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Donkey’s years of playing ball

Our donkeys, Bruno and Billy, love a good kick-about. They don’t kick each other, I hasten to add, nor us, nor visitors and admirers; they’re generally extremely welcoming to visitors, especially if they come bearing a slice or two of carrot or apple. No, the lads, as they are known locally, enjoy nothing more than hoofing a football around their field. And quite skilful they are too. As I shovelled their poo onto the manure mound the other day, while simultaneously watching them practise their passing and dribbling, I paused to consider the wonder of the ball – not that particular ball, but the sporting ball in general – and how different the world would have been without it. No football, cricket, tennis, golf, hockey, netball, bowls, basketball, to name but a few. And all those variations of sizes and styles, all those advances in design. Are you aware, for instance, that the modern football – formerly comprising an inner inflated animal bladder and a leather outer – is now made from mostly synthetic materials and entirely vegan-friendly?

The cricket ball is not so up to the wicket in contemporary considerations. It retains a cork inner and an outer stitched seam that devilishly changes as the ball gets older, confounding the best of batters with spin and turn. More contentiously, the rest of the surface is still made of leather. Then there’s the dimpled golf ball… No, we’ll swiftly drive on from that as it does bring definite, non-biodegradable issues to the fairway.

Arguments rage as to precisely who kicked, hit or threw the first sporting ball

Let’s look at weight instead. In track and field, the men’s shot comes in at a mighty 7.26kg – that’s 16lb of heavy metal in old money. The women’s version is 4kg, or 8.8lb. By contrast, the table tennis ball barely troubles the scales at a featherlight 2.7 grams.

Arguments rage as to precisely who kicked, hit or threw the first sporting ball. Some claim Pitz, a game invented by the Mayan civilisation in Mesoamerica, was the earliest ball sport, as far back as 2500 BC. Don’t ask me the rules, but it was apparently a team game, played in a court, and only by men, of course. Matches attracted large crowds and big betting, with star players adored by women and favoured by the gods. Eventually the game was forbidden, but versions have somehow survived and even been revived; a version is still played in Mesoamerica.

Possibly even older than Pitz is a Chinese version of modern football called Tsu Chu, in which players had to get a small leather ball into a hole without using their hands. It is claimed to have been popular between 5,000 and 500 BC.

The Ancient Egyptians and Greeks enjoyed ball games, too, though few details survive. And the Romans, when bored with the slaughter down at the Colosseum, played a game called Cuju, which again is reckoned to be similar to football. No wonder the modern Italians are so good every time the World Cup comes around, they’ve been practising for centuries.

On horseback, in Persia and elsewhere, polo was an early contender as a first ball game, although I’m not certain about the type of ball used. I have a definite, old-epic-movie image lingering somewhere at the back of my mind, of the “savages” galloping towards the goal while clobbering around a bundle of rags containing the decapitated head of one of the enemy warlords.

The Brits came comparatively late to sport in general, and to ball games in particular. In the Middle Ages, Shrovetide football was common, with entire villages battling it out against each other. It was rough and violent, with fatalities not uncommon. Being British, teams would undoubtedly have abided by the rules if someone had bothered to make them up. But nowhere more than in England did sports exemplify the vicious and uncompromising control of the ruling classes over the peasants. By the fourteenth century various kings had banned no fewer than 30 ball games, such as football, handball, and hurling. It simply wasn’t cricket!

Talking of cricket, many of our modern international ball sports sprang primarily from Britain before they were generously exported to the Empire. In addition to cricket, forms of bowls, hockey, tennis and assorted cue sports like billiards and snooker were among the ball sports developed on these shores, then dispatched to the furthest corners of the colonies for the locals to enjoy – eventually.

Back in the field it’s time for me to stop daydreaming and resume my shit-shovelling, while Bruno and Billy continue their football fun. They’re brothers, and to me not entirely unlike those English World Cup-winning siblings of 1966, Jackie and Bobby Charlton. Bruno, the older of the two, bears more than a hint of Jackie, the elder Charlton. Tall (for a donkey) with a long neck, he’s not exactly fast but always rock-solid and unruffled. Billy, like Bobby, is quicker and cleverer, his football brain oozing quality and class. As I watch, Bruno is on the ball. He looks up, sees Billy making a run and delivers a perfectly weighted pass. Billy races on, takes one touch and then another, and without even looking up, powers away a thundering, curling shot. There it is, in the back of the net! Or in their case: straight through the stable door.

Robert Rigby is a journalist, author, scriptwriter

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Life, October 2023, Sport

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