Allan Massie: Sports should think outside the box

Glasgow Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend
Glasgow Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend
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It IS more than 40 years since my late father-in-law remarked that while in almost all sports players were bigger, stronger, faster and better trained than they used to be, they still played on pitches and courts, the size of which was fixed or more or less settled in the 19th century. He was thinking principally of rugby and tennis, the two games he most enjoyed, but his observation applies to other ones also.

One might add there has also been a marked development of the implements used in those games which involve hitting a ball. If, for instance, far more sixes are hit in cricket now, this is partly because the ball flies much further from the heavier, deep-bodied modern bats. Don Bradman, the greatest of all batsmen, hit comparatively few sixes, partly because he preferred not to lift the ball, thus eliminating one way of being dismissed, but also because his bat was much lighter than those in use today. It’s also the case that the fielding area of many Test match grounds is actually smaller than it used to be, and of course in one-day cricket the boundary ropes are often brought some way in.

Likewise modern golf clubs and tennis racquets are far more efficient implements than they were even 50 years ago. In an old sports book I came recently upon a report of a long-driving competition in 1950. The winning drive – by Max Faulkner, an Open champion – was measured at about 260 yards. Rory McIlroy can hit it almost half as far again. One consequence is that the top professionals are disappointed if they fail to birdie a par-5 hole; the old theory was that you take three shots to reach the green on a par 5, while top players are disappointed now if they don’t put their second shot on the green. They expect to drive some par 4s. The Old Course at St Andrews is rightly honoured the home of golf and all that. But the truth is that for the best players now, it is only when the wind is blowing that it represents a truly formidable challenge. If you get a calm day they are disappointed if they don’t shoot in the middle 60s or even less.

In tennis the best players can impart so much top spin with modern racquets that the serve-volley game is almost extinct. A good receiver finds it too easy to pass a player following his serve to the net. So players hang back on the baseline and rarely come into the net on their best serves, even on a grass court. This puzzles those of us who remember John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras, masters of the serve-volley game.

Equipment matters less in football and rugby, though even there modern balls are more easily controlled than the old leather ones. Rugby players are bigger, stronger and faster than they were even 20 years ago when the game went open, admitting professionalism. So there is less space on the field. A change in the law relating to the set scrum was designed to create more space (and time) for the backs. It didn’t do so because scrums in the professional game are now so powerful and such a contest that the ball is almost never heeled quickly – rarely indeed heeled at all; and so the ball seldom reaches the backs.

Yet, paradoxically, despite the more restricted space, more tries are scored in international rugby and throughout the professional game than used to be the case, as a glance at results in the 1950s or ’60s demonstrates. There are a number of reasons for this. 
First, players, especially forwards, 
handle much better than they used to – and not only because of the change in the composition of the ball. Second, the present tackle law encourages multi-phase rugby with the ball in hand; and this will often eventually result in a try being scored. Third, and perhaps most important, was a change in the law defining a knock-on – a change actually made rather a 
long time ago, in the early 1960s. 
Previously a player was required to make a clean catch with no readjustment. Now you frequently see a player going for the ball one-handed, knocking it forward, and then catching it before it hits the ground. I reckon that something like half the tries scored in international rugby would have been disallowed under the old knock-on law.

Nevertheless, space becomes more and more restricted and this has led some to suggest that there are now too many players on the field, and that the Union game should copy Rugby League and play 13-a-side rather than 15. This is unlikely to happen. In any case there doesn’t seem to be more space in the League game. Indeed there is so little that the legislators were obliged to bring in the fifth tackle law. What might be more effective in Union would be to reduce the number of permitted replacements bringing, as the saying goes, “fresh legs” on to the field. The introduction of “fresh legs” is among other things a means of restricting space, and preventing the game from opening up as legs get tired. But this won’t happen either, partly because making intelligent use of your full matchday squad, as for instance Gregor Townsend has done with Glasgow, has become a test of a coach’s skill.

In theory, the obvious way to create more space on the field is to make the pitch wider. This is an attractive option, but probably impractical because it would require a re-design of stadiums. So finding space will continue to tax the ingenuity and ability of coaches and players.

All the same, my father-in-law was right to think it remarkable and unsatisfactory that while so many circumstances have changed we play games on fields and courts the dimensions of which were fixed in the 19th century. Yet, oddly, some continue to work well. I don’t think anyone would want to lengthen a cricket pitch. Twenty-two yards – a chain in our pre-metric system – still seems the right length today. Why this should be, I have no idea, but any proposal to lengthen or shorten it would sound like rank heresy.