Don't rush to mock the world's dullest game
It's arguably the world's most elite sport. And to spectators, certainly one of the dullest. The wall game is played on only one ground in the world, at Eton College, a few miles west of London; and even there, only by a select few of the school's 70 “collegers”, or scholarship-holders, plus a small number of “oppidans”, the fee-payers who comprise most of the school's roughly 1,300 pupils. Add a few former (or unsuspecting) players invited to make up the occasional visiting side, and you have the wall game community of the planet.
There are no wall-game leagues, no points tables, no ruling body, and the only match that matters is the annual one between collegers and oppidans, formerly played on St Andrew's Day, November 30th, but now on a Saturday a few days earlier. In that game, and earlier ones as the two sides (separately) get in practice for it, the usual scoreline is 0-0. Last year, with Britain's Prince Harry playing for them, the oppidans achieved a rare 2-0 win.
Why such a low score? For a start, the playing area: bounded on one side by a high brick wall, it is 110 metres long but only five wide. Then the game itself. Massed beside the wall in a scrum, a half-dozen mud-caked players, collectively called the “bully”, try laboriously to push the rival half-dozen―as well as the ball, usually invisible and almost incidental in this struggle―to the far end of the field.
Two or three more from each ten-man side wait, usually on hands and feet, and even muddier, in formation beside them. One, clean-faced and upright, lags behind, hoping the ball will emerge loose from the bully, so he can kick it forward off the playing area: a valuable opportunity, since play will restart opposite where the ball comes to rest, not where it went out of play.
With no width to allow open play, that is about the only means of gaining ground at speed. But it is rare: it depends on a blunder by the other side, since you can't pass the ball backward, or simply leave it behind as you advance, for your man to kick. Nor can you pick it up and run with it. The standard way forward is to shove and shove, inch by hard-earned inch. With two well-matched teams and only 30 minutes of play, often neither side reaches its opponent's end at all.
And if you do at last get that far, the final few yards, marked off by a white line up the wall, are called calx―Latin for “chalk”, probably from that white line. Once there, if you can lift the ball up against the wall with your foot and touch it with your hand, you earn a “shy”, worth one point.
A shy also gives you the right to throw the ball at “goal”: at one end a garden wall, at the other a tree (an ancient and giant oak until recently, when first it died and then the stump, still serving as the goal, was set alight by vandals and a young tree had to be planted in its place). Hit the target and you have scored a goal, worth ten points. But the angle to the door is acute and the young tree slim. It can be done; indeed, a goal was scored in a junior game a few weeks ago, but St Andrew's Day games have been goalless since 1909.
So the usual outcome is much mud, toil and sweat, little movement and no score. But less blood than in the past. In the good old days when The Economist's reporter played, the rules allowed “knuckling”: plant your fist, gently and not with a blow, anywhere on an opponent's face except his eyes, and rotate it. The fist was usually gloved, often encrusted with dried mud, and to the victim the effect was like being sandpapered.
Wise players did not do too much of this, for fear more would be done back to them. It is now banned. Yet this is still a rugged game, and for all the protective headgear worn by the “walls” (those players next to it) flesh is still soft, brick both hard and abrasive. How come, the non-aficionado will ask, that such a slow and at times painful sport survives?
One answer is simply that it has done so since at least the 1760s and probably longer: the wall was built in 1717. Another is that it gives the 70 collegers, who like to think of themselves as the brains of Eton, the chance to show that they are anyone's equal at games too. The wall game is essentially a collegers' sport: even now, they have a ceremony in piam memoriam JKS―J.K. Stephen, a great colleger player (and in later years a very minor poet) of the 1870s. Collegers have more chance to play than most oppidans do, and greater skills can make up for the greater brawn available among their more numerous rivals.
A third reason may seem unbelievable to those who have never played this game: it's fun. Buried in that sweating, unmoving bully are skills and achievement that few watchers—not even the boys looking down from atop the wall— will see, let alone understand. Boys like rough games. They like to have skills, even arcane ones. They like to compete, however eccentric the game. Ask the synchronised swimmers, the shot-putters, the hop-skip-and-jumpers before you rush to mock the world's dullest game.