Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A touching affair

Sport used to be relatively impersonal, if one excludes wrestling and the various forms of football.  Even then the scrums, although sometimes vicious, were not to be taken personally.  And in soccer the only touches were in the form of 'fair' barges and a bit of shin-raking with the boot studs.  And in the individual sports such as those involving rackets, there might be a polite handshake at the end of hostilities, but nothing more.

Things have changed and at times the actual play seems merely to be an excuse for all manner of new types of touching.  Take doubles in tennis.  After EVERY point those on the same side of the net HAVE to touch.  It either takes the form of a low five or, more often with the men, a fist to fist touch - more manly of course.  Every point, win or lose.  At the end of the match things have not changed much.  It is mainly rather stiff-lipped smiles and hand-shakes and some air-kissing by the European women, plus the obligatory touching of the umpire's hand no matter how much invective has been aimed at him or her during the match.

In the team games, most sports now seem to have set up the business of each team lining up and everyone shaking the hand of everyone on the opposing team.  It can take an age and somehow seems to be part of the general crowd entertainment (songs, anthems, cheer-leaders and frantic dancers, and a surprising number of silent minutes).  They used to just get on and play.  In rugby and league they tend to go further than the hand-shake and do a hand-clasp and a man-hug with the other arm, somehow demonstrating that 'we might be tough but we are also sensitive new-age guys underneath'.  And even the scrums have become more personalised, although that one league player did take it too far a couple of years ago, poking a finger where very few would want it poked.

In soccer, the main attempts at manly touching happen after a goal is scored, which somehow suggests an element of surprise that it should have happened in spite of it being the point of the encounter.  Anyway, the major reaction of the goal-scorer is either to run around with arms outspread mimicking an aeroplane or to pull his shirt over his head and run around seemingly headless (this always seems strangely appropriate), or to run very fast and then slide along on this knees in front of the crowd.  One might be forgiven for thinking that these are all individual triumphant pursuits,  but they all culminate in most of the scorer's team-mates (excluding the goal-keeper who is too far away) running and jumping on on the scorer, the whole thing ending in a melee in which it seem limbs are more likely to be broken than in general play.

It's cricket though in which the most sophisticated and complex patterns of touch have been developed. A wicket always results in high-fives between the bowler and all of his team-mates who can get there.  Fair enough, the high-five is one of those little habits that we seem to have adopted from the American way.  But this is merely a prelude to the hair-roughing. They HAVE to do it even though at times with great difficulty - to see a one meter sixty-five batsman trying to reach the hair of a two meter bowler makes a nice image.

The only hugging that occurs with any regularity on the cricket field is between the batsmen.  If one scores a century or even a half-century, once he has completed his minor victory dance and saluted the crowd and those of his team-mates who are not reading or watching the tv, the other batsmen comes and gives him a big hug, a little more than the manly one-handed grip of the league players.

This is all quite ritualised, but what the cricketers have developed into an art-form is the bum-pat.  After every over, all of the bowler's team-mates that can get near him will give him a bum-pat.  Look as I might, I have not yet seen any reaction to this.  Nor have I seen one bowler do it to another, which may suggest what they think of it in general.  It is hard to know what exactly it means and how it developed, but cricket is a subtle and intricate game and no doubt the bum-pat will find its way into the rule book at some time.  I'm not sure whether it is allowed at Lords' or not.

It might be said that sport, like literature and art, reflects society.  Have we become more touchy in the last twenty years or so?  We probably have; there is certainly a lot more hugging goes on than used to, even between men - blame the Europeans.  Perhaps it won't be long before two men at the supermarket check-out exchange high fives to mark the successful conclusion of a basket-ful.  And there might be the odd occasion in daily life when the one-armed man hug is appropriate.  But the bum-pat in the office to mark the circulation of a well-expressed memo?  Probably not.

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