Off Piste: Fair game?

Stephen Halliday kicks around a few ideas about how to level the playing field in popular sports and make them more exciting

April 23, 2009

In July 1960, having finished my A-level examinations, I set off from Brentwood School in Essex to be interviewed for a place at Pembroke College, Cambridge, to read history. I chose Cambridge because my recently deceased mother had supported Cambridge in the Boat Race and Brentwood hadn't sent anyone to Pembroke for years.

There were three interviews. The first two, with a nervous senior tutor and a gentle historian, were unremarkable. But the most interesting interview by far was the third, with a scientist called Gerry Smith whom I never met again. Upon examining my application form, he discovered that, like him, I was an enthusiastic but mediocre tennis player. He was startled when I told him that I thought that tennis would be a much better game if the second serve were to be abolished. The server in a game of tennis already has an advantage over the receiver. He knows where he is going to hit the ball, how fast and with what spin. Why give him the further advantage of two attempts? It doesn't apply in table tennis, or to a footballer or a rugby player who misses a penalty. It simply encourages tall, muscular, athletic players to hit the ball at an unnatural speed across the net and score aces. If a rally follows, it is a sign that the server has failed, but rallies test the skill of the players and make the game interesting to watch.

Perhaps my view is coloured by the fact that I am not tall, muscular or athletic, but I still believe that the abolition of the second serve would make the game fairer and more fun for players and spectators.

Smith was intrigued by my suggestion. He abandoned his prepared questions, and we spent the rest of the interview discussing my proposal. I think I persuaded him.

Two years ago, I went to Wimbledon to give a lecture to a local society and met a man who occupied a high position in a well-known local tennis club. I told him this story, and he replied that the idea of abolishing the second serve was now regularly debated.

So can we expect another "Herman David" moment soon? In 1959, David, chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, which stages the Wimbledon championships, tried to persuade the International Tennis Federation that the "shamateurism" that overshadowed the game and pretended that all who competed in the major tournaments were amateurs should be ended and that professional players should be allowed in.

David's proposal was turned down, but in 1967 he persuaded Wimbledon to go it alone and admit professionals the following year. The other tournaments, recognising the primacy of Wimbledon, immediately followed. In 1968, Rod Laver and Billie Jean King, the men's and women's champions, shared the total prize money of £26,150. The standard of tennis has surely improved as a result and nations where the sport was not widely followed - including Germany, Russia and Croatia - have since produced champions. But, at the same time, power and athleticism have become supreme at the expense of grace and skill. Ken Rosewall couldn't serve at a thousand miles an hour, but his rallies were wonderful to watch. So, Wimbledon, remember Herman David: tell the world that the second serve is off the agenda and make tennis a beautiful game again. You know it makes sense.

Other games that I have played with more enthusiasm than competence are cricket, football and rugby, and a few changes to their rules would make them fairer and more exciting, too.

Cricket is the only game I can think of in which the outcome can be determined by the toss of a coin. In a five-day test match, each captain will have examined the pitch beforehand, with experts, and will know what conditions are likely to prevail at each stage of the match. If, for example, it is likely that the pitch will have deteriorated to a point where batting is going to be very difficult late on in the game, the captain who wins the toss will choose to bat first knowing that his opponents will struggle if they bat last. In this way, the outcome of the match may be virtually determined before a ball is bowled.

This could easily be remedied. Each team would choose 11 players plus two substitutes. The team winning the toss would be obliged to play their 11. The team losing the toss, having been told whether they are to bat or field, would have the right to use one (perhaps both) of their substitutes, taking into account the conditions in which they are likely to have to bat or bowl. The toss, a matter of pure chance, would thereby be no more important than it is in a game of football.

Speaking of football, why do we need the offside rule? It entered the game's rules in 1863, although it has been changed several times since. It was introduced to stop "goal poaching" - a player hanging around the opponent's goal in the hope of picking up a long loose ball. It is the only rule that does not proceed naturally and obviously from the nature of the game and is probably responsible for more mistakes and arguments than all the other rules taken together. Was the offending player in front of the defenders when the ball was passed? Or was he level with them? Or behind them? Was he interfering with play? Even slow-motion replays don't always provide a clear answer. I believe that the past 50 years have seen the development, by both managers and players, of much more sophisticated tactics capable of dealing effectively with the goal-poaching problem, and if necessary a simpler rule could be introduced to allow the goalkeeper to handle the ball outside the goal area if threatened by one predatory opponent without the presence of another defender. And the worst thing that could happen is that more goals would be scored. Would we really miss the goalless draw?

Football could also learn from rugby union, in which only team captains are allowed to address the referee. Other players who do so are likely to incur a penalty or a free kick and loss of ten yards. If this rule were introduced in football, we would soon see the end of spoilt louts, eyes bulging, screaming their heads off in nose-to-nose confrontations with referees. Managers who saw goals conceded and points slipping away would discipline these players or drop them. Last year in the UK, 7,000 referees resigned (almost 20 per cent of the total) because of the aggression to which they are regularly subjected, even in amateur games. In some areas, 20 per cent of games are played without a qualified referee. Abuse of referees in rugby, potentially a much more violent game, is very rare because of these disciplinary measures absent in football.

As a further protection for referees, sanctions should be introduced to discourage abuse from supporters, in particular parents. There are few spectacles more demeaning than the sight of a middle-aged man (or woman) living out "England manager" fantasies, standing on the touchline abusing a 16-year-old boy or girl who is struggling to referee two teams of 11-year-olds. Referees should be encouraged to warn such supporters to mend their behaviour. If the warning is not heeded, no referee will be supplied by the local football association for the team's next game and the team will forfeit the points.

As for rugby itself, does anyone understand the rules any more? The BBC is now very good at producing match statistics. How much possession has each side had? How many passes and tackles has each side made and how many penalties have they conceded? But what we really want to know is how many minutes has the ball been in play and visible to the spectators? I suspect the answer is usually "not many minutes".

A typical play in rugby happens as follows. The ball is kicked off. It disappears from sight into a melee of large, muscular men who engage in a prolonged brawl with the ball somewhere on the ground. After a while, the referee, who is probably becoming as bored and baffled as the spectators, blows his whistle for reasons known only to himself. Much depends on whether those handling the ball are on or off their feet (difficult to tell in the mayhem). I am always encouraged when former England hooker Brian Moore tells the TV audience that he doesn't know why a certain decision has been taken, because I hardly ever do. A scrum is then ordered, which swiftly collapses. At some point, in a desperate attempt to make progress, someone will kick the ball up the field into touch and out of play. Is there not something inherently unsatisfactory about a game in which progress can best be made by kicking the ball off the pitch? In football, this is done either accidentally or as a last-ditch defensive measure, not as a means of moving towards the opposing goal.

To remedy this I would, first, allow the use of hands when the ball is on the ground in loose scrums, regardless of whether the handler is on or off his feet. The ball would be recycled more quickly, fewer injuries would result from flying boots and twisted limbs and there would be more open play, which everyone wants to see.

Secondly, I would discourage the practice of kicking the ball off the pitch by allowing the side throwing the ball in to throw it in any direction on to the field, including forward, which at present is anathema. It would make teams much more hesitant about kicking the ball out of play and would encourage the development of throwers, as in football, who could threaten the opposing try line with long, menacing throws. Defensive kicks to touch from within the 22-metre box would produce a lineout, as happens now. Scrums are such a mess at the moment that it would surely be better to recognise that 16 men, weighing about 95kg each, cannot be expected to remain in a semi-crouching position for more than a few seconds without collapsing in an ungainly heap and risking spinal injuries. Either do away with scrums or reduce the number of players involved in each scrum to five per side and add two players to the backs.

The ball would be seen more often and play would flow more smoothly. The games would probably have to be shorter, because the long periods of inactivity while the ball is being retrieved or while the lineouts or scrums are forming or while the referee is explaining to a captain why he has blown his whistle would be fewer and shorter. And the division of labour between backs and forwards would be more even, with backs having fewer opportunities to stand around watching the forwards engaged in prolonged brawls.

Finally, what are we to do about schoolchildren who just aren't very good at games? They are often made to feel that they are inferior specimens by games teachers who are interested only in the stars. These children dread the weekly sessions on the sports field. The answer is to train them as officials - referees, umpires and scorers. My brother, who hated games, was put in charge of the scores for the school cricket team and thus developed a keen interest in the game. When these children who have trained as officials leave school, they will learn that there is more demand for their services than there is for those of players - and they are paid.

Which of my suggestions is most likely to be adopted? The last. Training pupils to be officials is already in place at some enlightened schools. I have my hopes about the abolition of the second serve in tennis. The growth of one-day and Twenty20 cricket probably means that test matches will fade away to a point where no one bothers much about winning the toss. Abolishing the offside rule is probably too radical for football, although it could be tried out in a lower league and would, I believe, catch on. The introduction of the "only the captain talks to the referee" rule in football seems so obvious a measure that someone somewhere must have thought of an insuperable obstacle. As for allowing a rugby player to throw the ball forward, that is for when hell freezes over. But I live in hope.

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