I’ve always been a sports person. I’ve played sports, watched sports and written about sports. But I played soccer, watched baseball and wrote about basketball — three thoroughly American games.
After resigning myself to the fact that I would have to shell out $80 for MLBtv to catch some Dodger games and knowing that “soccer” is one of those Americanizations/bastardizations of the word “football,” I began to look for some British sports to play or watch during my summer in Cambridge.
My first foray into the world of British athletics was a thoroughly English experience, as I played football in the rain for the first time in three or four years. In California — as I told my unwitting British counterparts — when it rains we never, and I mean NEVER, play soccer.
My next adventure involved watching a Cambridge tradition, the “bumps” race. I spent a few months writing about Yale’s crew team, and I’ve seen a few races, but you better believe I was excited when I heard about bumper-boat rowing.
This unique Cantabrigian race involved one crew literally running into the crew in front of them to move up a place. Of course, once the boats bumped, they both stopped rowing until the next year’s race when the boat that bumped would be placed higher than the other. A race that spans years — what could be more appropriate for a country whose modern history more than triples the lifespan of the United States?
Next came more socc — sorry, football — where my feet started remembering all those years of training. I began to realize that football in Britain was entirely more fun than in the United States.
Later, during a classic meal of Irish stew in a Dublin pub, I got to enjoy a few minutes of watching hurling. Granted, Ireland is not part of Britain, which explains why I still have 30 cents in euros floating around at the bottom of my bag, but the sport did spread to England.
In any case, hurling was like no sport I had ever seen — and just like every sport I had ever seen.
Fifteen players lined up on a football-sized pitch with field hockey-esque paddles and used their hands feet and sticks to score either on a goal or through, surprisingly, two American-football inspired field goal posts. Easily the strangest sport I have ever witnessed, but also the most interesting as I tried to figure out exactly which sports contributed to this hybrid.
That left only the two C’s: Cricket and croquet. I knocked those out (no pun intended) in a day.
Croquet involved me pathetically whacking a ball, inevitably in the wrong direction. Needless to say my team lost.
Later that day I ditched my croquet-appropriate garden dress for some white pants and a sweater — not really, though I did put on running shoes — to try out cricket.
As a lifelong baseball fan, cricket could have been either impossible for me to figure out or much easier to comprehend. Once I ignored most of the complicated rules (like how many balls a batter gets and the lack of the three out concept) I started to get the hang of it.
Playing the sport was another thing entirely. I donned the protective pads that made me feel like a hockey goalie and proceeded to squeeze my eyes tightly shut every time the ball came within range of my bat. So I couldn’t hit.
But my pitching — no, not pitching, bowling — wasn’t much better at first. I couldn’t shake the bent-arm pitching stance my dad taught me years ago. That is, until I thought about tennis.
Interestingly, bowling a ball in cricket is like a tennis serve — another sport I abandoned years ago after refusing to wear anything but blue jeans to practice in. I began to throw the ball with a straight arm and even knocked over one of the wickets.
After six weeks in Britain, I had played and watched most traditional English sports, invested in a Premier League scarf and been to an authentic football match — but I still have no idea what those crazy fans were singing. Now the bookmark to my online MLBtv account has been relegated to the bottom of the list, and I cheered for Team GB right after Team USA in the Olympics. I have a lot left to learn — why, why do cricket players wear all white? — but my summer in England has left me with a whole new world of sports to play and love.