Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Uses for History 1: Explaining Rules

I've been trying to think of a bunch of alternative (and not always entirely sensible) uses for knowledge about the past. Here's the first.

Has anyone else ever noticed that almost every sport has at least one rule that is, frankly, far too complicated? For fencing it's the right of way rule, for soccer the offside ones. Rugby has some complicated nonsense about exactly what you're allowed to do in a ruck, scrum and maul, while cricket, of course, has the LBW law. (Notice that we have laws, not rules) If you've ever tried explaining something like this to someone, preferably someone who doesn't understand the sport very much, you'll know just how complicated it can get. It isn't helped by the fact that the majority of people playing the game won't have read the complete rules at any point.

This is where history comes in. Most of these rules make more sense, and are easier to remember, if you know where they come from.

An Example

A brief explanation of cricket's LBW law might run: The player is out when the ball strikes them on some part of their anatomy without hitting the bat first and would have gone on to hit the wicket, unless: it struck them outside the off stump while they were making a genuine attempt to strike the ball, OR it pitched outside the line of the leg stump.

That is a fairly accurate description, but it probably doesn't make that much sense to anyone. Now for the history bit. Originally, cricket didn't have a Leg Before Wicket law (I imagine by now you want to know what the letters mean) People just bowled vaguely at the three upright sticks of the wicket, and if you hit it, whoever was batting was out.

Then, some bright spark worked out that if they put some padding on their legs, they could stand in front of the wicket and the ball would never hit it. Eventually (and probably with quite a bit of name calling and not speaking to one another, this being cricket) the people in charge of the laws of the game introduced the first LBW law. Since they didn't like changing things too much, it was a very limited thing; you could be out LBW only if the ball pitched in line with the wickets, hit you in line with them, AND was going on to hit them.

So far, so good, until the 1950s, when assorted players worked out that a bowler bringing the ball back in towards them had virtually no chance of managing this feat. As a result, when facing good spinners like Sonny Ramhadin or Jack Iverson, they spent an awful lot of time shoving their pads vaguely at the ball. This was boring, and cricket, despite appearances, doesn't like boring. So they changed the rules again. Now, if whoever was batting shoved their pad vaguely at a ball outside the off (the side of the field the batting player is facing, being side on) stump without playing a shot, then they could be out if that ball was going to hit the wicket. They didn't change anything about the other, leg, side because they could still remember the days when players would bowl ball after ball down there, annoying everyone.

There. Hopefully, you now understand how useful history is for this sort of thing. More importantly, you probably understand the LBW law, which is more than half the umpires who keep giving me out do.

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