xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: August 2015

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Gamesmanship, Sledging and Nasty Remarks.

It was British academic, author and freelance writer, Stephen Potter, who first introduced the world to sledging, although he gave it the much more refined name of Gamesmanship. Potter, who died in 1969, published his bestselling book, “The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship” in 1947. Its sub title was “The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating.”

Recently, the young and very angry Australian tennis player, Nick Kyrgios, attempted to gain an advantage over his opponent, Stan Warrwinka, by making a very personal and very inappropriate comment about Warrwinka’s girlfriend, Donna Vekic.

As they changed ends Kyrgios said to Warrwinka, “Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend. Sorry to have to tell you that, mate.” It wasn’t gamesmanship. It wasn’t sledging. It was a totally nasty remark.

Some background.  Stan Warrwinka is the current French and Australian Open Men’s Tennis Champion. Earlier this year he went through a messy divorce and is now reported to be friendly with Vekic, the young Croatian tennis player. 

Last January, Donna Vekic partnered Thanasi Kokkinakis, in the mixed doubles at the Australian Open Tennis Championships. At that time, there was no mention of Kokkinakis and Vekic being involved with each other in anything other than tennis. Kokkinakis is another young Australian tennis player. He is a team mate of Krygios on the Australian Davis Cup team. Kokkinakis is a much happier and more relaxed player than Kyrgios.

Kyrgios’ scurrilous remarks about the pair angered, not only Warrwinka, but almost the entire tennis world. Warrwinka made the point that the remarks were not only nasty, but implicated two innocent people who were not involved in his game with Kyrgios. Kokkinakis also chided Kyrgios, saying his comments were way out of line. Ms Vekic steered clear of it all and just said that she was concentrating on her tennis. Somebody should give young Kyrgios that same advice.

These days challenging comments, such as those made by Kyrgios, are called “sledging” This term was made famous by Australian cricket teams, especially under the captaincies of Ian Chappell and Steve Waugh, two men who promoted any activities, apart from downright cheating, that would help them achieve victory.

In his book, Stephen Potter described an incident that occurred in the late 1920s, that gave him the idea about Gamesmanship. At that time he was lecturing in English Literature at Berbeck College, part of the University of London.  He and a Professor Joad played a tennis match against two young and fit university undergraduates. They were losing. On one occasion Professor Joad returned a forehand shot so forcefully that it sailed high over the baseline and crashed into the bottom of the fence at the back of the courts. As the young university students began walking across the baseline to get into position for the next service, Joad moved towards the net and asked his opponents in a loud voice if they could state clearly if his return was in or out. Well, obviously it was so far out that the young men did not think that they needed to call it “Out.” However, Joad’s request seemed to put into question their sportsmanship. They then became so edgy that their game disintegrated. Joad and Potter won the match and Gamesmanship was born.

I read Stephen Potter’s book in the mid 1950s and can now only recall a few of the ideas he put forward to help someone win the game without actually cheating. He did advise that Tempo in sport was very important. If playing tennis or golf with someone who liked to hurry things along, Gamesmanship required that you slow things down. On the other hand you would speed things up when playing against someone who liked to be slow and steady. This stratagem is now widely used by many professional tennis players, cricketers and footballers.

Potter also suggested that proffering helpful advice could often bring success. Suggesting that the greens are very fast or very slow can often badly affect your golfing opponents putting. He suggested that it may be an idea, in the opening holes, to select a less powerful club, without your partner knowing, of course, so that they will continually out drive you off the tee. This will make your opponent feel good. Then, from the fourth hole onwards, select a more appropriate driver, so that your ball travels roughly as far as your opponent’s ball. This will puzzle them. They will be concerned. They will think something has gone terribly wrong with their swing.  Their subsequent attempts to “correct” their swing in order to achieve more length will cause their game to deteriorate.

Another Potter Gamesmanship ploy, used to upset a golfer who is striking the ball very well, is to casually comment as you walk along the fairway, “You are hitting the ball beautifully, today. Would you say that you get most of your power from you left hand or your right hand?” This makes the opponent think about his golf swing and which hand he is using for best effect. This generally causes his swing to deteriorate.

Of course, gamesmanship was practiced long before Potter published his book. When I was a boy one of my favourite magazines was Sporting Life which carried stories about Australian sports heroes and heroines and also told stirring tales of historic sporting events. One story I remember told of a match between two football teams in Melbourne in the 1930s. Let’s call them Collingwood and Carlton. At the time Collingwood had a champion centre half forward. It was well known that his widowed mother ran a newsagency in a shop across the road from Collingwood’s home ground. Most people also knew that she had an illegal Starting Price bookmaker operating from her shop.

On the day of the match, Carlton placed their tallest player at centre half back, opposed to the much shorter Collingwood centre half forward. Just before the umpire bounced the ball, the very tall Carlton player, standing on tip toe, looked over the wooden fence that ran around the ground. At length he exclaimed, “Oh, that’s terrible. That poor old lady.”

“Why, what’s happening?” asked the shorter Collingwood player, who of course could not see over the fence.

“Two police cars have pulled up in front of a newsagency across the road.The coppers are just putting an old lady into the paddy wagon,” was the matter of fact reply.

The Collingwood champion blanched. His knees turned wobbly. His mother had just been arrested and was going to gaol. Naturally, he completely lost his focus on football and played the worst game of his career. Carlton, the underdogs, ran out easy winners.

There were no police cars. Nobody went to the lock up. The Collingwood player’s mother spent the afternoon as usual, selling newspapers and magazines and taking SP bets on the side. It was classic gamesmanship, though Stephen Potter would not have approved of lies being told in order to gain an advantage.

Potter was a stickler for sportsmanship and truthfulness. One of his gamesmanship ploys involved being too sporting. He would spend very little time looking for his own lost golf ball but insist on lengthy searches trying to find the ball of other players. This would cause them embarrassment and a loss of focus which adversely affected their game.

Of course, the nasty comments made by the sour and surly Nick Kyrgios about his opponent's girlfriend, were, until recently, fairly commonplace in Australian Rules Football. The AFL Players Association has frowned on this practice  following an incident a few years ago where a West Coast Eagles player, Adam Sellwood, made a lewd comment about the portrait of a girl tattooed on the shoulder of Fremantle Docker, Des Headland. Headland, understandably, took offence because the tattoo was of his ten year old daughter. Prior to that time, it was quite common for one player to try and upset an opponent by saying, “Your wife/girlfriend/mother/sister was great in bed last night”.

However, on more than one occasion this ploy backfired. such was the case when a player said to his opponent, “I slept with your sister last night”. 

His opponent gave him a filthy look and said, “You lowdown, dirty dog! My sister was killed in a car crash three weeks ago.” This stunned the player who had hurled the nasty epithet. He immediately put out his hand to apologise and offer his condolences. The offended player would have none of it and made further comments about the unkind nature of his opponent’s total lack of compassion. Visibly shaken by his gaff, the offending player was so shamefaced and embarrassed that he completely lost his concentration and performed poorly throughout the game.

The other player did have a sister, but she had not been killed in an accident three weeks earlier. She was a happily married mother with three children and lived with her husband in far north Queensland. Obviously, some people are better at Gamesmanship than others.

Although Gamesmanship is generally practised only by those actually involved in a game, I contend that barracking at a football match is also part of the game. Therefore, I humbly submit that I have probably uttered the greatest riposte in the history of Spectator Gamesmanship. Indeed, it is only my modest disposition that prevents me from submitting it to the Guinness Book of Records. The occasion was at a match between the powerful East Perth and Claremont teams in a Western Australian League Football match at Perth Oval when I was about nineteen.

Over the years, I have enthusiastically cheered for East Perth, the Mighty Royals, as they enjoyed good times and endured hard times. Going to the football was almost a ritual. Apart from the excitement of the game, there was the thrill of joining in verbal combat with supporters from opposing sides. I always felt I was doing my bit to help the players on the field by getting the better of rival supporters off the field.

On this occasion, I was standing in the crowd and close to an attractive lady and her equally attractive daughter. They may actually have been sisters. In an effort to impress, I began making what I fondly imagined were very witty comments about the opposing players, the umpire and various incidents on the field. I was pleased to notice that the two women seemed impressed with my rapier like wit and smiled quite often at my remarks.

Half way through the first quarter a Claremont supporter positioned himself near me and began to loudly raise doubts about the ability and courage of the East Perth players. I recognized that I was being challenged. Soon, the Claremont man and I were engaged in a verbal joust. I am quite a student of barracking behaviour and I quickly recognized that this gentleman was a “responder.”  Responders are barrackers who usually wait for a comment to be made and then take the opportunity to make the same comment, but this time, ironically, and in support of their own side.

When I thought an East Perth player should have been paid a mark I would yell out,” Come on, umpire, he only has to hold it. He doesn’t have to hatch it!”

A few minutes later, a Claremont player would hold on to the ball and be paid a mark, at which time Mr. Responder would say, “Now, that WAS a mark”.

I would see a Claremont player get away with what looked like a throw and call out, “Fair go, Ump, it’s not basketball.”

Later, when an East Perth player was penalised for throwing, Mr. Responder would gleefully retort in my direction, ”Now, that WAS throwing the ball!”

Just before half time I was incensed to see Phil Tierney, the champion East Perth forward, grabbed without the ball, by the big Claremont ruckman, Allan Mycock. No free kick was given.

“What about holding on to Tierney?” I shouted at the umpire.

About thirty seconds later the situation was reversed and Mr. Responder jumped in with, “What about holding on to Mycock?” 

The two ladies burst out laughing. Mr. Responder gasped in embarrassment at the dreadful realisation of what he had just shouted out. His face turned purple with embarrassment. I slowly took a deep drag on my cigarette, casually removed it from my lips, turned to Mr. Responder and nonchalantly enquired, “Well, if you insist. Do you mind if I finish my cigarette first?”

The two attractive ladies shrieked with laughter, while I smiled the smug smile of the victor. Mr. Responder did not return after half time and every time I caught the eyes of the two ladies they would burst out laughing all over again.

East Perth won that game. I walked back home wearing a winner’s grin, for I knew that I had played a major role in the Royal’s great victory that day.

Ah, yes, true Gamesmanship. The art of verbally destroying your opponent without actually cheating. It is not nasty and it can be an awful lot of fun.

Saturday, 8 August 2015

Punctuation has its place

Punctuation has its place.
Last week a local radio station featured a news item about some attention grabbing celebrity calling for the abolition of the apostrophe. The station, in an attempt to drum up some interest in itself, invited listeners to send in their ideas for and against the continued use of the apostrophe. I tuned out.

As a lover of language I was saddened by this attempt to dumb down our grammatical heritage. Of course the apostrophe has been a major problem for many years. We know it can be used to denote possession, as in “Tom’s watch” which indicates it is the watch belonging to Tom.  Or as an abbreviation or contraction as in “don’t” which is the short form of “do not.”

However, the apostrophe does have its problems. Just take that word “its” in that last sentence, for instance. You would think it would need an apostrophe because we are using it to identify a problem belonging to it, where it represents the subject. But its doesn’t have an apostrophe to denote possession of something belonging to it. However, neither do other possessive words indicating possession such as yours, theirs or ours. Its only has an apostrophe when it is being used to represent it's as the short form of “it is”.

When I first started teaching in Bunbury back in the late fifties I asked the children to try and find any examples of the incorrect use of apostrophes in signs in local shops.

They collected quite a few, generally where an apostrophe was incorrectly used for plural words such as apples’, tomatoes’ and haircuts’. One classic case of a mismatch between plurals and a possessive apostrophe was a hairdresser in Victoria Street which advertised itself as a Ladie’s Hairdresser.

You may think that only poorly educated people have trouble with apostrophes but that is not true. In 1971 the Mt Lawley Teachers’ College was opened. Its first principal was a much respected educator, Dr Robert Peter. During its first year of operation, questions were asked by the clerical staff as to the college’s correct form of address regarding the use or non use of an apostrophe. Was it Mt Lawley Teacher’s College or Mt Lawley Teachers’ College or perhaps, Mt Lawley Teachers College? All three forms of address were being used by various staff, students and correspondents to the college.

Dr Peter gave the matter serious thought and then declared that henceforth no apostrophe was to be used with regard to the college. From that day on the college was known as Mt Lawley Teachers College…without any apostrophe. So, if a teachers’ college cannot make up its mind about correct apostrophe usage we should not be surprised that lesser mortals have problems with apostrophes and want them killed off.

An apostrophe of course may be described as a comma with ideas above its station. Of course, I believe apostrophes have an essential place in our language and we cannot do without them. Which brings me to the important role that commas play in our language.

Back in Bunbury when I was trying very hard to convince the children in my class of the importance of punctuation I told them this story to show how important even the lowly comma could be.

In the1930s a man in the United States was sentenced to death in the electric chair. His lawyers petitioned the Governor of the state to pardon him because a lot of the evidence was very circumstantial and given by unreliable witnesses with a grudge against the man.

The Warden knew of this petition so, as the hour of the execution approached, he sent a telegram to the state Governor stating, “Execution set for 8-00am. Shall I proceed?”

Just before 8-00am a messenger came to the death chamber and handed the Governor a telegram which read “No pardon given”. The Warden gave the word and the man was electrocuted to death.

Five minutes later a breathless telegraphist rushed into the death chamber. He thrust out a telegram and said, “Warden, there was a mistake in the first message. The Governor just sent this. He put the new telegram into the Warden’s hands. It read, “No, pardon given.”

Well, it wasn’t a true story. I had made it up. However, many children were quite upset to think an innocent man had died for the lack of a comma.