Regular readers will know that I’ve been a soccer fan for a few years now, especially of the US national team, of the local Minnesota Thunder, and of English powerhouse Arsenal. A few might even remember that several years ago I even gave Formula One a try, though I gave up last year after one team designed a magic, unbeatable car.
Judging by my limited research, these are two of the four most popular sports in England. The other two: rugby and cricket.
I’ve written a fair number of words about cricket, especially about the late fortunes of the USA national team. I’ve even been to a couple of local club matches, but I’m no expert, and as for rugby, I’d never really seen a match, apart from the odd sevens rugby highlight on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
Up until recently, though, I’d never done two things: I’d never seen a Test cricket match (that’s the five-day-long version of cricket), and I’d never watched an entire rugby match. In the last couple of weeks, though, I discovered that BBC America has been showing live England international rugby matches, and ESPN360.com is showing live England Test cricket.
You know me. I can’t resist minor sports. I had to watch.
I took in the England vs. Ireland rugby match several weeks ago, a match that is part of the annual Six Nations competition. Afraid I’d got the wrong impression, I tried again last weekend, watching England take on Scotland in the same competition (which also includes Wales, France, and Italy).
Maybe I just saw the wrong matches, and rugby aficionados are welcome to correct me, but here’s what I got out of it: rugby is boring.
I had this mental picture of rugby being sort of like flag football combined with a fun game you made up in your backyard combined with a prison riot. The riot part was confirmed, of course. Rugby has to be the single most violent sport I’ve ever seen. It’s so violent that medical personnel regularly sprint onto the field in the middle of play, and the rest of the players are expected simply to go around them.
I’m not talking about the kind of contact that gets NFL players on SportsCenter, either. At least four times in the two matches, players from one side or the other took the sort of hits that would get the game banned in any reasonable society. At least two people got kneed in the side of the head by someone who was sprinting full-out, the kind of hits that aren’t fun to watch, that scream “FRACTURED SKULL” and “LONG-LASTING BRAIN DAMAGE.” You may say what you like about American football, but at least we have discovered the protective power of the helmet. Players were constantly hauling themselves off the ground, clutching shoulders and elbows, grimacing following what I can only assume were dislocations and hyper-extensions and other painful injuries that make tears well up in your eyes just by thinking about them.
I fear that I’m making the game sound chaotic, which it really isn’t. 95 percent of the game goes thusly:
- Player is tackled.
- Player grounds the ball behind himself.
- Teammate picks up the ball and hurls it five yards sideways to another player.
- That player runs straight into the middle of the line in front of him.
- Player is tackled.
And so on and so forth. There’s also quite a bit of punting for field position, which usually results in someone catching the ball and punting it right back. If the ball goes out of bounds, the teams line up, hurl it back in, and resume running into the middle of the line.
There are also “scrums”, in which the teams line up in tight formation and push against each other for as much as three-quarters of a second, before the referee spots a violation and stops play.
The referee, in fact, is the most important person on the field, as he is in charge of awarding penalties. The entirety of rugby seems to involve getting the ball into your opponent’s half of the field, then running into the middle of the line until the referee calls a penalty on the other team. At this point, the team on offense is allowed to try what we Americans would call a field goal.
Teams can also attempt to down the ball in the opposite end zone, a “try” (or touchdown, in our parlance), which is worth five points plus a two-point conversion attempt. But this seems to be rare. The England-Ireland match had three, one for England in which they managed to run into the line five hundred times in a row, eventually reaching the end zone, plus two long ones for Ireland, the only entertaining parts of the match.
The England-Scotland match had no tries, nor anything that looked even for a minute like it might end in a try. Both teams kicked five field goals and missed a couple on top of that. The match ended in a 15-15 draw. At least four guys went off with probable concussions, including one that had to be carted off. And I’m left with one thought: if there’s a punch line to this entertainment, I don’t get it.
It’s recognizable as a cousin of American football, so imagine American football with no pads. And no passing. And 110 running plays per team, 105 of which go directly into the middle of the line. And extra punting, usually on first down. And both teams playing for field goal attempts throughout the game. And frequent long breaks while both the offensive and defensive lines stop to argue with the referee how to line up for the play.
I will say this, though: after eighty minutes of the same play in rugby, you are only beginning to scratch the surface of the speed of Test cricket.
Maybe you are middle-aged and have a weak heart, and the doctor has decided that the Golf Channel is too much excitement for you. He says you can no longer watch Friday play at the Greater Hartford Open, that even something as spectacularly meaningless as the first two days at your average PGA tournament is too much exertion for you.
You are in luck; there is always Test cricket, which as a sport is one slight step up from actually being asleep.
I admit, I didn’t pick out the most exciting match on the calendar. I stumbled upon late-night broadcasts of England vs. Bangladesh. In international cricket, England is a middling team; Bangladesh is universally regarded as the worst of the nine Test-playing nations. Consequently, England was ahead by three or four hundred runs for virtually the entire match. The match took place in Chittagong, and judging by the population in the stands, the good people of Chittagong had better things to do than sit in the ridiculous heat and watch their countrymen get waxed.
I can hardly describe how slowly the game moves. Imagine baseball, but like Home Run Derby, and if the pitcher walked out to center field between each pitch.
That said, the positive is that the game does allow you to fall into an easy reverie. Your mind naturally wanders, like the middle innings of a day game in baseball, and suddenly you’ll realize that you don’t remember anything that happened in the last ten minutes. In baseball, you can ask someone with a scorebook to fill you in. In cricket, you needn’t worry – nothing has happened.
It is the ultimate sport for multitaskers. I’ve written the entirety of this post during the first hour of the fifth day of the England-Bangladesh match. England are fielding, have gotten nobody out, and Bangladesh have scored about thirty runs, but are still two hundred and eighty behind. I look up anytime the commentator’s voice rises above the level of normal conversation, but otherwise I can safely ignore just about everything on the screen.
I understand why people would be glued to big matches – England vs. Australia in the biannual Ashes series, for example, or India vs. Pakistan in a match likely to touch off a war. But I have trouble imagining that a match like this is more than background noise for just about anyone.
Still, nobody’s been carried off the field with blood coming out of his ears. So that’s something over rugby.