AUSTRALIAN rules football is a difficult game to understand. Difficult for anyone who has not grown up with it, difficult for anyone who has got used to other football codes because the structure and rules appear to be more loose than in other games.
One of the ways in which people grow to understand, become interested and then start following any game is dependent on the publicity that goes with it. With the AFL, the publicity is highly insular, nothing more so than the blather that passes for match commentary on radio or TV.
I grew up learning rugby union from the late Bob Harvey, one of the Sri Lankans who commentated on the sport on what was then Radio Ceylon. Most of my cricket was learnt from the commentary of John Arlott, Brian Johnston and Allan McGilvray, on the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Tony Cozier from the West Indies was another of those who contributed a great deal to my understanding of cricket.
You had a wonderful picture of the game in your head as you listened to these professionals. They took pains to ensure that the listener was always clued in as to what was going on and where it was taking place.
I’ve tried to follow AFL but the commentary is no help. Watching it on TV is no help either. No commentator seems to factor in the presence of people who are ignorant or just learning the game. The fact that AFL is played on an oval field certainly does not help when one has followed other codes on rectangular fields where it is much easier to have a spatial idea of where things are taking place.
Commentators like Arlott always made sure that the listener knew the field that was set. The listener could also orient themselves through the information that he made available. He was not obsessed with himself or what he knew. He was trying to help the listener be there in spirit.
That goal seems to be absent when AFL radio commentators take to the microphone. They never let people know orientation or personnel, where the action is taking place, or who is involved. They seem to assume that people are watching TV and listening to them speak simultaneously. One, thus, has no idea of where the game is, either in time or space.
Apart from the scoreline, which one does hear now and then, there is little that is intelligible in the radio commentary. People shriek and yell when they feel like it, they get excited every time a goal is kicked. That does not help the listener understand the game any better, it makes things worse.
The TV coverage is poor in quality. It seems to be geared more towards gimmicks, rather than the actual game, more towards the players’ emotions rather than the actual run of play. Of course, it is easier to dwell on gimmicks and players’ expression than to capture action when it happens.
So does the league not want newcomers to Australia to understand and come to follow the game? One wonders. Perhaps a book on basics could be printed and given away free or as a PDF. Watching the game on TV you come away with the idea that there are no rules, that it is a game for softies, or sometimes really violent types. The lack of uniformity in rulings is quite remarkable.
There are some things in AFL that make it different from other ball games. For example, the actual act of scoring, by kicking a ball between two posts, is something a player can do uninterrupted if he has caught the ball cleanly. Goals are sometimes kicked on the run, but once a catch is made – it is called a mark – the player can set himself up and then kick without being tackled. It makes for huge scores. In this aspect the game seems to be one for wusses.
Then there is the matter of obstruction. In any sport, if one is obstructed by an opposition player, that would be an offence. Not in AFL. You can “shepherd” one of your own players as much as you like. It sounds crazy and probably is.
It used to be that you could push a player in the back and get away with it. That has changed; now even if one tickles a player between the shoulders, the umpire blows his whistle.
The ball is passed either by means of kicks or else by hand-passes which have to be executed in a particular manner. Else, the latter action is penalised and termed “throwing”. Each time one receives the ball via a kick, one cannot be tackled, and has time to dispose of it without being interrupted. This is supposed to apply only if the ball has travelled 15 metres but the umpires seem to lack any idea of distance. When one receives the ball via a hand-pass, the player has to continue on without halting play as is possible when one receives the ball via a kick.
There is also an unhealthy obsession with statistics to the extent that a player who does X+1 of something is considered to have had more of an impact on the game than a player who does X of the same thing. Quantity is thus the focus, not quality.
Australian rules is tiring; the game itself runs for 80 minutes of actual playing time. The time when the ball is out of play is not counted. With six-minute breaks after the first and third quarters and a 20-minute break at half-time, the entire process can take close to 2½ hours. And given what I have just written, it will sadly be understood and followed only by those who watch it from an early age.