All articles are copyright, no reproduction in any format without permission.
On the ball
I always start by checking the definition of whatever it is I think I’m going to be writing about. I say “I think” because often whatever I am writing about often takes off on a tangent of its own. Today, I thought I’d start by writing about what my dictionary defines as “a globular body to play with, as in football, golf, cricket”. Before I settled down to writing, I imagined that the ball was as universal as the wheel, or fire, or the hand-held weapon.
I was wrong. Not unreasonably, for in contemporary cultures the ball is universal.
Think about that: just consider how omnipresent the ball is on television. Take it out of the equation and our screens would go blank for much of the time. Kerry Packer would have died a pauper, Don Bradman might have been a door-to-door brush salesman, and David Beckham would never have had an aftershave named after him, and might have married the girl next door, rather than a Spice one.
But who ever considers the humble sphere (or oval) underlying all this fame and fortune, how it was invented, when and by whom?
The earliest appearance of the ball as an element in games was contemporaneous with the appearance of trousers: forms of both were found in Yanghai cemetery complex in Xinjiang in China. The owner of the pants was likely a warrior in his mid 40s and was buried with horse-related implements, including
a bit, whip, bridle and horse tail, in addition to weapons. Horses were
obviously important to the culture that buried this individual.
Scientists believe that horses were first domesticated somewhere in Central Asia between 4,000 and 3,500 years ago.
It is likely that trousers were invented soon after early humans concluded that horses were really good at carrying people on their backs. Archaeologists have speculated that the use of early balls was associated with horses and curved sticks, a primitive form of polo.
Ball games are the most numerous and most popular professional sport and leisure games in the modern era all over the world. Their popularity is a very ancient phenomenon. Intriguing questions about the time and place of origin and the way of playing have encouraged archaeologists and historians to search for the answers around the world. In an ancient Egyptian child’s tomb there was found a toy ball dating from 2,500 BCE.
One wall painting from the tomb of Khety at Beni Hasan dating to the Twelfth Dynasty (1991–1802 BCE) shows two men with sticks and a ball engaged in what looks like an archaic form of hockey. This indicates that ball games played an important part in certain rituals executed by Egyptian royalty, apart from serving to develop strength, stamina, and team spirit. It is believed that the Celts introduced a stick-and-ball game into Western Europe in the first millennium BCE, which became the Irish sport of hurling, a pursuit deeply imbued with heroic and mythical connotations.
The history of balls in sport is closely bound up with that of rubber. After his conquest of Mexico, Hernan Cortés returned to the Royal Court of Spain’s King Carlos V in 1528 bearing riches and an exotic chocolate drink made from cacao beans. Yet it was a simple object from the New World that truly mesmerised the Spanish conquistador’s fellow countrymen – a bouncy rubber ball. The royal court sat spellbound as its members watched the gravity-defying rubber ball ricocheting between two teams of Aztecs demonstrating their indigenous game of Ulama. Like an AFL game, it had semi-religious overtones.
Without using their hands or feet, the natives volleyed the ball back and forth with just their hips, knees and buttocks. The elastic sphere ricocheting between the players was nothing like the lifeless leather balls filled with hair, feathers and air that the Europeans had used to play early versions of tennis, jai alai (similar to racketball) and football. The game was called Ulama, and it was played on a court with some resemblance to those used for royal tennis and squash, in that the walls and buttresses were integral to the play.
No racquets were used: the ball could only be struck with the hip, knees or buttocks, and its impact could kill the unwary player.
Ever since, the design and manufacture of balls for different sports has become highly specialised, even scientific, with precise specifications. According to the MCC, “A cricket ball, when new, shall weigh not less than 5.5 ounces/155.9g, nor more than 5.75 ounces/163g, and shall measure not less than 8.81in/22.4cm, nor more than 9in/22.9cm in circumference.” The specifications for golf and tennis balls are no less rigorous.
John Fleming II
Scroll to Top