, and the discussions in Sweden as to how to improve are likely to be even more intense. London is not the only place which has thinking to do before 2012.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

More from the Dressing Room – Mimitig

With the resignations of Michael Vaughan and Paul Collingwood, the Dressing Room moles were fearful, yes fearful, that access to the secret sanctum would be horribly curtailed. Our spies planted listening and video devices just outside doors, in lavatories and in the temperature-controlled glove-boxes of top cricketers in the hope that we might still be able to bring loyal readers some inside info.

Thankfully we didn’t need to depend on that (though some extremely interesting stories did emerge, but sadly too legally actionable to bring to you in these pages). It turns out that Captain Kev has been a keen reader of the Tapes since their first publication back in the West Indies, and having read the last one, he is quite comfortable with anything we want to publish.

Now, as England are looking to rub the Saffer noses in a One-Day Series defeat, we have some insight into Kev’s motivational approach.

KP: Boys, you’re back – back with us, looking to stuff the oppo again. It’s so good to see you. Fred, Steve – I love you so much and of course, you know you don’t even really have to turn up so early. Come here, let me embrace you with my over-whelming love and warmth.

IRB: Hi Cap – was I OK?

KP: Belly, Belly – you know how much I rate you. What a fine stand that was. Who are those silly silly journalists who say you score too slowly. You are doing MY job. It’s what I ask – and Ian, Ian, Ian, you are so good. Love you babes.

Hey here’s the mouth and gloves!

Matty, Matty sweetie – how’s it hanging? Going fine, no finger injuries? Haven’t fallen over and done your scafoid? No cool, but even if you had, you’d be up for it, wouldn’t you? For me?

All of you, a mere broken bone wouldn’t stop you playing for me?

Nah course not.

Where’s Sami – Sami – with a five-fer? You should be up front here, my boy – stop lurking at the back. We’ll have no lurkers here [KP waits for the appreciation of his reference to The League of Gentlemen – proving that he is a Jolly Good Englishman].

Now that was fine, kaffir [shit did I really say that?], fine Sami, and you have just been such a great thing for this team. What we have to focus on now is how to get the whitewash.

Ideas anyone?

Freddie: Kev, could we find another fast bowler to give me and my mate Steve a bit of a long term option? I’m thinking about – well, you know who.

KP: Look Fred, I know how much you love Si, but he broke down again this summer. I know his figures have been really good, and you know guys, there’s not a Welshman I love more than Si, but he’s not ready yet.

Fred: Well who else can we have to back up the squad? Ryan’s hurt, bad, and maybe so bad we won’t have him around for a while. You’re not going to get that Aussie bloke, are you?

KP: Fred, Fred, Fred – I know you’re worried about second and third change, but would I upset this Dressing Room by bringing in a stranger? Oh no, no, no.

Lads, we’re a unit, a fine unit, and whatever Mooresy says, you know, I’ll be running selection by you guys. If we need extra bowling, well if it’s spin we’ve got Swanney and Adily to bring in. If you want another fast guy – you know my door is always open, and together, yes, together, we’ll find someone.

Now, my boys, we’re going to go out there tomorrow, at Lord’s, the very true and wondrous home of cricket, and we are going to put runs on the board, and we are going to take wickets.

As a team. As a team that is going up, up, up in the rankings. Because we are one.

We are a unit, we are a machine, and most of all, we will win.

The Team together: Because we love you Captain Kev.

As the tape fades out, we just get a little glimpse of how KP feels – he looks in the mirror and doesn’t even see his own image. He sees the face of Michael Vaughan and, running his fingers through his lustrous locks just says –“ See Michael: you didn’t have to swear at them.”

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