Take me out to the ball game

For the first time in a long time, I find myself eagerly anticipating a football game. Well, having some interest in it, at least…

Of course, the fact that it’s Gaelic football (and I’m still buzzing from a recent trip to the Emerald Isle) may have something to do with it.

This afternoon is the final of the 2016 All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, which is being contested by Dublin and Mayo. I’m not sure whether to support the Dubs (because I’ve been to Dublin a few times and have at least one fairly good friend from there) or Mayo (because they have nice red and green uniforms which remind me slightly of the Welsh flag). Ultimately I’m not too bothered who wins it but I hope I’ll get a chance to catch some highlights of the game later on, though I’m unlikely to see the whole match.

Gaelic football seems to me to lie somewhere between rugby (a game I love, though I don’t generally follow it all that closely) and association football, aka soccer (a game that doesn’t particularly interest me at all) in terms of its rules and playing style – it uses a round ball (like soccer) and seems to have a bit more kicking than rugby but also allows carrying the ball and is a bit more of a contact sport than soccer, though less than rugby. One interesting feature is that not only are there several different ways to score (like in rugby, though in this case it’s scoring goals by kicking the ball into a fairly small goal area defined by two upright posts and a crossbar or scoring points by kicking or fisting it over the crossbar) but the goals and points scores are recorded separately, e.g. 1-7 would mean a single goal and 7 points; a goal is worth 3 points so that particular score would equal 10 points (a score of 1-7 would beat 0-9 but not 0-11; I think, though I’m not entirely sure, that 1-7 and 0-10 would count as a tie, in which case I think the game would usually be replayed). I’ve only watched a very small amount of Gaelic football so far but I found it quite exciting to watch.

There are several other Gaelic games but the other big one is hurling. I’d say this interests me even more than Gaelic football. The two games are actually quite similar in many respects (e.g. they are played on the same size pitch, both with teams of 15 players, and use the same scoring distinction between goals and points) but hurling is played with sticks and a smaller ball. I have heard hurling described as “a cross between hockey and murder”.

The final of this year’s All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship took place a couple of weeks ago between Tipperary (who won) and Kilkenny (the previous victors; apparently these two teams and Cork dominate hurling, while there’s a much broader spread in the football world). I watched and enjoyed highlights of that match. I also watched the whole of the All-Ireland Senior Camogie Championship last week; this time Kilkenny beat Cork (the winners for the past two years). In case you were wondering, camogie is the women’s equivalent of hurling (a game played only by men) and is essentially the same apart from a few minor rules differences.

Also in case you were wondering, there is also an All-Ireland Senior Women’s Football Championship, which is due to be taking place next Sunday (I can’t remember the teams involved) and, as with hurling and camogie, there are a few minor differences in rules (though, in this case not in name) between men’s and women’s football.

Lest you think this is turning into a sports blog, I should finish with a couple of linguistic observations.

Firstly, as you will have observed, the titles of the Gaelic football championships don’t actually mention the word Gaelic. I gather that in Ireland, the word “football” on its own is usually taken to mean Gaelic football, just as the bare term is used to mean soccer in the UK (and other parts of the world where it is the dominant football code) or American football in the USA and either Australian-rules football or rugby league in Australia (I gather there are some areas where one is significantly more popular than the other), etc. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples in non-sporting contexts of words where the same generic term is used in different parts of the world to refer to different specific cases (presumably usually the most dominant one in that place), although I can’t immediately think of any clear examples other than football. A non-geographical example would be the use of the word “bass” to refer to tubas in the brass band world, whereas it would refer to double basses in an orchestra or (most likely) a bass guitar in a rock group. The moral of the story is that context is king.

The other observation is the etymology of the word “camogie”, which seems to bear no relation to the word “hurling” despite the two sports having much the same relationship to each other as (men’s) and women’s (or ladies’, as it seems to be officially called) Gaelic football (and as far as I know, camogie is never – at least officially – referred to as “ladies’ hurling”). I gather that, although the modern games only date back to the late 19th or early 20th centuries, their roots, and especially that of hurling, are quite ancient. The stick used for hurling is known in English as a hurley (hence the name of the sport) and in Irish as a camán; as in English, the Irish name for the sport was related to that of the stick and it was called camánaíocht (I think that -aíocht is roughly the equivalent of “-ing”), although this has mutated to iománaíocht in modern Irish. One of the differences between the men’s and women’s games is that the latter is played with slightly smaller sticks (and balls) and, in Irish, the women’s stick is called a camóg (the -óg bit being a fairly common diminutive suffix in Irish; i.e. it’s a “small hurley”) and hence the game was called camógaíocht. Whereas the men’s game (presumably due to its much older roots) developed a completely separate name in English, the women’s game just borrowed the Irish name and anglicised it to “camogie” (and, unlike the men’s version, has also kept its original form in Irish).

I’ve no idea of the etymology of either “hurley” or camán, but you have to stop somewhere. And so I shall.

The Oatcakes of Contentment

Those of you who follow my blog via Facebook will already know that I recently discovered Staffordshire oatcakes and was very excited about them.

Since then (a couple of weeks ago, as I recall), I’ve had several more of these wonderful oatcakes – which are more like pancakes (of the kind eaten on Shrove Tuesday, aka Pancake Day, here in the UK) than the Scottish oatcakes I’m more used to – and have been exploring different ways of having them.

My first experiments were based around zapping them in the microwave, either with cheese (which I gather is quite a traditional Staffordshire oatcake filling) or marmalade (which isn’t). Both were very tasty and handy for a quick snack.

Since Wikipedia (in the article linked above) mentioned egg as one of the traditional fillings I next decided to give that a try. The method I came up with was to fry an egg (seasoned with a dash of salt and pepper), then put it aside on a plate while I used the frying pan to quickly heat through the oatcake (this doesn’t take long, as they are pretty thin) before plonking the egg into the oatcake (perhaps with a dollop of chilli jam or some other condiment) and eating it. Not much more difficult to prepare than the cheese or marmalade fillings, but slightly more substantial and even tastier.

One of my friends, who is himself from Staffordshire, was delighted to hear that I’d discovered the joys of his county’s oatcakes (if slightly disapproving of the idea of putting marmalade in them). He told me about his favourite way to prepare them, which is to sandwich baked beans and cheese between two oatcakes. I tried this last night, with a little bit of pepper thrown in for good measure and zapping the thing in the microwave for about a minute and a half. The result was very successful and I repeated it again this evening with the other half of my tin of beans from yesterday. I’d be hard pushed to say whether I prefer this or my fried egg filling, but ultimately it’s good to have both in my repertoire and I look forward to trying out some other fillings (both traditional and less so) in the not too distant future.

Strike Three

Having written a couple of posts about cricket last week, I thought I’d complete my hat-trick of sports-related posts by going off on a bit of a curveball.

The term curveball is not, as far as I know, used in cricket. It is actually a baseball term, which is quite appropriate as that’s the sport to which I’m mostly going to devote today’s post.

One of my transatlantic friends commented (via Facebook) on the last post that cricket is “kinda like baseball”. She said it rather tongue-in-cheek (having lived over here for long enough to pick up a bit of a British sense of humour, I suspect) but there is a certain grain of truth in the observation, as there are some striking similarities (as well as some obvious differences) between the two games.

Baseball is not a particularly high-profile sport here in the UK and has never particularly grabbed my attention. Before doing a spot of internet research (i.e. reading a handful of Wikipedia articles and watching a couple of video clips) over the weekend, I knew little more than that it was a game a bit like rounders but played with a bigger bat and having a few more rules. I don’t know much more about it even now, but I’ve managed to glean sufficient understanding of the rules and culture of baseball to finally be able to understand the punchline of a musical joke that I first heard about 20 years ago and was able to recognise as a baseball-related thing without having a clue to the meaning.

The context of the joke is an orchestral performance (presumably somewhere in the USA, the home of baseball) of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The bass section, faced with a long gap with nothing to play, take the opportunity of slipping out and nipping across the road for a swift half at the local pub (or a couple of beers at the nearest bar, or whatever) and take the precaution of tying together the last couple of pages of the conductor’s score in order to slow him down before he gets to their entry in case they are delayed in returning. Sure enough, when the basses stagger back in having enjoyed one half too many they find the irate conductor trying desperately to undo the bit of string round his music as the perplexed performers begin to falter. One member of the audience realises that something’s wrong but has no idea what it is until his friend points out that “it’s the bottom of the 9th, the score is tied and the basses are loaded.”

Although somewhat contrived as a situation for a symphonic concert, this same sentence (with one minor change of spelling) would make perfect sense in baseball and would be an exciting situation, as the next two paragraphs will hopefully demonstrate.

Innnings are a feature of both baseball and cricket and refer to a team’s chance to bat. Cricket (and I believe also rounders) uses “innings” as singular and plural; baseball reserves the final ‘s’ for the plural. Also, baseball splits each inning (of which there are nine) between the two teams, with the first team taking the top half and the other team the bottom half, while cricket teams get a whole innings, or two (depending on the format of the match), each. Hence, in baseball, the bottom of the 9th [inning] is the last phase of the game, although if the score is tied (i.e. both teams have the same number of runs) at the end there is a tie-breaker mechanism (the nature of which has temporarily eluded my memory).

In baseball, the batting team score runs by running round a series of bases laid out at the points of a diamond (i.e. a square viewed from the corner) and the fielding team try to stop them by getting the ball to each base before the runners reach there (each batsman becomes a runner as soon as he hits the ball, drops his bat and starts running). Often they don’t get all the way round in one go and if they stop part-way they have to wait at one of the bases; they need to get back home (i.e. to the point from which they batted) in order to score their run. You aren’t allowed to overtake a runner who is ahead of you and it’s not unusual for there to be runners waiting at several bases. If all the bases are occupied they are said to be loaded. Apparently this situation presents a good scoring opportunity for the batting team but also a good “double play” opportunity for the fielding team – i.e. a chance to get two of the batting team out in one go. If your bases are loaded when it’s the bottom of the 9th and the score is tied, the next pitch is crucial and the game could go either way (and the orchestra joke is actually at least moderately funny).

I have never played baseball and I expect I never will. The closest I’ve got was playing rounders at junior school (where I used to attend our after-school rounders club and on just one occasion was selected to play for our school against another school – albeit on the second team; sadly the match was cancelled due to rain) and a few games of softball at secondary school (it wasn’t one of our regular sports in PE lessons but we occasionally played it for a change and I’m fairly sure I enjoyed playing it quite a lot more than cricket).

Incidentally, the term hat-trick itself apparently comes from cricket although these days it’s perhaps most associated with football (the association variety, appropriately enough) and can be used for a threefold achievement in a variety of sporting contexts. Wikipedia tells me that the term originated when a bowler called H[eathfield] H[arman] Stephenson took three wickets with consecutive balls in a cricket match in 1858; the fans were so impressed they had a whip-round and bought a nice hat to present to him. Although the practice of buying hats to mark the occasion seems to have been a one-off the name stuck for similar performances and was soon generalised to other triple successes in sport, such as scoring three goals in football (I’m not sure whether they have to be consecutive to count as a hat-trick, or if other people can score in between them).

… I love it!

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been getting into cricket recently.

In particular, I’ve started following county cricket and, in particular supporting (or at least having some interest in the progress of) a couple of teams. The first is Kent, since that’s the county I originally hail from (and I don’t have the option of supporting the county I currently live in as they don’t play cricket at this level). The second is Nottinghamshire, as I went to university in Nottingham (and first became at all interested in cricket while I was there). Conveniently, they currently play in different divisions of the County Championship – Kent are currently near the top of division 2 and Notts are fairly low down in division 1, so I don’t for the moment have to agonise over which to support if they play against each other (actually I don’t have to agonise anyway, as I’m sure the answer will be Kent when the time comes; cricket now joins a fondness for Shepherd Neame beers on my very short list of links with my home county).

This week both my teams have been playing County Championship matches. As usual for such games, these were 4 day tests; both started on Sunday and finished yesterday afternoon (and I first started paying attention to them sometime on Monday).

Kent were playing away against Essex (our arch-rivals and coincidentally the other team currently at the top end of the division 2 league table and probably the main contenders for promotion to division 1 at the end of the season). Kent went into bat first and had a disappointing first innings, followed by a very good one from Essex. On Tuesday morning (the penultimate day of the test) it looked like Kent were certain to lose by an innings as we were trailing by well over 300 runs and seemed unlikely to catch up with the Essex first innings total by the time we finished our second. The first part of the second innings went pretty much the same way as the first but when Sam Northeast (the fourth man in the batting order, also the team’s captain) took to the crease, he stayed there, gradually accumulating runs while his batting partners all fell by the wayside. The ninth man in, James Tredwell, proved to be a good match for Northeast, and between them they managed to bring Kent to within spitting distance of Essex’ first innings total before Tredwell was finally dismissed about 5 hours after he started. The remaining two batsmen only contributed 6 more runs between them but managed to keep the innings going just long enough for Northeast to take Kent into the lead (if only by 8 runs) before we were all out (Northeast, incidentally, was the last man standing – having batted for nearly 8 hours and chalked up 166 runs in the innings; Tredwell managed 124 runs – apparently a personal best; the rest of the team got about 61 runs between the lot of them!). This meant that, while victory for Essex was still inevitable, they did have to go in for a second innings and they won by 10 wickets instead of the innings and 200 or so runs that at one stage it looked like they would win by. While Essex undoubtedly played significantly better overall, the determination with which Northeast and Tredwell fought on in the face of near-certain defeat was admirable. While I don’t think it was ever very likely after the first innings that Kent could actually win the game, towards the end of their second innings it did look like we stood a reasonable chance of forcing a draw.

Nottinghamshire were playing at home against Lancashire and were second to bat. Lancashire cranked up a respectable 276 runs in their first innings and then Nottingham got 474 for theirs, so they appeared to be in a strong position to win. Unfortunately for them, Lancashire managed to plug away quite solidly in their second innings and still had 3 wickets standing by close of play, having retaken the lead (by around 100 runs). Because the team with the lower number of runs (Notts) had not completed their final innings, the result was a draw. This wasn’t quite as exciting as Kent’s (or at least Northeast and Tredwell’s) valiant rescue attempt in the other game, but it was quite interesting, as Nottinghamshire managed to take a couple of wickets early in the final day, to wonder if they would be able to take the rest of them and then claw back the lead.

As well as these games, I’ve been keeping a bit of an eye, for pretty much the first time, on women’s cricket and coincidentally also limited overs matches. My attention was first grabbed when I was browsing a cricket news website (probably the BBC one but it may have been the ESPN one) and glanced at an article (with a short embedded video, as I recall, though I’ve been unable to track it down since) about how the England Women’s team had soundly defeated their visitors from Pakistan in a one-day international and a batsman called Tammy Beaumont had achieved a particularly good innings (and, I gather her own personal best) with 168 runs. A little bit of further investigation revealed that Ms. Beaumont is, like me, a native of Kent (albeit the far end of the county from where I grew up) and, unlike me, plays for her home county (as well as for England). A couple of days ago, I discovered that England Women were playing Pakistan Women in a T20 match (a particularly fast-moving form of cricket that didn’t exist when I was being introduced to the game by my friend Tim 20 years ago and which is in many respects the polar opposite of the traditional multi-day test format) that afternoon. Out of interest, I tuned in and listened to more or less the whole match (2 and a half hours or so – rather more manageable than 4 days!) on the radio (or at least a streamed audio feed from the BBC website). It was very gripping stuff, not least because Pakistan apparently played the best they have so far in their tour and managed to give England a serious run for their money, so that the game was up for grabs until the last few overs. The one slight disappointment for me was that Tammy Beaumont (my current favourite cricketer, along with Sam Northeast) went out lbw for 5 runs. It was particularly distressing because it appears that the ball would probably have missed the stump anyway – still, even umpires must be permitted to make mistakes from time to time and at least this one was a fairly close call.

Both Kent and Nottinghamshire will be playing some T20 matches later this week, so I look forward to seeing how those go (though I’ll probably have to catch up on them later as I’m likely to be busy while they are being played). I don’t know when England or Kent Women are due to be playing again (in any format) but I’ll be keeping an eye out for them too, at least while my current burst of cricket enthusiasm lasts. If previous experience is anything to go by, that could just be a matter of a few days. However, for the moment at least, I think it’s fair to say (quoting 10cc again) “I don’t like cricket – I love it”.

I don’t like cricket…

For the third time this season, I find myself unable to go sailing tonight. Unlike the thick sea fog and the heavy cold that thwarted me on the previous occasions, this time it was because nobody else from the regular crew was available. I think that Mark, our skipper, was able to borrow a few spare crew members from one of the other boats in order to get out this evening, but they all live quite close to Holyhead and nobody was able to give me a lift; unfortunately the bus and train timetables wouldn’t allow me to get home by public transport after sailing so I had to sit this one out. I must admit that I’m slightly glad that the weather here’s a bit overcast tonight (at least where I live – it could be glorious sunshine in Holyhead, but I’ll choose to assume it isn’t) so I don’t feel like I’m missing a particularly fine evening to be on the water. In any case, rather than moping about what I’m missing I thought I’d catch up on an opportunity to do some random blogging.

With at least two major sporting competitions (Wimbledon and the Euro 2016 football tournament) going on at the moment and the Olympics just round the corner, it’s perhaps not surprising that I find myself going through one of my occasional bursts of enthusiasm for sport. However, just to be contrary, it’s not tennis, football (the association variety, aka. soccer, for the benefit of any readers from places who use the basic word to mean a different sport to what we call “football” here in the UK) or any of the Olympic sports that is grabbing my attention at the moment, but cricket. (At least, I’m not aware that this is an Olympic sport.)

I used to play a bit of cricket at school, during PE lessons. I don’t recall that I ever particularly enjoyed it or displayed a great deal of aptitude for it. I have enjoyed my share of informal cricket games on the beach or in parks, though it’s been quite a while since I did that. As with most of the people avidly glued to their TV screens for the tennis or the football this week, my current interest is purely as a spectator. Or perhaps more accurately an auditor, since I’ve been listening to a fair amount of radio commentary but not really watching a lot (not least because I don’t have a TV, so I’ve had to content myself with a few video clips of highlights).

The first time I can remember getting at all interested in proper, organised cricket was when I was a student. I had just finished a particularly difficult set of exams (including one on quantum mechanics) and felt like doing nothing more energetic than sitting in front of the TV for several days afterwards. At the time I lived in a shared house with a TV and a housemate who was pretty keen on cricket, so I joined him to watch two or three days of a test match (it was the first England v. South Africa test of their 1998 series, as I recall). My interest was largely stirred by the fact that Tim was able (and willing) to explain to me a lot of what was going on. It’s fair to say that cricket isn’t the simplest game out there, so having my own expert on hand was decidedly useful.

That was pretty much the only time I’ve really sat down and watched an extended amount of cricket. From time to time, over the years, I’ve listened to snatches of games (mostly bits of Ashes tests) on the radio or at least looked at the results online and had a go at deciphering the scorecards and other, slightly more extended, text-based summaries. While most sports, I think, probably benefit considerably from actually being watched (if you’re sufficiently interested), a lot of enjoyment can be had from cricket by just listening and reading. I also rather enjoy looking at the various statistics (such as batting averages) and trying to make sense of them.

I don’t want this post to get too long or too technical for the non-cricketphiles, so I’ll conclude it here and aim to follow soon with a post about the actual games I’ve been enjoying this week. So feel free to skip that one when it comes, if it doesn’t interest you.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, the title of this post is a reference to the lyrics of “Dreadlock Holiday” by 10cc. The follow-up line, which will make sense of this one, will be the title of my next post.

Time for tea

I’ve just got back from this week’s sailing adventure and it was a very pleasant evening. Not only was the weather fine (after a generally miserable day, meteorologically speaking) and the crew large enough and experienced enough to make for a smoother sail than we often have, but we even had time for a quick cup of tea on board before we started.

This was particularly welcome since, as so often happens when I have to go out for things (usually sailing or a band practice) shortly after getting home from work, I didn’t have time to finish the cup of tea I started before I went out.

In recent months, when I’m in the situation of wanting a cup of tea but not really having enough time to make and properly enjoy one, I have tended to go for Russian tea, but I’m beginning to get a bit tired of that pun and it recently occurred to me that green tea has several natural advantages for an occasion such as this. For the sake of this discussion, I’ll restrict myself to considering only green and black tea, rather than other types such as oolong or white tea, or non-tea-based infusions; I’ll also consider them generically rather than thinking about the specific details of particular types or blends.

The first benefit of green tea is that it is optimally brewed with slightly cooler water (around 75 degrees, instead of 100 degrees for black tea), which means both that the kettle reaches the desired temperature quicker and that the tea cools to a drinkable temperature quicker. Allied to this is the fact that green tea often requires only a relatively short brewing time (say around 2 minutes, instead of 3 or 4 for black). All that adds up to a beverage that is ready to drink somewhat sooner than black tea – very handy when time is limited.

The second benefit is that green tea leaves can usually be successfully brewed at least two or three times, and often in fact they reach their best on the second or third brew. This contrasts with black tea leaves, which are generally best the first time round. Hence, if you do run out of time and have to abandon half of your first cup, you can reuse the leaves later on when you have a bit more time to spare. This is obviously less wasteful than having to chuck them away. The cold tea left over from the first cup can be used to good effect for watering houseplants, and I’m not sure that it makes too much difference for this whether green or black tea is used.

Anyway, I’ve just finished my second cup of green tea (and I’m sure my spider plant enjoyed the latter half of the first cup I brewed before I went sailing), so it’s time to draw this musing to a close.

Cold Comfort

For the second week running, I found myself unable to go sailing last night. This time, however, it wasn’t the weather that kept me ashore but the fairly heavy cold I’m currently nursing.

This sprang up from nowhere on Monday morning and steadily got worse as the week progressed, reaching its zenith (I hope) yesterday and rendering me unfit to go sailing. At least, I would have given it a go if the crew had been short-handed but there were enough other people available and I was feeling sufficiently rough to consider that it would be better all round if I stayed at home.

I think I feel marginally better today, but it’s still at a fairly yucky stage (I’m sure you’ve experienced enough colds to be able to imagine the gory details without me spelling them out) and I’m also missing tonight’s band practice, though I hope to be well enough to go to tomorrow night’s.

While I’ve been sitting at home, reading the fictional exploits of Horatio Hornblower and dreaming of a life on the ocean wave, I have been soothing my throat with a concoction that my boss (officially “line manager”, but that sounds too corporate for my liking) told me about this afternoon while I was manfully struggling on with my work and looking forward to the moment I could knock off and head home to hit my rocking chair. (Incidentally, in case my boss or any prospective future employer is reading this, I should emphasise that when I’m at work I don’t usually just sit there looking forward to going home – only when I’m feeling ill but can muster just enough strength to drag myself to the office in the first place.)

The concoction in question is actually a decoction (I think that’s the correct technical term) of ginger, black peppercorns and cloves in water. As such, it bears a certain similarity to the honey, lemon and ginger decoction that I usually make up when I have a cold. It also reminded me somewhat of masala chai, which is perhaps not surprising given that my boss is Indian and is therefore steeped in the same culinary/medicinal tradition from which that fine beverage comes.

My method of preparation was to roughly chop a bit of fresh ginger, crush a few cloves and peppercorns in a pestle & mortar and then simmer the whole lot for a few minutes in a small saucepan of boiling water before straining into a cup. I drank a little bit of it neat but used the bulk of it, while the water was still nice and hot, to brew a cup of coffee (as suggested by my boss).

I can’t speak for the medicinal properties but it was certainly pleasant and soothing to drink (with or without the coffee – I’m sure it would also work as a masala chai mix with a bit of black tea thrown in, without the coffee of course!) and will be a useful addition to my repertoire of brews to make myself feel better (if not actually get better any sooner) when I have a cold.